China's Massive Particle Accelerator 'Could Create a Phase Transition that Rips the Very Fab
Originally published here, on The Daily Galaxy.
China is building a particle accelerator that will be twice as large and seven times as powerful as CERN’s LHC and astrophysicist, Martin Rees, famous for his contributions to black hole formation to extragalactic radio sources and the evolution of the universe, thinks that there’s a chance the colliders could cause a “catastrophe that engulfs space itself.”
Contrary to popular perception, the vacuum of space is not an empty void. The vacuum, Rees states, has in it “all the forces and particles that govern the physical world.” And he adds, it’s possible that the vacuum we can observe is in reality “fragile and unstable.”
What means is that when a collider such as CERN’s LHC creates unimaginably concentrated energy by smashing particles together, Rees says, it can create a “phase transition” which would tear asunder the fabric of space,” which cause a cosmic calamity not just a terrestrial one.”
The possibility is that quarks would reassemble themselves into compressed objects called strangelets. That in itself would be harmless. However, under some hypotheses a strangelet could, by contagion, convert anything else it encounters into a new form of matter, transforming the entire earth in a hyperdense sphere about one hundred meters across –the size of a soccer field.
The building blocks of matter in our universe were formed in the first 10 microseconds of its existence, according to the currently accepted scientific picture. After the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago, matter consisted mainly of quarks and gluons, two types of elementary particles whose interactions are governed by quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the theory of strong interaction. In the early universe, these particles moved (nearly) freely in a quark-gluon plasma. Then, in a phase transition, they combined and formed hadrons, among them the building blocks of atomic nuclei, protons and neutrons.
The experiments during 2018 at world-wide highest energy with the ALICE detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the research center CERN produce matter where particles and anti-particles coexist, with very high accuracy, in equal amounts, similar to the conditions in the early universe. The team confirms, with analysis of the experimental data, theoretical predictions that the phase transition between quark-gluon plasma and hadronic matter takes place at the temperature of 156 MeV. This temperature is 120,000 times higher than that in the interior of the sun.
While unfounded speculation has swirled around the Large Hadron Collider since two yellow dots on a screen signaled that protons had been activated in 2008, CERN has always maintained that the work carried out there is safe, stating that there’s nothing being done at the lab that nature hasn’t already “done many times over during the lifetime of the Earth and other astronomical bodies.”
The LHC has officially stated that the collider “has now run for eight years, searching for strangelets without any detection.”
“The second scary possibility is that the quarks would reassemble themselves into compressed objects called strangelets,” writes Rees. “That in itself would be harmless. However under some hypotheses a strangelet could, by contagion, convert anything else it encounters into a new form of matter, transforming the entire earth in a hyperdense sphere about one hundred meters across.”
Rees minimizes fears, observing that that “innovation is often hazardous,” but that “physicists should be circumspect about carrying out experiments that generate conditions with no precedent, even in the cosmos.”
Since its unveiling in 2008, the LHC has been the world center of particle physics research. In a tunnel 17 miles in circumference and more than 500 feet below the surface of the Swiss-French border, the LHC smashes subatomic particles at nearly the speed of light and has seen breakthrough discoveries including the Higgs boson. But fundamental questions about the makeup of our universe remain unanswered, and many of the proposed solutions lie beyond the reach of the current LHC.
A successor is needed and the broad consensus in the particle physics community that there will be only one successor to the LHC — and China is building it.
The Chinese supercollider, at 34 miles in circumference, would be double the size of the LHC, and would be located near the Chinese town of Qinhuangdao at the coastal end of another enormous project of the past, the Great Wall. The Chinese plan is not without its competitors. The other two proposals are Japan’s International Linear Collider, an electron-positron collider, and CERN’s Future Circular Collider, a proton-proton collider located in Europe. Breaking ground as early as 2021 and starting to take data by 2028, the Chinese behemoth aims to be in operation until 2055 and define the frontiers of particle physics for the next two generations.
The Daily Galaxy via University of Munster, Science Alerts, and Foreign Policy