VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers


Lawsuit Against LHC Dropped on Appeal

For the past two years the Large Hadron Collider has been a poster child for Big Science.

The huge European particle accelerator holds the promise to re-create the origins of the universe, reveal the nature of dark matter, and explain why ordinary matter—you, me, this computer—has mass.

But in a highly theoretical scenario, the LHC could also spawn tiny black holes and strange forms of matter that might eat the planet.


An artist’s rendering of a black hole (upper left) capturing matter from a nearby star.

—Image courtesy Aurore Simonnet/Sonoma State University/NASA

This bizarre and remote possibility got some people worked into a lather, until the point in 2008 when two “independent scientists” decided to file suit in Hawaii to stop the LHC from firing a single proton.

The original suit was dismissed within months via a 24-page ruling issued a few weeks *after* the LHC was switched on successfully.

Since then, the collider has shattered a few records among high-energy physics experiments and has seen some first tantalizing clues to the nature of the Higgs boson, aka the God particle.

It has not, as far as I can tell, destroyed the Earth.

But that didn’t stop the people behind the lawsuit from filing an appeal.

Last week, the Hawaiian district court once again found that the legal case has no legs, on a couple of counts.

For starters, the lawsuit was required to show what in legalese is known as “injury in fact”—there has to be a believable, likely threat of harm to Earth.

Instead the suit could only claim a series of theoretical possibilities, with many of the doomsday scenarios riddled with “maybes” and “mights.”

(Read a copy of the original LHC lawsuit here [MSWord].)

There’s also a little issue of jurisdiction. The lawsuit was brought against the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and other federal bodies that contributed funding to the project.

But the LHC was actually designed, built, and is now managed by the European Center for Nuclear Research, and the U.S. has no control over what CERN does with its toys. (See LHC pictures.)

According to the decision on the appeal (pdf)—a succinct five paragraphs, btw—”the alleged injury, destruction of the earth, is in no way attributable to the U.S. government’s failure to draft an environmental impact statement.”

I guess that last part might read a bit like we’re passing the buck. If Earth is doomed, it’s not like anyone will be around to say “I told you so” or to argue over who has to fund the cleanup.

The bigger question now is, is this the last time the LHC will be challenged in court?

Considering the media splash, and subsequent public interest in the LHC, the black hole fears spawned the first time around, maybe it’d be a good thing for science if it’s not.