In general, if you’re arguing about physics with Stephen Hawking, you’re not going to win. That’s why tabloid headlines screaming about Hawking’s prediction that the Higgs boson — sometimes referred to by the far-sexier moniker the “God Particle’’ — could destroy the universe have garnered so much attention.
But, c’mon. Scientists aren’t about to destroy the universe. They live here, too.
Despite the fact that he’s the most famous living physicist in the world, Hawking’s not always right, according to his peers.
In 1997, in what has to be the nerdiest wager of all time, Hawking bet a Caltech physics professor “information was lost in a black hole.’’ Turns out, “information can escape from a black hole and is therefore not lost.’’ Years later, after conceding defeat, Hawking had to deliver on the promised payout: an encyclopedia.
But in this case, headline writers are taking liberties with his argument.
At issue is Hawking’s assessment of the Higgs boson particle, which he discusses in his new book. Hawking did indeed say the particle has the potential to destroy the universe. But only at a an energy level that humans aren’t capable of producing. At least not yet.
Here’s what Hawking wrote, according to Raw Story:
“The Higgs potential has the worrisome feature that it might become metastable at energies above 100bn gigaelectronvolts,’’ Hawking writes. “This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light.’’
“This could happen at any time and we wouldn’t see it coming.’’
So are we doomed? Well, that depends on whether we could build a particle accelerator to create that type of energy. It would take an accelerator larger than the actual diameter of the earth.
Spoiler alert: We can’t.
More from Hawking, according to Raw Story:
“A particle accelerator that reaches 100bn GeV would be larger than Earth, and is unlikely to be funded in the present economic climate,’’ Hawking writes.
It’s probably helpful, at this point, to actually know what a Higgs boson is. We could try to explain it ourselves, but we’re just as out of our depth as (almost all of) you are. Here’s a real-live scientist from Fermilab explaining it in 2011, before the boson was detected in 2012:
The Higgs bosun does exist. It may have the potential, at speeds far beyond our capabilities to produce, to start a chain reaction to destroy the universe. So if this happens, it almost certainly won’t be our fault. But according to a physicist quoted by the Christian Science Monitor, it could have already happened in space and we’d never know:
“Most likely it will take 10 to the 100 years [a 1 followed by 100 zeroes] for this to happen, so probably you shouldn’t sell your house and you should continue to pay your taxes,’’ Joseph Lykken, a theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, said during his lecture at the SETI Institute on Sept. 2. “On the other hand it may already happened, and the bubble might be on its way here now. And you won’t know because it’s going at the speed of light so there’s not going to be any warning.’’
If you’re measuring the risk involved with the Higgs boson, we’re officially at the “anything could happen’’ line of argument. Which is true of lots of things, really, but it’s also nothing you should worry about.