The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Question on Strangelets

Somebody out there has the physics background for this.

We've recently seen discussion of the Swiss Supercollider, and how some people are concerned about the creation of teeny black holes or the quark phenomenon known as a "Strangelet"--either of which might devour all local matter and destroy the planet.

I've heard various safeguards that were taken to minimize the chances of this happening. But...can anyone give me an idea of what someone would want to do if one WANTED to create such a disaster? To maximize the chances. And what level of precision bombardment of what kind of target at what energies might be necessary to even potentially, theoretically, create such a quantum monstrosity?

Any thoughts?


Pagan Topologist said...

Steve, any events that the new collider could create have already happened somewhere on earth from cosmic rays. Occasional cosmic rays are more energetic than anything humans have yet contemplated, let alone built. Over millions of years, the number of such events has been larger than the number that can be created in a small enough space to study using a large hadron accelerator. So, I doubt seriously that this instrument can do anything globally dangerous. If it could, it would have already happened long since.

As to what someone could do, if he wanted to cause such an event, I suspect nothing is possible. The worst would be the terrorist nuclear weapon or "dirty bomb" or some such.

Steven Barnes said...

You mean there isn't even a theoretical event that could be artificially produced, even if you didn't know HOW you would produce it?
There is no way to even hypothesize about how human agency might bring about a strangelet or black hole? I'm surprised. Color me dubious.

Anonymous said...

I believe I saw something along the lines of what you're talking about on a National Geographic special, but I don't remember the name of it off hand.

John M.

Uliari said...

Well, as far as the strangelet is concerned, the hope is that the LHC will be able to create them. This is because it will be able to create more strange quarks.

The theory is that if you can create enough strange quarks it will lead to the creation of a strangelet.

So LHC may well be able to do this...

Steven Barnes said...

The HOW isn't as important at the moment. The question is WHAT would have to happen? "A mass V size composed of W would have to be hit in X by Y over Z period of time."

That kind of formulation. If you could push a button and make it happen, what would happen at the instant you pushed the button?

Anonymous said...

If you go to you tube and search "end:day part 6of6" they have an idea of what might happen.

It's part of a docudrama.

John M.

Uliari said...

A 'ice-nine' event could occur if we create a strangelet on Earth. That would not be good...

Strangelet is created. Beautiful up, down, and strange quarks in sufficient quantity to allow it to become stable. This is good, right?

Well, not so much. The strangelet comes into contact with another nucleus and the strangelet causes the other nucleus to convert to a strange matter. Which in turn makes the strangelet larger and more stable.

And larger means more possibility of contacting more nuclei. This goes on and on until...

Earth is a large, hot, burnt cinder...

Not so great.

Kami said...

Unfortunately my physics education happened too long ago to make an informed guess about this. These sorts of particles weren't conceived of. I've only managed to keep up in a pop physics sort of manner with easy access books like those by Hawking and Greene.

You're probably going to have to make friends with a current theoretical physicist for this one! I can say the equipment will be expensive, large scale, and I suspect many of the components will be custom parts, some of which will have to be invented (in the same way that space vehicles and other cutting edge equipment has to be made up as we go along.) It's not going to be something someone can carry around in a suitcase, or even a room.

Try popular mechanics and check out the images there.

It'll at least give you an idea of the scope of the equipment.

There's got to be someone talking about the parts and how it works, and from that you should be able to infer what you'd need.

Wild guess--for a big, sustainable black hole you'll need a large mass, like a huge planet or a sun, worth of matter before you'd get a planet-swallowing black hole. But that's just me with my 1980's physics.

Good luck on your quest!

Steven Barnes said...

Don't worry about the equipment. The question is: what would you be trying to do? And of COURSE it would be a bad idea. That's the point.

Uliari said...

Oh, direct observation is the goal.

Think about how cool it would have been for Einstein if he could have seen a Bose-Einstein condensate.

Personally, If I could get close to a baby black I would love it. To measure the changes in the quantum state of matter in the field of a singularity would be so cool...

It is being able to see the real world application of the science. See the errors or the unanticipated elements in or that effect the model you have worked on.

You spend so much time working on something and never seeing what it is really like. We watch with passive measuring tools in order to create a hypothesis or further the proof of a theory.

Any step that brings us closer to the real world examples that exist around us is a goal to be celebrated.

Kami said...

Who did the math for the ice-nine scenario, btw? It sounds very prion-like. And any estimates for how quickly it would spread?

Christian M. Howell said...

I don't believe it would be possible unless they imported some dark matter to cause the propagation of energy.

Without the mass-producing properties of the Higgins boson colliding particles will merely release energy into the magnetic field. It's highly unlikely that any actual mass will be produced and the energy from said collision could almost be E=mc^2 where the mass of a proton (or two) is basically negligible.

But it's funny you mentioned this because some hackers nearly broke into the Collider computer and DID deface the CERN website.

Steven Barnes said...

No, direct observation isn't the goal. Say you had someone insane enough to WANT a cataclysmic event. Is it even theoretically POSSIBLE--don't worry about the technology. If someone said that an "alien device" had created such an event on a planet we watched collapse, what exactly is it that said device did?

Frank said...


Is it even theoretically POSSIBLE--don't worry about the technology.

I suppose it is theoretically possible to use the collider are an atomic weapon. But if you were of a mind to do real damage, it would be much easier to get a hold of a nuclear weapon. It's easier to carry around and it is specifically designed to create a chain reaction.

I think in both cases, the problem would be getting a hold of enough fissionable material to start a chain reaction. And if you had that, why would you bother to take it down to the LHC to set it off? It would take a whole bunch of setup time.

And if you really wanted to do that, there is nothing special about the Haldron collider that couldn't be done with any other collider in existence.

I do not think it is even theoretically possible to use it to create a black hole large enough and stable enough to do any damage. Nor do I think that you could use it to create any dangerous event that is specific to the LHC.

mjholt said...

Steve, you need to call John Cramer, a physicist, professor, expert in this field, and SWFA member. He's in the directory. He knows this inside and out.

Steven Barnes said...

Arrrgh. I don't have a current copy of the SFWA directory...if anyone has John Cramer's contact info, I'd appreciate it...

Anonymous said...

I'm not a physicist.

But I'll throw out a guess. Your world-destroying event has to be something that depends on two high-energy collisions happening very near one another at almost the same time.

It's absolutely correct that the earth's being continually bombarded by a slow drip of extremely high-energy photons (cosmic rays). But these tend to be solitary. Any catastrophic physical event ("world-eating strangelet creation", or whatever) that requires two such photons at once won't happen.

But it could presumably happen in a supercollider, because the whole point of a supercollider is to make high-energy events frequent in the same small location.

That's just a guess, and (unfortunately) not a very detailed or useful guess in its current form (I really am not a physicist...) But for what it's worth, that's what I'd try to follow up.

--Erich Schwarz

Uliari said...

Ok, sorry about the misunderstanding of the question. Sometimes I am a little dense (haha).

I read the last comment but Mr. Barnes as asking the question is it even possible for LHC to create a cataclysmic event? (4 comments ago)

In this case, in very general terms and if we include the rate at which intelligent species come into existence, the lack of an cataclysmic event in our solar system having already happened, the possibility of having observed one in our local area (outside of the solar system), and the rate at which planets form. And lastly, if we ignore the fact that we can not observe the existence of an intelligence species that exists outside of our own existence time frame. It was concluded that the chance of an cataclysmic event would be minuscule. :)

The figure I have is about 1 in approximately 1.1 billion years from an article by Tegmark and Bostrom (Nature 438, Dec. 2005).

Can we create something to blast us out of existence? Yes (nuclear weapons, as stated before by Frank). Is it possible for LHC to create something that eats the Earth? Yes. Do the scientists involved think it is likely? No.

So I would say it is possible.

I, personally, like the statement "Anything is Possible."

Shawn said...

Someone deliberately seeking to cause this has two avenues:

Assume creation of a micro-black-hole that evaporates VERY quickly - rebound effect? quantum tunnelling? hawking radiation? doesn't matter how it pops, just that it does. This is what they say must be the result of any such microsingularity.

You could work on a way to feed it mass faster than it evaporates. maybe surround the chamber with some dense but easily-absorbed matter; if the microhole has charge, try and tune its speed and charge to readily absorb opposite-charged feeder material. Given enough tweaking and enough black holes you could end up with one that was "steady-state" in the lab, possibly even feed it a highly ionized feedstock to allow you to move it around with magentic fields. Then you can keep feeding it until it's big enough to be stable - at least for a long enough timeframe to eat the earth, or the core at least. Of course, to grow it that big could take decades or even longer; This thing would be so tiny that to even absorb one electron of real mass before evaporating would be a major breakthrough.

The strangelet is similar. Right now they'll be side effects of the Higgs Boson search and not likely to remain stable. Once you've created a few of them you would have a better idea of how to create them on demand, and control them. Only once you can control them and stabilize them can they become "weaponized." That's also assuming that the theory of them being able to convert normal matter to strangelet material is correct.

Everyone who is saying that a nuclear weapon is comparable to these mad scientist ideas misses the point - forget killing everybody, we have a science fiction character here who wants to take everything the human race has ever known and completely remove it from the universe. A tiny black hole slowly evaporating into radiation, or a large strangelet (but still nothing recognizable as the earth) that may do the same, would be all that was left of the planet in this fictional scenario.

Of course, even that's thinking small; I like the vacuum "phase change" scenario myself, where a very high or very low energy event acts as a seed crystal of a lower vacuum energy level, and the basic physical laws change in ways that might be wildly incompatible with the existence of matter at all. I believe current cosmology still calls for an early inflationary period which is best explained by something like this at the transition from inflationary to "current" physics...

mjholt said...

I sent John Cramer's contact information to you at The subject line says it all.

Anonymous said...

in response to anonymous, the estimate is that 600 millions hadrons will be collided 600 billion times per second. hope i got those figures right.

and "they" say that there's a one in 50 million chance something untoward will occur. it seems to me that millions of hadrons colliding billions of times per second make the odds of one in 50 million look pretty high. but the math is incomprehensible to me.

hawking has said in his own words that he would like to create a black hole, and i've read from other particle physicists involved with RHIC, and the production of gluon plasma consisting of proto strangelets, that that would like to be able to create a stable strangelet.

it seems as if LHC is another step in this general direction. i say we pray for another huge malfunction.

those who appreciate quantum physics might appreciate how prayer could bring this about.