When Words Collide

Right now, deep under the Pine Barrens of Suffolk County, subatomic particles of gold may be racing in opposite directions around a 2.4-mile track, preparing to collide as you sit reading this newspaper. Perhaps the particles are already barreling into each other at nearly the speed of light, inadvertently creating a black hole that will swallow the Earth before you reach the end of this page.

Or maybe everything is just dandy. While you were washing your car or waiting on line last night, the ions may have smashed together, shattering into quarks and gluons that bounced harmlessly around the tunnel of superconducting magnets in the latest big science at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Instead of producing the dreaded "strangelets" that could devour the universe and erase us all, the first run of the experiment may have safely caused a miniature Big Bang, giving an international team of physicists a glimpse of how the world looked fractions of a second after it was born in a cosmic explosion.

What worries people who live near the Upton lab is that scientists don't know exactly what will happen when the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider puts on its first show. The guys in white coats say the best calculations prove their RHIC machine— called "Rick" lovingly by those who work on it and warily by those who fear it— has so little chance of destroying the planet that the odds are barely worth considering.

The best headlines say otherwise.

"Big Bang machine could destroy Earth," blared a July 18 article in London's Sunday Times, a sometimes edgy Murdoch weekly not to be confused with its sister paper, the more staid daily Times. In his story, science editor Jonathan Leake quoted respected physicists who said they couldn't rule out doomsday scenarios. "There have been fears that strange matter could alter the structure of anything nearby," Bob Jaffe, a top physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the paper. "The risk is exceedingly small, but the probability of something unusual happening is not zero."

Those comforting remarks were followed by equally reassuring comments from John Nelson, a professor of nuclear physics who is leading Britain's team of scientists at RHIC. "The big question is whether the planet will disappear in the twinkling of an eye," Nelson told the Sunday Times. "It is astonishingly unlikely there is any risk— but I could not prove it."

Sound bites make for poor relations between egghead scientists and the anxious public. If you spend your life studying the inner workings of atoms, said Ted Debiak, a Bethpage engineer who holds a doctorate in nuclear chemistry, you learn that never saying never is a cornerstone principle of intellectual honesty. In the rarified realm of quantum mechanics, seemingly impossible events become plausible. Even the familiar atoms in your body could spontaneously rearrange themselves in ways you'd never imagine— unlikely, yes, but not impossible. "You can't rule it out right now that you could tunnel through your wall and appear on the outside," said Debiak, a leading member of the New York Area Skeptics. "But have you ever heard of that happening?"

Doctorate-toting skeptics may be able to slice through the hype about RHIC, but the environmentalists and homeowners who share air and groundwater with the lab see matters differently. For decades, they've looked on helplessly as pesticides, solvents, heavy metals and radiation leached out of the 5,300-acre site and drifted toward their backyards. They've nursed their children through chemotherapy for rare cancers, and they've buried the ones who didn't survive. They've seen kids born with birth defects and adults die before their time. They've heard assurances from the brass at Brookhaven but later learned contamination from the lab had turned their tap water toxic. They've watched their property values stagnate or plummet and they've felt their hopes for bucolic suburban living flicker out.

Now Brookhaven scientists want to crank up a machine that has a chance— however wafer-thin— of blowing up the world. The lab has never been rich in credibility with the public, but the debate over RHIC threatened to blur the line between fact and science fiction. That boundary had already been breached with Gregory Benford's 1998 novel, Cosm, which mixed real people with fantastic outcomes from RHIC experiments.

When the British newspaper warned of calamity, readers didn't know whether to laugh the matter off or look for a bomb shelter. Scott Cullen, attorney for East Hampton-based Standing for Truth About Radiation, said he initially thought the doomsday theories were a hoax. He asked a few physicists about them, and some dismissed the disaster scenarios as science fiction. Others, though, insisted the worst possibilities couldn't be discounted. After learning more about RHIC, Cullen said he frets less over the end of life as we know it than over potential radiation leaks from the machine. For him, the experiment is just one more example of Brookhaven physicists forging ahead without regard for the consequences they'll leave behind.

"They do things and then deal with the impact later," Cullen said. "That's a lot of the concern of the community."

Oh, RHIC, You're So Fine

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