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
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 Menace and 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 American about 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."
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.
"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.
His daughter's cancer is in remission now, but getting there took 11 months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation and four surgeries. Before she got sick, Snell had scarcely realized he was sharing his corner of rural Suffolk with a nuclear reactor. While watching nurses jabbing the girl's arm with a needle in a fruitless search for a useable vein, Snell made up his mind to learn everything he could about Brookhaven. "She grabbed me by the neck and cried, 'Why, Daddy, why?' " he recalled. "That kind of started me on a journey."
Snell is now a member of Citizens for a Cleaner Brookhaven. His family has also joined with about 130 others in suing the laboratory over illnesses they link to the lab's pollution and over sagging property values they link to living beside a Superfund site.
Snell said his biggest fear about RHIC is not that it will blot out the planet, but that it will spew yet more radiation. He questions why the lab continues to operate now that suburbia has crept up to its gates. "It's not like you're out in the desert somewhere. You're surrounded by people. You're sitting on top of their water supply," he said. "The people who work there understand the risks of working around radiation. The people who live near it, we didn't sign up for this."
Unlike the battle over the Shoreham nuclear power plant, the war over Brookhaven has become a skirmish of inches. The picketing of a decade ago has given way to lobbying of legislators and legal maneuvering over federal environmental assessments.
Neighbors and activists are succeeding in increments. They claimed one recent victory when Brookhaven fenced off RHIC's "beam dump," the underground tank where old ion beams go to fizzle out. Cullen, the attorney for Standing for Truth About Radiation, said young people were sneaking onto the grounds and playing in potentially radioactive spots. "RHIC was where a lot of kids were going to be riding their bicycles. It's this big racetrack," Cullen said. "My concern was that kids would be riding around while this thing was operating."
Like a Good Neighbor
For all the ground Brookhaven has lost with environmentalists, the lab may have found a way to mend fences. Lab officials have made speaking to the public and giving tours of the facility a priority in recent years. People turn out by the hundreds to see demonstrations of chemical physics and walk through gargantuan machines. When Long Islanders concerned about RHIC started calling, Brookhaven put together a team of physicists to write a report, due by the end of August, that will attempt to explain in plain English why RHIC is a friendly neighbor.
Brookhaven has also grown more politically savvy, setting up community groups to study various issues at the lab.
Nancy Miklos, who represented 1 in 9: The Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition at a recent meeting of the RHIC subcommittee, said she listened to a scientist talk about the ion smasher and abandoned her suspicions one by one. She decided RHIC was in fact designed with enough safety features to shut itself down in the event of an accident and to prevent radiation from reaching groundwater. She decided Brookhaven must not be building weapons with the machine, because scientists from around the world are working on it. And she decided that far from threatening to explode the planet, RHIC offered a chance to develop a clean alternative to nuclear power.
"When I came home from that meeting, I said, 'Holy mackerel!' " recalled Miklos, who also serves as a trustee of the Long Island Power Authority. "There's an opportunity here to get rid of the nuclear power industry."
Brookhaven officials said they don't know what they'll gain from getting a fresh glimpse at the earliest building blocks of the universe. At a cost of $600 million, RHIC could end up being little more than an expensive junket to the galaxy's ground zero. Rowe argued that society has never been able to predict what gains will come from supporting big science. Who would have guessed, she said, that nuclear experiments in Suffolk County would aid the development of tools for diagnosing heart disease or tracking the effect of cocaine on the human brain? "People ask why we would get anything out of re-creating early matter," Rowe said. "When electrons were discovered, nobody could foresee electricity.
"If the public is educated enough and confident enough about science, then they'll fund this kind of research. It's basically an act of trust and faith that some day the world will be a better place."
But for people who live closest to the lab and have suffered more ill effects than good from its work, Brookhaven's latest experiment requires an involuntary act of faith that the world will still be here at all.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.