You wouldn’t see the asteroid, even though it was several miles in diameter, because it would be hurtling toward you at 15 to 25 miles a second. At that speed, the column of air between the asteroid and the earth’s surface would be compressed with such force that the column’s temperature would soar to several times that of the sun, incinerating everything in its path. When the asteroid struck, it would penetrate deep into the ground and explode, creating an enormous crater and ejecting burning rocks and dense clouds of soot into the atmosphere, wrapping the globe in a mantle of fiery debris that would raise surface temperatures by as much as 100 degrees Fahrenheit and shut down photosynthesis for years. The shock waves from the collision would have precipitated earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, gargantuan tidal waves, and huge forest fires. A quarter of the earth’s human population might be dead within 24 hours of the strike, and the rest soon after. But there might no longer be an earth for an asteroid to strike. In a high-energy particle accelerator, physicists bent on re-creating conditions at the birth of the universe collide the nuclei of heavy atoms, containing large numbers of protons and neutrons, at speeds near that of light, shattering these particles into their constituent quarks. Because some of these quarks, called strange quarks, are hyperdense, here is what might happen: A shower of strange quarks clumps, forming a tiny bit of strange matter that has a negative electric charge. Because of its charge, the strange matter attracts the nuclei in the vicinity (nuclei have a positive charge), fusing with them to form a larger mass of strange matter that expands exponentially. Within a fraction of a second the earth is compressed to a hyperdense sphere 100 meters in diameter, explodes in the manner of a supernova, and vanishes. By then, however, the earth might have been made uninhabitable for human beings and most other creatures by abrupt climate changes.
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