Earth Could Be Shrunk Into Tiny Hyperdense Sphere by Particle Accelerators, Top Astronomer Warns

earth from space
Earth from space. Scientists have suggested a new theory for how life on Earth could have started. NASA

There is a very remote possibility that Earth could be reduced in size to a "hyperdense sphere" measuring just 330 feet across—the length of just two football fields—by particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

The U.K.'s astronomer royal, Lord Martin Rees, has explained this risk in his new book On The Future: Prospects for Humanity, which is due for release at the end of October. In an interview with The Telegraph, Rees discussed one particular chapter that deals with the potential dangers of physics experiments where particles are collided at high energies.

"Maybe a black hole could form, and then suck in everything around it," he says, according to the newspaper. "The second scary possibility is that the quarks would reassemble themselves into compressed objects called strangelets. That in itself would be harmless. However under some hypotheses a strangelet could, by contagion, convert anything else it encounters into a new form of matter, transforming the entire earth in a hyperdense sphere about 100 metres across."

He also says particle accelerators could potentially destroy more than just Earth. "Empty space—what physicists call the vacuum—is more than just nothingness. It is the arena for everything that happens. It has, latent in it, all the forces and particles that govern the physical world. The present vacuum could be fragile and unstable.

"Some have speculated that the concentrated energy created when particles crash together could trigger a 'phase transition' that would rip the fabric of space. This would be a cosmic calamity not just a terrestrial one."

These possibilities are remote and should not stop scientists continuing to experiment with colliders to get a better understanding of the universe. As he points out: "If we don't forgo risks we may forgo benefits."

However, Rees also says we must be mindful of all eventualities: "Physicists should be circumspect about carrying out experiments that generate conditions with no precedent, even in the cosmos. In the same way, biologists should avoid creation of potentially devastating genetically modified pathogens of large-scale modification of the human germline.

"Many of us are inclined to dismiss these risks as science fiction, but give the stakes they could not be ignored, even if deemed highly improbable."

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The Large Hadron Collider, pictured on October 11, 2014. Thomas Cizauskas/Anthos Media/Flickr

Experiments at CERN are widening our knowledge all the time. The LHC allowed scientists to discover the once hypothetical particle the Higgs boson, for example. Work at CERN and other similar institutions is helping build on the Standard Model—our best, but as of yet incomplete, explanation of how the universe works. Gaining a better insight into how the fundamental forces interact will hopefully help answer some of the biggest, unanswered questions of the cosmos, such as what dark matter and dark energy are.

Concerns that particle accelerators could destroy Earth are not new. Even before it was switched on, there were reports that the LHC could bring on the apocalypse. After 10 years of operation, the world still exists and scientists are learning more from it every day.

Stefan Söldner-Rembold, a particle physicist at the University of Manchester, U.K., told Newsweek that stories about accelerators ending the world are not new. "This claim is an old story, it resurfaces from time to time, and I will definitely not lose any sleep over it," he said. "The collisions produced in the Large Hadron Collider just reproduce what happens in nature all the time, just under controlled conditions. An example is the bombardment by cosmic rays. If there were any risk of producing strangelets or black holes that could swallow the Earth, it would already have happened."

This article has been updated to include quotes from Stefan Söldner-Rembold