A big red button for the end of the universe

red-buttonWhat’s the ultimate legacy anyone who ever lived could leave? Paradoxically, it should be to cause the extinction of everything. Now that we’ve learned that it’s in principle possible to annihilate the universe, would you go for it?

Recently, Stephen Hawking came with some interesting ideas about the research with the Higgs field. As exhaustively reported in the media all over the world, he speculated that this research could result in the end of the universe.

(If you Google for “Hawking Starmus”, you will find hundreds of sites basically only repeating each other. The original book, “Starmus”, where Hawking explains his hypothesis, was still not released and I’m also citing it from hearsay—Thanks, Dad, for bringing my attention to this discussion.)

Note the superlative: Hawking isn’t talking about the end of life on Earth or even destruction of the planet. He is talking about the end of the universe with all its uncountable mind-blowing numbers of literally everything.

The rational for this over-the-top Doctor-Who-style prediction is that the Higgs field generated could be disruptive, creating a bubble of vacuum expanding at the speed of light. Maybe even generating another universe as a side product.

Hawking, however, made clear that we’re in no immediate danger. The energies involved in the experiments at the LHC are orders of magnitude below those necessary for such catastrophic effect. He estimates that a particle accelerator able to generate such energy levels would be larger than our planet.

This discussion brought to my mind Arthur Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953), where two computer scientists are hired by Tibetan monks to install a computer able to print out of all names of God. According to the monks’ doctrine, accomplishing that would fulfill God’s purpose for the universe and trigger the end of everything. The scientists were naturally skeptical, but they did the job; and too well. The last sentences of that story echoes in my mind ever since I read them 25 years ago:

“… and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.) Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

Anyway, it was natural that Hawking’s speculation got a lot of attention. And it was also a short step to people start to wonder whether it wouldn’t have been sloppy scientists from a long-extinct universe, who accidentally created ours.

Like everyone else, I’ve been also enchanted by Hawking’s speculation; but my wonder is of another kind.

I found myself asking: if I were in front a big red button and by simply pressing it I would destroy the universe, would I do it? Say—just to give some physical picture to the question—this is the button that turns on the giant particle accelerator with the fatal Higgs field.

My first rational impulse is to answer that of course not, I wouldn’t press it; but I can hear a little voice telling me that I would do so, anyway.

No, I don’t aim at being a kind of super villain. It’s not about killing people or destroying the world. It’s about something much bigger on its metaphysical implications. It’s about causing the extinction of reality itself.

To plant a tree, to write a book, to have a child; to build a bridge, to find a new law of physics, to cure cancer; to win a war, to lead a nation, to be the prophet of a millenary religion; to terraform a planet, to build a Dyson sphere, to colonize the galaxy; these are all actual or dreamt accomplishments that we could achieve as individuals or species. But their legacies are also all limited in one or more of the four dimensions defining our reality: time, space, genes, and culture.

To press that damn red button, however, overtops everything else. Starting this terrible bubble, which for billions and billion of years expands and shatters into absolute nothing everything it touches, is the ultimate legacy that anyone who ever lived could leave; and nobody would never know it.

It’s a stunning idea, an obscene temptation and, in spite of its terrible implications, it’s so difficult to resist…

And what about you, would you press the red button? While you think about it, bear in mind Greg Egan’s words from his disturbing short story “The Cutie”:

“Have you ever made a choice so foolish that it cancelled out, in one blow, everything good you might have ever done, made void every memory of happiness, made everything in the world that was beautiful, ugly, turned every last trace of self-respect into the certain knowledge that you should never have been born?”


Categories: Moral and Ethics, Philosophy of Science, Science, Scientific Culture

Tags: , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Oi Cesar… Hoje mais cedo até escrevi prá você falando deste assunto. Realmente está excelente este seu artigo, até complementando inteligentemente as deduções deste grande físico Stephen Hawking, acerca do perigo de uma equivocada experiência com o Bóson de Higgs, mas, pelo menos por agora sem condições físicas para fazer.
    Achei interessante a história do Arthur Clarke sobre a contratação de cientistas da computação por monges tibetanos para montar um computador, mas, em 1953 eu acho que até isso seria impossível de fazer e ainda mais para alcançar seus curiosos propósitos.
    De toda forma, em minha humilde opinião, da maneira complicada que vai caminhando nosso Mundo, principalmente na área ambiental e com um imenso arsenal nuclear estocado em alguns países, não seria necessário fazer um super uso do “Higgs Field” para dar inicio uma extinção total, começando pela própria Terra…


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