Worries about the end of the planet have shadowed nearly every high-energy experiment. Such concerns were given a boost by Scientific American—presumably inadvertently—in 1999. That summer, the magazine ran a letter to the editor about Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, then nearing completion. The letter suggested that the Brookhaven collider might produce a “mini black hole” that would be drawn toward the center of the earth, thus “devouring the entire planet within minutes.” Frank Wilczek, a physicist who would later win a Nobel Prize, wrote a response for the magazine. Wilczek dismissed the idea of mini black holes devouring the earth, but went on to raise a new possibility: the collider could produce strangelets, a form of matter that some think might exist at the center of neutron stars. In that case, he observed, “one might be concerned about an ‘ice-9’-type transition,” wherein all surrounding matter could be converted into strangelets and the world as we know it would vanish. Wilczek labelled his own suggestion “not plausible,” but the damage had been done. “BIG BANG MACHINE COULD DESTROY EARTH” ran the headline in the London Times. Brookhaven was forced to appoint a committee to look into this and other disaster scenarios. (The committee concluded that “we are safe from a strangelet initiated catastrophe.”)Now that's an amusingly, um, American way of handling the problem.
“I know Frank Wilczek,” Engelen told me. “He is an order of magnitude smarter than I am. But he was perhaps a bit naïve.” Engelen said that CERN officials are now instructed, with respect to the L.H.C.’s world-destroying potential, “not to say that the probability is very small but that the probability is zero.”
But how did someone forget to show ATLAS to the New Yorker people. This is the LHC experiment which not only has involvement from several major New York universities and institutions (Columbia, NYU, BNL, Stony Brook, but not Rockefeller - hmmm....) but whose very logo is sitting in front of Rockefeller Center - holding the whole universe on his shoulders, to boot.