Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar

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Sticking up for the universe since 1999

May 11th, 2007 · 2 Comments

Ah 1999–the summer my husband Frank Wilczek almost blew up the universe, as recently dredged up by the latest New Yorker.

Fans of the universe will be glad to know that you were in no danger, because I was on the job on your behalf.

1999 Betsy: But the universe is not going to blow up, right?
1999 Frank: Of course not.
Betsy: You really thought about it and it’s not.
Frank: Yes, I did. And no, it’s not.
Betsy: Good, because if it blew up I’d be so mad at you…

The New Yorker starts their version of this story when Scientific American decided to publish…

…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.”)

“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.”

One missing piece of this widely-quoted version–The letter Frank wrote for SA was never published. Frank wrote them a carefully detailed reply to a non-physicist’s black-hole concerns. What SA published, with Frank’s name at the end of it, had been edited down to much more a dramatic nub by somebody somewhere inside SA.

If I’d just had a blog then, we could have talked back to this story in real time.

Tags: Frank Wilczek · My Back Pages · Science · Wide wonderful world

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