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Court dismisses lawsuit to halt particle collider tests

Judge says U.S. has no jurisdiction over European Large Hadron Collider

October 1, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A U.S. federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit seeking to halt experiments in the world's largest particle collider.

Chief Judge Helen Gillmor made her ruling late last week in U.S. District Court in Honolulu. The civil suit called for more safety reviews to be done before any experiments could be conducted at the collider.

The Large Hadron Collider, which sits on the Franco-Swiss border, ran its first test last month when it sent two particle beams -- one at a time -- around the 17-mile, vacuum-sealed underground tube. As that first test neared, however, criticism about the collider and the experiments being done there escalated. Many critics cited reports circulating around the Internet that the experiments might destroy the universe by accidentally creating a black hole that would suck everything and everyone into it.

Walter Wagner, a retired nuclear safety officer, and Luis Sancho, a Spanish science writer, had raised those concerns in their lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which runs the Large Hadron Collider.

Gillmor wrote in her decision that the U.S. federal courts do not have jurisdiction over the European-based collider, even though the project received $531 million in U.S. funding. Gillmor concluded that the U.S. contribution was not a "major federal action" because it accounted for less than 10% of the cost to construct the collider. The judge also noted that a 1997 agreement between the U.S. and CERN gave the U.S. a "nonvoting observer" status, and no role in financial, policy, management or operational decisions.

Under the Big Bang theory, many scientists believe that more than 13 billion years ago, an amazingly dense object the size of a coin expanded into the universe that we know now -- with planets, stars, black holes and life. Some people fear that by smashing the particle beams together in the collider, a similar cataclysmic reaction might occur, vaporizing our planet or sucking it into a black hole that would shoot it out into an alternate universe.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged that a runaway fusion reaction could destroy Earth, or that the collider could create a "micro black hole" that would swallow the planet.

CERN released a report last month contending that such safety fears are "unfounded." CERN Director General Robert Aymar was quoted as saying that any suggestion that there's a risk is "pure fiction."

Fears about the experiments reached such a furor that Frank Wilczek, an MIT physics professor and Nobel laureate, received death threats because of his involvement with the Large Hadron Collider.

Wilczek sat on the Hadron Collider science advisory committee for six years. He more recently took the government's side in this U.S.-based lawsuit.

While the lawsuit has been dismissed, the collider still won't be running any more experiments for the next several months.

Last week, CERN announced that an apparent melted electrical connection between two magnets has brought the Large Hadron Collider down until spring. Technicians there reportedly need to investigate the issue further and do repairs. And those repairs are unlikely to be completed before the project enters its "winter maintenance" period.

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