Things Change: Contemplating a Black Hole At Brookhaven Labs


Make text smaller Make text larger




I like to take a lot of risks. I enter a state of bliss when my speedometer tops 90 mph. I have a known appetite for exotic sense-deranging substances. I work for the circus. I've fraternized and associated with members of the criminal element in our society. I'm a card-carrying Satanist. A certain amount of risk is as necessary to me as the four California figs I eat every morning. Risk keeps me regular.


1999 was a boom year for eschatology. My ratty little paperback dictionary defines eschatology as "religious doctrine concerning final events," but it's become much broader than that. Eschatologies abound these days: UFO scenarios, New Year's Eve, the New World Order, polar-shift freaks, mutant rainforest viruses, Preston Nichols' Montauk ravings, an end-of-the-world package for every conceivable taste. It's just another commodity in the cultural shopping mall run amok described by Guy DeBord in his prophetic 1967 book The Society of The Spectacle. DeBord shot himself through the heart a couple of years ago, or so the cops in France say. Who knows what really happened?


I run with an interesting and diverse bunch, none of whom are in the least bit boring. I am addicted to novelty. I hear a lot of weird shit. If a UFO touches down in Kokomo, IN, or some tinker develops a free-energy device in Reno, NV, I'm going to hear about it. Back in July I started hearing little fragments about an experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, bits and pieces from various fringe sources and a clipping from the Sunday Times of London about a new supercollider and a project that might create a black hole. By Thanksgiving, it seemed like every doom 'n' gloom fan on the weird science circuit was babbling about RHIC, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.


I can't resist the lure of a new eschaton, especially one so quaint as to be centered on Long Island. I called Brookhaven and spoke with Pete Genzer of their Media & Communications Group. He sent me a nifty packet of photos and information about the RHIC project and suggested that I come out for a visit.


Whimsy is very important to me. I refuse to engage with people who are incapable of being whimsical. I called Brookhaven and told them I'd be dropping by on Tues., Dec. 21. I couldn't really nail down a time because I had no idea how I'd be getting there or how long it would take. I spent the last few days before my Brookhaven adventure hauling around really bizarre props, scenery and costumes for Eliot Feld's BalletTech with my buddy Nick. Nick and I have been hauling Eliot's weird assemblages of stuff around off and on for years together, but Nick is leaving the roadie life to go back to school. He's majoring in theology, with the intent of becoming an Episcopalian priest.


Tuesday morning I met New York Press artist Mike Wartella at Penn Station. We ducked outside for a cigarette before the train. I gave him a quick Cliffs Notes version of the RHIC project as we watched the parade of demented men go by, panhandling and ranting and trance-spouting at the flow of suburban commuters and holiday travelers. "I'm gon' git me a pint o' wine! How 'bout dat, Miss?" Penn Station is some kind of magnet for demented men. I figure it's a combination of a warm place to hang out, a guaranteed audience for whatever nonsense they feel like spouting and the opportunity for occasional easy pickings from clueless out-of-towners afraid of appearing racist.


We went down into the lower depths where the LIRR is and got our tickets to Mastic-Shirley. We had about 40 minutes to kill, so we ducked into Charley O's, a gruesome little sports bar where they charge $4.25 for a bottle of Bud. Charley O's gets its business the same way Houlihan's upstairs does: they're the only places where you can smoke in the station. I went to the men's room to take a piss, and the walls were painted black and smeared with big dried clots of fecal matter. It was horrible, like some really mundane version of hell.


The train was a newly fitted double-decker, luxurious?opulent, even. It lacked a bar car and I had to smoke in the bathroom, but it was otherwise beautifully appointed. It was also practically empty, which led me into some unwholesome speculation about the MTA and its priorities. Budgets interest me. I was feeling less concerned about the prospect of a black hole appearing on Long Island than I was about the quantity of money involved in an experiment attempting to revive and observe an extinct state of matter with no known practical application.


The small towns we passed through on the train were shot through with auto body shops and interesting-looking sandwich joints. I'm always amazed at people who can live in houses, in close proximity to each other. My apartment has just two ways in or out: the fire escape and the door. Houses are so soft, so easy to penetrate. I always think of Night of the Living Dead when I'm in a house. I've never slept properly in one, except near the ocean.


Apparently the RHIC doomsday scenario got legs in late summer when Fred Moody alleged in an ABCNEWS.com article that none other than Stephen Hawking supported the idea that RHIC could be "dangerous." Hawking has since been quoted as saying, "I never said that. Long Island is quite safe." John Marburger, director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, had a pretty succinct and direct response to the flap:


"The September 14 edition of ABCNEWS.com includes an article by Fred Moody describing the views of David Melville, 'an eccentric physicist and thinker,' that suggests that collisions at Brookhaven Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider can create a black hole that could 'eat up the earth.' The origin of the black hole would be the quark-gluon plasma, whose creation, under laboratory conditions, is a primary objective of RHIC experiments. Moody quotes Melville as saying, 'It has been theorized by Stephen Hawking that from this quark-gluon plasma other forms of matter are also produced, the most dangerous being a black hole.'


"The reference to Stephen Hawking, a prominent theoretical physicist, appears to give credence to the notion that RHIC experiments might be dangerous. In fact, the ideas of Melville, as represented by Moody, are entirely incorrect. RHIC will not recreate the Big Bang, which encompassed all the matter and energy in the universe, but rather an exceedingly small quantity of matter?roughly equivalent to one atom of material?in the quark-gluon plasma state.


"Black holes require enormous concentrations of gravitational force, which can only come from enormous concentrations of matter. RHIC experiments involve essentially zero amounts of matter and will produce zero disturbance of the normal gravitational field of the earth.


"There is simply not enough matter or energy in the RHIC collisions to create a black hole. This conclusion does not require difficult or obscure calculations and has not been questioned by any physicist in a relevant field who has considered the matter."


We got to Mastic after an hour and 40 minutes without incident, debarked the train and smoked a joint. Next on the agenda was coffee and donuts, so we strolled over to a conveniently located Dunkin' Donuts. We were amiable and charismatic Mike & Al, nice guys, a little odd, some fin de siecle Bill & Ted act, but everybody buys it, and who am I to row against the wind? We went outside and called a cab from the payphone. After half an hour of freezing our asses off in the bone-chilling Long Island breezes, we called the other cab company in Mastic. It was the same guys. Now we were completely fucked. We were totally at the mercy of these weird unknown inbred crackhead honky horrors navigating the backroads of Long Island.


We saw cabs hauling ass up the highway, mocking us, so we walked to the edge of the blacktop hoping to hail one. A truck screamed by toting a wrecked car held down with chains on a flatbed. A chunk of the thing came flying off as the truck wailed by, nearly decapitating Wartella as it caromed against the asphalt. We ran back to the payphone and hung out there for another half hour until this awful battered black town car arrived. The guy at the wheel looked like some kind of biker wannabe, red-eyed, barely coherent, overflowing ashtray at his side. He had a floozy in black riding shotgun and some straight-arrow type prep boy in khakis and a varsity jacket in the back with us. This biker guy yells, "TAXI," and we just sort of hop in, both thinking we're gonna get killed, but what the fuck? At least we're out of the cold and on our way somewhere.


He said: "Where ya goin'?"


"Brookhaven Labs," I replied.


"You work there?" he asked, looking at me funny in the rearview mirror.


"No," said I, leaving it at that.


Mike asked the floozy and prep boy where they were going. "SHOPPING!" she exclaimed, with a certain undue enthusiasm. Mike and I looked at each other. We were going to die. We expected to be robbed right up until the moment that the floozy and the prep got out at a grocery store. She looked a little unsteady, he just seemed dazed. It was like some trumpet-blues account of a 50s-era heroin adventure.


The biker cabbie drove us out to Brookhaven, bitching all the way about his wasted years of loyal service to the heartless pricks and crackheads he works for. At least I could smoke. We got to Brookhaven and stopped at the guard booth. Brookhaven Labs has its own police force. The black-clad officers were friendly enough, not even asking us for ID as they resolved the minor issue of our not having an appointment and then waved us in.


Diane Greenberg met us at Building 134 and escorted us into her office. She explained that it was "highly unusual" for someone to just show up without an appointment. She was very pleasant even though it was obvious that she knew she had a couple of real freaks on her hands and wasn't entirely sure how to proceed. She expressed in an apologetic way her doubts that we would get to speak to any of the actual scientists involved with the project, gave us some literature and offered to escort us to the collider herself. She had just recently completed the safety and evacuation course entitling her to the coded badge that grants access to the labyrinth of tunnels leading to the collider. On the way there, I saw a flier posted on several doors with evacuation instructions. There were seven instructions, the last of which read, "Do NOT pass through a white cloud."


Diane made a phone call as we approached the collider and arranged a brief meeting with Dr. Satoshi Ozaki, director of RHIC. He had a rare moment of slack and graciously consented to escort us down to the collider tunnel itself. It was one of the highpoints of my life, standing next to this man beside his work, drinking in his enthusiasm over this amazing gadget. He does have a talent for getting bang for the buck. RHIC was constructed in eight years by Northrop-Grumman for less than a billion dollars, which is really quite amazing in light of what it is to do.


"Relativistic" describes something traveling near the speed of light?in this case, heavy ions. An ion is an atom stripped of electrons, just the nucleus. "Heavy ions" are ions whose nuclei contain many protons and neutrons. A "collider" is a particle accelerator in which two beams of particles circulate in opposite directions and can be made to collide head-on at very high speeds. As one of the Brookhaven fliers puts it, the purpose is this:


"During the first few moments of its evolution the universe was formed through several fundamental changes in the state of matter. After the first few microseconds, all matter is thought to have existed as quark-gluon plasma. As the universe expanded and cooled, more complex matter condensed out of the hot plasma, eventually forming the atoms, molecules, and galaxies that make up the universe as we observe it today.


"The collisions at RHIC are expected to heat nuclei to temperatures exceeding 10 to the 12th power (1,000,000,000,000) degrees above absolute zero?about ten thousand times the temperature of the sun. Under these conditions scientists hope to recreate the primordial quark-gluon plasma: a microcosm of the conditions under which all matter was created in the early universe. By creating this heretofore unobserved state of matter over and over again under laboratory conditions, the RHIC experimenters expect to gain a new understanding of the relationship between the most fundamental constituents of matter and the complex array of particles and nuclei that make up the world around us."


It looks like a high-tech air vent, a conduit maybe 2 feet thick built of tubes about 20 feet long running through a tunnel 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles) in circumference; 1740 superconducting magnets of various types and sizes control the beams. Dr. Ozaki explained that the blue ring ran clockwise, while the yellow ring ran counterclockwise. It is insulated in liquid helium at near absolute zero and further utilizes as an insulator an interesting material along the lines of a marriage between Mylar and tissue paper. A liquid helium leak would result in a white cloud, hence the warning. There are six points where the beams intersect, out of which four can be made to collide simultaneously.


There are four observation points, called detectors: Phobos, Star, Phenix and Brahms. Phobos is aimed at tracking "rare and unusual events," Star is going to track and analyze particles such as protons, neutrons and pions. The name stands for Solenoidal Tracker At RHIC. Phenix will be examining photons, electrons and muons as well. Phenix stands for Pioneering High Energy Nuclear Interacting Experiment. The Brahms detector will be engaged in very precise measurements focusing on a small sample of particles from each collision. Brahms stands for Broad Range Hadron Magnetic Spectrometers.


Dr. Ozaki had a meeting coming up, but he arranged for Diane to escort us to the Star detector. After a brief anxiety spasm over whether they were preparing to power it up, we entered the hangar and got close to it. The thing is huge, bulging with feeder cable and cables I've never handled or seen before. It looks like a giant hex nut with a couple of tubes running through it.


Dr. Ozaki suggested that the truth about the experiment was nowhere near as exciting to people as the Black Hole idea, and so in a way it's good that the whole flap got going. It's an opportunity to expose people to some of the pure research being done with their tax dollars. The Sunday Times of London ran a headline last July that read, "Big Bang Machine Could Destroy Earth," and everything just sort of grew from there, like Topsy. Like a Black Hole. The Times' reporter apparently got his knickers in a twist owing to speculation about the possibility of an uncontrollable reaction involving "strangelets." Earl Lane at Newsday quoted Robert Jaffe, director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at MIT and a developer of strangelet theory, as saying that the chances a stable strangelet could manifest in the Brookhaven collider "are about the same order [of possibility] as if I were to win the lottery."


That's not the best choice of words. People win the lottery often enough to keep ticket sales brisk. Strangelets are purely theoretical, so far. Matter as we know it, protons and neutrons, appears to be made of "up" and "down" quarks. Strangelets, if they exist, would be particles made up of "strange" quarks. The theory goes that strangelets may exist in the cores of neutron stars. At all events, if a strangelet did manage to manifest in the RHIC, Jaffe maintains that normal matter nearby would be protected against absorption by its surrounding shield of electrons. Still, the idea of Long Island being devoured by a Black Hole has enormous charm. Strangeness and charm...


What is the enduring popular appeal of eschatology about? Every few years it seems some oblique interpretation of Nostradamus has confirmed the immediacy of the end of the world, but it never happens. Crackpots like Marshall Applewhite convince otherwise sane and normal people to hand over their assets and take poison to get on board the Mystery Train before the line shuts down. The appeal of doomsday scenarios is pretty obvious: people want to be there, they want ringside seats. Everybody knows they're going to die someday. How comforting it would be to witness closure on the human event and have everyone die with you. Nobody really wants to miss the final episode, and few people enjoy being alone in any enterprise.


The beauty of what is going on at Brookhaven is in the purity of the motivation. There are about 1000 scientists engaged with RHIC, some 500 from the USA and the rest from the wide range of the globe. They could be making more working for private interests. Dr. Ozaki could sell out easily to a higher bidder, were he so inclined. This experiment is the very heart of the quest for knowledge for its own sake. From one angle, that could be seen as the height of vanity, pouring all these resources into an experiment of little or no immediate value and some amount of global risk, however small. From another angle, this pursuit is the highest of human endeavors, an attempt to apprehend a solid cosmology based on something other than myth. Every possible growth experience entails risk.


Diane kindly arranged a ride to the Ronkonkoma station for us, thus avoiding any further contact with the frightening biker cabbie or flying bits of scrap metal. There was no bar at the station, so we smoked a joint and boarded the train back to New York. Mike bought a copy of a special doomsday edition of the Weekly World News. The train was filthy and became increasingly crowded and rude as we coursed through the darkness into the city. USA Today had an amusing article about the popularity of the infant Jesus as a theft object at this time of year, and the other papers were fixated on potential terrorist attacks timed around New Year's Eve. Mike and I parted company at Penn Station. I came home, cooked a steak and some brussels sprouts, drank some beers and fell into a deep sleep punctuated by dreams of crisp golden moments of dread in large, well-furnished houses. No one knows what the future holds. All that we can say with certainty is that things change.


Make text smaller Make text larger

Comments