Featured

Heavy Plant

Walk past a "Heavy Plant" warning and wonder vaguely if the trees thought it was for them; if whoever put it up had enough imag...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Too complicated?

The world always threatens to become too complex and make you feel like you're a troglodyte sat banging rocks together in the dark.

Unsurprisingly the opening of the Large Hadron Collider(LHC) on Friday has certainly done that for the majority of the world. When the worlds largest and most expensive experiment is a cathedral full of kit too  - complex and integrated to call any part of it an individual machine - buried under the French/Swiss border and when you have to divert the course of underground rivers to build it (done by freezing them - unbeleivably difficult, an astounding engineering feat but all I can think about is the environmental impact), things may actually have gone a little too far. It's very hard to give a context, rationalise its creation and point to what need there is for this thing.

The press have not been as much help as perhaps the scientific community would like on this point. despite the extremely erduite and lucid plain english explanations from the very earnest and concerned scientists - who seem well aware that they've lost the rest of us on this one - the press and so the popular imagination remains stuck in around 1954. The majority of the focus has been on one single (non) issue: "Will this experiment suck us all in to a black hole?"

If you start talking about exotic particles, all of which seem to have the most wonderrful names (a 'charm quark'? brilliant) or about the higgs mechanism and why we can't quite figure out actully what mass and therefore matter really is when you get right down to it, then everyone glazes over (the only Planck length most people care about is in the DIY store at the weekend). Talk to them about black holes and the end of the world then you've really got their attention. However despite repeated assurances with very long numbers representing orders of probability it didn't really get through that the liklihood of the LHC producing a singularity (black hole type thing) was only marginally above that of you triggering one by getting up in the morning and making a cup of coffee.

The blame here doesn't entirely sit with the press. If the scientists had been a trifle less honest there might have been less interest. If someone asks you, "is there any chance this thing could suck us all into a black hole?" it is more prudent just to say "no" than tell them the absolute fundamental truth in language that they are going to have trouble summarising for a public audience.

Just for the record the answer is that they are doing experiments at such high energies that it is possible that small singularities might be created but these will be contained within a vacuum a long way from any other matter and behind a magnetic field so strong that it could pull your fillings out from 50 metres away which will mean that they decay in such a short period of time that you'd have trouble proving their existence. I hope that clears it up.

Why am I wittering on about this when clearly the world didn't end in any proveable way (more than it seems to be doing daily in any case)? Because if you don't explain things properly people get over anxious and start acting stupidly. It seems that at an Indian suicided over the news reports on television. This is undeniably sad and symptomatic of tabloidisation of media and the ugly refusal of accountability that this brings with it but there's also a personal element - if you are that anxious about the world and incapable of rationally going to find more information rather than panicking then you really are in deep trouble.

My other big problem with the LHC and the issues round it is that it seems no-one seems to be trying to relate the science to a benefit for people and all we are seeing is the main focus of the thing itself, to find out how the universe fits together. Such existential issues don't trouble most people on a daily basis but if it is explained that some of the technology that buds off from these experiments changes the world in unexpected ways that have nothing to do with Bosons and Leptons then they might appreciate it a bit more. The last particle accelerator that was built at CERN produced the technology that spawned the Internet. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but even so that technology has changed our daily lives.

Using a by-product to justify an expensive and otherwise apparently irrelevant process has been done before and is a bit of a lame argument and it brings me to the last problem I have with the LHC. Despite all the technology, the potential benefits and my curiosity about how the universe works the actual concept is still a bit crude. What it does is accelerate protons round and round in opposite directions until they are as close to the speed of light as can be managed, smash them into each other and looks carefully at the pieces to see what they are. There are two ways to look at this and I am torn between thm. The LHC is either the greatest technological achievement of humankind - which is a position I am close to - or it really exposes how little knowledge we have about the world if all we can do is smash it up to see what it's made of.

Humankind just has to do better than this last position. We can't keep spending billions on things like this with the world decaying round us and justifying it with by-products and the benefits the eventual knowledge will almost certainly bring with it. It's quite possible that we might not be around to enjoy them given the amount of time that could take. The LHC might unlock a fundamental secret of the universe but if you look at it carefully humankind is actually still just sat in a cave in the dark smashing rocks together.