[Editor’s note: This is the third of three parts. This article is about experiments, soon to be conducted at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which some say could end all life as we know it. Everything in the following article is true.]

[Read part one]
[Read part two]

Part Three:
In Which We Wax Philosophical
and Employ Various Literary References

The first time scientists had to consider whether their efforts would destroy us all was in 1942, when the Manhattan Project was designing the first atomic weapons. At a meeting in Berkeley, California, Edward Teller suggested to his colleagues that the proposed weapons might ignite a chain reaction that would ignite the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.

Teller determined that there was no such danger, but the nuclear age has not helped public perceptions of scientists. The various historical archetypes of scientists remain familiar: the alchemist obsessed with arcane truth; the unfeeling scientist divorced from humanity; and the Frankenstein figure, whose experiment spins out of control and destroys its creator. For its detractors, RHIC combines all three. “They are into new territory,” said Walter Wagner, “trying to discover the secrets of the universe, without studying the consequences enough.” Wagner sees RHIC as an example of the hubris involved in the pursuit of science: “Where do these guys come off, deciding they have the power and authority to risk all of humanity, simply to satisfy their own personal yen for knowledge?”

RHIC is probably not a doomsday machine, but Wagner’s sentiments echo our ambivalent relationship with science. We are compelled to pursue knowledge, but suspicious of its products. This is the paradox at the center of the parable of the Fall, the defining myth of Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Old Testament, that whole unpleasant business with the tree of knowledge was humanity’s first irresistible impulse and foundational failure. And Church doctrine traditionally used the Fall of Man as a warning against independent thought, particularly investigations of the natural world.

The conflict is personified in the Faust character, whose diabolical deal grows out of a desire for scientific enlightenment. (“That I may know what the world contains in its innermost being,” as Goethe’s Faust proclaims.) Faust is consumed—figuratively and literally—by his intellectual curiosity. Like his biblical, mythological and other forebears, Faust’s longing for knowledge is his downfall. Similarly, RHIC, with its simultaneous opportunities for greater understanding and total annihilation, could be seen as the culmination of Faust’s paradox. Perhaps RHIC is the telos of the drive for knowledge: At the moment we unlock the mysteries of the universe, we will be obliterated for our troubles.

Jaffe, for one, doesn’t think so. He even turns the argument on its head, suggesting that the Faust myth is less a statement of the human condition than the longings of anthropocentrism. “I think part of the Faustian, Promethean image is wishful thinking,” he muses. “People would really like to think that they are gods; that we are toying with deep and arcane truths; and that we are involved in a much more significant dialogue with our creators than we really are. The people who are afraid of what might happen at RHIC are actually attributing too central a role in the universe to human beings.”

But what if the Faustian bargain is a cosmological principle? Carl Sagan, among others, suggested that the nature of consciousness entails its own self-destruction. The reason we don’t see any evidence of extra-terrestrial life, he proposed in Cosmos, is that it doesn’t take long for intelligent societies to develop the technology to destroy themselves. Sagan was thinking primarily of nuclear weapons, but his theory could be augmented to take RHIC into account: aliens are few and far between because intelligent life inevitably starts investigating the origins of the universe and obliterates itself with black holes and ravenous strangelets.

“That makes for good science fiction,” says Jaffe, “and it is also much more reassuring than the thought that civilizations have short lifetimes because they exhaust their resources and overpopulate their planets, which is surely going to happen here eventually.”

If knowledge does put us at risk, say physicists like Jaffe, Hut and Hallman, it is the biological sciences or daily technologies that threaten our terrestrial environment. “We were kicked out of paradise because of our yearning for knowledge,” agrees Hut. “But the best application of this idea is in the dangers we know are happening: overpopulation, environmental devastation, and loss of species. These are the things that threaten life on Earth. It is less dramatic, but more real, than the chance of destroying the universe.” Jaffe notes that the people who get agitated about “the impossibly small probability” of an accident at RHIC are not concerned about the more tangible terrestrial dangers to humankind. “We are burning up all the carbon reserves on the planet in a span of about 150 years,” he said. “If you want to worry about something, there’s something to worry about.”

For now, fears about RHIC are overblown. But they may resurface as technology improves. Hut and Rees’s reasoning about these experiments’ safety only holds as long as particle accelerators don’t exceed the energies of cosmic ray collisions. And depending on who you talk to, that might be never or maybe not so far off. (Rees himself worries publicly about this very problem in his 1998 book, Before the Beginning.) When that day comes, there will be no comparative basis for any kind of empirical safety factor, and at that point, we may come to a real Faustian threshold, weighing the benefits of additional knowledge against the risks of endangering ourselves.

It all comes down to how much faith you have in human nature. Tim Hallman believes that humankind is not only able to manage the moral, ethical and intellectual dilemmas associated with the pursuit of scientific knowledge, but we are improved by them. Robert Jaffe, although optimistic, thinks we may not make it that far. Einstein, whose theories got us in this mess in the first place, put it characteristically sharply: “Only two things are infinite: the Universe and human stupidity—and I’m not sure about the Universe.”