Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Renowned Cosmologist Professor Martin Rees thinks a particle accelerator experiment gone awry could destroy the world – though there are good reasons to doubt the significance of this risk.
Earth could shrink if black hole experiments fail, astronomer warns
By Lauren Fruen, The Sun
October 2, 2018
Professor Lord Martin Rees has said a “doomsday scenario” could see our planet reduced to 330 feet across if particle accelerator experiments mess up.
The respected astronomer made the outlandish warning in his new book, “On The Future: Prospects for Humanity.”
The Telegraph reports how Rees also claims “a black hole could form and then suck in everything around it.”
Lord Rees added: “The second scary possibility is that the quarks would reassemble themselves into compressed objects called strangelets.”
“That in itself would be harmless. However, under some hypotheses a strangelet could, by contagion, convert anything else it encounters into a new form of matter, transforming the entire earth in a hyperdense sphere about one hundred meters (328 feet) across.”
A third danger is that the particle accelerators could destroy the Earth by a “catastrophe that engulfs space itself,” according to the scientist.
Fun though it is to contemplate these outlandish possibilities, there is a good reason to doubt whether any of these possibilities are a significant risk.
Every day the Earth is bombarded by untold billions of cosmic ray particles emitted long ago by violent distant cosmic events such as the formation of black holes. Many of the particles which strike the Earth are orders of magnitude more energetic than anything we are ever likely to produce. Some particles like the infamous “Oh-my-god” particle which struck Earth in 1991 with an energy of 3×10^8 TeV, hitting us at 99.99999999999999999999951% of the speed of light defy explanation – we shall likely never find a way to produce particle energies of that magnitude (for comparison the Large Hadron Collider, Earth’s most powerful particle accelerator, produces particles at around the 4TeV range).
The point is the Earth has already been struck many times by particles of a very broad range of energies, including the range of energies used by particle physicists. If anything bad was going to happen due to a collision between particles of a specific energy, it should have already happened long ago when a cosmic ray of that energy struck the Earth.
On the other hand we have the Fermi Paradox – the mystery of the missing aliens. One possible explanation for why our universe seems so empty of intelligent alien life is that (almost?) all technological civilisations make a common mistake – they reach a level of technology which enables them to commit an act which results in their own destruction. One possible candidate for that act of self destruction is a high energy particle physics experiment which goes horribly wrong.
I haven’t read Professor Rees’ book, so for all I know he has an explanation for the cosmic ray flaw in the “particle experiment will destroy the world” theory. But for now I’m not going to be losing any sleep over this alleged risk.
Update (EW) Added the paragraph “The point is the Earth has already been struck many times…” to clarify the Cosmic Ray objection to the alleged risk of particle physics experiments.