The Breakfast Table

Long Island’s Very Own Black Hole

Dear Matt,

But women are from Venus, right?

This might make you really think I’m from Mars or descended from apes marooned on an island, but the last science story that really excited me was about a new theory in which this universe is a four-dimensional bubble floating inside a larger five-dimensional mega-universe. The really compelling part is that there could be many of these bubble universes, each with different laws of physics. Thus the Truly Universal Laws would be not so universal after all. In fact some cosmologists argue that baby universes compete in a Darwinian struggle to see which ones are best at making stars. (For it is stars that collapse into black holes and spawn more baby universes.) Each universe would have a different rulebook–a kind of cosmic genome. No reason anymore for physics envy among biologists. All laws may be accidents of evolution.

But wait. This just in from an alert reader: Something to compete with this week’s human genome news. It seems that the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory, out on Long Island, N.Y., just took the first pictures of colliding gold nuclei–the beginnings of a grand experiment to recreate the hot and heavy conditions millionths of a second after the Big Bang, when matter was a soup of quarks and gluons. I just tuned into BNL’s Web site and the news is already up there, including some nice photos of the mini explosions.

I first heard about this project a few months ago when Bob Crease, a physics writer and science historian, told me that a movement was afoot to stop the experiment because people thought it would create a tiny black hole that would suck up the earth, and I guess the whole solar system and maybe even the Milky Way. Do you feel anything yet? I plunged through a black hole last month at the new Hayden Planetarium in New York, and it definitely seemed like something you would notice. Brookhaven even felt compelled to issue a Committee Report on Speculative Disaster Scenarios soberly refuting this and other worries. My favorite is that the collider would create a new kind of matter called strangelets (made of globs of strange quarks). Like a kind of subatomic Ice-9, it would convert all other matter into this exotic form. I bet that wasn’t in the original Environmental Impact Statement.

Remember how the physicists at the Manhattan Project made wagers on whether the first atomic bomb would ignite the atmosphere?