Somehow I always assumed that if it weren't the politicians and lawyers who would destroy the world, it would be the used-car salesmen.
Or the newspapers. I never could decide.
A group of nuclear physicists associated with Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island may be setting in motion events that could end the world sometime this autumn.
I can't help feeling disappointed by this discovery. If the world ends in mid-November, I'll have done my Christmas shopping for nothing, I won't get to see if Y2K is as bad as some people say it will be, and I probably won't even get to eat the drumstick at our annual Thanksgiving dinner.
The biggest disappointment, of course, is that I wouldn't be able to cover the end of the world because it would have happened outside my coverage area.
Lest you think that I've been reading too much bad sci-fi, I must assert that I base my statements on news reports disseminated by several notable media, including The Times of London, Scientific American and ABCNews.com, all fairly respectable news outlets, despite their shortcomings.
See, the folks at Brookhaven, who have more degrees than my kitchen thermometer, hope to smash atoms together at high speeds -- much higher speeds than the traffic goes on the Garden State Parkway when there are no police about to enforce speed limits -- in a relativistic heavy ion collider.
The purpose of this experiment, besides gaining an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for "largest electricity bill," is to play a game of chicken with two gold nuclei and see which nucleus veers off first to avoid being smashed into quarks and gluons, which in scientific parlance means "itsy-bitsy pieces of matter."
The experiment promises to be interesting, even if the world doesn't end, since its stated goal is to recreate the conditions that theoretically existed in the universe a few milliseconds after the Big Bang. Scientists hope to get a better idea about the origins of the universe.
It sounds interesting, and even I can't wait to see what sort of complicated ways they'll find to say, "There were lots of little thingies flying around at high speeds and it was very hot."
The downside of this experiment is that some physicists -- particularly Stephen Hawking -- have theorized that a few milliseconds after the Big Bang is about when the universe's first black holes burst onto the scene.
Black holes, to the scientifically unaware, are nature's equivalent of vacuum cleaners, the chief difference being that you don't get to change the bag when it fills up. As soon as you get too close, the vacuum grabs onto the bunny slippers you do your housework in -- the ones you secretly enjoy wearing, even though you tell everyone that you wouldn't be caught dead in them -- and pulls them in.
Before you know it, you've been sucked right up the vacuum -- bunny slippers, ugly bathrobe and all -- and stuffed into a bag with all the dust and even those annoying pieces of string that ordinary vacuums can't seem to suck.
You, of course, really don't notice this very much because by this point the vacuum has smashed you and your precious bunny slippers to the thickness of ant's left molar or the number of people still reading this column, whichever is smaller. (Don't ask me. I'm not even sure ants have teeth.)
According to Stephen Hawking, black holes formed by colliding nuclei would fizzle out pretty quickly -- unless they happened to be located near a sufficiently large mass like, oh, say, a planet. Let's call it "Earth."
In other words, forming a black hole on the surface of the earth -- even if it is on Long Island -- is what physicists, in their highly technical, scientific jargon, call A Bad Idea.
How bad? I quote Walter L. Wagner, in his letter to Scientific American, which I found on that magazine's Web site:
"If this happened on the earth, the mini black hole would be drawn by gravity toward the center of the planet, absorbing matter along the way and devouring the entire planet within minutes," writes Wagner.
"My calculations indicate that the Brookhaven collider does not obtain sufficient energies to produce a mini black hole," he writes, to my considerable relief. But then he adds: "However, my calculations might be wrong."
I don't know about you, but I know I'm greatly comforted by that display of confidence.
Frank Wilczek of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., responded to Wagner's letter in that same issue of Scientific American.
"In the case of the Brookhaven RHIC, dangerous surprises seem extremely unlikely," Wilczek wrote.
He went on to explain in layman's terms -- which is good, because my knowledge of math never advanced beyond engineering calculus and my grasp of physics never progressed further than "Green Lantern" -- that Brookhaven is using less energy in its atomic collisions than hits the earth's atmosphere in the form of cosmic radiation. In other words, if a black hole were going to form under such conditions, it would have done so by now.
Still, I can't help but notice that Wilczek carefully specified "extremely unlikely" rather than "impossible," so that in the event the world is destroyed we'll have no grounds for suing him. I suppose in a society as litigious as ours, you can't be too careful.
I have to admit that given the knowledge and intelligence backing his and similar statements, I'm not too worried about the end of the world coming from experiments at Brookhaven.
After all, if the scientists fail to deliver Armageddon, we still have the politicians.