The Charter vs black holes

Tomorrow is ‘big bang day’, when CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) turns on its Large Hadron Collider, a 27km circumference particle accelerator, the world’s largest and most powerful. Particle physicists hope the collisions inside the LHC will produce outcomes that confirm some particle physics theories, notably by allowing observation of a Higgs Boson, the so-called ‘god particle’ that is a possible linchpin of the Standard Model of particle physics.

All this talk of big bangs and god particles is bound to give some people the heeby-jeebies. Some scientists argue that the LHC may create some new objects that pose a danger to the LHC, nearby Geneva or the entire planet, notably the possibility of a stable micro black – and all consuming – hole. And some of those have launched lawsuits to stop CERN from turning on the LHC. One action, in Hawai’i, relies on the fact that the LHC receives a lot of US funding to found an argument based on US statutory rules, such as the Environmental Protection Act. The other action, in the European Court of Human Rights, relies on human rights law, in particular the European equivalents to these Charter rights:

9 Every person has the right to life and has the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life.

13 A person has the right- (a) not to have his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence unlawfully or arbitrarily interfered with…

I guess there won’t be a lot of privacy in a black hole. On the other hand, the collapse of the entire planet into a singularity will do wonders for the rights against discrimination.

The crux of the human rights argument is a version of the precautionary principle, as well as a debate about the ethics of scientific research. While CERN (and other) scientists maintain that the risk of danger from any new particles is low – citing both theorised constraints on those particle (black holes will disappear via ‘Hawking Radiation’) and observational points (if such particles were dangerous, then we wouldn’t see any stars in the sky) – the opponents argue that too little is known about particle physics (which, of course, is why the LHC has been built.) What level of certainty does the right to life require and how will the ECtHR sort out which side is relying on junk science?

The precautionary approach was struck a blow several days back when the ECtHR refused to order Interim Measures to stop the LHC from being started up, though it did otherwise allow the case to proceed. Maybe after Big Bang Day, the point will be moot (one way or the other.) If it was a Charter case, there would be further problems: (a) identifying a Victorian public authority who was responsible for deciding when to turn on the machine; (b) identifying a relief or remedy that could be used to stop the authority from doing so; (c) getting the notices to the A-G and VEOHRC in time to stop the world ending…

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