SCIENTIST Stephen Hawking has warned that the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, could cause space and time to collapse.
But there is time for lunch: It may take trillions of years to topple.
The British professor said that at very high energy levels the Higgs boson – the subatomic particle which gives us our shape and size – could become so unstable that it would cause space and time to collapse.
Hawking made his comments in the preface to a new book, Starmus.
The Higgs boson field is the force within the universe which give particles mass and therefore acts as the “glue” which holds everything together. Without that “glue”, we’d all disintegrate at the speed of light.
Now, Hawking’s comments that the Higgs “has the worrisome feature that it might become metastable” at very high energies has reignited unfounded fears that a “black hole” could be created on Earth.
Hawking went on: “This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light.
“This could happen at any time and we wouldn’t see it coming.”
His words have rattled the physics community: Not because he is specifically wrong, but because of the public fears his comments – without context – could cause.
After all, before CERN was even powered up the fear that it would cause us all to collapse into a black hole was a widespread internet concern.
Hawking does admit, however, that the likelihood of a disaster involving the Higgs is very small since physicists do not have a particle accelerator large enough to create such an experiment.
Australian physicist Dr Alan Duffy takes the argument one step further: Such a catastrophic transition to a new state by a Higgs field collapse could not be caused by colliders anyway “in the same way that volcanologists who measure the tremors of a volcano aren’t responsible for any eruption.”
“A particle accelerator that reaches 100bn GeV would be larger than Earth, and is unlikely to be funded in the present economic climate,” Hawking wrote.
But bigger ones are on the cards.
Dr Duffy, of Swinbourne University in Melbourne, says Hawking is technically correct but adds that the energy levels necessary to push the Higgs boson beyond its “tipping point” would have to be astronomical.
In fact, an accelerator capable of propelling particles up to the necessary speeds for such a catastrophe would likely have to be on a scale similar to that of our solar system.
Those being built now are on a much more practical scale.
“These facilities will help us learn more about the Higgs and the stability of our universe, with no prospect of ending it. Sorry Hollywood, you’ll have to get a new disaster film plot.”
Dr Duffy says that what we know about the mass of the Higgs particle puts it in a region in which the Higgs field could be unstable (technically described as metastable).
“As we learn more the Higgs field may end up being completely stable after all. It’s really only at the cusp of being unstable in any case,” he says.
The current understanding puts the Higgs field in a position analogous to that of a rock rolling down a valley.
“It may get lodged in a crevice high up from the valley floor,” Dr Duffy says. “We think that the Higgs field could be at this point, and something might nudge it to fall down to the true floor (lowest energy state).
“The point at which this happens will change into a new universe (called a phase transition). This would look like a fireball spreading out at the speed of light, converting the old universe into a new one.”
Dr Duffy says the chances of this happening are incredibly tiny. “But wait long enough (trillions of years) and the odds keep shortening,” he says.
Nevertheless our Sun will have long since run out of fuel, swollen up as a Red Giant and destroyed the Earth. And that’s in 5 billion years’ time.
“I doubt we’ll ever have to worry about the Higgs getting us first. In any case the good news is that we’d never see it coming (it’s travelling at the speed of light) so there’s no need/point in worrying!”
Hawking’s comments have raised fresh fears over a surge in construction of particle colliders around the world.
China has announced it plans to build three new particle accelerators – the largest of which would be some 80km in diameter. The CERN particle accelerator which discovered the Higgs boson is 27km in diameter and puts out 14TeV.
A US/European proposed super proton collider is slated to be 100km in diameter.
The first Chinese collider, a 52km device to smash together electrons and positrons, is due to be built by 2028.
This all follows the discovery of the Higgs boson particle in 2012 by scientists at the CERN accelerator in Switzerland, by colliding two beams of protons at high speed.
This was 50 years after the particle was first predicted by British physicist Peter Higgs. In the early 1960s Higgs theorised that the particle and its associated “Higgs field” were the reason things have mass.
“It is worth pointing out that the energies necessary to collapse the Higgs field happened just after the Big Bang
and since we’re here it’s pretty good evidence that – as we learn more – we’ll find that out there
is more physics out there that stabilises the Higgs after all,” Dr Duffy says.