Monday, June 19, 2006

World of Wonders

When I arrived at the airport in Frankfurt, I dropped into the next store to get a Coke. And there it was: the print version of Welt der Wunder (World of Wonders), with an article titled 'The worlds most dangerous experiment' about the creation of black holes at the LHC. Citing me as 'expert for mini black holes at the University of California, Santa Barbara' in a completely misleading context.

Some months ago, I gave an interview by phone to the journalist, Mirko Herr. He repeatedly asked me whether the mini black holes could possibly grow and swallow the whole earth. A catastrophe scenario he seemed to be very interested in. I patiently explained him that to our best knowledge this is extremely unlikely, and gave numerous arguments. Being a scientist, at being pushed, I said that the possibility can not be completely excluded. I mean, there is a certain possibility that the world might end tomorrow at 10:30 GMT, it's just extremely unlikely. Maybe time is just a finite coordinate and tomorrow we run out of it?

By reading the article, my worst expectations were confirmed. Apparently, he had heard my arguments before and was instead looking for someone to take the opposite site, and warn that the LHC is 'the worlds most dangerous experiment'. I explained him extensively why this is not the case.

Two weeks after the interview, he wrote me an email, explicitly saying that even though I told him the danger is minimal, he would like to know how a 'worst case scenario' looks like, as a 'Gedankenspiel' (game of thought).

Here is what I am cited with from my answer to this mail :

"Sollte es moeglich sein, dass das schwarze Loch mehr Masse aufnimmt, wird es schlicht wachsen, bis alles in erreichbarer Umgebung hinter dem Horizont verschwunden ist -inclusive dem LHC, Genf, der EU, China und den USA. Das passiert dann aber sehr schnell, und um meine naechste Einkommenssteuererklaerung muss ich mirdann keine Gedanken mehr machen."

The translation is roughly:

"Should it be possible that the black hole gains more mass, then it would grow until everyting in its sourrounding vanished behind the horizon, including the LHC, Geneva, the EU, China and the USA. At least, this will then happen very fast, and I don't have to worry about my next income tax return."

I looked up the email I sent him. What I wrote was: "Should it be possible that the black hole gains more mass THAN IT LOOSES, then it will grow... "

More important however, is the full context of the above quotation, in which I again explain quite lenghty the unlikeliness of the event. I attach the full text below (sorry, it is in German).

The second quotation attributed to me 'Es existiert in jedem Fall ein Risiko. Man kann ein Unglueck nicht mit letzter Gewissheit ausschliessen' ('There definitely is a risk. It is impossible to exclude a catastrophe completely'), caused my mother to look puzzled. Though I might have said something roughly like this in the context mentioned above, that it is just not possible to make 100% statements, I am reasonably sure that I never said this exact sentence. It is just not my vocabulary and not a choice of words I would have used.

I am very, very disappointed about the low scientific content of the whole article and it's dumb search for sensation. Though, I should add for fairness, Mirko Herr seemed to be quite a nice and reasonable man.

If you want to read a sensible popular article on mini black holes and extra dimensions, I can recommend the double-sided article which appeared recently in the Sunday edition of the FAZ: 'In anderen Dimensionen' (In other Dimensions), by Ulf von Rauchhaupt. In contrast to the article by Mirko Herr, the scientific quality of the FAZ article impressed me very much. It is clearly written without going into too many messy details, and it cites me with sentences I actually said, and in the correct context.

This will teach me to be more careful with journalists. Indeed, the journalistic world, is a world of wonders.

I also realized that for some reason or the other I did so far not write any post in my blog about the mini black holes, though I have been working on the topic for several years. I will do so in the next week.

Here is the full context of the above quotation in the article in Welt der Wunder:

Lieber Herr Mirko,

damit Sie das Gefahrenpotential richtig einschaetzen, moechte ich folgendes voranstellen: die Produktionschwarzer Loecher am LHC ist moeglich, falls es extra Dimensionen gibt (was nicht feststeht) und dieseausreichend gross sind (was nicht feststeht).

Wir wissen zwar nicht viel ueber den endgueltigen Zerfalldieser Loecher, koennen aber aus Hawkings Herleitung der Strahlung schwarzer Loecher deren Temperaturrecht verlaesslich angeben. Die Temperatur dieserkleinen schwarzen Loecher ist extrem hoch, ca 200 GeV(das sind etwa 2*10^12 Kelvin). Werden diese Objektein der Kollision produziert, so zerfallen sie direktim Kollisionsbereich, noch lange bevor sie die Detektorwand erreicht haben. Die typische Lebenzeitsind etwa 10 fm/c, oder 10^-22 Sekunden. Darin unterscheiden sie sich nicht viel von den meistenanderen 'Dingern', die in so einer Kollision produziert werden. Fast alles ist sehr kurzlebig, je schwerer, destokurzlebiger.

Selbst wenn ein solches Loch in Materie geraten sollte, so wird es nie mehr Energie aufnehmen koennen, als es durch die Verdunstung abgibt. Daher koennen diese winzigen Loecher auch nicht wachsen auf der Erde.Sie koennen auch nicht wachsen, in irgendeinem uns bekannten Medium (selbst die Dichte eines Neutronen-sternes, inetwa vergleichbar zu der des Quark Gluon Plasmas, ist nicht ausreichend).

Mir ist nicht ganz klar, wie Sie sich ein solchesGedankenspiel vorstellen? Sollte es moeglich sein, dass das schwarze Loch mehr Masse aufnimmt als abgibt, wird es schlicht wachsen, bis alles in erreichbarer Umgebung hinter dem Horizont verschwunden ist -inclusive dem LHC, Genf, der EU, China und den USA. Das passiert dann aber sehr schnell, und um meine naechste Einkommenssteuererklaerung muss ich mirdann keine Gedanken mehr machen.

Sollten Sie weitere Fragen haben, zoegern Sie nicht, mir zu schreiben.

Mit freundlichen Gruessen,



  1. The phrase I like to use when addressing possibilities of such extremely low likelihood is "effectively impossible." It gets the point across without requiring you to say something technically untrue. In practice, I assign an occurrence the probability of being effectively impossible if I would gladly bet my life against it in exchange for a burrito.

  2. If angular momentum is conserved then a created micro-black hole swallowing the Earth will not be quick at all. It will be tremendously prolonged and painful - the whole plant gradually swirling into its micro-accretion disk, plus radiation thereform pushing back,

    It is much more reasonable than controlled hot fusion (and no radiological waste!). schwarze Loch is a Media problem. I'd go with μαύρη τρύπα, rendering it palatable to the mob internationally. That looks really scientific. Kerr or Schwarzschild, your choice.

    Retaining the μαύρη τρύπα power plant core above ground is left as an exercise for the alert reader.

  3. Bee, sound advise from Garrett.
    No matter what one says, can be used by others to make their point.
    And no matter what one says can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) depending on whether they are predisposed in favour (empathy) or already predisposed against (bias, prejudice). Laters ... Q

  4. Hi garrett,

    I like that phrase, I will keep it in mind :-) However, I am not so sure if the argument If LHC erases mankind, you can shoot me is really convincing.

    Hi uncle al,

    I was thinking about writing a proposal to research the possibility of a black hole bomb. We just have to make sure growth stops at some point, say, by turning up the Hawking Temperature (minor details). Here is how it works: we throw the bomb on some annoying country, the thing grows by swallowing everything in a surrounding of, say, 100 miles. Very cleanly, no waste, no pollution. After that, the whole thing sinks into the center of the earth, and the problem is solved.

    Well, one had to make sure, the hole does not also swallow the oil or so. Will have to work on it.

    Hi quasar,

    thanks for the kind words. Indeed, most people just hear what they want to hear.



  5. Would a micro-black hole swallow the Earth? I can answer that after 4.6 billion years it hasn't yet! In the meantime it has made a nice planet for us, recently adding our Big Island of Hawaii.

  6. I just read a version of the article by Mirko Herr in the german TV magazine Hören and Sehen. And just before I panicked I decided to have a look on the Internet to see what the scientists had to say.

    Thanks for your blog and I am now a lot calmer.

    However I think this article will be part of a TV show in Germany (Welt der Wonder) RTL II 19:00 CET on 5th November.

    Bad Jornalism seems to have a life of its own.

  7. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for letting me know! I'll have my parents videotape it. With regard to the potential danger of mini black holes see also

    Mini Black Holes
    Micro Black Holes
    Risky Black Holes




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