Stephen Hawking’s recent remarks regarding the possibility that our descendants might one day destroy the universe by disrupting the Higgs field with a larger-than-Earth supercollider has gotten people thinking: is there anything we could do now that would destroy the universe?
The answer to that question is, by all appearances, a pretty clear no. Here are two good reasons why:
1. The universe is really, really durable.
Last April, astronomers witnessed gamma-ray burst (GRB) 130427A and, short of being bigger than other gamma ray bursts they’d observed, it wasn’t particularly remarkable: just a star 20 to 30 times the Sun’s mass collapsing and exploding in a way we can’t fully understand, creating a black hole and outshining local objects from millions of light years away. This sort of thing happens fairly regularly all over the universe, and was presumably more common for most of the universe’s history.
Although these gamma-ray bursts occur on a scale and with a power that exponentially exceeds anything humanity can produce (and anything humanity is likely to produce for a very long time), they don’t appear to do any tangible harm to the structure of the universe itself.
2. We don’t have the technology to do anything the natural world isn’t already doing.
If we can’t endanger the universe with raw explosive power, can we can endanger it by tinkering with the natural order of things? Maybe, if we ever figure out how, but everything humanity has ever done so far has fallen well within the parameters of the natural order of things.
Even nuclear fission, the go-to example of humanity harnessing the power of the gods, is nothing new; it occurred naturally in 17 underground sites in West Africa two billion years ago, no Manhattan Project needed. And the Large Hadron Collider, wonderful though it is, just stimulates weak, observable versions of processes that naturally occur in local space on a regular basis. There is, in the words of Ecclesiastes, nothing new under the Sun. All we’re ultimately doing is rearranging our environment, much like other nestmaking animals do; we have yet to create anything that is, in a cosmic sense, out of the ordinary. And as the universe is unlikely to be destroyed by something that it ordinarily produces on its own, it should be safe from us for a long time to come.