Don’t panic!

Contributed by
Mar 17, 2005

A few years back, there was a minor flurry of worry about how scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York were doing experiments that might destroy the Earth. The lab has a particle accelerator, a device designed to (duh) accelerate particles. They smash the subatomic critters together, and watch what happens. A lot of insight into nature comes out of such things, and labs such as Brookhaven have greatly increased our knowledge.

Well, some folks were concerned that the Mad Scientists at Brookhaven might accidentally create a black hole, which would then fall into the Earth, and eat it up atom by atom. Eventually the entire planet would get munched by the black hole, and we'd all die.

At the time, I thought this was silly. No scientist would ever do such a thing! They'd never get another grant.

Closeup of a black hole

Well, this has turned up again. A scientist at Brookhaven has speculated that a recent experiment might just have created a black hole. Now, my knowledge of the particular experiment in question is limited to that article I just linked, so don't go asking me about quantum tunneling phase dispersive chronosynclastic infundibula. The stuff I study tends to be quite a bit bigger than your average neutron.

But I suspect that there are plenty of otherwise mundane explanations to the puzzling results of the Brookhaven experiment outlined in that news article. Not that I know what they are. But I'd just love to be near a water cooler at Brookhaven right now. I can imagine what they're chatting about.

Was a black hole created? I don't know. But if there was, I am not terribly concerned. For one thing, higher-energy particles than what they do at Brookhaven hit the Earth relatively often. If these created black holes, and they were dangerous, the Earth would have been toast a few billion years ago. The fact that we are still here attests to this being benign. How many people do you know who have been killed by a quantum black hole?

Also, black holes this tiny evaporate before they can do any damage. Evaporate, you say? I thought they only got bigger! Well, read this, or read this, if you dig equations and higher-level stuff. Or just Google "Hawking radiation".

Still and all, I also expect two things: 1) lots of email about this, and 2) the anti-science websites will go nuts. "We're alllll gonna diiiiieeee!" So I'll ask it again: How many people do you know who have been killed by a quantum black hole?

I don't know of any, and I know lots of people who study black holes. So don't panic. If and when scientists can create a real black hole in the lab, you wont hear about it on silly anti-science websites. You'll hear about it on some silly scientist's blog.

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