Subatomic Event More Powerful Than A Hydrogen Bomb Discovered—Scaring Scientists So Much They Almost Hid The Results

An image of the Large Hadron Collider on display at London's science museum. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Two teeny tiny particles can theoretically collide to create a "quarksplosion" with eight times more energy than the reaction that powers hydrogen bombs, according to a new paper published in the journal Nature. In fact, the paper's co-authors told Live Science, they very seriously considered not publishing the discovery, since the collision creates so much energy.

Let's make one thing very clear: This is all theoretical work, although it's based on real experimental results from the Large Hadron Collider, a particle-smashing machine in Europe. And while it's a pretty cool discovery to think about, there's no way anyone can harness these powerful explosions to do any harm—they're simply too tiny.

"If I thought for a microsecond that this had any military applications, I would not have published it," Marek Karliner, a particle physicist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, told Live Science.

The new paper was inspired by a discovery at the Large Hadron Collider earlier this year of what scientists call a "doubly-charmed" particle. Charmed doesn't mean it was blessed by a fairy godmother—it actually refers to one of the six different types of quarks. Quarks are a fundamental ingredient of matter that can't be broken down any further. But the six different types are all different sizes, and scientists hadn't realized that two charm quarks, which are relatively big, could be stuck together in the same particle. The doubly-charmed discovery made them reconsider that belief.

When Karliner and his co-author read about the Large Hadron Collider discovery, they wondered what sort of energy flow was involved when two charm quarks merged. Pieces of matter merge all the time: the same sort of phenomenon among four hydrogen atoms is what powers our sun, some power plants, and parts of modern nuclear bombs.

The interaction uses some energy to link the two quarks but also results in some energy being produced: about 12 megaelectronvolts (that's pretty tiny, about two-thirds the energy produced by an individual pair of hydrogen atoms fusing) for pairs of charm quarks, the scientists found.

Then, they decided to run the numbers with a different kind of large quark, bottom quarks, which are even heavier than charm quarks. And here's where the fireworks really went off: According to their calculations, two merging bottom quarks should release 138 megaelectronvolts of energy.

But unlike the hydrogen atoms found in bombs, bottom quarks are highly unstable, so it would be impossible to gather enough of them to create the chain reactions that allow bombs to harness fusion so dramatically. A bottom quark becomes a much less interesting, much less powerful up quark within a tiny fraction of a second. Not so explosive after all.