Destroying the planet… with science!

When the Large Hadron Collider was fired up for the first time back in September, it caused much wailing and rending of clothes by people who were convinced that the device would create miniature black holes which would destroy the Earth, even though the initial test wouldn’t come close to the energies hypothetically required for such an unlikely event.  After the test, others were irrationally convinced that the LHC had spawned earthquakes around the globe; I did a rather thorough criticism of that idea here.

It’s interesting to note that such fears have been cropping up since the dawn of atomic physics, sometimes seriously and sometimes as a joke.  A physics professor I had as an undergraduate shared the story of his research on neutrinos in the 1960s, which took place in a shack outside the grounds of a nuclear reactor.  He said that he and his classmates were tempted to leak a story to the press that they were working on a “neutrino bomb”, which was so effective because it could pass through anything.  They realized, though, that the public wouldn’t realize that, if neutrinos pass through everything without any significant effect, that they couldn’t hurt you!

The 1945 Trinity test of the atomic bomb also raised concerns that the bomb might spark a chain reaction which would ignite the atmosphere, possibly destroying an entire state or the entire planet!  By the time the test was being done, these outcomes had been shown theoretically to be impossible, or at least exceedingly unlikely, but that didn’t stop a few physicists from worrying about it, and even making jokes about it*:

With the weather changing from stagnant to violent and with everyone short of sleep, moods swung at Base Camp.  The occasion of Fermi’s satire that evening made Bainbridge furious.  It merely irritated Groves:

I had become a bit annoyed with Fermi… when he suddenly offered to take wagers from his fellow scientists on whether or not the bomb would ignite the atmosphere, and if so, whether it would merely destroy New Mexico or destroy the world.  He had also said that after all it wouldn’t make any difference whether the bomb went off or not because it would still have been a well worth-while scientific experiment.  For if it did fail to go off, we would have proved that an atomic explosion was not possible.

On the realistic grounds, the Italian laureate explained with his usual candor, that the best physicists in the world would have tried and failed.

A classic Infocom text adventure, titled Trinity, is based on the premise that the player must alter history to prevent one of these catastrophic alternate events from happening.

Such statements about the destruction of the world through science go back even earlier, though, to the very dawn of the atomic theory!  Early experimenters such as Ernest Rutherford, working on radioactivity, realized that many atoms were in fact not stable, but the causes of instability were not known.  From The Infancy of Atomic Physics**, after noting possible theories of instability, the author notes:

That might explain how atoms become unstable, but hardly helps to understand why most of them are stable for such aeons of time.  But it did suggest to Rutherford how radioactive decay could be an inevitable process, slowly but certainly transforming the whole of matter.  It might well be dangerous to tamper with such a cosmic process.  During the summer, between lectures in London, a holiday in north Wales ruined by incessant rain (some things remain constant in this unstable world), and disputation before the British Association, Rutherford naturally found time to look up his old Cambridge friends.  To a young Trinity College physicist, Dampier Whetham, he remarked that one day ‘some fool in a laboratory might blow up the universe unawares.’  Only a joke, a ‘playful suggestion’ Whetham wrote.  But a joke that caught his imagination…

Whetham’s later popular science book, The Recent Development of Physical Science***, can be found online through Google books.  The relevant passage is found on pages 244-245, at the end of the chapter on radio-activity:

By investigating radio-active changes, we can trace the transmutation of the elements; we can watch the evolution of matter; but we have not yet found the philosopher’s stone which brings these processes under our control.  It would be rash to predict that our impotence will last for ever.  Ramsay has found that glass exposed to the β rays of radium suffers a chemical changes, and becomes appreciably radio-active.  It is possible that, in this way, complex radio-active atoms may be built up.  It is conceivable, too, that some means may one day be found for inducing radio-active cahnge in elements which are not normally subject to it.  Professor Rutherford has playfully suggested to the writer the disquieting idea that, could a proper detonator be discovered, an explosive wave of atomic disintegration might be started through all matter which would transmute the whole mass of the globe, and leave but a wrack of helium behind.  Such a speculation is, of course, only a nightmare dream of the scientific imagination, but it serves to show the illimitable avenues of thought opened up by the study of radio-activity.

Do I have a point to go with these observations?  Not really; I find it interesting to see that fears of inadvertent planet-destroying chain reactions have been with us for a long time.  Compare Rutherford’s joking suggestion of doom to the hypothetical destruction of the world by strangelets produced at the LHC:

If strangelets can actually exist, and if they were produced at the LHC, they could conceivably initiate a runaway fusion process in which all the nuclei in the planet would be converted to strange matter, similar to a strange star.

It is, in a sense, reassuring to note that each of the scenarios mentioned were thoroughly investigated by the researchers involved.  Far from blindly stumbling towards the destruction of the planet, scientists have been exceedingly cautious in delving down unexplored avenues of nature.  And we’re still here!


* Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Touchstone, 1986), 664-665.

** Alex Keller, The Infancy of Atomic Physics (Dover, 1983), 111.  This is a gem of a book which contains lots of fascinating trivia about the early atomic era.

*** W.C.D. Whetham, The Recent Development of Physical Science (Blackiston’s Son & Co., 1904), 244-245.

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