World Science Festival: Telling Scary Stories of Strangelets

By Eliza Strickland | June 7, 2010 11:55 am

WilczekSerious scientists may disdain anecdotal evidence, but we have evidence that some of them are pretty good with an anecdote.

Last Thursday, the World Science Festival brought a collection of science geeks to The Moth, where the brave souls took the stage not to explain their work, but to tell stories of their lives in science. The evening’s biggest scientific celebrity was theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek, winner of a 2004 Nobel Prize in physics. His story began with a phone call.

The editors of Scientific American were hoping he would write a rebuttal to a letter they’d just received. “The letter was from a man who I later learned was a banana farmer in Hawaii,” Wilczek recalled. “He was worried about black holes. He was worried about a particle accelerator that was being built on Long Island that could produce black holes, and he was worried that the black holes would swallow up Long Island and then the world.”

Wilczek happily wrote a response to defend the honor of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Lab. He noted that even if RHIC did create black holes, they’d be smaller than atomic nuclei and therefore would have such feeble gravity that “they wouldn’t be good at swallowing up anything.” He also explained that the type of particle collisions that would take place at RHIC occur naturally on Earth when cosmic rays bombard our planet–and we’re still here.

But Wilczek felt that his response was boring, and decided to spice it up a bit by mentioning “strangelets,” hypothetical particles that he said could be produced by the RHIC, and which could pose more of a threat to life, the universe, and everything. Imagine strangelets as the ice-nine from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, Wilczek said; crystals of that fictional substance turned all liquid water they came into contact with into solid ice-nine, creating a chain reaction. Strangelets could have a similar warping effect on “all nuclear matter,” said Wilczek, “which would not be good.” However, Wilczek finished his response by explaining why the doomsday strangelet scenario was “not plausible,” and happily went off on vacation.

He thought no more of it until his brother-in-law arrived at Wilczek’s isolated vacation home bearing tales of a worldwide media panic over RHIC. One article from The Sunday Times of London ran under the banner headline, “Big Bang Machine Could Destroy Earth,” and prominently asked in a caption whether the RHIC would be “The Final Experiment?”

At least the story had a happy ending. Wilczek spent the next two weeks trekking to a payphone near his vacation home to explain to journalists why RHIC wouldn’t kill us all. The particle collider was completed and turned on, and its findings helped Wilczek win that Nobel. And most importantly, the nuclear matter that makes up my body is feeling no stranger than usual.

Related Content:
Discoblog: World Science Festival: Listening to Illusions of Sound
Discoblog: World Science Festival: The 4 Ways to Find E.T.
DISCOVER: The Glue That Holds the World Together
80beats: Physics Experiment Won’t Destroy Earth

Image: Wikipedia

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