A Black Future

Tom Siegfried, the editor of Science News, seems to have decided to join with Michio Kaku in the science-fiction as science business. He marks the startup of collisions at the LHC with A Black Future, an article about how “the Large Hadron Collider might help humans explore the cosmos”. Here “exploring the cosmos” doesn’t mean understanding how the cosmos works, it means building an interstellar spaceship to travel across it.

The argument seems to be that the LHC will produce black holes, and a recent paper by Crane and Westmoreland suggests that black holes can be used to power a space-ship. Siegfried somehow manages to drag Steven Weinberg and supersymmetry into this, with a claim I don’t understand that the Crane-Westmoreland idea “may be realistic only if cosmic physics incorporates a mathematical framework known as supersymmetry.”

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19 Responses to A Black Future

  1. Chris Oakley says:

    The Crane-Westmoreland paper is listed under “gr-qc” (General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology) on arXiv. Personally, though, I think they should create a new category “bs” for this kind of thing – maybe they have not because it would get too crowded.

  2. J. E. Connett says:

    Hi Peter,

    This is a bit off-this-specific topic, though maybe it does relate to hype –

    There is a web commentary group called the Hydrino Study Group
    Forum (HSG),


    which is devoted to examining the theory and experiments of Randell L.
    Mills, MD, and his company, Blacklight Power (which has attracted $60M
    in venture capital funding). Mills has published over 70 papers in
    peer-reviewed journals.

    One of the regular posters to the HSG Forum, an electrical engineer
    named John Barchak, frequently cites your blog as evidence that
    quantum mechanics is hopelessly wrong. I wonder if you could clear
    the air on this a bit –

    Do you think QM is hopelessly wrong?

    Are you aware of Dr. Mills’ work and his 1000+ page book, “Grand Unified
    Theory of Classical Physics” ? What is your view of this?

  3. Peter Woit says:

    J.E. Connett,

    I don’t know who John Barchak is, but citing anything I’ve written on my blog as evidence against QM is complete nonsense. Quantum Mechanics is in a very real sense the best scientific theory we have. It is a beautiful, fundamental theory, closely intertwined with the deepest concepts in mathematics. It has been tested with an accuracy and completeness that nothing else in science can match.

    As for Mills and his hydrinos, I see no reason to believe any of it, encourage others to ignore this kind of pseudo-physics, and to avoid trying to discuss it here…

  4. DZS says:

    Peter Woit,

    You write a lot about the Multiverse mania.
    What’s your take on Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics?
    There are atleast as many dogmatic proponents of it as there is of string theory, amongst the worst: David Deutsch, Max Tegmark and I think Michio Kaku is too.

  5. Peter Woit says:


    My take on Many Worlds is that I’m not very interested in something which is purely an “interpretation” of QM. If it’s fully equivalent operationally to other “interpretations”, arguing about which is better doesn’t seem to be a worthwhile activity. There is an interesting issue about the “interpretation of quantum mechanics”, that of understanding how classical physics emerges from a fundamental quantum mechanical theory, but I don’t see that Many Worlds has anything useful to say about this.

    As far as I can tell, despite some people’s attempts to mix up the two, Many Worlds has nothing to do with the multiverse hypothesis.

    Sorry, but this is an off-topic issue, one that lots of people want to debate. It’s not one I’m expert on or interested in moderating a debate about, so please find somewhere else to discuss this.

  6. DZS says:


    It’s just MWI bothers me atleast as much as String Theory.
    A lot of parallels when you look at it from a sociological view, with it’s dogmatic proponents etc. but I understand this is a place to discuss String Theory.

    Thanks for your opinion though

  7. Arnaud says:

    Chris O,

    Are you referring to factual errors in that paper, or to their overall subject? I have to say myself I can’t comment on the facts but from a cursory glanced of the paper it sounded like an interesting read.

    Such papers are obviously not meant to advance the fields of physics with new insights, and maybe the paper would be better published in an astronautics journal, for instance.

    But this works reminds me of the work of this past NASA group who was looking into “advanced” propulsion concepts and such like. Not useful currently, but keeps your mind open, as long as the science is right, of course.

    After all, the works of Tsiolkowsky when published were probably a similar level of anticipation about technological steps needed for a given application, i.e. space travel. In fact one can argue today we have yet to realise his vision fully, but his insight into potential developments of space travel were astonishing.


  8. mark says:


    I also noticed some time ago:


    another idea for the LHC and insterstellar travel. Good that there is a way to experimentally test this idea right now…

  9. Chris Oakley says:


    I have no reason to believe that there are factual errors in the CW paper per se. But the tone is highly misleading. If we had a quantum theory of gravity (we don’t), or had stumbled upon artificial black hole production by chance in the laboratory (we haven’t), then it might make sense to talk about the practicality of making a propulsion system based on the latter. But since neither is the case, the authors are in reality in no better a position than the scriptwriters for Star Trek in working out the feasibility of such a scheme. This is a paper for gullible journalists, not scientists, and providing equations and references serves merely to confuse the issue.

  10. Tim vB says:

    I considered myself warned after reading this in the introduction: “The conclusion we reach is that it is just on the edge of possibility to do so, but that quantum gravity effects, as yet unknown, could change the picture either way.”

    I’m not sure anymore if papers like this one are supposed to be a joke or not.

  11. Adam Helfer says:

    The CW paper is serious science of a highly speculative but appropriate sort (on the question of whether human interstellar flight is possible within certain parameters). The authors clearly don’t expect their analysis to be definitive, but aim to stimulate work leading to a fuller understanding of the issues.

    I think the authors’ tone would be understood and not misconstrued by anyone in the field, and given the intended readership (gr-qc) I don’t see a problem. Of course, anyone who is not in the field should be cautious about her or his understanding of the paper’s context, the likelihood its arguments are correct, and its implications.

    That the authors are aware of the potential of quantum gravitational effects to alter their conclusions is a strength rather than a weakness. There are plenty of papers on related issues whose authors seem unaware that on dimensional grounds quantum gravitational effects could be large enough to change their results.

  12. Peter Woit says:


    Physicists posting wildly speculative papers about space travel and black holes to the arXiv isn’t unusual or surprising. Science News publishing an article claiming these have something to do with the LHC is…

  13. Adam Helfer says:


    I agree. The point I was making was that just as some of those not in the field should be cautious of forming a Crane-Westmoreland-LHC-SUSY-Weinberg amalgam, so equally should others be cautious about the sorts of criticisms they make of Crane and Westmoreland.

  14. schof says:

    I feel as if there might be another subject which regularly assumes the existence of certain results or axioms that are only true in some cases, or have yet to be shown.

    Mathematics rings a bell…

  15. Louis Crane says:

    Dear sir,

    I completely agree that that sentence in the Science News article is misleading. We did not use supersymmetry in our calculations. I am very skeptical about supersymmetric theories.

    If LHC surprises us and produces black holes, all the calculations in our paper will need redoing, and the project will be much easier than it now seems.

    On a personal note, I do not understand why contributors with no actual points to make think it appropriate to curse at us in public. I do not think the internet justifies the end of civility.

  16. Chris Oakley says:

    Hi Louis,

    Thanks for dropping in.

    This is the abstract of your paper:

    We investigate whether it is physically possible to build starships or power plants using the Hawking radiation of an artificial black hole as a power source. The proposal seems to be at the edge of possibility, but quantum gravity effects could change the picture.

    As I do not need to tell you, an artificial black hole has never been produced. There is, I believe, recent strong evidence for the existence of black holes as astronomical objects, but since the supporting experimental evidence for GR is entirely in cases of a weak gravitational field it is entirely possible that the Schwarzschild solution does not apply to such objects. What is more, the densities of such objects are probably such that one could not ignore quantum effects. As I also do not need to tell you, we do not currently understand gravity at the quantum level. Thus our understanding of black holes from both the theoretical and experimental standpoint is extremely poor. Despite this, using semi-classical arguments Stephen Hawking was able to demonstrate that if such objects exist according to the laws of GR, then they must radiate. However, since we do not really know what is going on here, there could also be a myriad of other effects, one or other of which could making Hawking radiation irrelevant. We will not know for sure until we have a workable quantum theory of gravity.
    So, if one substituted, “The proposal seems to be at the edge of possibility, but quantum gravity effects could change the picture.” with, “The proposal assumes that one can produce black holes artificially – something that has never been done, and that Hawking’s semi-classical model suffices to describe their behaviour – which seems highly unlikely,” then it would be less likely to confuse journalists.

  17. Tim vB says:

    Adam Helfer, Lois Crane,
    my apologies if what I said came out wrong.
    IMHO the paper we talk about clearly states what is assumed and clearly states what the current status of these assumtions is, so I don’t think it should cause any confusion in the physics community.
    What Tom Siegfried wrote however seems to be an unjustified blend of ideas in order to attract the attention of a lay audience,
    which is what motivated Peter Woit to blog about this in the first place, as he already pointed out.
    However: I suspect that a highly speculative paper about harnessing black holes to propel spaceships will
    look like a result of some playfully spent idle time to most scientists outside the field, which is what I meant when I said “is it a joke?” (I did not intend to imply that the paper is ludicrous, sorry for the imprecision.)

  18. Robert Frost says:

    Perhaps arxiv.org needs a new category:

    “hep-pseudoscience [toy ideas, fantasies, untestable speculations].

    Just a thought.

  19. RM says:

    Perhaps one way to put it is this: when physicists who normally publish meaningful physics, sometimes take a detour into the bizarre, its probably ok – and maybe even worth reading. However, if the bizarre becomes routine, one feels like revoking the tenure system. I don’t know enough about general research published by Crane etc so would not like to comment on this particular piece.

    But K(a)ukoo-land is quite another matter…!

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