‘I hope you’ll create black holes,’ Stephen said with a broad smile.

We emerged from the dumbwaiter that had taken us underground to the five-story cavern that housed the ATLAS experiment at the CERN laboratory, the legendary European Organization for Nuclear Research near Geneva. CERN’s director general, Rolf Heuer, shuffled his feet uneasily. It was 2009 and someone had filed a lawsuit in the United States, concerned that CERN’s newly built Large Hadron Collider, the LHC, would produce black holes or another form of exotic matter that could destroy the Earth.

The LHC is a ring-shaped particle accelerator that was built primarily to create Higgs bosons, the missing link – at the time – in the Standard Model of particle physics. Built in a tunnel under the French-Swiss border, its total circumference is 27 kilometers (nearly 17 miles) and it accelerates protons and antiprotons flowing in counter-rotating beams in its circular vacuum tubes to 99.9999991% of the light speed. At three locations along the ring, beams of accelerated particles can be directed into highly energetic collisions, recreating conditions comparable to those that reigned in the universe a tiny fraction of a second after the scorching big bang, when temperatures exceeded millions of billion degrees. The particle spray trails created in these violent head-on collisions are picked up by millions of sensors stacked like mini-Lego blocks to form giant detectors, including the ATLAS detector and the Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS.

Illustration of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS). (Image credit: Naeblys via Getty Images)

The lawsuit would soon be dismissed on the grounds that “the speculative fear of future harm does not constitute sufficient factual harm to confer legitimacy.” In November of that year the LHC was successfully ignited – after an explosion in a previous attempt – and the ATLAS and CMS detectors soon found traces of Higgs bosons in the debris of the particle collisions. But, so far, the LHC has not created any black holes.

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