Next week the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider will be switched on and there are those who believe that the action will trigger a sequence of events leading to the end of the world…yeap, as you read it, the end of the world. The scientific explanation is quite difficult and we need to be aware that we are dealing with some of the most complex and theoretical discussions in the world of physics, but there are those that have thought that their concerns have certain scientific entity and that the switching on has to be stopped until they are properly addressed…and they have gone to court to try to stop it.
A brief, and probably not entirely correct, summary of the facts is that:
1) The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is
a gigantic scientific instrument near
Geneva, where it spans the border between Switzerlandand about 100 m underground. It is a particle accelerator used by physicists to study the smallest known particles – the fundamental building blocks of all things. It will revolutionise our understanding, from the minuscule world deep within atoms to the vastness of the Universe. France
Two beams of subatomic particles called 'hadrons' – either protons or lead ions – will travel in opposite directions inside the circular accelerator, gaining energy with every lap. Physicists will use the LHC to recreate the conditions just after the Big Bang, by colliding the two beams head-on at very high energy. Teams of physicists from around the world will analyse the particles created in the collisions using special detectors in a number of experiments dedicated to the LHC.
2) Nobody knows for sure what is going to happen (off course there are several theories that are being tested)
3) One of the sub products could be small black holes (tiny, mini, minuscule)
4) after that, most scientists (by most here I mean almost everyone in the planet) believe that, if these black holes happen to exist, they would “disappear” due to a series of very complicated reasons or, if they stay, it would take them several billion years before they grow to “eat” the earth
5) A quite small number of scientists (allegedly 1 or 2 or the groups surrounding them), believes that this black holes would grow and fast, so they would end eating the earth in 50 months and, although the probability is not easily quantified, the gravity of the potential result deserves to put the experiment on hold until a proper discussion takes places within the scientific community
6) Their concerns where addressed by CERN and dismissed
7) Two lawsuits were initiated, one in the European Court of Human Rights and other in the US Federal District Court in Honolulu. The first sought an emergency injunction based on the experiment violating the right to life of European citizens and pose a threat to the rule of law, and the second tried to force the
Are we here in front of yet another group of technophobes trying to stop science? Are most scientists of the planet wrong while a group of them (mainly from
The legal issues are probably more straightforward than those seeking injunctions would like. The first of them is, as always, a question of jurisdiction. It is probably self-evident that the US Federal District Court in Honolulu has no jurisdiction over the CERN, which is based in Switzerland, unless the scientific/lawyer that presented the lawsuit had claimed that a crime against humanity might be committed, what would kick in the universality nexus accepted for those types of crimes (although the theory may not have a lot of adepts in Washington lately). Unfortunately, that type of jurisdiction would need the crime to be committed first, so it could be used only after we are all been devoured by an always growing black hole. So, its best shot is to stop
The European one deserves more attention, not only for the alleged breach of the European Convention of Human Rights, but also because the Court accepted the suit. The Court clearly states that in order to lodge an application the applicant has to have been directly and personally victim of the alleged violation of one of the rights protected by the European Convention of Humans Rights and in the present case, leaving apart that the violation only exists in the realm of very theoretical physics, the rights of the applicant have not been violated yet. It is true that in exceptional cases the court would grant interim measures when there is a serious risk of physical harm, but in this case, since the interim measure has been rejected it is fair to imply that there is no case at all (if there is risk of physical harm the interim measure should have been approved, if not, since the violation to the right has not occurred, there is no case at all). Regarding the issue of jurisdiction, the Court has jurisdiction over violations to the ECHR committed by Council of Europe's member states and all CERN members are also members of the ECHR, but the jurisdiction over the CERN itself, needs to be properly asserted.
On the subject matter of the suit, it could be argued that the answer is not as esoteric as one may think. Even here in UK Human Rights legislation has not have good press and the European Court of Human Rights is seen here as been quite soft and pro-applicant, in order to persuade the Court that a violation of the Convention has occurred the applicant has to produce a large amount of evidence and it is normally understood that, due to the high standard of proof to be met, when the effects of an action are not straightforward or not yet understood by scientists, the circumstantial or theoretical evidence would normally not suffice to find a violation to the ECHR. Here we are dealing with a purely theoretical situation and one where most scientists of the planet disagree with the observations made by the applicant. So, why did the Court take the case while dismissing others where the violation seemed more straightforward (like the distubing Thiermann and Others v. Norway)? We may never know, but by dismissing the interim measure and accepting to have a full hearing later the judges seem to make clear that they belong to the large group of those related to law that think that technology is inherently evil or that they also believe that there is no case to be heard but they leave the door open just in case something goes really wrong (but they shouldn’t care much in that case because in that situation we will have no much time to blame them).
Some may argue that as most legal decisions this one also has to address the issue of proportionality, so you ponder the requested measure, with the probability of the damage to occur and the gravity of the damage. In that case, and taking into account that here the resulting damage would imply the end of the world (having infinite value), you may be inclined to think that regardless how low the probability of that to happen, any measure would be justified. The problem is that if in one side of the equation we have infinite the only way of not having a very large value as result is having 0 in the other, which would translate into that the experiment shouldn’t be carried out unless there is absolute certainty that the risk is 0 and, if that is the standard of proof, that experiment and many others would never exist (to the argument that this case is different because the existence of the world is at stake, one may easily answer that no medicine would exist either because, even highly improbable, there is no 100% certainty that a modified virus cannot mutate and start a humanity-wiping pandemic). Had the court accepted that being the risk so big the experiment should have been stopped regardless the probability of the damage occurring, it would have created the dangerous precedent that any time somebody wanted to stop something it would only have to claim the existence of the risk of a great damage, without reference to the certainty of the materialization of that risk.
In any case, next Wednesday the experiment will start and we will have many scientific answers and, probably, two lawsuits less to care about (the battle in the press and in Wikipedia between those pro and against LHC deserve other post)