Birth of the universe, in Long Island

In a subterranean laboratory in N.Y., scientists this week begin a quest to re-create the big bang.

Every so often, technology gives scientists the opportunity to test their theories and unravel some of the most fundamental questions of existence.

Archimedes had his lever. Galileo had his telescope. Now, Tim Hallman has his Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

This week, the underground ring of titanium wires and slender magnetic tubes on New York's Long Island began experiments to create conditions that existed at the time of the big bang.

In a subterranean racetrack the size of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Dr. Hallman and colleagues will accelerate two packs of gold ions to 99.995 percent the speed of light, and slam them into each other. They hope to rip the particles apart in a microcataclysm that generates temperatures 10,000 times hotter than the sun's core.

Specifically, the goal is to make the cosmic soup that scientists think existed only for a fraction of a second after the birth of the universe. But more broadly, this quest - and the new facility - represent a major step forward for American science. Stung by Congress's decision to stop building the Semiconducting Supercollider in Texas in 1993, US physicists now have a new machine that will help put them on the leading edge of particle physics again.

Through it, scientists hope to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of matter and the forces that bind creation.

"Anyone who struggles to understand the world wants to know, 'What's out there?' and 'Where did we come from?' " says Joe Kapusta, a physicist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "Mankind now has the ability to figuratively go back 12 billion years to within that one microsecond of when it all began."

Trillion-degree soup

Physicists believe they have an idea of what those first brief moments looked like.

Basically, they say, the universe was so hot that atoms couldn't form. Particles called quarks, which are usually bound in threes to make up protons and neutrons - the most massive part of an atom - were free to flow through a trillion-degree broth.

This state of matter is known as quark-gluon plasma, and it's the starting point for current theories about how the universe evolved. If scientists using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) can create it, they'll go a long way toward confirming what physicists think about the formation of matter.

"First, to know that [the theory] is right, and then to know the way the transition [from plasma to more-recognizable matter] occurs is vital," says Nathan Isgur of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Va. "You can't do science without checking a theory as fundamental as this."

Yet scientists have gotten it wrong before.

Physicist Hallman knows that, and it doesn't seem to bother him. In fact, the faint curve of a smile appears under the white bristles of his moustache when he mentions the "ultraviolet catastrophe" - a turn-of-the-century experiment on radiation that confounded scientists' expectations.

Fortuitous mistakes

Scientists were forced to think in new ways to understand the puzzling data. The result: Quantum physics was born, and one of the most fecund periods of scientific history - encompassing Albert Einstein and Max Planck - followed.

It's foolish to forecast any such burst of brilliance before these new tests. But Hallman and others hope that by probing quarks while they're free to roam, they'll get unprecedented insight into how the universe is constructed.

"It tests our understanding of how matter is put together by the strong force," says Hallman, referring to the force that binds quarks.

The quest to understand the structure of matter dates back millenniums, to Democritus and the Golden Age of Athens, when he and other thinkers theorized that everything was made up of smaller atomic pieces.

Twenty-five centuries later, though, the power of this machine, buried beneath stands of Long Island oak and pine, has given some people pause. Indeed, for many, it is known best as the accelerator that could destroy the world.

An Earth-destroying machine?

Since the Times of London ran an article last year on the facility with the headline, "Big Bang machine could destroy Earth," scores of media outlets have picked up on the fears and posited the same irrational concerns. They are:

*The experiments would lower the energy level of empty space in the universe, starting a chain reaction that would swallow the universe at the speed of light.

*They would create a black hole on Long Island, sucking in everything around it with gravity so strong that even light could not escape.

*They would create a form of matter called strangelets, which would turn everything they touched into this strange matter, destroying creation as we know it.

After conducting an extensive study to examine these claims, scientists have dismissed them, saying the chances are infinitesimally remote.

Still, that wasn't enough for some people.

One woman called Brookhaven National Laboratory - the home of RHIC - in December to ask when it would have its first collision. She wanted to make sure she scheduled her millennium party before then.

A reporter called Brookhaven when John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane disappeared to ask if the machine was to blame.

And a Hawaii man has even filed a lawsuit to keep RHIC from starting up. (The lawsuit is ongoing, but Brookhaven is allowed to proceed in the meantime.)

To be sure, RHIC (pronounced "Rick") is massive. When fully operational, it will be 10 times more powerful than any particle accelerator in operation. Its ring is 2.4 miles long, and its 1,740 magnets must be kept near absolute zero, meaning that RHIC uses as much energy as 15,000 homes.

Yet for physicist Thomas Roser, a studious, middle-aged man from Switzerland, all this technology is distilled down to six banks of blinking computers in the RHIC control room.

Here, flanked by a team of scientists that could be mistaken for a United Nations peacekeeping mission, he punches flashing buttons and watches green and blue lines inch across monitors. When the lines drop off - showing something went wrong - his colleagues offer comments in myriad accents.

They're the ones charged with making sure everything goes right. They had their first collision at low energy on Tuesday - officially beginning the experiment. Now they'll ramp up the power until the accelerator is functioning at full capacity.

When everything works, the scientists in the command bunker shoot two swarms of gold ions from a tank in their building. Passing through carbon sheets that strip off electrons, the ions move through a small booster ring, into a secondary accelerator, and finally into RHIC.

The process takes about one second.

It also uses very little gold. In the next 20 years, RHIC will use less gold than there is in a wedding band.

Accelerator in action

Once the two beams are moving in opposite directions in RHIC's accelerator tubes, it's up to scientists like Hallman to study the collisions, which can happen at six places where the tubes cross.

Detectors the size of houses record the collisions, looking for the plasma - which is only expected to last for one billion-trillionth of a second before it cools off and condenses.

Supercomputers crunch whatever data the sensors find and give scientists information about what particles were created. From this, they hope to infer if the plasma was created.

Shoot. Watch. Repeat. Millions of times.

"Each time it explodes in a different way," says Roser. "We want to look at as many as possible to see patterns.... Often, the most exciting are also the rarest."

To others, excitement comes from knowing that the experiments at RHIC could lead high-energy physics into a whole new - and as yet unseen - direction.

"Who knows what other kind of force will lie there," says Phillip Schewe, chief science writer at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Md.

"Every time people have built accelerators for a certain reason," he says, "they have found something even more interesting than what they were looking for."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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