Accelerator disaster scenarios, the Unabomber, and scientific risks

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The possibility that experiments at high-energy accelerators could create new forms of matter that would ultimately destroy the Earth has been considered several times in the past quarter century. One consequence of the earliest of these disaster scenarios was that the authors of a 1993 article in Physics Today who reviewed the experiments that had been carried out at the Bevalac at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory were placed on the FBI's Unabomber watch list. Later, concerns that experiments at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory might create mini black holes or nuggets of stable strange quark matter resulted in a flurry of articles in the popular press. I discuss this history, as well as Richard A. Posner's provocative analysis and recommendations on how to deal with such scientific risks. I conclude that better communication between scientists and nonscientists would serve to assuage unreasonable fears and focus attention on truly serious potential threats to humankind.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)163-181
Number of pages19
JournalPhysics in Perspective
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2008

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
I thank Roger H. Stuewer for encouraging me to write this paper, and for his editorial work on it. My research since I was a graduate student has been supported by the U.S. Department of Energy apart from one postdoctoral year by the U.S. National Science Foundation.


  • Bevalac
  • Frank Wilczek
  • Gary D.Westfall
  • John Marburger III
  • Large Hadron Collider (LHC)
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC)
  • Richard A. Posner
  • Subal Das Gupta
  • Theodore J. Kaczynski
  • Wladek Swiatecki


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