No, Hawking didn’t say that a particle collider could destroy the universe

So apparently Hawking says that the Higgs could destroy the universe.

HawkingHiggs

I’ve covered this already, right? No need to say anything more?

Ok, fine, I’ll write a real blog post.

The Higgs is a scalar field: a number, sort of like temperature, that can vary across space and time. In the case of the Higgs this number determines the mass of almost every fundamental particle (the jury is still somewhat out on neutrinos). The Higgs doesn’t vary much at all, in fact it takes an enormous (Large Hadron Collider-sized) amount of energy to get it to wobble even a little bit. That is because the Higgs is in a very very stable state.

Hawking was pointing out that, given our current model of the Higgs, there’s actually another possible state for the Higgs to be in, one that’s even more stable (because it takes less energy, essentially). In that state, the number the Higgs corresponds to is much larger, so everything would be much more massive, with potentially catastrophic results. (Matt Strassler goes into some detail about the assumptions behind this.)

For those who have been following my blog for a while, you may find these “stable states” familiar. They’re vacua, different possible ways to set up “empty” space. In that post, I may have given the impression that there’s no way to change from one stable state, one “vacuum”, to another. In the case of the Higgs, the state it’s in is so stable that vast amounts of energy (again, a Large Hadron Collider-worth) only serve to create a small, unstable fluctuation, the Higgs boson, which vanishes in a fraction of a second.

And that would be the full story, were it not for a curious phenomenon called quantum tunneling.

If you’ve heard someone else describe quantum tunneling, you’ve probably heard that quantum particles placed on one side of a wall have a very small chance of being found later on the other side of the wall, as if they had tunneled there.

Using their incredibly tiny shovels.

However, quantum tunneling applies to much more than just walls. In general, a particle in an otherwise stable state (whether stable because there are walls keeping it in place, or for other reasons) can tunnel into another state, provided that the new state is “more stable” (has lower energy).

The chance of doing this is small, and it gets smaller the more “stable” the particle’s initial state is. Still, if you apply that logic to the Higgs, you realize there’s a very very very small chance that one day the Higgs could just “tunnel” away from its current stable state, destroying the universe as we know it in the process.

If that happened, everything we know would vanish at the speed of light, and we wouldn’t see it coming.

While that may sound scary, it’s also absurdly unlikely, to the extent that it probably won’t happen until the universe is many times older than it is now. It’s not the sort of thing anybody should worry about, at least on a personal level.

Is Hawking fear-mongering, then, by pointing this out? Hardly. He’s just explaining science. Pointing out the possibility that the Higgs could spontaneously change and end the universe is a great way to emphasize the sheer scale of physics, and it’s pretty common for science communicators to mention it. I seem to recall a section about it in Particle Fever, and Sean Carroll even argues that it’s a good thing, due to killing off spooky Boltzmann Brains.

What do particle colliders have to do with all this? Well, apart from quantum tunneling, just inputting enough energy in the right way can cause a transition from one stable state to another. Here “enough energy” means about a million times that produced by the Large Hadron Collider. As Hawking jokes, you’d need a particle collider the size of the Earth to get this effect. I don’t know whether he actually ran the numbers, but if anything I’d guess that a Large Earth Collider would actually be insufficient.

Either way, Hawking is just doing standard science popularization, which isn’t exactly newsworthy. Once again, “interpret something Hawking said in the most ridiculous way possible” seems to be the du jour replacement for good science writing.

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3 thoughts on “No, Hawking didn’t say that a particle collider could destroy the universe

  1. Wyrd Smythe

    I’m not convinced Hawking doesn’t collude in creating sensationalistic impressions — this is hardly the first time some outrageous statement he supposedly made has made the rounds. I think he might enjoy the effect; he certainly doesn’t try very hard to avoid it.

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      1. Wyrd Smythe

        Are you suggesting Stephen Hawking is insane? 😀

        Seriously, though, there are people who love saying things they know some people will react to (I know… I’m one of them). One theory behind it is that it gets people talking, and then you can get into the real details. Another is that some of us just like shaking others of us up a little — complacency is so dull…. 🙂

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