Reports that CERN scientists will restart the powerful Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in March, 2015 for another three-year long run of high-energy collision experiments have reignited longstanding fears that the experiments could destroy the Earth and even the entire universe.
Fears that high energy collision experiments with the LHC, the world's largest particle accelerator located in the Jura mountains near the Franco-Swiss border, could trigger an Earth-wide or even universe-wide catastrophe have been increased by news that the newly upgraded LHC will generate particle collisions at nearly double the energy level previously achieved.
In a typical doomsday blog post titled, "'Big Bang' Begins March 2015 - Will Gates Of Hell Soon Open To The Destruction Of All Creation?," the conspiracy theory website All News Pipeline raised the alarm of impending doom with the report that two prominent and respected scientists, Stephen Hawking and Neil de Grasse Tyson, "have recently issued independent warnings" that the experiments could lead to doomsday.
When the LHC is switched on once again, it will accelerate fundamental particles to even higher kinetic energies or velocities than in previous experiments. The higher kinetic energies effectively bring scientists closer to the "Big Bang" moment of creation of the universe.
Data collected from the collision events would help scientists to test their theories about the structure of the universe and determine which of their competing theories about the universe fit the experimental observations best.
Scientists are particularly interested in confirming earlier results that indicated discovery of the Higgs boson ("God Particle") predicted by the Standard Model and believed to explain how matter acquires mass.
But the news that the LHC will restart in March is generating fears in doomsday circles, with many believing that experiments which create conditions similar to those that existed at the time of the Big Bang could wipe out the Earth and even the entire universe.
Among concerns being expressed are that high energy collisions could generate microscopic black holes or other exotic particles called strangelets that could cause catastrophic destruction of our world.
While scientists argue that Einstein's relativity theory rules out the possibility that black holes could be produced in the LHC, they admit that there are other "speculative" theories which predict that black holes could be generated. Thus, while it is "unlikely," scientists are unable to rule out the possibility that black holes will be generated at the LHC.
But scientists assure that even if a microscopic black hole is generated at the LHC, it would disintegrate immediately before it has time to begin sucking up matter around it.
Linked to the fear that the LHC could generate a black hole is the fear that because the universe exists in an unstable state, collisions at the LHC could generate perturbations that cause the physical environment to move into a stable state called a "vacuum bubble" that could destroy the entire universe.
The famous physicist Stephen Hawking helped to raise fears among doomsday theorists when he talked about the risk of the "vacuum bubble" last year. He said that discovery of the Higgs boson could cause space and time to collapse catastrophically through a "vacuum decay."
But while doomsday theorists gave attention to the alarming first part of his statement, they ignored the second part in which he said that current CERN particle accelerators are not powerful enough to generate high energy states that can destroy the universe.
"The Higgs potential has the worrisome feature that it might become megastable at energies above 100bn giga-electron-volts (GeV). This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light. This could happen at any time and we wouldn't see it coming. A particle accelerator that reaches 100bn GeV would be larger than Earth, and is unlikely to be funded in the present economic climate."
Other physicists argued that the strange matter idea is purely hypothetical, and no one has ever detected strangelets in nature. The theory underlying the strangelet or "strange matter" hypothesis predicts that scientists should detect strange matter in neutron stars. But none have been detected. Many physicists also argue that if the strangelet hypothesis was true, all neutron stars should have been converted from nuclear matter into strange matter.
It is important to note that while scientists had assured laymen that the RHIC was safe, the question of the validity of the strange matter hypothesis is still being debated among experts and efforts are ongoing to determine whether stable strange matter can be detected on the surface of neutron stars. But many physicists simply don't believe in the strangelet hypothesis, and thus, do not believe that strangelets will ever be found on neutron stars.
But scientists admitted at the time that if the strangelet hypothesis was true, then the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) could create strangelets. Consequently, scientists searched for strangelets in the RHIC, but have not been able to detect any.
When similar concerns were expressed about the LHC, scientists said that the LHC was even less likely than the RHIC to generate strangelets. And although scientists have conducted searches for strangelets in the LHC, they found none.
When Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho brought a lawsuit on March 21, 2008 in Federal District Court in Honolulu, Hawaii, seeking a temporal restraining order to stop CERN from proceeding with the LHC until a comprehensive assessment of risks has been conducted, one of the concerns they raised was that the LHC could generate a magnetic monopole first theorized by the physicist Paul Dirac. Dirac suggested that particles could exist that hold a single magnetic charge instead of two.
Fears have been expressed that if monopoles exist and are generated by the LHC, the consequences could be catastrophic. But while scientists do not deny that the LHC could generate monopoles, they deny that the presence of monopoles could pose any danger.
The general line of argument that scientists adopt to allay fears being expressed is to point out that high energy collision events occur regularly in the natural environment without catastrophic consequences. They argue that for this reason, we need not fear that artificially generated high energy collisions could cause harm. They point to the ultra-high energy cosmic rays impacting Earth at energies far higher than those occurring in their colliders as evidence that their experiments are safe.
But efforts to calm fears with arguments qualified by terms such as "unlikely" and "improbable" have not been effective among people with a psychological tendency to worry endlessly about impending doom.
For instance, doomsday theorists argue that the effects of high energy collisions being generated in nature could be different from the effects of collisions generated artificially in a collider. The effect of natural spontaneous collision events could dissipate harmlessly in outer space while those in an enclosed artificial environment within the Earth's atmosphere could prove harmful, some argue.
But ultimately, even those who are not susceptible to "chicken little" worries must admit that because scientific theories and understanding are under constant development and revision, no one, including "experts," can claim honestly that they are certain how to accurately assess the risks of conducting groundbreaking experiments, such as running powerful particle accelerators on Earth.
Hopefully, future generations will understand better the risk, if any, that scientists are taking now, provided our much abused planet and the billions of human beings who seem to delight in tempting fate are still here.
[Images: apocalypsesurvivalschool.com and Wikimedia Commons]