The Real Science of the God Particle in Netflix's 'The Cloverfield Paradox'
Even if you’re not a particle physics buff, you may have noticed that the plot of Netflix’s surprise Superbowl Sunday release, The Cloverfield Paradox, relies heavily on a huge physics discovery that was in the news a few years ago: the Higgs Boson particle.
Also known as the “God particle” — which happened to be the working title of the new J.J. Abrams film — the Higgs Boson was first observed directly by scientists in 2012.
Gratuitous spoilers for The Cloverfield Paradox ahead.
In the midst of an energy crisis in the year 2028, scientists are struggling to use a massive space-based particle accelerator to help efficiently produce energy. When they finally get it to accelerate particles, they suddenly find themselves on the opposite side of the sun from the Earth. Chaos ensues: Worms explode out of a guy. Someone’s arm rematerializes on the other side of the ship with a mind of its own. Standard body horror nonsense.
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Long story short, we’re led to believe that this botched experiment is what brought monsters to Earth in the first Cloverfield film — which, given the crazy science that goes on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), is not totally absurd.
Any good science fiction story has some basis in reality, and it’s clear that The Cloverfield Paradox drew heavily on conspiracy theories that sprung up around CERN and its efforts to find direct evidence of the Higgs-Boson particle using a 27-kilometer circumference accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider.
The particle’s discovery was a big deal because it was the only one out of 17 particles predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics that had never been observed. The Higgs Boson is partly responsible for the forces between objects, giving them mass.
But it wasn’t the particle itself that conspiracy theorists and skeptics worried about. It’s the way physicists had to observe it.
Doing so involved building the LHC, an extraordinarily large real-life physics experiment that housed two side-by-side high-energy particle beams traveling in opposite directions at close to the speed of light. The hope was that accelerated protons or lead ions in the beam would collide, throwing off a bunch of extremely rare, short-lived particles, one of which might be the Higgs Boson. In 2012, scientists finally observed it, calling it the “God particle” because “Goddamn particle” — as in “so Goddamn hard to find” — was considered too rude to print.
Critics and skeptics argued that colliding particles at close to the speed of light increased the potential to accidentally create micro black holes and possibly even larger black holes, leading to wild speculation like that in Cloverfield Paradox.
This has never happened in real life, of course, and there’s also strong evidence that it couldn’t happen. Check out this excerpt from an interaction between astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and science skeptic Anthony Liversidge that Gizmodo reported on in 2011:
NDT: To catch everybody up on this, there’s a concern that if you make a pocket of energy that high, it might create a black hole that would then consume the Earth. So I don’t know what papers your fellow read, but there’s a simple calculation you can do. Earth is actually bombarded by high energy particles that we call cosmic rays, from the depths of space moving at a fraction of the speed of light, energies that far exceed those in the particle accelerator. So it seems to me that if making a pocket of high energy would put Earth at risk of black holes, then we and every other physical object in the universe would have become a black hole eons ago because these cosmic rays are scattered across the universe are hitting every object that’s out there. Whatever your friend’s concerns are were unfounded.
Liversidge may be on the fringe with his argument, but he isn’t alone. As Inverse previously reported, Vanderbilt University physicist Tom Weiler, Ph.D., has hypothesized that a particle created alongside the Higgs Boson, called the Higgs singlet, could travel through time through an as-yet-undiscovered fifth dimension. If Weiler’s hypothesis is correct, then it seems possible that interdimensional travel, as depicted in Cloverfield Paradox, could be possible, though his model really only accounts for the Higgs singlet particle’s ability to time travel.
The reason the Cloverfield Paradox scientists were trying to fire up a particle accelerator in space is just as speculative. While particle accelerators take a massive amount of energy to accelerate their beams to near light speed, some physicists argue that under certain conditions, a particle accelerator could actually produce energy. Using superconductors, they argued, it would be possible for a particle accelerator to actually produce plutonium that could be used in nuclear reactors. So in a sense, the science of the movie is kind of based on maybe possibly real science.
That being said, this space horror film takes extreme liberties, even where it’s based on real science. Even on the extreme off-chance that any of the hypotheses outlined in this article turned out to be true, the tiny potential side effects of particle accelerators are nothing like what we see in The Cloverfield Paradox.