It takes so little to produce a media frenzy. Sometimes nothing at all. But this media frenzy over nothing at all is the winner of my personal Tempest in a Teapot Award.
It all began and ended in the pages of Scientific American. In March 1999, an article written by Madhusree Mukerjee reported on efforts at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. The brand new particle accelerator would smash gold atoms together in an attempt to produce a "quark-gluon soup" that is theorized to have existed immediately after the Big Bang.
In its July 1999 issue, Scientific American published a letter in response to Mr. Mukerjee's article. Walter L. Wagner, also known for pointing out radiation threats in California tile glaze, expressed fear that the collider could produce a mini black hole which would consume the Earth in a few minutes. As it often does, the magazine printed a rebuttal immediately below the letter. Written by Dr. Frank Wilczek of Princeton, New Jersey's Institute for Advanced Study, it explained that a black hole was impossible given the energies involved, but speculated on the possibility of a disaster resulting from strangelet production.
For some reason, world news organizations picked up on this exchange, and of course, never let facts get in the way of a good story. The London Sunday Times asked "Will the Big Bang Machine Destroy the Earth?". An ABC News article by Fred Moody2 was accompanied by phrases like "Playing at God" and "Doomsday Scenario". From here the frenzy became self-reinforcing. Brookhaven National Laboratory's telephones and email servers became very busy indeed.
One cannot fault Mr. Wagner for his well-intentioned efforts, which in his own mind, are attempts to protect the public. Even if some of us consider him part of the tinfoil hat set. One can, however, rightly condemn the press for blowing everything out of proportion, exploiting ignorance and fear of the unknown to generate sales.
In December 1999, one of the scientific tidbits Scientific American printed in its regular feature "Science and the Citizen" reported on the media frenzy generated by the letter. "Apocalypse Deferred"3 had a tone of, well, I can't help but recall the look on Orson Welles's face in the press conference he gave the day after his 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast.
1You can read this at http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=0006E278-78C1-1C72-9EB7809EC588F2D7
2Fred Moody, "Atlas Shrugs", http://www.abcnews.go.com/sections/tech/FredMoody/moody990914.html. Moody responds to criticism in true Bill O'Reilly fashion at http://www.abcnews.go.com/sections/tech/FredMoody/moody_current.html
3You can read this at http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=0008626D-3501-1C74-9B81809EC588EF21
You might find a true scientific investigation into the problem interesting: "Disaster caused by Heavy Ion Collisions at RHIC? Another kind of a "Cup of Theory"" by Vincent Brindejone, and Hendrik van Hees. I found an electronic version at http://theory.gsi.de/~vanhees/publ/cup.pdf