There’s a tired, much-debunked doomsday theory pushed by British physicist Martin Rees that powerful particle colliders have the potential to destroy Earth. They don’t. However, since the story has once again turned up as a top Google News hit, we will deign to debunk it once more.
No. The Large Hadron Collider does not pose harm to human existence, nor will it somehow devour the Earth.
The fresh panic surrounds a quote from the physicist’s new book (which we will not link to or promote in this post). He claims that the Large Hadron Collider could reduce the planet to a mass of hot matter the size of a football stadium, suck the planet into a black hole, yadda yadda.
Though a respected astrophysicist, Rees is not affiliated with CERN and has a history of making these unsupported claims.
British red-top tabloids, which are often not terribly reputable, went wild with the story. Google News, which treats these publications as trustworthy sources for some reason, featured it to readers who might not know better.
The Large Hadron Collider is humanity’s largest physics experiment, a 26km-round ring in Geneva, Switzerland. It collides protons in order to achieve the high energies required to search for theorised new particles. It also collides atomic nuclei in order to study the behaviour of quarks, the constituent parts of protons and neutrons.
One physicist I spoke with today was not surprised when I sent her one of these articles, and explained that the thinking is all wrong.
“What Prof Rees proposes is effectively impossible and already excluded by the previous generation of accelerators and the LHC itself. The particles he predicts would be more likely to be produced at lower energies than high energies,” Freya Blekman, physicist from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel who works on the LHC, told Gizmodo.
By “more likely”, we’re still referring to the difference between essentially impossible and impossible. But every time the experiment gets an upgrade, it decreases the chance to even more impossible.
These energies are high by particle standards — the proton normally weighs approximately 1 giga electron-volt (energies and masses are equivalent in particle physics). The Higgs boson weighs approximately 125 times that. The protons in the LHC have masses, and therefore energies, several thousand times that. But when you think about it on human scales, we’re talking about particles with the energy, approximately, of flying bees.
Additionally, these collisions, while resulting the highest energies ever produced by humans on Earth, pale in comparison to some of the incredible astrophysical events the Earth is subject to. Cosmic rays with a billion times more energy than the beams from the LHC have been observed slamming into our planet, and yet we remain on an Earth that is not a steaming pile of strange matter or inside of a black hole.
“Since the Earth hasn’t disappeared after billions of years of being bombarded by these cosmic rays, we are confident that the LHC, which produces particle collisions in a more controlled environment, will not cause this either,” Clara Nellist, an LHC physicist who works on the ATLAS experiment, told Gizmodo.
The Large Hadron Collider has a safety committee that ensures its experiment doesn’t harm the planet through strangelets, black holes, vacuum bubbles or whatever else you’re worried about.
And if a black hole were to somehow present itself, it would almost instantly decay through a process called Hawking Radiation. Hawking famously theorised that black holes lose mass through quantum mechanical weirdness occurring right near their surfaces. A black hole as small as one that could possibly be created in a particle collision would exist for almost no time at all.
I promise that, while physicists really care about their research, the vast majority don’t care enough to end life on Earth in their pursuit of knowledge. Plus, there are plenty of ways humans are actually threatening life on this planet, right now, and those aren’t just fantasy.