Has a scientific
experiment ever threatened to destroy earth?
Only within the last 60 years have scientists had the ability to unleash
the immense forces of the atom. But meddling with these forces does not go
without risks. When the atom bomb was first created, scientists were worried
that it would produce so much heat it would cause the air to burn, as nitrogen
atoms could start fuse. If this released enough energy to make nearby atoms
fuse, a chain reaction would start that would sweep the globe burning every
living thing in its path. The risks of this were taken seriously enough director
of the scientists researching the bomb to launch a study. Although they were
later proved correct, it shows how scientists are prepared to risk the unknown
and potentially devastating consequences of their research for life on this
Are there any dangerous experiments now being carried out?
But now, scientists are experimenting with even smaller particles, trying
to unblock more dangerous secrets. They are constructing 'super colliders',
huge tubes where subatomic particles are accelerated to speeds close to the
speed of light - into each other. The idea is to break them up to find even
smaller particles and study them. The world's largest, Relativistic Heavy
Ion Collider (RHIC), is now operational at Long Island, New York State. However
such experiments do not come without risks.
What happens during an experiment at RHIC?
The RHIC consists of two circular tubes, 2.4 miles long. The electrons from
gold atoms are removed and they are accelerated to a speed 99.9% of the speed
of light (about 300,000 km/second). When they collide incredibly dense matter
is created with a temperature in excess of 1 trillion degrees - 10,000 times
hotter than the centre of the sun. Conditions are being created that have
not existed since the formation of the universe in the Big Bang, when all
the current laws of physics broke down. What could be the effects of such
Scenario 1: A Black Hole is created
The first is that a black hole is created in the laboratory. A black hole
is where matter becomes so dense that nothing can escape from it - even light
(hence the name, 'black' hole). This is caused by their incredible gravity,
and the more they suck in the greater it becomes. When the particles are
smashed together which such incredible speed, the result would be extremely
dense mater - perhaps dense enough to form a black hole. One created in a
laboratory could be as small as 10-15 metres (0.0000000000001 metres). However
from this minute size it would grow and grow, devouring subatomic particles,
then atoms, then the materials in the laboratory and eventually it would
start digging a hole into the centre of the Earth before consuming it all.
It would then start on the rest of the Solar System.
Scenario 2: 'Strangelets'
A strangelet is the type of tiny particle that scientists want to create
with RHIC. It is a 'quark', but unlike ordinary 'up' and 'down' quarks, which
make up the matter we see today. Normal matter could not exist in this 'strange'
form. The worry is that these 'strange' particles might convert other normal
particles into strange matter. This would be the beginning of a chain reaction
that would sweep the globe, converting into as whole planet of strangelets
- which would mean no substance and no life.
Scenario 3: Quantum Vacuum Collapse
Not content with potentially crushing us into a microscopic black hole and
converting the whole planet into a form of matter that would leave no substance,
the RHIC could create a massive explosion. Quantum theory says that the vacuum
in between particles is in fact filled with energy. Enough energy in one
place could break down the stability that prevents this energy being released,
for example the incredible temperatures created by the RHIC collisions. If
the 1 trillion degrees that is produced is sufficient, some calculations
say that infinite energy would be released from the collision, creating a
massive explosion that would sweep across the universe at the speed of light.
Some have even suggested that massive explosion seen in space could be due
to alien experiments in quantum vacuums.
Even if the RHIC is not powerful enough to do this, much more powerful particle
accelerators are planned, for example the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). There
is no limit to the amount scientists wish to know, so larger and larger accelerators
will continue to be built. Eventually one will go too far, with disastrous
consequences for the rest of us.
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