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Physics and fatality

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Those working in the area of theoretical physics may have noticed that the mean time between being noticed by the rest of the world is about two years, give or take a year. For the last sic years, the upheavals in this rather rarefied field of study have been caused by a particle whose very existence had been questioned for the previous 55-odd years. That particle is the Higgs boson and it was in 2012 when evidence of its existence was discovered, fleetingly, by scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), in an enormous particle accelerator which has been built to look for what is supposed to not be there.

Now theoretical physics has again caused the encyclopaediae to be brought down from dusty shelves (or the electronic equivalent) for it is Stephen Hawking, perhaps our generation’s best known theoretical physicist, who has discussed the Higgs boson and its somewhat doom-laden proclivities. Hawking, formally the Director of Research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and Founder of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge, is otherwise recalled for stepping out of the realms of the strange with a book that artfully introduced his subject to the general reader, ‘A Brief History of Time’, which did remarkably well.

He has written several books since, and the latest, entitled ‘Starmus, 50 Years of Man in Space’, has the reference to the curious particle in the foreword. The Higgs boson, Hawking has written, “has the worrisome feature that it might become megastable at energies above 100bn giga-electron-volts (GeV)”. These are not energies that we can conceive of in our everyday routines, but the physicist has explained his concern: “This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light.” Put plainly, what this means is that the curiosity theorised by Peter Higgs in 1964 (and after whom it was named, despite having not been proven to exist) could if accelerated to high energy levels destroy the universe.

Are the worries of theoretical physicists our worries too? Not unless we are willing to cope with monstrously large numbers that represent energy and time. And Hawking’s warning carries a caveat. A machine to accelerate the Higgs boson to the point where it becomes troublesome, he decided, would need to be larger than Earth and, he added with more than a touch of mischief, “is unlikely to be funded in the present economic climateā€¯. Until the next announcement about the Higgs boson and its unseen stablemates, a half hour with the umpteenth Star Trek sequel should suffice.