Not unexpectedly, the media has been saturated with the political campaigns, the election and, most of all, our multitrillion-dollar financial misadventure. As of the time of this writing, the election has not yet taken place and I will defer to the journalists and pretty-faced commentators to fill the pages and airwaves, respectively, with political and financial commentary. We are truly entering dour times with deferred retirements, Lilliputian-sized 401(k)s and the unemployment rate for Wal-Mart greeters soaring.
In the really long-term perspective of all things considered, there have been, buried in the back pages of the papers and relegated to short subjects of TV news, brief footnotes about the now-operational supercollider/subatomic particle accelerator, which is now in its shakedown phase of testing and calibration.
Even as the mechanical giant was being infused with electromagnetic life, lawsuits were being filed by superstitious people fearing that the monster would create a black hole, which would turn all of us inside out as we were hurtling violently into France.
In the scope of the universe, Obama, McCain, a bespectacled Alaskan governor and a few trillion dollars are negligible blinks of history in the scale of space-time. The carefully parsed lies and counter-lies of election campaigns bring to mind the old expression that one would not vote nor eat sausage if one knew what went into politicians and sausages. Likewise the talking heads of finance typically have their own axes to grind. And it makes me want to imagine the breakfast conversations, which must take place between Mary Matalin and James Carville… I imagine they probably talk about sports. So what do politics and finance have to do with a scientist’s newest and biggest toy?
Supercolliders, space-based telescopes, satellites orbiting Mercury and stem cell alchemy are wonderful diversions from the futility of pork barrel politics.
While political pronouncements are not infrequently replete with lies and manipulations, science, by definition, reaches for nothing more or less than absolute truth. In a word, science is nothing more and nothing less than a search for truth. It allows us to trust, notwithstanding the fact that we reside in a human universe full of misconceptions, smoke and mirrors.
So what is the big deal about a jumbo-collider? The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a monumental project, which, in my opinion, could never have been built in the USA. It is not just a matter of real estate that the device is located between France and Switzerland. In my opinion, the giant donut-shaped gizmo was coincidentally built at the geographical apex of present-day enlightenment.
The state-of-the-art machine has been placed literally under the border of France and Switzerland, which I think is appropriate, as it says to me that the device and what it stands for is bigger than “we,” bigger than nationalism.
I cautiously acknolwedge that being a Francophile is not a terribly popular affinity these days with the French being accused of everything from rudeness to cowardice to socialism.
For me personally, and I think for the world generally, positive associations with the French and French culture actually prevail. Art, music, literature, cuisine, wine and architecture come to mind, though I must admit that my pièce de résistance is Tex-Mex and not Coquilles St. Jacques. One could go on and on extolling the work of Debussy, Ravel, Monet, Proust, and a long parade of French scientists, politicians and mathematicians. And don’t forget, incidentally, the Coriolis Effect (Gaspard Corilolis), which explains why water spirals down the drain counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and vice versa in the southern.
In a world fraught with international and internecine religious warfare, France has almost stood alone in being tolerant of persuasion and diversification, while somehow remaining firmly secular.
The downside is that we as a culture, while not abandoning science by any means, have nonetheless begun to look at science through a veil of surrealism and empiricism. Why do I find this disturbing?
Science is all or nothing… We either know a physical law or not, and we do not hestitate to debunk a physical law even if its proponents are Nobel Laureates. Gravity either exerts its influence or it does not exert its influence. Even some of the pronouncements of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein have been debunked. Science has no place for demagogues.
The posturing of all of the candidates of both parties has acquiesced to the popular notion that we are, by birthright, a spiritual nation, notwithstanding the beliefs, motivations and writings of Washington, Adams, Franklin and Jefferson. If Jefferson were alive and orating today, his life would be in danger … and not from the British. In fact, the country was founded by geeky scientist-engineer types.
In fact, the most wonderful country in the world, ours, is being outrun in the culture of science and a tolerance for freedom of thought by European and Asian nations. Our rebirth does not harken back to that which our founding fathers left with us, as we are now marching in lockstep, led by religious fundamentalism in every shape and hue. This trend is beyond national and competes with global warming and the depletion of natural resources as a doomsday scenario. (Again, I am not afraid of a French-Swiss black hole.) Compartmentalization of fundamentalist belief systems preclude the naive idea of any kind of worldwide cross-pollenation of enlightenment. And I think we are, at the same time, trading in critical, scientific thinking for superstition and dogma.
What suffers in the meantime is the persona of our great nation, which is drifting away from the enlightened motivations of people such as Ben Franklin, who was, of course, a fellow traveller with the French.
So, what is the big deal about the collider? It is the biggest ever such device, whose purpose is to accelerate subatomic particles (for example, protons) to speeds approaching the speed of light. Those particles will collide with other particles, which have been likewise accelerated in the opposite direction. When those subatomic particles collide, even smaller particles will be knocked off the protons. Those particles, impossible to detect under quiescent conditions, might hopefully be seen and measured as a result of the ultra-high energy state created by the collider. It has been predicted, though not yet proven, that, for example, a very small particle known as the Higgs boson exists and accounts for some fraction of the mass of all atomic nuclei.
So who cares about the Higgs boson? If it exists, we know that much more about the stuff of ourselves and the universe. Will such discovery relieve the sub-prime mortgage problem or the looming crisis in health care? I think the answer is a resounding “Yes,” and I believe this because unless we embrace the reliability of scientific methodology, we might as well be … ah … sucked into a black hole.