Could a Particle Accelerator Destroy Earth?


Advancing particle physics demands we build
bigger and badder 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? You probably fall into one or two camps on
this subject. Either you’re 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’ll 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. They’re 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. It’s like the subatomic version of ice-nine. And if you don’t know what ice-nine is,
read cat’s cradle. Vonnegut is an American treasure. 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’s still no sign of them. So that’s encouraging. Then of course there’s 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 teeeeeeny tiny one. Physicists have theorized the existence of
micro black holes, but they’d 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 a 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. 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, so double whammy! 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. In fact, doing so could reveal new physics
that would show our vacuum is stable and strangelets can’t exist and everything is A-OK. Or maybe vacuum decay already started in some
other part of the universe and it’s on it’s 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, and
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dot com. Did you know there are over 30,000 particle
colliders in the world? Check out this video to find out what they
all do. Ironically the Vacuum Decay hypothesis actually
gained some traction because of findings from the Large Hadron Collider. Don’t forget to subscribe so you never miss
an episode of Seeker.