When Words Collide

Having begun as a gleam in physicists' eyes, RHIC is now almost ready to give its inventors a chance to crack open an atom's nucleus and see what's inside. Scientists used to believe protons and neutrons were among the smallest building blocks of matter, but in the late 1970s, research proved even those subatomic bits were made up of giblets called quarks, which in turn proved to be made up of sticky gluons. "People began thinking about what it would take to get these things out where we could play with them," said Thomas Ludlam, an associate project director of RHIC.

What it took turned out to be $600 million of taxpayer money, spent on 1,740 superconducting magnets, miles of electric cables, countless gadgets worthy of the Phantom Menaceand one mother of an icebox.

Reduced to its simplest terms, RHIC consists of two underground rings of powerful electromagnets. At the head of the works, a tiny piece of gold foil gets bombarded with a charge powerful enough to knock loose atoms and then strip their outer particles, or electrons, away. The remaining nuclei, packets of protons and neutrons called ions, are spat down one ring or the other by a gizmo called the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron. A powerful booster then rockets the ions to 99.9 percent of the speed of light. Traveling through the tunnels so fast, the gold ions become a gold beam.

Just coaxing the ions around the track has been a tough trick. Brookhaven received federal funding and set aside land for RHIC in 1991. After years of construction and testing, scientists managed on July 16 to send the first gold beam clockwise through the blue ring. Not long for this world, the ion bunch sped around the circuit thousands of times before petering out— in less than a single second.

Now scientists are attempting to shoot a beam counterclockwise through the yellow ring. With luck, they'll succeed in smashing two ions at one of RHIC's six intersections before they open the machine to the public for a tour on Aug. 22. Barring bad luck, the public will still be around to marvel at the site of the second Big Bang.

First, though, physicists have to tweak RHIC endlessly, checking vacuum pipes and working around the clock to cool the rig to nearly 500 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, the temperature superconducting magnets like best. The recent heat waves have made it harder to put RHIC in the deep freeze, because electricity has been in such heavy demand and because it's been so hot outside.

Brookhaven spokesman Peter Genzer explains that RHIC uses a helium refrigerator to make the trip from steaming summer to sub-sub-sub-Arctic domain. If you slept through high-school physics, forget about understanding how this part works. "We use a lot of helium, uh, and just basically cool 'em down," said Genzer. "We have, like, the biggest refrigerator in the world, and we're cooling these things down."

The View From Here

Seen from a satellite above the planet, RHIC appears as one of the few recognizable manmade features on Long Island, its doughnut-shaped track bending through the Suffolk pines.

Seen from the berm of earth that helps shield people, plants and animals from radioactive beams, RHIC looks like a scrubby patch of ground in need of a good soaking rain. If you didn't know what lurked beneath the dirt, you'd never guess you were standing on top of an international controversy. As the ions scream through the tunnel below, bowlegged deer above pick at what little green grass has weathered the drought. Well-fed crows flit among a stand of hardwoods, bending the branches where they land. A fox ambles across the road, its sharp red face turning this way and that.

While RHIC is being prepared for its first explosion, the machine is off-limits to visitors. That leaves Brookhaven spokeswoman Mona Rowe working the spin cycle from her desk. After the Sunday Times proclaimed the end was near, Rowe's phone started to ring with journalists asking whether RHIC was about to blow the universe to kingdom come. "All the reporters I've talked to don't believe for a minute that it's going to happen," she said, unleashing a sigh. "But they think it's kind of fun."

The brouhaha started with a forbiddingly technical article in the March issue of Scientific Americanabout RHIC and its Big Bang. In the July edition, readers expressed concern the experiment would either create an Earth-swallowing black hole, destabilize the universe or spawn strangelets that would almost instantly eat their way through ordinary matter. Adhering to the rule of never saying never, scientist Frank Wilczek responded that those scenarios were unlikely to the point of being implausible— but he stopped short of declaring them impossible. "[S]trangelets, if they exist at all, are not aggressive," Wilczek wrote, "and they will start out very, very small."

The debate on the letters page of the magazine provided a launching pad for the Sunday Times doomsday feature. An accompanying editorial admitted that disaster was incredibly unlikely, but complained that Brookhaven was following "a long, sorcerer's apprentice tradition in which scientists have acted first and asked questions later."

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