Monday, March 26, 2012

Earth Is Not Enough

According to pundits, we humans are rare, perhaps even unique, and that’s why we matter, even if our existence is an accident. 

Far more time lies ahead than has elapsed thus far, its said. The Big Bang occurred a mere 13.7 billion years ago, and the Universe will go on expanding forever. Compared to its meager beginnings, the  future of the Cosmos as we know it seems immense, perhaps infinite.

Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. What’s to become of  the Universe, anyway?  Of us? Do we humans really matter?

What matters most, it would seem, is matter itself because that’s what everything is – us, that beer you’re drinking, the rest of the Universe. Understand matter and you can explain it all, including energy which is interchangeable with matter. Even your thoughts are a form of energy, perhaps even your soul. You could cure indigestion.     

Although basic ideas about matter trace back to Newton and earlier to Aristotle's natural philosophy, a better understanding of matter began to emerge in the early 20th century.  In a sort of ultimate demolition derby, physicists began using particle accelerators to smash bits of matter – electrons, positrons, protons, anti-protons, or bare atomic nuclei – into each other at the highest possible energies in order to investigate their properties under conditions that might have prevailed at the Big Bang.

It turns out that the  more energy you use in such systems, the more you discover. For example, in December, 2011, experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, presently the most powerful collider of them all (it uses so much electricity that it operates only during the summer), revealed yet another new subatomic particle, the so-called  χb (3P) bottomonium state. Already, a still more powerful machine,  the forty kilometer-long International Linear Collider, is planned for construction between 2015-2020.
Gold Beam Collision Events

What if, unbeknownst to us, other civilizations out there were running similar experiments, building more and more powerful colliders, or some such machines, of their own? Suppose that, in the fullness of time, civilizations not yet born were to ask the same questions we ask? What if, after still more billions of years, this high voltage particle pinball went viral? More and more subatomic particles turn up, species of weirdlets far smaller (less than a femtometer) than strangelets, and across the galaxies more and more energy is funneled into exploring their still teenier constituents. 

Its obvious where this is going.  Physicists worry already that in future, if certain predictions of the so-called superstring theory are accurate, black holes may be produced by high energy accelerators. In which case, as Tom Wolf might put it, Earth could disappear up its own essential orifice (yes, a black hole). Worse still, as bankers in nearby Zurich must worry, a run-away particle accelerator might, in a reversal of alchemy, turn their gold bullion into lead!

Imagine the eventual result, a plethora of mini-Big Bangs on a cosmic scale with trillions of fantastically high energy particles whizzing through billions of matter colliders all at once. Could such a singular event tip the balance toward chaos, set in motion a full-scale Big Bang? According to quantum physics, maybe so – and it wouldn’t take Swiss engineers.

For us humans, one bite at the apple is never enough. Perhaps that’s why we matter –  the idea fits well enough with our nature. And if Earthly precedent is any guide, uberparticles stoked up by matter-turned-sentient, creatures like you and me, may one day converge in the ultimate spark show and simply reboot the Universe.

How’s that for a Faustian bargain?

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