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Doomsday under debate

A simulation shows the particle tracks that scientists

think could be given off by the decay of a black hole

in the Large Hadron Collider's ATLAS detector.

The world's largest particle collider is designed to do its job largely under the surface - and that under-the-surface status also applies to much of the progress in the legal case challenging whether the collider should actually be allowed to do its job.

Take today's seven-minute-long conference in Hawaii's U.S. District Court, for example: The meeting set up the schedule for a federal trial, due to begin a year from today, on a suit seeking to hold up operations at Europe's Large Hadron Collider while officials answer claims that the machine could create world-gobbling black holes or other monsters.

Under the surface, both sides are aiming to get what they want long before June 16, 2009.

The suit's plaintiffs, Luis Sancho and Walter Wagner, hope to get the court to agree to their claims at yet another hearing expected to take place this summer. The defendants, representing the U.S. Department of Energy and other federal agencies, hope to get the suit dismissed.

The plaintiffs as well as the defendants telegraphed their plans in documents that were filed leading up to today's scheduling conference. We've already discussed how Sancho and Wagner see it: They say the LHC's operators haven't adequately addressed their claims that the LHC could produce those black holes, or other exotic phenomena known as strangelets or magnetic monopoles. They want to hold Europe's CERN particle-physics center and the U.S. agencies working with CERN responsible for answering the questions to their satisfaction.

In their filings to date, the federal attorneys don't take on the scientific debate, but confine themselves to legal issues. Here are some of the main points:

  • They'll file a motion to dismiss the suit by June 24.
  • One of the grounds for dismissal is that the plaintiffs filed their suit after the statute of limitations had expired, based on the timing of international agreements for U.S. participation.
  • The federal attorneys also contend that the U.S. parties have finished construction of the items they agreed to provide, and that they are not responsible for LHC operations themselves. That would move the ball into Europe's court, so to speak.
  • The attorneys say that the plaintiffs don't have the proper standing for challenging LHC operations, and that the federal government is "immune from suit for alleged violations" relating to European environmental guidelines.
  • They say one of the defendants named in the suit, the Fermilab particle-physics facility, is a "federally owned, contractor-operated laboratory that is not an independent legal entity subject to suit." 
  • Even if the plaintiffs' case isn't dismissed, the federal attorneys claim that the proper way to address the claims is through a review of the administrative record rather than a trial.

While the federal government plans to file a motion to dismiss the suit, the plaintiffs - that is, Sancho and Wagner - plan to file a motion for a preliminary injunction that would put a hold on LHC operations until CERN lets them review an updated safety report. Once they're filed, the two motions could be heard together during a session yet to be scheduled by Judge Helen Gillmor. Here's what Sancho and Wagner have hinted at in their own filings:

  • They say that the U.S. parties will continue to be involved in consulting with the LHC's staff and maintaining the parts they provided. They also say federal agencies have a duty to continue reviewing their involvement. From the plaintiffs' standpoint, that means the court still has jurisdiction in the case.
  • They're planning to seek their preliminary injunction in late July, with an eye toward holding up LHC operations until next year's trial.
  • They want to amend their complaint to seek a jury trial, and to include yet another challenge to research that may involve the creation of microscopic black holes.

Wagner told me the new legal twist relates to years-old reports about the possibility of creating "optical black holes" from ultra-cold atoms of rubidium. This phenomenon, which has been nicknamed the "Bosenova," recently created a stir in some Internet circles.

"I don’t want to be filing something that turns out to be bogus, but if it's something that's out there, and is a viable technique ... then it has to be considered, and it needs to be reviewed by a lot of people," Wagner said.

It's not yet clear whether the court will allow the current lawsuit to be expanded - or, for that matter, whether the lawsuit will go forward or face dismissal. That will have to wait for this summer's court hearing, probably in late July or August.

In the meantime, CERN officials are moving ahead with a report that updates a six-year-old study contending the LHC is scientifically safe. The updated study from the LHC Safety Assessment Group is expected to come before CERN's Scientific Policy Committee and the CERN Council during meetings this week - and if the process goes as planned, that hotly anticipated report should be released to the public soon afterward.

Wagner said he'll believe it when he sees the actual report: "I don't know what they're going to do at that meeting, or whether they're going to release it or not," he said.