When Words Collide

That's the same argument opponents of the lab have been making for years, with mixed results. After helping to force the shutdown of the Shoreham nuclear power plant in 1989, environmentalists turned their attention to the other nuclear facility in the neighborhood— Brookhaven. The rabble-rousers of SHAD, who once could draw 20,000 people to an event targeting Shoreham, may be approaching their half-life now. Only about 100 members still show up for regular demonstrations, and the formerly monthly protests now happen only on major occasions like the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.

SHAD spokesman Roger Snyder said his group has some objections to the ion collider. First, the activists would have liked prior notice that the machine could conceivably blow up the world. Second, they want the lab to stop launching new experiments until pricey cleanups from old ones are finished. "Our philosophy is let's clean up everything first and then you can build new toys," Snyder said.

Brookhaven so far has shown little intention of following the anti-nuke troops' plan for the future. Rowe brushes off SHAD demonstrations, saying that people annually receive 10 times as much radiation from natural sources as they could possibly get from RHIC. If the gold ion beam somehow passed right by you, the dose of radiation would be equal to the amount found in four chest X-rays. "You might as well protest a hospital," she said.

But even as SHAD has lost strength and numbers, it has spawned a constellation of smaller citizen groups, all dedicated to bringing Brookhaven and its atom-smashing scientists to heel.

Despite a spate of high-profile government crackdowns on the facility, neighbors insist that Brookhaven managers still seem to wantonly exercise free rein. They say they can't get answers to even basic questions, such as whether Brookhaven has begun refurbishing its High Flux Beam Reactor, which was closed in 1996 after radioactive tritium was discovered leaking from the site. "The lab is operated almost as a foreign power," said Pete Maniscalco, who lives in Manorville and belongs to the Community Alliance for Lab Accountability. "They don't have to respect any law of any kind."

How You Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Big Bang

Rowe ducked into the office of Dr. Peter Paul, Brookhaven's deputy director for science and technology. He wasn't expecting a visit but nonetheless stood up from his desk and answered questions about why RHIC couldn't blow up the world with a miniature Big Bang.

A graying, pale-skinned fellow, Paul spoke softly, doling out packets of words few regular people could understand and patiently translating as he went along. He blinked behind wire-rimmed glasses and gamely grinned. RHIC can't make black holes, he began, because black holes by definition require large gravity fields containing enormous amounts of compressed matter.

Huh?

"We don't have enough dense enough stuff," he said.

"And what about strangelets?" Rowe said. "How do we explain away that?"

Strangelets are theoretical particles at best, Paul said. If colliding atoms could create them, strangelets would have been formed in the really Big Bang. Since life on Earth has so far survived the constant assault of cosmic radiation, it will certainly survive the relatively small amount of radiation created inside RHIC. Even if Brookhaven managed to spark strangelets, the subatomic debris would have to set forth with vengeance. "In order to annihilate the world," he said, "those few strange particles would somehow have to slurp up the rest of the world. We are still trying to produce a few strange particles."

To his credit, Paul wasn't just toeing the party line about RHIC. People who aren't associated with Brookhaven agree that the machine isn't a danger to the Earth.

Take, for example, the response of Dr. Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. According to his Web page, Kaku's goal in life is to "help complete Einstein's dream of a 'theory of everything,' a single equation, perhaps no more than one inch long, which will unify all the fundamental forces in the universe." When he's not working on that problem, Kaku finds time to host a weekly radio show on WBAI-99.5FM and write books with titles like Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension.

Kaku, in short, knows from atoms. He thinks the Sunday Times botched its reporting on RHIC. "I've talked to other theoretical physicists, and they all seem to agree that the story was hyped by the media..." he said by e-mail. "The bottom line is that events more energetic than those created by RHIC are found naturally in space, and we see no catastrophic events happening there. So, I would say that the journalist jumped the gun!"

There, now. We can all stop fussing about the end of the world and go back to worrying about brushing our teeth with radioactive tritium.

A Big Ol' Lab That's Not Man's Best Friend

As far as Randy Snell is concerned, Brookhaven blew up his world long before RHIC began hurling ions around.

In 1991, Snell, a banker, moved to Manorville with his wife and daughters in search of a slice of country life. Four years later, his 3-year-old girl was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that appears in an average of 4.3 kids out of every million. Since then, he has counted nearly 20 other cases of the same disease, all clustered in the vicinity of Brookhaven.

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