Killer plasma ready to devour the Earth
Reports by Robert Uhlig David Derbyshire and Roger Highfield
SCIENTISTS yesterday issued warnings of two new menaces to mankind that could either swallow up the Earth or turn the universe to jelly.
Particle scientists, who spend much of their time immersed in a theoretical world so arcane that anyone else struggles to understand it, warned yesterday of a wall of death expanding across the universe at the speed of light, obliterating everything in its path until no matter - anywhere - is left.
Dr Benjamin Allanach, a research associate at Cern, the European particle laboratory, said that a chance fluctuation of the "vacuum universe" would disintegrate all atoms.
he said: "The universe is perched on a terrible precipice. It could catastrophically tunnel to a new state, disintegrating every atom."
And if that does not wipe out all known life anywhere in the universe, Dr Allanach said so-called killer strangelets could "eat up the Earth from the inside out".
Should either of these doomsday scenarios occur, then the most likely starting point is the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a machine 2.4 miles long in Long Island, New York state.
By colliding gold nuclei at huge energies, the RHIC is investigating "quark-gluon plasma", a state of matter in which the fundamental sub-nuclear particles, called quarks and gluons, become unstuck and swill around in a kind of particle soup that should have been around shortly after the Big Bang.
Dr Allanach warned that if experiments with the RHIC go wrong, it could produce a new hypothetical kind of particle called the killer strangelet.
In a catastrophic chain reaction, the killer strangelet would gobble up nuclei until it had eaten a million billion, when its weight would pull it towards the centre of the earth.
Dr Allanach said: "Eventually, the strangelet would be the size of an atom and just sit at the centre of the earth, eating other nuclei.
"It would eventually be heavy enough to attract some of the earth's mass gravitationally. That way, it would eat our planet from the inside out, converting the entire earth into one giant strangelet and killing us all in the process."
Fortunately, the chance of this happening is very small. However, the other apocalyptic model, could be "even more catastrophic", Dr Allanach said.
According to "supersymmetry" theory, every particle has a heavier, ghostly partner that has similar, but not identical, properties.
These "super-partners" were present in the early universe but if a super-partner of the quark formed, which could happen if there was a chance fluctuation in the vacuum of the universe, then everything would come to a very sudden end.
Dr Allanach said: "This would be bad news, because in some region of space which has jellified, particles of light would become immensely heavy. Nature would not have enough energy to produce them, and all would become dark.
"Because photons are responsible for the electric and magnetic forces, these forces would no longer exist. This would be the death knell of the poor atom, because it is the electric force that binds electrons to the nucleus," he said.
"Because the new region of jellified super-partner would be more stable than the rest of the universe, it would jellify the space around it. The region of new vacuum would expand at the speed of light, wreaking dark havoc."
For all we know, this has already happened somewhere in the universe and a deadly wall of jellied universe is expanding towards Earth, killing everything in its path.
However, Dr Allanach said further calculations indicated that the probability of this event happening was minuscule, even in a time as long as the age of our universe.
He said: "Although our disaster scenarios caused some initial nightmares, after further investigation, they proved to be so unlikely that we can sleep soundly at night."
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