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You too can destroy the planet! Click here to learn how!

Last week in this space (see "Scentience," This Just In, March 18), we discussed the wonders of the worldwide Web — how it’s a virtual village for weirdoes and crackpots from all over God’s green earth, a limitless library of knowledge both crucial and useless. But this week we’re here to talk about something much more important, something that could, in theory, be a gargantuan bummer: online knowledge might be utilized to annihilate the earth itself.

It seems an Englishman named Sam Hughes, a 21-year-old math student at Cambridge University’s Corpus Christi College, has been doing a lot of hard thinking lately, and compiling his findings on a page of his blog called "How To Destroy the Earth." This 9000-word guide to obliterating the blue planet has so far received more than 100,000 hits from wanna-be world destroyers. "This is not a guide for wusses whose aim is merely to wipe out humanity," Hughes clarifies in the site’s introduction. "If total human genocide is your ultimate goal, you are reading the wrong document.... Nor is this a guide for those wanting to annihilate everything from single-celled life upwards, render earth uninhabitable, or simply conquer it. These are trivial goals in comparison. This is a guide for those who do not want the earth to be there anymore."

Hughes explains that "to be listed here, a method must actually work. That is, according to current scientific understanding, it must be possible for the earth to actually be destroyed by this method, however improbable or impractical it may be." In other words, no fanciful Dr. Strangelove–esque Doomsday Machines, no Dr. Evil–style tractor-beam blackmail schemes. This is real-world stuff. One of his ideas is to hijack the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, use it to create and maintain a stable strangelet — a subatomic particle that consumes all matter it encounters — and just hang around until the entire earth is gulped up by strange quarks. Another suggests using "twelve kilograms of antimatter, magnetic confinement chambers, a very deep hole in the ground" to blow up the globe via a matter/antimatter reaction.

As you may have guessed, none of this is child’s play. Hughes warns all potential planet dismantlers: "The earth was built to last. It is a 4,550,000,000-year-old, 5,973,600,000,000,000,000,000-tonne ball of iron. It has taken more devastating asteroid hits in its lifetime than you’ve had hot dinners, and lo, it still orbits merrily. So my first piece of advice to you, dear would-be earth-destroyer, is: do NOT think this will be easy." Well, thank the Maker for that.

When we reached Hughes via e-mail in Cambridge, we put it plainly: why on earth would someone want to blow up the earth? His reasoned response is surprisingly commonsensible. "If you take personal offense at gigantic balls of rock, or find the planet is obstructing your view of Venus, then, yes, there is no choice, the earth has to go. But if you want to wipe the solar system clean of human life, taking the earth out is unimaginable overkill. There are far easier ways of wiping out humanity.... Some of these are even in progress."

None of them packs the existential wallop of some of Hughes’s earth-shattering ideas, however. Asked which method would be the coolest to see in action, he has one word. "Antimatter. And lots of it. Imagine manufacturing a trillion-tonne asteroid’s worth of antimatter and then just dropping it on earth from space. The explosion would momentarily outshine the Sun! Spectacular. Stand well back, though." He makes it seem so easy. But when asked if he fears that anyone actually has the wherewithal to throw one of these contraptions together, Hughes is emphatic. "The average human being doesn’t stand a chance. You can’t knock a weapon capable of slaying a planet together in your garage, regardless of what anybody says. You need access to huge amounts of money, resources, and manpower to pull off a project this big. Even an evil genius would have a tough time."

And if some misguided soul ever actually did succeed, by a stroke of luck or genius or both, in blowing our planet to Kingdom Come? Would Hughes feel the slightest bit guilty about his online how-to manual? "Not at all. Anybody smart enough to destroy the earth is quite capable of coming up with a complete method all on his own, he doesn’t need my help. If my site hadn’t been there, it would just [have slowed] him down a bit." And, for the record, Hughes doesn’t actually want to see the earth destroyed. "Absolutely not. Where else would I keep all my stuff?"

Learn how to destroy the earth at ned.ucam.org/~sdh31/misc/destroy.html.

Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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