From the Office of BNL Media & Communications

If you read the recent piece about RHIC, I can understand why you are concerned about the facility. To help answer your questions, I'm sending you a statement issued this week by Brookhaven Lab's director. There's plenty of basic information on RHIC's operation in the news stories at the end of this e-mail, and I'm pretty sure you can find all the answers you need within one of them. The NY Times piece, New Scientist and Newsweek all do a very good job of explaining the science and the reasons why the black hole scenario is not plausible.

In his ABCNEWS.COM article, Moody alleges that Stephen Hawking supports the idea that RHIC could be dangerous. To clarify Stephen Hawking's views, two of our physicists contacted Hawking at Cambridge yesterday (9/20). Here is what he said about the way his theory was described by David Melville and then applied to RHIC by Fred Moody: "I never said that. Long Island is quite safe."

Here is what Brookhaven's director, John Marburger, has said in the past few weeks about speculation that we are endangering the world. Dr. Marburger is a physicist.

"Some people have speculated about "doomsday scenarios" at RHIC, and I expect these will continue to be discussed as RHIC experiments proceed. Some of these scenarios postulate interesing physical ideas, but they all must conform to very well confirmed laws of nature, and, therefore, their consequences can be predicted in detail. None pose any danger.

"Scientists are no more willing to endanger the world, or themselves, than anyone else. RHIC is a particle accelerator, like the one operating in Switzerland, at CERN, and in Illinois, at Fermilab.

"Possible dangerous consequences of RHIC collisions have been explored, analyzed, and laid to rest long ago by men and women who also have families and hopes for the future. No scientific experiment is worth risking the life of even one person, or the health of our environment. No one who is knowledgable about the RHIC experiments believes such risks are present."

A number of articles that have been published recently about the facility. For example, in Newsweek, August 16, 1999, the reporter wrote:

"For a hundred trillionths of a trillionth of a second, conditions will mirror the universe immediately after the big bang. From that brief genesis, though, a new universe will not be born. It won't grow, and it won't destroy the pre-existing universe, one we know and love. No Apocalypse, no Big Goodbye."

I hope this information is helpful.

Following this note you will find a NY Times essay on the black hole theory, a Newsday story debunking the theory and a statement from BNL Director John Marburger. You also might want to check out stories in New Scientist ( and Newsweek (


Statement on ABCNEWS Website Article on RHIC

John Marburger, Director
Brookhaven National Laboratory

The September 14 edition of includes an article by Fred Moody describing the views of David Melville, "an eccentric physicist and thinker," that suggests that collisions at Brookhaven Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider can create a black hole that could "eat up the earth." The origin of the black hole would be the quark-gluon plasma, whose creation, under laboratory conditions, is a primary objective of RHIC experiments. Moody quotes Melville as saying, "It has been theorized by Steven Hawking that from this quark-gluon plasma other forms of matter are also produced. The most dangerous being a black hole."

The reference to Stephen Hawking, a prominent theoretical physicist, appears to give credence to the notion that RHIC experiments might be dangerous. In fact, the ideas of Miller, as represented by Moody, are entirely incorrect. RHIC will not re-create the Big Bang, which encompassed all the matter and energy in the universe, but rather an exceedingly small quantity of matter - roughly equivalent to one atom of material - in the quark-gluon plasma state.

Black holes require enormous concentrations of gravitational force, which can only come from enormous concentrations of matter. RHIC experiments involve essentially zero amounts of matter and will produce zero disturbance of the normal gravitational field of the earth.

There is simply not enough matter or energy in the RHIC collisions to create a black hole. This conclusion does not require difficult or obscure calculations and has not been questioned by any physicist in a relevant field who has considered the matter.

Moody refers to an exchange of letters in the July 1999 Scientific American Magazine and a story in the July 18 Sunday Times of London. In Scientific American a reader asks whether the RHIC collisions might create a black hole, and physicist Frank Wilczek, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, responds, dismissing the possibility. This exchange motivated the Sunday Times story, to which I responded with a statement that Moody quotes correctly.

I expect that speculations about "doomsday scenarios" will continue to be discussed as RHIC experiments proceed. Some of these scenarios postulate interesting physical ideas, but they all must conform to very well confirmed laws of nature, and, therefore, their consequences can be predicted in detail. None poses any danger.

Scientists are no more willing to endanger the world, or themselves, than anyone else is. Speculations about possible dangerous consequences of RHIC collisions have been explored, analyzed and laid to rest long ago by men and women who also have families and hopes for the future. No one who is knowledgeable about the RHIC experiments believes any risks are present.


N.Y. Times 8/10/99

Will Brookhaven Destroy the Universe? Probably Not.


Amid the summer news doldrums, what could be more invigorating than a warning that physicists may be on the verge of destroying the world? Luckily, this and similar alarms can be taken with a large grain of salt, and viewed in the proper light, disaster warnings can be fun.

The idea that human beings could actually obliterate their planet may be scary, but like a roller-coaster ride, it is thrilling. Even in the face of doomsday speculation, most reasonable people are pretty sure that the global roller coaster will stay on the track despite the hair-raising ride.

Disaster forecasts have a peculiar appeal, particularly if human beings are the potential agents of destruction. Many of us may even feel a perverse sense of empowerment when told that the human race, ineffectual though it is in solving its biggest problems, might at least be capable of wiping itself out.

Anyway, here is the latest bad, albeit entertaining, news for disaster fans: Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y., has just finished a huge accelerator capable of smashing together the nuclei of very heavy atoms at nearly the speed of light. Builders of this machine hope that collisions of gold or other atoms will not only shatter the atoms' nuclei into their constituent protons and neutrons, but will pulverize the protons and neutrons themselves, leaving a "plasma" -- a kind of energy soup -- briefly consisting of loose quark and gluon particles. These building blocks of matter have never before been studied in such a state.

But no one is quite sure what these collisions might spawn, and the uncertainty has encouraged some people to speculate that Brookhaven's new accelerator might turn out to be a doomsday machine. Last month, The Sunday Times of London informed readers that Brookhaven might have created a world-devouring monster. The British weekly commented that "the men in white coats would send us, and them, into the oblivion of a black hole of their making." (In reality, accelerator physicists wear jeans and sport shirts, but never mind.)

In one version of the supposed danger, a gold-to-gold collision might create "strange" quarks that would pair up as "strangelets." These supposedly might go on to annihilate the ordinary matter around them, ending the world as we know it. Another idea mentioned by The Sunday Times and in letters from readers published in the July issue of Scientific American is that the high energy density of a gold-to-gold collision might nucleate a tiny black hole that would grow like a cancer, eventually devouring the earth.

Mainstream physicists have cast cold water on such fears, but every time a new accelerator begins operating, dire warnings have ensued. In the 1980's, when Fermilab's mighty Tevatron accelerator was under construction in Illinois, alarms were heard that when protons and antiprotons collided at a combined energy of two trillion electron volts, the result might be a microscopic tear in the fabric of space-time that extends throughout the universe -- a tear that could bring on the ultimate Armageddon. There had been speculation by Dr. Frank Wilczek of the Institute for Advanced Study and other physicists that the birth of the universe might have left it with a false floor -- one that we consider the absolute absence of energy: a kind of zero point.

But energy scales are relative; the zero point on one scale may not be zero on another. So some physicists wondered whether there might be a hidden floor with an energy even lower than that of the zero point familiar to us, and if so, what would happen if a hole should open in the false floor. One idea was that a tear in space-time, perhaps caused by one of the Tevatron's proton collisions, might bring on the collapse of the false vacuum, annihilating all matter in the path of its collapse. The collapse bubble would balloon outward at the speed of light, eventually destroying the universe.

The trouble with this ingenious idea, physicists soon realized, was that if such a catastrophe could occur it would have happened long ago. The earth is constantly peppered by cosmic-ray particles, some of which have energies 100 million times greater than the energies of particles accelerated by the Tevatron or any other machine, and yet the universal vacuum floor is intact and we, the earth and the universe are still here. The Tevatron itself has been producing rich discoveries for years, without endangering anyone.

Physics has provided more than its share of doomsday scenarios, real and imaginary. In the 1980's, for instance, some scientists theorized that a nuclear war would be followed by a deadly "nuclear winter." Fortunately, we have never tested that prediction.

Nuclear weaponry from its inception has inspired horrifying speculation. Before the first nuclear explosion, the Trinity test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, there were suggestions that a nuclear explosion might ignite the earth's atmosphere, destroying all life. The great Enrico Fermi was inspired to do some calculating just before the Trinity test and concluded that the atmosphere was in no real danger.

After the blast, J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the Los Alamos bomb team, uttered one of the most most often repeated -- and some would say, pretentious -- reactions of the day. Quoting the Hindu god Shiva, he said, "Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds." .

Doomsday speculation has also been sparked by chemists. In the early 1960's, an obscure Soviet chemist named Nikolai Fedyakin reported that water in thin glass tubes seemed to be transforming itself into a peculiar viscous form. A famous physical chemist, Boris V. Deryagin, announced that his own experiments confirmed Mr. Fedyakin's discovery of "anomalous water," and dozens of scientists in Europe and the United States chimed in with additional confirmations.

The stuff was dubbed "polywater"-- ordinary water molecules chained together as a polymer -- and some scientists speculated that it might convert all the world's water to an unusable polymerized form, thereby killing off most life. It sounded all too similar to an imaginary high-temperature ice, "Ice-9," a fictional invention of the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who imagined the world being destroyed by the elimination of all liquid water.

It took four years to dispel the polywater myth: scientists finally determined that polywater was nothing more than dirty water. But in place of the polywater menace we have seen a spate of warnings about asteroid impacts, gene-splicing mishaps that could turn the human race into centaurs, super earthquakes, and much more.

It is worth remembering that there are plenty of serious threats to the planet resulting from human bungling, of course. There is the thinning ozone layer, a victim of chlorofluorocarbons released from refrigerators and other sources over the years. Large third-world nations still manufacture chlorofluorocarbons, despite a ban on their manufacture and use in industrial nations. Growing evidence shows that human use of carbon-based fuels is contributing to global warming. The habitats that nourish pandas, penguins, parrots and thousands of other animals and plants are disappearing because of human activity, and the diversity of life on earth faces disastrous impoverishment. So the trick will be sorting out the red herrings like accelerator disasters and polywater from the real dangers. While we're at it, we might quit basing self-esteem on the ability of the human race to commit collective suicide.


NEWSDAY 7/20/99

Story Is Out of This World

By Earl Lane Washington Bureau

Washington -- Brookhaven National Laboratory officials knew things were getting out of hand on Monday when they got a call from a reporter for an online news service asking - apparently not in jest - whether the lab's new ion collider could have created a black hole that swallowed the plane of John F. Kennedy Jr. as it flew past Long Island.

Physicists long have been accustomed to reassuring anxious residents that their latest research machines are not going to destroy the world. But frustrated Brookhaven lab officials are prepared for a new flurry of attention in the wake of a piece over the weekend in The Sunday Times of London suggesting the lab's new Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider could create some sort of runaway, catastrophic reaction involving hypothetical particles called ''strangelets.''

The Times' understated headline: ''Big Bang Machine Could Destroy Earth.'' The problem, according to physicists at Brookhaven and elsewhere, is that the possibilities discussed in the Times piece - which is now being circulated widely on the Internet - have been examined and dismissed by specialists as not plausible.

Robert Jaffe, director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at Massachusetts Institute Technology in Cambridge, Mass. and a developer of strangelet theory, said the chances a stable strangelet could even be produced in the Brookhaven collider ''are about the same order [of possibility] as if I were to win the lottery.''

In turn, the notion that such a particle would pose any catastrophic risk to the planet is ''preposterous,'' Jaffe said. It is ''unlikely to the level of the most absurd thing you could imagine,'' he said. ''It's more likely that a spaceship is going to land in the middle of Texas, and that aliens are going to come out and tell us that the New York Yankees are all aliens.''

The Sunday Times said Brookhaven director John Marburger had set up a committee of physicists last week ''to investigate whether the project could go disastrously wrong.'' But Marburger says that he had decided several weeks ago to ask a few leading physicists to write a ''white paper'' about the proposed science at the new ion collider and why some of the wilder speculation about what could happen in the machine was not credible.

There had been a letter recently to Scientific American magazine, for example, asking whether the Brookhaven machine could, in theory, create a mini black hole - a superdense region of gravitational collapse where even light waves cannot escape.

Such questions arise because the collider - which circulated its first beam of ions on Friday - is meant to briefly re-create, on a very small scale, conditions similar to the superdense state of matter believed to have existed just after the Big Bang. Jaffe said the collision energies to be created in the Brookhaven machine, however, are vastly less - by about 17 orders of magnitude - than those associated with any gravitational effects in quantum physics.

As for strangelets, those hypothetical particles would be a rare form of nuclear matter composed of building blocks called ''strange'' quarks. Normal matter, such as protons and neutrons, are made of ''up'' and ''down'' quarks. Some theorists believe strangelets may exist, under extreme pressure, at the cores of neutron stars.

All searches for hints of them elsewhere, including in normal environments on Earth or in previous particle accelerator experiments, have proved fruitless, Jaffe said. And even if a strangelet did exist, he argues, it would not cannibalize normal matter in its neighborhood because the atoms in that matter would be protected by their surrounding swarm of electrons.

Frank Wilczek, a theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., responding to a letter in Scientific American, wrote that strangelets ''if they exist, at all, are not aggressive, and they will start out very, very small.'' For strangelets, as with mini black holes, he says, ''a doomsday scenario is not plausible.''

Marburger, a physicist, and other specialists say the most convincing argument against a strangelet catastrophe is empirical. For billions of years, cosmic rays - which penetrate our atmosphere constantly - have been producing energetic events comparable to those envisioned in the Brookhaven machine. No strangelets have formed and proceeded to gobble up our world.

''The best evidence that it can't happen is that it hasn't happened,'' said Willam Zajc, a Columbia University physicist.

''The idea that scares people is that you are creating an environment [in the collider] that never before has been created,'' MIT's Jaffe said. ''The answer is it has been created a lot of times before in cosmic rays.''

Scott Cullen, legal coordinator for Standing for Truth About Radiation, an activist group that's been critical of the laboratory's environmental record, said he was surpised when he first read The Sunday Times piece.

''I wondered if it was some kind of hoax, really,'' Cullen said. But he said local residents have been calling with questions and concerns about it so community activists will seek a meeting with Brookhaven officials ''to learn more about this.''

Brookhaven's recent difficulties on the environmental front have fostered a sense of distrust and suspicion among residents, Cullen said, and many are unwilling to discount anything they read about the lab.

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