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This article is from the In-Depth Report Humankind's Enduring Fascination with the Apocalypse
60-Second Science

End of the World [1999 Edition]

At the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Stony Brook University's Robert Crease talked about how a 1999 article in Scientific American on Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider and a future Nobel laureate got a few people thinking the planet was in jeopardy. Steve Mirsky reports

At the recent AAAS meeting, Stony Brook University’s Robert Crease talked about a doomsday scare involving Scientific American and Brookhaven National Lab’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC:

“As the accelerator neared completion in 1999, Scientific American ran an article about RHIC, called ‘A Little Big Bang,’ with the title referring to the machine’s ambition to study forms of matter in the early universe.”

A reader wrote in wondering if black holes might be created. Sci Am printed the letter with a considered response from physicist Frank Wilczek. 

“Wilzcek said that the black hole scenario was incredible. But he also said that there’s a more likely possibility that it might create strangelets, which would swallow ordinary matter and described that as [merely] not plausible. That then prompted a series of headlines including this from the Sunday Times of London, entitled ‘Big Bang Machine Could Destroy Earth’.”

Scientific American, Brookhaven and the Earth survived. Wilczek won the Nobel Prize in 2004 for his earlier work.

—Steve Mirsky

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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