There is a sobering fact, well known to science but little known in public. It is a fact related to Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, and one that is frightening in its scale.
The average 75 kg person (about 165 pounds), has lurking in his or her genes — or more specifically, in his or her atoms — an amount of energy equivalent to about 1.6 gigatons of TNT, some 28 times greater than the largest nuclear bomb ever exploded (Tsar bomba, Soviet Arctic, 1960, 57 megaton yield).
Should your nucleons suddenly ignite in 100 percent conversion of matter to energy, the resulting release of energy would be the equialvent of an asteroid several hundred meters across (about a quarter mile) colliding with the Earth at 17 km (nearly 11 miles) per second. The impact would be sufficient to completely obliterate a large metropolitan area, gouge a crater about 5 km across and 300 meters deep. (That’s about 3 miles across and 1000 feet deep). This is several times larger than the Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona. The surface effects including an atmospheric shockwave would decimate everything for many kilometers around, and would send a blast of heat to incinerate everything in its path. The resulting earthquake would be severe over a wide area, and the dust and debris thrown up by this event would gradually encircle the Earth, possibly even triggering a kind of “nuclear winter” sufficient to cool the temperature of the planet for months or years, killing vegetation and then the animals and people who depend on them thousands of kilometers away.
Given the amount of energy that Nature has stored in the matter of your body, your detonation would change the course of history and kill millions, leaving no trace of you except in the photons of energy that escape into space and the vibrations and heat captured by the planet.
Based on the laws of quantum physics, everything here is true. You do embody the awesome force of nature. However, how likely is it that you will suddenly explode in a nuclear holocaust? Quantum physics is probably the most studied and confirmed theory of nature in history. As with everything, there are problems and things we don’t yet understand about it, but the energy stored in particles is not one of these. This has been proved far beyond doubt. Witness the nuclear bomb, for instance.
Another thing, less widely known, is that quantum physics is a statistical study, and based on its laws, we can express the probability of almost anything happening. It is not absolutely impossible for all the mass in your body to suddenly transform into nuclear energy. But on the other hand, it isn’t likely. Not likely at all. There is an equation to calculate such probabilities, but I would not be so rash as to try and apply it here. However, suffice it to say that you and your immediate descendants are more likely to win first in every single lottery and contest on the planet Earth, every day of every year for the next million years, than you are to spontaneously transform into nuclear energy. It is not exactly impossible, but it is about as close to impossible as it is possible for anyone to imagine. There are better things to worry about.
This brings me to the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the latest “atom smasher” scheduled to open on September 10. This enormous new scientific instrument, and many associated instruments, can and will change our conception of the Universe, its inner workings and its origin. But, just as with you and your incredible store of nuclear energy, there is a chance that this collider could produce “mini” blackholes that in the bizarrest and indescribably unlikely of scenarios, could damage the Earth. And as with the chances of you suddenly detonating, the chances of any planetary harm due to the LHC, is frankly unimaginably small.
It is not so unimaginable that the LHC could produce “mini” blackholes, but these are not anything like the popular conceptions of a black hole, fueled by often highly inaccurate movies and over-anxious imaginations. The “mini” black holes that the LHC could produce — although still unlikely — would be microscopic at best, and unstable, which in this case just means that the could last only a tiny fraction of a second at most. Any that are produced — and again this is unlikely in the first place — will “evaporate” long before they would have any chance of pulling in any other matter. In any event, their mass would be far too small to produce enough gravity to pull in matter even as large as a microbe.
The real and dangerous thing about the LHC is not any imagined threat that it poses, but rather the unbridled, unschooled and utterly absurd fears promulgated by uninformed people. Of course such things have always occurred such as in the with hunts of the middle ages, but today absurdities spread with the speed of light through the Internet, and can have potentially deleterious affects on genuine and well-founded research. Too bad that human reasoning and the intelligence of the average public (which of course my dear reader, does not include you) has not kept up with the pace of technological development.
There is far, far, far more potential harm in the outcome of the current election season than there is of even the smallest hair on your head igniting in a bizarre nuclear transformation.
Keep in mind that physicists are people, too, not the “mad scientists” of moviedom. They have families. They love life as much as anyone else, and would not pursue the LHC and related technologies if they felt that there was any reasonable concern about safety. Also keep in mind that Physics is the most basic study of Nature. They are looking for truth. Yes. physicists developed the atomic and nuclear bombs, but that was under order from politicians. If you trust anyone, trust physicists, not politicians. Politicians sometime have to make the decision to go to war, and sometimes that is justified and should not be criticized (although sometimes if should be). Mark Twain once said something like “Be faithful to your country always, and to your government when it deserves it.”
In general, physics is a search for truth. The same is true for other sciences. Politics is a search for votes and power. Trust physics.
Spread the truth, and please don’t forward on emails with absurd claims, conspiracy theories or any of a host of other claims by people who know naught of which they speak.
(As clarification, the transformation of energy in a nuclear (fusion) bomb and in the Sun is not 100 conversion of all matter involved into energy. In fact it is on the order of 1 to 2 percent. The only process that we know of that reliably converts 100 percent of mass into energy is a matter-antimatter interaction — and yes, that is what they talk about in Star Trek and in fact has been demonstrated many times on a very small scale.)
Special thanks to the Dr. David Morrison and the Asteroid and Comet Impact Hazards (NASA) website.
Image Credit: Don Davis
Larry Sessions has written many favorite posts in EarthSky's Tonight area. He's a former planetarium director in Little Rock, Fort Worth and Denver and an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He's a longtime member of NASA's Solar System Ambassadors program. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including Space.com, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Rolling Stone. His small book on world star lore, Constellations, was published by Running Press.