- Scientists have quashed suggestions that a £350m
experiment planned for the autumn could cause the destruction of the Earth.
- The director of the laboratory commissioning the machine
says there is "no chance" of the atom-smashing experiment causing
a disaster, such as a black hole that would devour the entire Earth.
- Researchers have spent eight years constructing the Relativistic
Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long
Island in New York state. Its goal is to smash the nuclei of atoms together
and study their wreckage to determine the fundamental properties of matter.
- RHIC takes atoms of gold and swings them around two 3.8
kilometre (2.4 mile) circular tubes where powerful magnets accelerate them
to almost the speed of light. When they collide, they do so in minute collisions
that are 10,000 times hotter than the Sun.
- Scientists hope to create a quark-gluon plasma, a fundamental
state of matter that probably has not existed naturally in the Universe
since the Big Bang.
- But could they create something else, a mini-black hole
perhaps or a new form of particle with unknown properties that could expand
and engulf the Earth?
- That was the suggestion made recently in the letters
section of the Scientific American magazine, "I am concerned that
physicists are going where it is unsafe to go," said one correspondent
- If a mini black hole was created then some speculate
that, in certain circumstances and if it was next to a concentration of
mass, it could become stable and continue to grow. It would be drawn towards
the centre of the Earth, where it would start to grow. It might engulf
the entire Earth within minutes.
- Too far-fetched
- But it is all a bit-far fetched according to the scientists
commissioning the particle collider. John Marburger, Director of Brookhaven
Laboratories says: "I am familiar with the issue of possible dire
consequences of experiments at the RHIC, which Brookhaven Lab is now commissioning.
- "These issues have been raised and examined by responsible
scientists who have concluded that there is no chance that any phenomenon
produced by RHIC will lead to disaster.
- "The amount of matter involved in the RHIC collisions
is exceedingly small - only a single pair of atomic nuclei is involved
in each collision. Our Universe would have to be extremely unstable in
order for such a small amount of energy to cause a large effect."
- "On the contrary, the Universe appears to be quite
stable against releases of much larger amounts of energy that occur in
- He emphasises that RHIC collisions will be within the
spectrum of energies encompassed by naturally occurring cosmic radiation
that strikes the Earth all the time.
- Experts in the relevant fields of physics have been asked
to produce a single comprehensive report on the safety of each of the speculative
"disaster scenarios". When completed it will be placed on the
laboratory's web site.
- Familiar fear
- It is not the first time that scientists and others have
worried that they may produce some form of chain-reaction in their particle
colliders that may endanger the Earth.
- In the 1970's the Russian physicist Yakob Zeldovich expressed
concern that experiments being carried out at the Cern European particle
physics centre in Switzerland may result in catastrophy. He later carried
out more calculations and decided that his fears were groundless.
- In 1995 protestors picketed the Fermilab laboratory near
Chicago carrying the banner "Fermilab: home of the next supernova."
Experts said their fears were baseless.