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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Universe in a Bottle

One of the most puzzling aspects of the search for sentient life in the Cosmos concerns its rarity. We may not be looking in the right place or those pesky aliens may be covering their tracks so that we primitive humans don't escape the nursery (the "quarantine" solution), but the depressing truth is that they appear to have left no trace. We should be seeing intelligent civilisations and their imprints everywhere bearing in mind how relatively easy it is for life to get going given a long enough period of time, but in fact we currently see and hear nothing. This is called the "Fermi Paradox."

I have another sobering solution for the paradoxical question:- "ET, where is he?" Suppose a civilisation such as ours right now eventually develops the ability to smash microscopic bits of the cosmos together at such stupendous energies that something unforseen happens and a rip in space-time unravels the whole Universe. Such a "phase transition" as it is called happened in extreme conditions at the beginning of creation. We do not fully understand such processes. What if it happens again, but this time, we pull the trigger? If we ever inadvertently did that, then a bubble of destruction expanding at the speed of light would collapse this universe into a new state of matter, essentially a new Cosmos. Perhaps this has happened many times before and that's why as soon as a civilisation gets to our stage of development it tends to reboot the whole Universe. There are no aliens because sooner or later some species opens Pandora's box just a little too wide for our own good.

There are actually three disaster scenarios connected with such experiments:-

A. Creation of a black hole that would "eat" ordinary matter.
B. Initiation of a transition to a new more stable universe.
C. Formation of a "strangelet" that would convert ordinary matter to a new form.

A synopsis of a report on such matters in connection with RHI Colider at Brookhaven available here discounts such fears but no less than the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees has considered the possibilities, LINK.

In 2007 a new much more powerful European Large Hadron Collider at CERN will come on line. The universe may just yet escape its bottle when this is cranked up in 2007 or we might end up only with a fried solar system ... or not, as the case might be. The thing is, how can we know for sure? The stakes are rather high after all. "Behold. I have become death, destroyer of worlds." (Robert Oppenheimer)

I am not at all suggesting that there should be a moratorium on such research. It would be nice though if someone could convince me that the people at CERN or Brookhaven RHIC really do know what they are doing and that there are no nasty surprises lurking in their magic rings. There can be absolutely no margin for error.


David said...

Very interesting piece! It seems that one of the problems we face in analysing the threat of such possibilities is that experiment is running so far ahead of theory. We don't have the mathematical formalism in place that would allow us to predict, with any meaningful accuracy, the spacetime effects of particle collisions. Perhaps a moratorium would be the only way to ensure safety. But then how would we ever get the data to strengthen the predictive power of our theories?

Personally, I'm not too worried at this stage. Compared with the global eco-threats we're facing, it seems like a very remote possibility. The only difference is, we may be placing the entire universe in danger, not just our little planet.

Fred Hoyle, if he were still alive, would doubtless be sketching out a "Black Cloud"-like SF story around this intriguing Armageddon scenario. As it is, we'll have to wait for the LHC - and hold our breath

Father Gregory said...

Thanks David. (See David's site in the links). It is often said that we are in no danger since such energetic particle collisions happen all the time naturally in the Cosmos already without ill effect. Is this actually true or are we doing something new now in our accelerators?

David said...

I'd need to check on this. It's my understanding that the LHC will be able to collide protons at an energy of 14 TeV and lead nuclei at 1150 TeV (1 TeV = 1 trillion electron-volts = about the energy of a flying gnat!). Some astrophysical phenomena, such as magnetars, can produce neutrinos and photons in the TeV range but I don't know about heavier particles. More later.

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