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Podcast: The Accidental Doomsday Machine

The PHENIX detector, under construction, at RHIC.
Photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory
This week on the podcast I'm very happy to welcome Nobel Prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek, who shares a story about a time he suffered for science. Specifically, Wilczek spent two and a half days on the side of a remote New Hampshire highway, using a pay phone to call reporters all over the world and explain to them why the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) was not going to create a black hole and swallow the world.

For anyone who remembers the LHC doomsday threat of 2008/2009, Wilczek's story will resonate loudly. Walter Wagner, the man behind the patently false claims that the LHC might somehow destroy or devour the world, was making similar claims against RHIC in 1999. When Wilczek composed a reply to a letter Mr. Wagner wrote to Scientific American, addressing Wagner's (unfounded) concerns, Wilczek thought the issue was so cut and dry, that he ventured to add a little "spice" to the reply.

Wilczek is able to laugh at his decision in retrospect, even considering the circus that ensued, both in 1999 and 2008 (for a great retrospective of the events in 1999, check out this Physics World article from 2000). Listen to the podcast to hear the whole story, including the ripple effect it had for anyone working in physics communications at the time.

Frank Wilczek is the author of a number of books, including The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether and the Unification of Forces. He is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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