Could RHIC Strangelets Spawn Doomsday?
New concerns about the world-ending potential of the second most powerful particle accelerator in the world stems from a misconception of "risk." Continue reading →
You may remember the furor that was ignited during the build-up to the commissioning of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2008 when a few under-qualified soothsayers predicted imminent doom and gloom at the hands of high-energy particle collisions inside the powerful accelerator. Fortunately for life on Earth, their predictions of bizarre chain reactions and deadly micro-black holes were based on hype, and a huge misunderstanding of probability, than scientific reality.
But that's not to say that the hypothetical risks associated with high-energy physics have not been evaluated by scientists. And now, the vanishingly low risk of death-by-strangelets resurfaced not ahead of the opening of a next-generation particle accelerator, but for a particle collider that has been in operation since 2000.
The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) is found at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in Long Island, New York, and is the second most powerful particle collider on the planet (second only to the LHC). Since its original conception and through 14 years of amazing scientific discovery, the RHIC has surpassed all expectations and is now operating at "luminosities" far beyond what its original design permitted.
In particle accelerator jargon, the luminosity of an accelerated beam of particles around the ring of particle accelerators like the RHIC corresponds to how focused the beam is. The more focused the beam, the greater the chance of particle-on-particle collisions. Counter-intuitively, in the case of the RHIC's recent upgrades, the particle accelerator requires less energy for its experiments. This may sound great for power conservation, but it has fostered some concern.
In an op-ed written for the International Business Times, Eric E. Johnson, Associate Professor of Law at the University of North Dakota, and Michael Baram, Professor Emeritus at Boston University Law School, advocate a new risk assessment before the RHIC is switched back online for its 14th run. Brookhaven engineers have already begun pumping cryogenic liquid helium into the RHIC's 1,740 superconducting magnets, cooling them to near absolute zero (0 Kelvin or -273 degrees Celsius) in preparation for 22 weeks of collisions that will explore a state of matter not seen in the Universe since the Big Bang, 13.75 billion years ago.
Previous studies of the primordial quark-gluon plasmas have given us a very privileged window into the state of matter just after the Universe went from nothing to something. The laboratory observations of quark-gluon plasmas are fleeting events (remember, physicists aren't trying to recreate the Big Bang, they're recreating the conditions, of matter that existed just after the Big Bang) that occur when relativistic particles smash into each other, creating a "perfect" liquid plasma at a temperature of 4 trillion degrees Celsius - 250,000 times hotter than the sun's core.
"(The) 22-week gold-gold run will include 3 weeks at low energy to complete beam energy scan, 15 weeks at high energy for detailed studies of plasma, plus time for cool down and warm up of magnets," said Berndt Mueller, Brookhaven's Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear and Particle Physics.
The boosted luminosity of the particle beams and the lower energy collisions will optimize the production of quark-gluon plasma - an obvious boon for physics. But this is exactly what concerns law experts Johnson and Baram.
"Critics have called for serious attention to the possibility that the collider might generate a subatomic object called a ‘strangelet,' which could, if certain assumptions are correct, start a chain reaction converting everything into ‘strange matter,'" they write. "The process would, according to Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom, leave the planet ‘an inert hyperdense sphere about one hundred meters across.'"
An inert hyperdense sphere. That doesn't sound good. Doomsday never sounds good.
A strangelet is the speculative boogieman of particle physics. They are hypothetical post-collision particles that condense from the primordial matter to form an up, down and a strange quark which combine to make a strangelet. Although they have yet to be detected from any particle collision experiment, the risk posed by the potential existence of strangelets, argue Johnson and Baram, should be investigated. One theory suggests that should stranglets be created, a chain reaction with ordinary matter could rampage around the planet, reducing Earth to a hyperdense sphere.
According to the original RHIC risk assessment in 1999, scientists stated: "Elementary theoretical considerations suggest that the most dangerous type of collision is that at considerably lower energy than RHIC." Originally, the RHIC was designed to operate at energies of 100 GeV. But now physicists are becoming more interested in lower-energy collisions in exactly the range where the original risk assessment said was "most dangerous." The three weeks of lower energy collisions between gold ions will occur at 7.3 GeV.
The RHIC upgrade comes at a time when a new spending bill was signed into law by President Barack Obama, establishing a commission that will evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the Department of Energy's national laboratories, including Brookhaven. In their op-ed, Johnson and Baram say that this would be the perfect time for the commission to not only look into budgetary concerns, they should "take a sober look" at the RHIC's potential of "destroying the whole planet."
Of course, the op-ed sounds alarming, especially as this isn't some conspiracy theory being bandied around by a self-proclaimed "expert." However, we are talking about the very, very, very low probability of strangelets being generated in the RHIC, particles that are purely hypothetical in nature. And the hypothesis that a chain reaction could be sparked by said hypothetical particles, again, is hypothetical. So any risk analysis into the planet-killing potential of the RHIC would need to weigh the probability of doomsday against that of awesome scientific discovery, the latter of which is an inevitable outcome of experiments at the RHIC.
Risk assessments are all well and good, but the "doomsday risk potential" of any particle accelerator is infinitesimally small, compared to the high-energy particles that are being naturally flung around the Universe and colliding with our planet every second. Our planet is bathed in high energy particles across the whole spectrum of energies; of the billions of years our planet has been in existence, if the strangelet chain reaction is real, we shouldn't be here.
But critics - particularly those who are not experts in the field of high-energy physics - will always have the loudest voice because no matter how tiny the hypothetical risk, they will argue that if the consequence is the end of the world, that's a real risk that we cannot ignore.
Unfortunately, over-hyping the perceived risk of disaster can also cause unnecessary worry and may, ultimately, stymie scientific breakthroughs in high-energy physics.
Did you own a toy race-car track as a child? Ever crash your model trains into one another just to see what happened? If you did, then congratulations, you already know some of the basic principles behind the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the 27-kilometer tunnel buried in the Swiss countryside exists to smash particle beams into each other at velocities approaching the speed of light. The idea is to use the resulting data to better understand the structure and origins of the universe. We're talking heavy questions and even heavier answers. Perhaps it's understandable that some critics, conspiracy theorists, crackpots and (alleged) time travelers might fear something more substantial than the Higgs boson particle. In this article, we'll run through some of the more popular misconceptions about the LHC and how little you have to fear about it causing the end of the world as we know it.
5. CERN Is Making an Antimatter Bomb
The Dan Brown detective novel (and movie adaptation) "Angels and Demons" centers on a plot to steal an antimatter bomb from CERN and blow up the Vatican with it. While the blockbuster delivered its share of action and intrigue, it fell short on facts. Two of the film's biggest mistakes revolved around antimatter's potential use as both an energy source and a weapon. Yes, when an antimatter particle comes in contact with normal matter, the two particles destroy each other and release energy. But CERN is quick to point out that the energy payoff simply isn't there. In fact, the transaction is so inefficient that scientists only get a tenth of a billionth of their invested energy back when an antimatter particle meets its matter counterpart. As for developing an antimatter bomb, the same principles apply. CERN points out that, at current production rates, it would take billions of years for the organization to produce enough antimatter to generate an explosion equal to an atomic blast.
4. Fun-sized Black Holes
Some concepts don't become tamer when you tack a "micro-" or a "mini-" prefix in front of them. For example, a mini-stroke is still an excellent reason to visit the hospital, and you'd certainly be ill advised to question the power of a minigun. So when CERN scientists mention that they might create microscopic black holes in the midst of their particle smashing, it's easy to understand some of the ensuing panic. Based on Einstein's theory of relativity, a few speculative theories lend a sheen of possibility to micro-black hole creation. The good news is that these theories also predict the micro-black holes would disintegrate immediately. If these black hole welterweights did hang around a little longer, it would take billions of years to consume the mass of a tiny grain of sand. That means no reducing the European countryside to a singularity and certainly no destroying the planet "Star Trek" style.
3. Attack of the Strangelets
Read enough space publications and your perception of the universe changes pretty fast. Once you get beyond the absurd vastness of the cosmos, you encounter such mind-rending notions as black holes, antimatter and dark matter. After you've swallowed the notion of a gigantic star collapsing into something smaller than a pinhead, it's easy to get bowled over by the idea of universe-destroying strangelets. Strange matter is presumed to be 10 million times denser than lead and was birthed during the Big Bang from the hearts of dense stars. The fear, which originated with the start-up of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in 2000, is that the LHC will inadvertently produce strangelets -- tiny particles of strange matter -- and that these particles will swiftly convert surrounding normal matter into even more strange matter. It only takes a thousand-millionth of a second for the chain reaction to convert the entire planet. Strangelets, however, are purely speculative, and haven't surfaced in over eight years of RHIC operation. CERN says that the RHIC was far more likely to produce the theoretical matter than the LHC, so there's really no chance of it consuming the planet.
2. Time Travelers Hate It
In "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," the titular slacker duo wields time travel with the logic of a 12-year-old. When Bill and Ted need a cell key to bust a few historical figures out of a modern California jail, they simply make a mental note for their future selves to travel back in time and plant the key where they can find it. While the 1989 buddy comedy is pretty much the antithesis of hard science fiction, its view of time-travel logic is shockingly similar to a 2009 theory regarding the LHC. Danish string theory pioneer Holger Bech Nielsen and Japanese physicist Masao Ninomiya, in a series of posted physics articles, laid out their theory that the Higgs boson particle is so abhorrent to nature that its future creation will send a ripple back through time to keep it from being made. Naturally, this theory summons images of T-800s, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Hermione Granger all galloping back through time to prevent future disasters, but not everyone is busy cracking jokes and reminiscing about time-travel movies. The two scientists aren't even talking about shadowy strangers from the future, but merely "something" looping back through the fourth dimension. Imagine a poorly designed bomb that, upon creation, destroys half the bomb factory. Now expand that example out from the confines of linear time.
1. Gateway to Hell
Black holes, antimatter explosions and even strangelets all originate from scientific fact and theory (albeit with a bit of imagination thrown in). Forget all that for the moment and consider the "Satan's Stargate" theory, proposed by Chris Constantine, better known on the Internet as YouTube user gorilla199. Constantine charges that the LHC exists "to disrupt a hole in the Van Allen belt that surrounds the Earth" and "to allow the return of the Annunaki from the planet Nibiru in order that they can come here, corrupt the rest of the Earth and do battle with God at Armageddon." There's also some stuff in there about freemasonry, cosmic rays and the Old Testament offspring of humans and fallen angels. According to BBC News, Constantine received a suspended sentence for DVD pirating after his defense attorney charged that Constantine suffered from a serious psychiatric condition. The Antichrist could not be reached for comment.