Will Studying the Higgs Boson Really Destroy the Universe?
I used to enjoy reading articles in the press regarding the thoughts and ideas of Professor Stephen Hawking, an incomparable physicist and cosmologist, and an uncompromising science communicator. Any man who can reach such dizzying theoretical heights and still write a challenging but accessible book like A Brief History of Time ranks high in my estimation.
However, I fear that his reputation is falling victim to his own PR machine. The latest news item regards comments he makes in the preface of a new book, Starmus, that scientists studying the Higgs Boson could “destroy the Universe”. While it makes for some juicy headlines, and it will no doubt help sell copies of this book which accompanies a festival celebrating our exploration of space, the media coverage is a little concerning.
Now don’t get me wrong – Professor Hawking’s statement (which is very different from the paraphrasing in the media) is technically correct. Hawking describes it thus:
“The Higgs potential has the worrisome feature that it might become metastable at energies above 100bn giga-electronvolts (GeV).”
The Higgs potential tells us how Higgs Bosons will behave depending on how much energy they have. So in other words, if we pump too much energy into Higgs Bosons that we find in the lab, then we can make them “metastable”. This may not be immediately concerning to the layman, but what is concerning is what happens to the Higgs when it becomes metastable. This rather weird looking piece of jargon roughly means “not the most stable”. The alarmist might translate this as “unstable”, but that would be an exaggeration.
If the Higgs potential does become metastable, it means there is a very small probability that the Higgs Bosons could transition to a new state, in a process called “vacuum decay”. This is a bit like how steam transitions to a liquid as it condenses on a pane of glass. However, the properties of the Higgs potential mean the transition would be “catastrophic”. To continue the analogy, this would be like all the water vapour in the Earth’s atmosphere condensing at the same time, which would be fairly catastrophic for us.
The Higgs’ catastrophic decay would be even worse. The Higgs potential permeates the entire Universe, including the vacuum, and allows particles to have mass. If the potential decays, it would generate a “new” vacuum that would force out the “old” vacuum. In other words, a new Universe would appear where our current Universe used to be, as if we were data on a hard drive being overwritten. Plus, it would happen so quickly that we wouldn’t even see it coming. This is clearly not advantageous for us, or anything in the known Universe.
Before we descend into panic and shut down the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), where particle physicists are studying the Higgs Boson, let’s look again at the figure of 100 billion giga-electronvolts. The LHC can currently achieve energies of about a thousand giga-electronvolts. If we wished to destroy the Universe, we would need a particle accelerator one hundred million times more powerful than the LHC.
The Bottom Line
Given the incredible amount of resources and manpower required to generate a 1000 giga-electronvolt collider, an achievement humanity can be very proud of, it is astonishingly unlikely that we will ever generate the incredible energies needed to destroy the Universe in this fashion. I would stick my neck out and say that we are far more likely to destroy the Earth before we could ever destroy the Universe…
What is more concerning is the bad press image this gives particle physics. This isn’t the first time people have predicted particle physics will destroy the world, and it isn’t good for the scientists or the engineers working at the LHC and other particle accelerators.
The benefits to humanity of constructing such a precisely engineered machine are numerous. The spin-off technologies for instrument cooling, magnetic field manipulation, even data storage and analysis, are impressive. Even learning how to project manage 2000 scientists is extremely useful information for future large-scale endeavours involving lots of human beings trying to cooperate. It might seem like a colossal waste of money to you, but think about this project the next time you get an MRI scan, access a database with a million entries, or use the World Wide Web, which was invented by particle physicists!