Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Strangelet commission: Tommaso Dorigo wouldn't care if the Earth were eaten

Physicists attacked for endangering the planet, for being less alarmist than the climate change cranks

Tommaso Dorigo of CMS discusses a new bizarre proposal to establish a U.S. commission that would evaluate the risks that the RHIC experiment will destroy our blue, not green planet:
New U.S. Science Commission Should Look At Experiment’s Risk Of Destroying The Earth
One of the two authors of the proposal in International Business Times above (a news outlet that is being cited by TRF positively in a vast majority of cases, but not this one!) is a law professor and the other one is an emeritus law professor. Recall that the destruction of the Earth by an accelerator "will" look like this:

Dorigo mentions several other scenarios by which the mad scientists called "physicists" plan to destroy the Earth and every molecule of it.

The production of a hungry black hole that swallows the Earth is the most popular scenario. But at Long Island's RHIC experiment, people prefer to talk about the strangelets. A strangelet is a hypothetical macroscopically large nucleus that doesn't contain just up-quarks and down-quarks as the usual nuclei do (it's the two quarks in the protons and neutrons); about 1/3 of its mass is composed of the strange-quarks.

This mutated composition may make it energetically favorable for the strangelets to grow indefinitely and eat the surrounding atoms along the way (the hadrons containing strange-quarks are clearly not favored if the hadrons are small enough: a strange-quark adds something like \(150\MeV\) to the rest energy). The final product wouldn't differ from the Earth-mass black hole mass as far as the practical implications go.

Like in other cases, there exist numerous arguments indicating that the threat is de facto non-existent. I recommend you e.g. the 2000 analysis of the RHIC cataclysms written by 4 authors including my Twitter follower and Nobel prize winner Frank Wilczek.

The "we are safe" arguments are diverse and exist at many levels. Much like in the black hole case, the arguments that are most comprehensible and least dependent on "impenetrably deep theory" are arguments that de facto say that "it would have already happened if it could happen now" and that promote this proposition to some quantitative, empirically rooted reasoning. If strangelets could be created by such "not so unusual" collisions, we would already be observing strangelets around us, like one that would have eaten the Moon, and so on. Because the celestial bodies haven't been eaten yet, despite the collisions with the high-energy cosmic rays, it either means that the strangelets are not created at all; or they are created and stop growing once they reach a particular, macroscopic size (the maximum size has to be large enough to pose a threat for the Earth; but small enough not to contradict the observations – i.e. smaller than the Moon). The latter assumption is fine-tuned, unnatural, and therefore unlikely.

It's a very interesting theoretical question whether strangelets exist or may exist somewhere in the Universe – whether the nuclear matter energetically prefers this setup with many strange quarks. If it does, the strangelets may exist in the Universe. They may even be responsible for some dark matter or all dark matter. The evidence is mixed on that question; Edward Witten and Arnold Bodmer would present some initial evidence supporting the answer "Yes" while Robert Jaffe and Ed Farhi coined the "strangelet" trademark. However, the question about the "in principle" existence of a strangelet is an entirely different question from the question whether strangelets may be produced in collisions on man-made accelerators which would pose a threat for the life on Earth.

The previous sentence about the difference is completely analogous to the difference between the claim "the greenhouse effect exists as a matter of physics principle" and the claim "emissions of greenhouse gases represent a threat for the Earth". The probabilities of the "more ambitious", dangerous statements are lower than the probabilities of the first statements by many orders of magnitude (perhaps dozens of orders of magnitude). The laymen – and even some people who shouldn't belong among the laymen but they do – are often extremely sloppy when they hear a buzzword, like a "black hole" or a "strangelet" or the "greenhouse effect" and they are intrigued by the "potential dangerous real-life implications" of the concept which completely prevents them from seeing that the concept itself is a neutral concept in science that is almost certainly safe for us even if it exists.

Indeed, the probability that a strangelet will consume the nuclei on Earth is as ludicrously tiny as the probability that the CO2 emissions will lead to the extinction of life on Earth before 2100. Someone could say that the probability of the "strangelet Armageddon" is even tinier, perhaps much tinier, but I don't really agree. Both probabilities are tiny. In the strangelet case, we are talking about a "more extreme kind of destruction" which makes it less likely but we are also actually playing with some more extreme and potentially "less tested" forms of matter when we collide nuclei at high energies which adds "some" uncertainty. In the case of the climate, we know very well that a warming by several degrees, even if it were caused by the CO2 emissions, wouldn't threaten the life because those things have occurred many times in the Earth's history.

(By the way, do you know that the mankind went nearly extinct 100,000 years ago? Only about 5,000-10,000 people were alive on Earth; they could be comfortably seated in the Shayba Arena in Sochi. You could think that the cold weather during the ice age was the reason. Or drought. But the likely reason was a sequence of pandemics that destroyed almost all humans except for a few mutated ones whose new gene didn't allow Escherichia coli and Streptococcus type B to bind to sugars that the extinct humans were producing – causing bad diarrhea and children's meningitis. Due to the near extinction, the mankind lost the ability to synthetize these sugars on the surface of cells but we gained the survival. I wouldn't be surprised if I were possessing the extinct gene again. Infections are still vastly more likely to kill the mankind than any other threat that has become popular.)

Now, when it comes to similar "wars about the panic", people may obviously err in both directions. They may waste lots of resources due to silly, unjustified fears; in principle, they may also underestimate real threats and pay dearly. Needless to say, these two classes of errors are often linked to each other; when you overestimate some threat, you are likely to overlook many threats that are more real and more important. There is no universal recipe to avoid such errors. Democracy isn't a universal cure that would produce flawless policies. Mindless listening to a group of experts or a commission or a single anointed expert isn't a flawless solution, either. No individual is infallible; no group is infallible, either. Quite generally, it is true that the more stupid the people in charge are, the more stupid the policies codified by them will be in average. When it comes to the physics of strange-quarks, the two lawyers are clearly dumb as a doorknob, perhaps more so than your janitor.

The guys who propose the new "RHIC cataclysm commission" conjecture that the physicists are in a clash of interest:
But after public concerns subsided, critics emerged, assailing the risk-assessment method as flawed. Dr. Rees wrote that theorists “seemed to have aimed to reassure the public … rather than to make an objective analysis.”


Richard Posner noted [...] that the scientists on the Brookhaven risk-assessment team were either planning to participate in RHIC experiments or had a deep interest in the RHIC’s data.
Their point is that one can't believe the RHIC physicists' testimony because these physicists are among the people for whom the production of new RHIC data is more important than the secondary question whether the Earth is destroyed or not. ;-)

That could sound as a joke but we may check whether this assumption about particle physicists' thinking is realistic by investigating the views of a particular particle physicist. What about Tommaso Dorigo himself? Does he care whether the Earth is destroyed or not?
One last thought: regardless of the evidently significant disappointment of losing our entire planet, mankind, and our artistic heritage (where else in the Universe is there a Chopin, or a Mozart ? Alas, I fear we will never know, strangelets or not), I fail to be seized by the fear of dying a much premature death by being turned into strange matter, as I know that I would be going down with absolutely everybody and everything else. Am I the only one feeling unconcerned?
He's not concerned at all so the lawyers' worries seem to be fully justified.

Tommaso Dorigo is unconcerned for the very same reason that we would discuss just a few hours ago. I wrote that left-wingers want to make the Earth a sh*ttier place to live. SteveBrooklineMA has corrected me. What they really like about it is that the world will be an equally sh*tty place for everyone, and that's a good thing because equality is the most precious value they struggle to achieve.

You may notice that Tommaso Dorigo's thinking exactly agrees with Steve's template. Tommaso doesn't care whether the Earth is gonna be destroyed because everyone and everything would be going down with him, in a nicely egalitarian way! (I have actually heard an almost identical answer from Nathan Seiberg during a formal theoretical seminar where he was asked whether SUSY would be doomed. He answered something like this: "If SUSY is shown inconsistent, I will go down but I will take many people with me!" Equality seems to be really important for the left-wingers.)

So it seems that Yes, you must create a commission asking "are these mad scientists going to destroy the Earth" for every experiment whose team is composed of mad left-wingers like Tommaso Dorigo. But I would still like to inform the lawyers who wrote the idiotic article in The International Business Times that several sane, competent, conservative members of an experiment who consider the cataclysm scares to be silly and who can present the evidence are pretty much enough to eliminate worries.

Conservative physicists generally care whether the Earth is going to be destroyed – its destruction would be a bad thing whether or not it would be done in a nice, egalitarian way! And we are generally not too impressed by the argument that the strangeletization of the Earth would be painless; there's nothing wrong with pain because pain is just a useful signal that sometimes helps us to avoid some real threats. So just investigate whether there are at least some conservative physicists at RHIC and if the answer is Yes, just splash your weird proposal for the cataclysm commission into the toilet where it belongs. Thank you very much.


  1. A commission should look at the risk of the United States being destroyed by a mounting deficit. Pronto!

  2. Given conservation of angular momentum, how does one swirl a planet down an atomic nucleus? Given conservation of energy, how does an x-ray hot spinning accretion disk not repel incoming mass? Who populates the Commission? Feynman demonstrated that IQs on a committee add like ohms in parallel resistors.

    OK, so a strangelet appears with near-zero rapidity. It sinks through the Earth's center, harmonically oscillating with a 5068 second period as the Earth spins by. Thorne–Żytkow objects! Big firetrucking deal.

  3. LOL, that is exactly one of the commissions that will probably never be created because the threat is real.

  4. Well, yes, I think that the strangelet eating the spinning molecules of the Earth would make it spin at increasing speeds. That would add some centrifugal force which could tear it apart. The remainder would spin more slowly.

    I do not know who should be on the commission. Obviously, the stupider people on the commission, the more likely it is that the commission will conclude that the Earth may be destroyed.

  5. We shouldn't forget antimatter based annihilation of Earth. I'm pretty confident that we are about to experience the event or at least very destructive detonation of antimatter bomb within year or two.

    Give it a shot! ;-) with cautions of course! http://toebi.com/documents/Antimatter.pdf

  6. oh boy.....it's a conspiracy? :)

    Earth punctured by tiny cosmic missiles....

    What happens in nature if understood correctly has a profound impact on seismic events?

  7. This commission, led by laypeople who are by know means capable of judging the issue from a scientific point of view, is nothing but another attack of pompous anti fundamental physics trolls that obviously too much power in the US.

    It is a much more dangerous sign of doom than any strangelet that the majority of the dumb broad knowledge -free public obviously refuses to listen to experts and people who know what they are doing and prefers to hear its dumb misconceptions and crazy ideas restated and confirmed by commissions of laymen as an excuse to patronize smart people and undermine any scientific progress of the civilization.

    To bad, that aggressive pompous ovrreaching dilletants have taken over not only Physics SE but large meant to be civilized parts of the real world too :-(0)

  8. The community closing meta question I mean is here:


  9. I read the Wilczek et. al. report when it came out. A new committee report ? :


  10. Now David Z will of course only accept what a politician says, and give a damn on what the physicists on the site want.


    Discussing high-level question on meta, seriously? The average politicians usually dominating meta have now clue what physicists or good students talk about in high-level questions, but they should be the ones to decide which high-level questions are allowed anyway...?

  11. I'm sorry Lubos, I know this is very serious, but I couldn't read past the second half of the post without continually laughing. I don't know if you intended it this way, but there is something really hilarious about how absurd the whole thing is.

    My favorite parts were "Their point is that one can't believe the RHIC physicists' testimony
    because these physicists are among the people for whom the production of
    new RHIC data is more important than the secondary question whether the
    Earth is destroyed or not." and the whole "nicely egalitarian" line.

  12. Richard BernsteinFeb 20, 2014, 4:11:00 AM

    Hi, RHIC is on Long Island, not New Island.

  13. LOL, sorry, I hybridized the name with "New York".

  14. Haha, Werdna, it was mostly meant to be entertaining although these alarmist things have entertained us so many times that - I admit - I wasn't laughing while writing it.

  15. Dilaton, good point here http://meta.physics.stackexchange.com/questions/5501/determining-a-way-to-regulate-my-physics-se-participation#comment16047_5502, very good point.

  16. I am Amaterasu on Physics.SE... I would imagine Atmospheric Physics would not necessarily be on topic on PO?

  17. I am nuking my account on physics.se

  18. Hi Amaterasu,

    PhysicsOverflow is intended to be for all Physics graduate-level upward, and Atmospheric Physics is perfectly legitimate physics too, so ... ;-)
    However we will still need a bit time in technical private beta, since as expected some issues we have to solve crept up indeed ...

    BTW your SE questions are rather nice.

  19. The type of question I would be specifically be able to ask are related to http://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/98944/how-is-the-langley-calibration-performed-on-devices-that-have-a-large-fwhm-10nm

  20. Thank you for the words on my posts on SE, there will be no more on Physics there, they tend to be ignored - so, meh...

  21. I sometimes consider that step too ...

    But from the past era, as the site was not yet dominated by politicians and APODs (aggressive pompous overreaching dilletants) who are bossing around physicists and serious students by telling them what questions they are allowed to ask, how they are allowed to communicate, etc... I have gathered some useful information by interacting witz nice wise people.
    When deleting my account, my questions and answers would be no longer linked to a common handle (my profile) and it would be much harder for me to retrieve them when I want to look at them again.

  22. Don't do that! It will be much harder for you to find your posts (there are quweries that allow you to, but they are relatively outdated, so they won't be updated for a whilef,)

  23. Even more importantly, it will nuke all the votes you have made.

  24. This and some of the responses to my meta thread - I will stay there.

  25. CentralCharge15

    this Kyle Kanos is such an arrogant pompous overreaching .... ********* *** *** ... you know :-(


    And see also his meta comment


    It is really annoying that there are not enough reasonable and knowledgeable regular visitors of the review queues to reduce the damage the anti technical-level gang of hyperactive ADODs and politicians does ... :-/

  26. CentralCharge15

    LOL, David Z has extended the test period for mods refraining to shoot down questions they deem to be homework, most probably because he does not want to accept my highest net score answer


    He can extend it to infinity, but this would change nothing about the fact that if they want to dissalow high-level technical questions about advanced topics, it will be against the will of the community of physicists and students still there.

    Unless Manishearth reaches its goal to bring the site down to non-technical equation free popular level, such that the whole mass of random googlers can appreciate and understand the content of the site, in a finite time


    In this case, nobody would be left there to be interested in asking or answering questions at a technical level, and the Popular Science Area51 proposal could be called a duplicate of Physics SE (as Manishearth did) rightly so ...

  27. CentralCharge15

    This guy should be temporarily banned from the site for abusing his edit privilege, and he should be permanently kicked out of the review queues


    But of course, the APOD, politicians, and moderators would cover him when seriously bringing up his dishonest behavior.

  28. Hi Anna, are you still here ?

    your help is needed once again, could you provide the 5th reopen vote needed here?


    This ignorant but nevertheless (or because of this?) very arrogant and dishonest Kyle Kanos and other neither interested nor knowledgeable about theoretical topics users with too much power have wrongly closed that question. The associated (Meta) discussions are completely dominated by non physics oriented politicians, power driven rep hunters, and people actively persecuting any technical questions (in particular about theoretical / advanced topics) :-/