- "For once, maybe once in the history of the universe,
we can avoid THE END." - Physicist David Melville
- " If scientists can be counted on for anything,
it's for creating unintended consequences."
- - Michael Dougan
- David Melville is an eccentric physicist and thinker,
and a friend of mine. He,s also terrified.
- Melville is preoccupied with what he regards as the most
dangerous event in human history: an experiment, scheduled for November,
at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. Brookhaven has a device,
called the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, that has the world,s physicists
tremendously excited. Scientists believe they can use the collider to duplicate
the conditions that prevailed milliseconds after the Big Bang, when the
universe consisted of a primordial soup called the quark-gluon plasma.
Brookhaven scientists think that by colliding gold ions at extremely high
speed, they can create a tiny, fleeting version of quark-gluon plasma to
gain a better understanding of the origins of the universe.
- Sounds like fun. The only problem, according to David
Melville,s panicky e-mail, is that, "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."
- Consumed From the Inside Out
- All I know about black holes is that they have zero volume
and infinite density. They sit in deep space, trapping everything that
comes near enough (crossing inside what,s known as the "Schwarzschild
radius") and letting nothing escape, even light.
- So I am perplexed. What happens if you create one in
- Melville says he believes it would be microscopic at
first but would grow exponentially, eventually obliterating Earth. "The
black hole would first eat its way down toward the center of Earth and
consume from the inside out. It would not be a good time to be around to
see this. In the end ALL of Earth would be consumed."
- When I started looking into this, I was stunned to find
that other physicists are speculating along the same lines as Melville.
The July 1999 Scientific American contains letters debating the possibility
Melville raises, and the July 18 Sunday Times of London reported on and
editorialized against the experiment, which it considers frighteningly
dangerous. So it,s not just paranoid physicists and rogue journalists concerned
about the RHIC.
- Hoping to forestall the end of the world, I contacted
Brookhaven immediately. "We certainly do not wish to destroy the earth,"
sniffed spokeswoman Diane Greenberg, who clearly has been fielding plenty
of questions like mine. Then she sent me a statement by Brookhaven Lab
Director John Marburger, entitled "On Consequences of RHIC Operations."
- "The amount of matter involved in the RHIC collisions
is exceedingly small " only a single pair of nuclei is involved in
each collision," Marburger states. "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 astrophysical
- "RHIC collisions will be within the spectrum of
energies encompassed by naturally occurring cosmic radiation. The earth
and its companion objects in our solar system have survived billions of
years of cosmic ray collisions with no evidence of the instabilities that
have been the subject of speculation in connection with RHIC."
- Playing at God
- Why am I not reassured by this? The short answer is that
the experiment is conducted by human beings " the same folks who brought
you the internal combustion engine, which threatens to destabilize the
planet,s climate, and powerful antibiotics, which ultimately created an
invincible staphylococcus bacterium. In other words, technopride goeth
before the fall.
- The longer answer is that Melville,s scenario is perversely
seductive in a Kubrickian sort of way. Think of Dr. Strangelove and 2001:
A Space Odyssey. There are few things quite as persuasive as the vision
of humans, their thirst for knowledge and progress insatiable, stumbling
on a way to destroy the planet. It is an end-of-the-world scenario that
has launched a thousand movie scripts.
- Human progress has always had a nasty habit of producing
unintended consequences " usually because the prideful progenitors
of progress insist on pooh-poohing any possibility of danger. Now, in recreating
the beginning of the universe, we are essentially playing at being God
" an unforgivable offense, punishable, as tragedians in the Bible
and other literature have prophesied for centuries, by annihilation.
- The Doomsday Machine
- This Doomsday scenario dovetails creepily with the speculation
put forth by the late Carl Sagan in his book Cosmos. Sagan believed that
we could never find evidence of life anywhere else in the universe because
the pattern of evolution has been the same everywhere: Life begins and
evolves through millions of years to the moment when it destroys itself.
The nature of consciousness is such that evolution itself is a doomsday
- Sagan considered nuclear war the likeliest cause of destruction,
but the creation of an annihilating black hole is more plausible. Not only
does it explain the apparent absence of life anywhere else in the universe,
it also explains the absence of any ruins of past civilizations. A black
hole removes all traces of everything " including of the creating
- "So why am I telling you this?" Melville,s
message to me ends. "I think this should be brought out into the general
public,s view. For once, maybe once in the history of the universe, we
can avoid THE END. Have a nice day."
- Fred Moody is the author of "I Sing the Body Electronic:
A Year with Microsoft on the Multimedia Frontier" and of "The
Visionary Position: The Inside Story of the Digital Dreamers Who Made Virtual
Reality a Reality." His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.