In the break room for the theory group at SLAC, I once found a folder titled “Scientific Eschatology”. Eschatology being the study of end times, this presumably was an attempt to understand what our current theories tell us about how we could go splat.
It’s always fun to think about the ways the world might end. Phil Plait has an entire book about it coming out soon. There are a lot of exciting possibilities. The sun might die, a nearby star might go supernova, nuclear war might break out, fiery horsemen might come riding out of the sky, the center of the Milky Way could turn into a quasar after colliding with Andromeda. (In that last case, we would all feel fine.) Of course, some of these are more likely than others.
On way that it should probably not end is for a scientific experiment to tear a hole in the fabric of spacetime. It is, therefore, a relief that the Large Hadron Collider, soon to turn on in Geneva Switzerland, will not produce this result, as some have claimed. The paper linked goes into some detail, but the bottom line is quite simple. The LHC collides two beams of protons. The Earth is constantly being bombarded by cosmic rays, which at high energy are mostly protons. The energy in the collisions of cosmic rays with The Earth (generally the upper atmosphere) are often as high as the energy of the LHC, occasionally much higher. A little math, and one finds that if the LHC was going to destroy our planet, it would have been destroyed many billions of years ago, just after it was formed.
What I find strange about this is not that people think we could destroy the world with science. Of the ways the world might end that I’ve heard of (where world is defined as “humans”), the most likely seems to be nuclear war. The surprising bit is that people think we could out-do nature itself in terms of the scale of destruction. There are places in the universe where collisions much, much, much more powerful than anything we will ever produce on Earth occur regularly. We’ve gotten pretty good at making particle accelerators – the LHC is an incredible accomplishment – but we still have nothing on, say, quasars.
I was reminded of this by the appearance of a new paper on the arxiv rebutting yet another claim that black holes would eat The Earth. The fun never stops.
Oh, and the folder titled “Scientific Eschatology”? It was empty.