Thursday, September 30, 1999

armageddon by science

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.

Instead, to my horror, I discovered recently that it will be none of those. For once, this is a calamity we can't blame on the lawyers, the godless liberal media or the guy who sold me that maroon Chevrolet Celebrity that always had something wrong with it.

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, 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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Large Hadron Collider [LHC] at CERN might create numerous different particles that heretofore have only been theorized. Numerous peer-reviewed science articles have been published on each of these, and if you google on the term "LHC" and then the particular particle, you will find hundreds of such articles, including:

1) Higgs boson

2) Magnetic Monopole

3) Strangelet

4) Miniature Black Hole [aka nano black hole]

In 1987 I first theorized that colliders might create miniature black holes, and expressed those concerns to a few individuals. However, Hawking's formula showed that such a miniature black hole, with a mass of under 10,000,000 a.m.u., would "evaporate" in about 1 E-23 seconds, and thus would not move from its point of creation to the walls of the vacuum chamber [taking about 1 E-11 seconds travelling at 0.9999c] in time to cannibalize matter and grow larger.

In 1999, I was uncertain whether Hawking radiation would work as he proposed. If not, and if a mini black hole were created, it could potentially be disastrous. I wrote a Letter to the Editor to Scientific American [July, 1999] about that issue, and they had Frank Wilczek, who later received a Nobel Prize for his work on quarks, write a response. In the response, Frank wrote that it was not a credible scenario to believe that minature black holes could be created.

Well, since then, numerous theorists have asserted to the contrary. Google on "LHC Black Hole" for a plethora of articles on how the LHC might create miniature black holes, which those theorists believe will be harmless because of their faith in Hawking's theory of evaporation via quantum tunneling.

The idea that rare ultra-high-energy cosmic rays striking the moon [or other astronomical body] create natural miniature black holes -- and therefore it is safe to do so in the laboratory -- ignores one very fundamental difference.

In nature, if they are created, they are travelling at about 0.9999c relative to the planet that was struck, and would for example zip through the moon in about 0.1 seconds, very neutrino-like because of their ultra-tiny Schwartzschild radius, and high speed. They would likely not interact at all, or if they did, glom on to perhaps a quark or two, barely decreasing their transit momentum.

At the LHC, however, any such novel particle created would be relatively 'at rest', and be captured by Earth's gravitational field, and would repeatedly orbit through Earth, if stable and not prone to decay. If such miniature black holes don't rapidly evaporate and are produced in copious abundance [1/second by some theories], there is a much greater probability that they will interact and grow larger, compared to what occurs in nature.

There are a host of other problems with the "cosmic ray argument" posited by those who believe it is safe to create miniature black holes. This continuous oversight of obvious flaws in reasoning certaily should give one pause to consider what other oversights might be present in the theories they seek to test.

I am not without some experience in science.

In 1975 I discovered the tracks of a novel particle on a balloon-borne cosmic ray detector. "Evidence for Detection of a Moving Magnetic Monopole", Price et al., Physical Review Letters, August 25, 1975, Volume 35, Number 8. A magnetic monopole was first theorized in 1931 by Paul A.M. Dirac, Proceedings of the Royal Society (London), Series A 133, 60 (1931), and again in Physics Review 74, 817 (1948). While some pundits claimed that the tracks represented a doubly-fragmenting normal nucleus, the data was so far removed from that possibility that it would have been only a one-in-one-billion chance, compared to a novel particle of unknown type. The data fit perfectly with a Dirac monopole.

While I would very much love to see whether we can create a magnetic monopole in a collider, ethically I cannot currently support such because of the risks involved.

For more information, go to:


Walter L. Wagner (Dr.)