The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory was the first facility to move the subfield of nuclear physics into the relativistic (very high-energy) regime. From the time of its formal proposal in 1984 to the start of its operation in 2000, it anchored a profound reconfiguration of Brookhaven's mission. This article analyzes the process by which RHIC came to seem the best solution to a problem thrust upon the Brookhaven laboratory administration by the planning and funding demands of the early 1980s, which required creative reconfiguration of resources and programs from long-established national laboratories accustomed to pursuing particular kinds of science. The RHIC story is an example of "recombinant science," as Catherine Westfall has labeled it, which does not occur as a natural outgrowth of previous research. In the recombinant science that gave birth to RHIC, the ends as well as the means arose as the result of contingencies and convergences that required researchers from multiple subfields to adapt their intentions and methods, sometimes awkwardly. Against a backdrop of limited budgets, increasing oversight, and competitive claims from other labs and projects, this case study illustrates how many strands had to come together simultaneously in RHIC, including changes in theoretical interest, experimental developments, and the existence of hardware assets---plus leadership and several lucky breaks.
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