Advancing particle physics demands we build bigger and better particle accelerators, but every time the conversation about the next ultra-mega-super collider comes up some stick in the mud announces that it could kill us and the whole universe. But will it? Will the Particle Accelerator Destroy Earth?
Well, either you are like me and you think that smashing some protons into each other head on at near light speed is just going to create some pretty pictures and obliterated protons, or you think it will create some pretty pictures and obliterate the Earth. But the quantum world is weird and unintuitive, so let’s all put our assumptions aside for one second and genuinely examine the supposed ways CERN could kill us all.
One of the stranger ideas revolves around strange matter called “Strangelets”. Strangelets are hypothetical forms of matter made up of up, down, and strange quarks. Their structure would make them more stable than ordinary nuclei. In the right conditions, they could, hypothetically, rearrange ordinary matter, converting it to be like itself, causing a runaway chain reaction that shrinks earth down to a 100-meter-wide ball of strangeness. A space oddity.
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Strangelets were a concern when the world’s second most powerful particle accelerator, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in the US, was switched on in the year 2000 so far there is still no sign of them. So that’s encouraging. Then of course there is the fear that just won’t go away, the idea that particle colliders will create a black hole that swallows the Earth. Well guess what, there’s some truth to this idea. But a tiny one.
Physicists have theorized the existence of micro black holes, but they did be pretty unimpressive. First you have to remember that a black hole’s gravity depends on its mass. If the Earth were suddenly compacted down to just nine millimeters across, small enough to become a black hole, the moon’s orbit wouldn’t change. Black hole Earth has the same gravitational pull as vanilla Earth. So, an ultra-small black hole wouldn’t be able to suck much in, and it would take three trillion years for it to reach the mass of one kilogram.
But the black hole doesn’t have that much time. Stephen Hawking theorized that black holes decay and give off Hawking radiation. Even making the most generous assumptions possible, a micro black hole would exist for all of 10-23 seconds. So even if a particle accelerator could create black holes, they pose no threat whatsoever. Finally, it’s been suggested that particle accelerators might not just be the end of Earth but the entire universe.
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The idea is called Vacuum Decay, which postulates that the vacuum our universe exists in is in a metastable state, meaning it seems like it’s in a stable state, but something could disrupt it and drop it to a lower, more stable energy state. If that happens it could create a bubble of the new stable vacuum that spreads across the universe at light speed, wiping out literally everything, right down to the fundamental laws of physics.
Some researchers suggest a particle accelerator could be the thing that tips our nice safe false vacuum over the edge, maybe even by way of micro black holes. But I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Actually, a good argument against any collider-caused doomsday scenario is all around us. While smashing particles is an impressive feat for humans, it’s pretty humdrum for the universe. Millions of collisions releasing more energy than any particle accelerator happen daily, just above our heads as cosmic rays collide in our atmosphere.
The moon has been bombarded with cosmic rays for billions of years and it’s still there. If strangelets or micro black holes or vacuum decay were to kill us all, it probably would have happened by now. Smashing some protons here on Earth and destroying the universe is kind of like plugging in your night light and causing a countrywide blackout. So, there’s no reason not to keep pushing the limits of particle accelerators.
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In fact, doing so could reveal new physics that would show our vacuum is stable and strangelets cannot exist and everything is ok. Or maybe vacuum decay already started in some other part of the universe and it’s on its way here to kill us right now. We can’t know, what are you going to spend your whole life worrying? So, particle colliders won’t kill you. Ironically the Vacuum Decay hypothesis actually gained some traction because of findings from the Large Hadron Collider. So, at last, I ask you all. What do you think, “Will the Particle Accelerator Destroy Earth?”