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See Inside May 2005

Quantum Black Holes

Physicists could soon be creating black holes in the laboratory


Ever since physicists invented particle accelerators, nearly 80 years ago, they have used them for such exotic tasks as splitting atoms, transmuting elements, producing antimatter and creating particles not previously observed in nature. With luck, though, they could soon undertake a challenge that will make those achievements seem almost pedestrian. Accelerators may produce the most profoundly mysterious objects in the universe: black holes.

When one thinks of black holes, one usually envisions massive monsters that can swallow spaceships, or even stars, whole. But the holes that might be produced at the highest-energy accelerators--perhaps as early as 2007, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva starts up--are distant cousins of such astrophysical behemoths. They would be microscopic, comparable in size to elementary particles. They would not rip apart stars, reign over galaxies or pose a threat to our planet, but in some respects their properties should be even more dramatic. Because of quantum effects, they would evaporate shortly after they formed, lighting up the particle detectors like Christmas trees. In so doing, they could give clues about how space-time is woven together and whether it has unseen higher dimensions.

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