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Should I be afraid of strange matter?


Can Strange Matter Attack Me in the Street?
Neutron stars, one possible source of strange matter, shine here as bright, pointlike sources against bubbles of million-degree gas in this image from the orbiting Chandra Observatory.
Neutron stars, one possible source of strange matter, shine here as bright, pointlike sources against bubbles of million-degree gas in this image from the orbiting Chandra Observatory.
NASA/Newsmakers

Could strange matter be on Earth now? Physicists have considered it. They've sampled our water and other matter, finding nothing. They've considered the possibility of creating strange matter in particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider, since it could slam atomic nuclei together hard enough to knock the quarks out of the atoms and potentially convert some of them to strange quarks. But safety reviewers concluded that particle accelerators create so much heat that they would melt potential strangelets. The likelihood of creating strange matter in a particle accelerator would be as low as making "an ice cube in a furnace," the reviewers concluded [source: Ellis].

Physicists have also considered whether strange matter could exist in space. They've nixed the idea that it could've been made in the early universe and stayed around [source: Farhi]. They're skeptical of it being made by heavy atoms, which are hurled through space by violent astrophysical processes, hitting other heavy atoms in the process [source: Jaffe].

Edward Farhi, an MIT physicist who researched strangelets, thinks the most likely place to find strange matter is in neutron stars. These collapsing stars compress their interiors forcefully. "At the core, you have densities and pressures large enough to form strange matter. If strange matter formed in the core, it would eat its way out and consume the star," says Farhi. Underneath its crust, the star would become a lump of strange matter, or a strange star. If two strange stars collided, they could send strange matter careening toward Earth, says Farhi.

­How could strange matter be dangerous? Under special circumstances, it "eats" other matter. In order for this to happen, the strange matter has to be more stable than the matter it meets and not repel it. If those conditions are met, the other matter will "want" to convert to strange matter, and contact between the two will get things going. The result would be an ever-growing ball of strange matter, burning through matter like a fireball.

For such a disaster scenario to occur on Earth, strange matter would have to remain for more than a fraction of a second at earthly pressures, and we don't know if it can do that. It would also have to be negatively charged.

In fact, potential strange matter would probably be positively charged, says Farhi. And since the matter on our planet (including us) has positively charged atomic nuclei, it would repel strange matter. "If you had a little lump on the table, it would just sit there," says Farhi.

The scenario would change if strange matter were negatively charged, and a ball of it was madly rolling around on Earth. "You would probably know it because it would be growing and consuming everything at its border," says Farhi. Attracted to your atomic nuclei, the ball of strange matter would suck you in, and you'd be finished. Kind of like a modern-day incarnation of the Blob.

­Have you counted the "ifs" we've thrown at you so far? If strange matter existed in space, if it were hurled at Earth, if it were stable at the pressures in space and on Earth, if it were more stable than our matter and if it were negatively charged -- it could turn you into a lump of unruly quarks. So no, you probably shouldn't be afraid of strange matter, but it's fun to think about.