Not with a Bang, but a wiggle…

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN

Originally uploaded by Image Editor under a creative commons license- the photo can be distributed and used for new work, but the source must be credited (just like this blog, you nasty content scrapers)!

The Universe is still here…

I’m not sure if they have started colliding things and re-creating the big bang, but the world passed another doomsday last Wednesday when the Large Hadron Collider switched on at CERN and we didn’t all vanish into a mini black hole or end up in a parallel universe. Sorry, that last link is a very geeky gamers joke.

This project, and many attending factors have fascinated me for a while now. There have been some spectacular photographs from inside the various experiments on the ring of the accelerator. These cavernous spaces, deep underground have, it seems, a sepulchral quality. Just like cathedrals are where we go to talk to God, this is where we talk to the start of the universe, to ponder how and why it all began.

The project involves an astonishing number of scientists and collaborators from a huge list of countries; so large in scope that it could not have been achieved by one nation. It has united a diverse bunch of humans in the pursuit of a common goal in a way I’ve never encountered before. What is even more amazing to me is that this is science for sciences’ sake. There is no profitable final end product, nothing that can be marketed, no projected returns on our collective investment. Just the hope that we can re-create the conditions just after our universe started, and perhaps glimpse some of the most fundamental building blocks of reality.

The reporting of this project has also been very interesting. I watched the switch-on live on 24 hour news channels and was amused by the press, so used to spectacular moments struggle to convey how important the slightly wavering curve on the screen was, how momentous the occasion. They all likened it to the Apollo moon landings, new readers and drafted in experts alike. They also went to some pains to reassure people worried by sensationalist stories about the risks of black holes devouring the planet from within.

There has been great coverage on some of my favourite webcomics too- phd comics and xkcd, as well as some great spoof footage here.

The BBC website had an interesting article about how to talk to your kids about these worries (which I now annoyingly can’t find), and I’m really pleased to say that people were talking about it being a great chance to talk to them about science, whilst reassuring them the world wasn’t about to end. I wanted to go off at this point into a long thought about millennialism and humanity and why we seem so curiously prone to the idea of the world ending; how this all links back into ideas about God, prevailing western paragdigms and science-as-faith, but I think I’ll leave that for another day, or someone smarter than me.

Me? I’m just hoping they don’t find the Higgs-Boson. Much like Prof. Hawking I think that would be far more exciting; we’d have to start again on most of our theories about how the universe really operates on the quantum scale.

2 thoughts on “Not with a Bang, but a wiggle…

  1. They haven’t started colliding things yet, which is why the sensationalist reporting was so annoying. Even if something unexpected were to happen, it won’t happen for months yet. The news deliberately misled an uninformed public and whipped them up into a frenzy about it. It makes news like this even sadder

    There is no profitable final end product, nothing that can be marketed, no projected returns on our collective investment.

    Only half-true, there have already been scientific/technological advances derived from the construction of the LHC. Just carrying out an experiment on this scale has taught us a lot and I bet the associated technologies will be patented by CERN. I’m not 100% but I think there have been breakthroughs in the fields of refridgeration and data-analysis. You make a good point though.

  2. I was very sad when I read the article you mentioned. I do think the news coverage here was very responsible; from what I saw they reported that some people had concerns but then had experts on who pointed out that the concerns were not at all valid. I did mostly listen to BBC R4 though, so perhaps the likes of the Sun or CNN reported it differently?

    I’m pretty sure that CERN is why we have the internet, amongst other advances of the last two decades… Sure, the project has had spin-off products and ideas which have made money, but the end goal of this thing, it’s raison d’etre is pure science. I like that. Jostein Gaarder, in a book called Sophie’s’ World (a novel about philosophy for teenagers) likened the universe to a rabbit being pulled out of a hat by a magician. Most people, he argued, were content to wriggle down in the rabbits fur and stay cosy and miss out on the big trick; rather than seeing the universe happen, and wonder why and how. This experiment is one way to stand right on the end of the rabbits’ hairs and look the magician in the eye.

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