A Big Bang for Big Bang’s sake

Ignore those who complain that the collider experiment won’t have tangible benefits. Not every good can be measured. Plus photos.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

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Here, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill stands up for the spirit of exploration embodied in yesterday’s ‘Big Bang experiment’. Below, we publish photographs of the Large Hadron Collider by David Cowlard.

Phew. We’re still here. The massive experiment on the French-Swiss border to discover what the Universe was made of billionths of a second after the Big Bang has not led to the end of the world. That man who had a letter in yesterday’s Guardian saying ‘what an honour it is to have a letter printed in the final edition of the Guardian’ must be feeling pretty red-faced this morning. As for the American nuclear expert and the European professor of chemistry who filed separate lawsuits to try to prevent the experiment from going ahead on the basis that more safety tests were required… both will have lost a pretty penny, and a lot of respect too (1).

It was obvious to anyone who has at least the same number of brain cells as beams of particles that were fired through the Large Hadron Collider (two) that the world would remain intact. There is roughly a one-in-a-trillion chance that crashing protons into one another with cataclysmic force will destroy the Earth. Patrick Moore put this risk in perspective when he said it is more likely that a UFO will come down from the heavens and land on the Loch Ness monster’s head than the Big Bang experiment will consume our planet. A newly set-up website puts it more succinctly: click through to ‘Has The Large Hadron Collider Destroyed the Earth?’, and you’ll find only one page with one word on it: ‘NO.’ (2)

Yet while the end-of-world fears (some real, some tongue-in-cheek) were easily dealt with, a more fashionable objection to the Big Bang experiment has spread through the political and media universe faster than exploding molecules after the Big Bang itself: that it was too expensive; pointless; it will have no measurable and easily analysed outcome or benefit. It was not utilitarian enough; it was vain; it was, in the words of one letter-writer to the press, the equivalent of ‘a bunch of curious monkeys levering off the cover of the fuse box and sticking a screwdriver in to see what happens’ (3). The whopping £5 billion spent on the experiment could have been put to better use curing cancer, eradicating malaria, solving climate change, or ‘helping my patients’, as a leading medical official said on BBC News last night (4).

This expresses the anti-experimental, anti-exploration tenor of our times. Today, many balk at the idea of doing things that don’t have clear, predictable, pie-chartable outcomes. The idea of doing something ‘just because’ – conducting an experiment for its own sake, or exploring for no other purpose than to explore – is anathema in our age of low horizons and super-managerialism, where the word ‘risk’ is always followed by the word ‘avert’ and where everything from school exam results to national suicide rates is subjected to government-enforced, percentage-driven targets.

Just days before the collider was switched on, Sir David King – Britain’s former Chief Scientist who has now taken up the position of Britain’s Chief Curmudgeon – argued that scientific experimentation must be dragged kicking and screaming back down to Earth. Calling for a ‘rethink of priorities in science and technology’ and a ‘redrawing of our society’s inner attitudes towards science’, Sir David said: ‘It is all very well to demonstrate that we can land a craft on Mars… but I would suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilisation is really crucial.’ (5) He gave the example of climate change. In short, our greatest minds, our investment, our energies, our experimentation should focus on fixing the mess we’ve allegedly made of the world rather than exploring its mysteries, tracing its origins, mastering its contours, and discovering its and the universe’s ‘God particle’ (6).

Such an ‘anti-blue skies’ attitude exposes both ignorance and a disturbing lack of human curiosity. It overlooks the fact that, very often, leaps into the void, crazy experimentation, can have unpredicted benefits. Indeed, from treatments for cancer (a spin-off of Marie Curie’s often-dangerous experiments with radiation and plutonium) to modern electronics and computers (descendants of James Clerk Maxwell’s determination to develop the equation that would describe electro-magnetism), big, historical blue-skies experimentation has yielded tangible goods as well as affirming the spiritual good of daring to know. As Stuart Nathan wrote in The Engineer magazine in response to Sir David, quantum mechanics and particle physics – King’s examples of ‘all very well’ science – gave us ‘electronics and microprocessors and lasers, not to mention nuclear power’ (7).

More importantly, the idea that abstract experimentation or blind exploration should be sacrificed at the altar of measurable targets, the notion that something like the Big Bang experiment was simply ‘way too expensive’, speaks to the contemporary spirit of anti-exploration. As Stuart Nathan argues, ‘the urge to explore is one of the defining characteristics of humanity’, which is why so many are following the Big Bang experiment with ‘wonder, interest and hope’. True exploration and experimentation, by their nature, cannot come with an A-Z list of predictable, possibly beneficial outcomes. Throughout history, men and women have explored and experimented for the pure buzz of it and with the immeasurable goal of kicking down the barriers of ignorance. Columbus never knew what he would find, just as the Big Bang experimenters remain uncertain about what they will discover. Lacking any such gumption, and innately suspicious of endeavour, many of the accountants-cum-historical pygmies who rule over us can only watch the collider chug into action and think to themselves: ‘Where could that cash have been better spent?’

Today’s culture of anti-exploration is underpinned by a fear of the unknown; more than that, by a slavish obedience to the authority of the unknown. In the past, venturing forth into unknown territory was about making it knowable, understanding it, daring to master it. Today, the suggestion that we should stop behaving like ‘curious monkeys’ and leave alone that which we cannot predict is really a call to ‘respect the unknown’, to leave it intact. It represents the elevation of ignorance over knowledge. Something like the Big Bang experiment adds, in an entirely unplottable way, to our humanity, since, as one columnist argues, ‘There is no more profound human instinct than wanting to know’ – by contrast, those voices calling for us to forget the collider and treat disease instead seem able to conceive of themselves and the rest of us in strictly bovine terms, as at-risk beings who should concern ourselves with little more than day-to-day survival (8).

In an effort to describe the Enlightenment aim of man becoming the master of his destiny, one of the followers of the great scientific thinker Francis Bacon said that humans ought to ‘put nature on the rack’ in order to extract her secrets. The Big Bang experiment, a search for the ‘God particle’ that created our universe, gives us the opportunity to put God on the operating table, dissect Him, and understand more fully where our world and every thing contained within it comes from. We have a chance not merely to ‘play God’, but to overpower and overawe Him – at last. I cannot have been the only person who – reading the coverage predicting that we curious monkeys might inadvertently set off a second Big Bang and give birth to another universe – thought to himself: ‘Really? We could do that, too?’

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Inside CERN

In June 2007, documentary photographer David Cowlard travelled to Geneva to record the final stages of the commissioning of the Large Hadron Collider.
All photographs © David Cowlard

Final assembly of a section of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Experiment. The CMS detector is comprised of 100million detecting elements and looks for signs of new particles and phenomena at a rate of 40million times per second. The CMS is situated 100 metres underground at the French village of Cessy.

Section of the 27km tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), showing dipole magnet and superconducting cable housing.

View of the vast underground cavern where the CMS experiment is housed.

Part of the huge storage and computing power at the CERN computer centre.

View David Cowlard’s work here. Read his blog here.

Previously on spiked

David Perks urged scientists to stand up for Big Physics. Elsewhere, he said there is more to scientific endeavour than meeting confused government targets. spiked asked key thinkers in science, technology and medicine ‘what inspired you to take up science?’ and ‘what’s the greatest innovation?’. Or read more at spiked issue Science and technology.

(1) Bid to stop Large Hadron Collider fails but EU, US suits move forward, ZDNet, 2 September 2008

(2) See the website here.

(3) Letters: Science on a collision course, Guardian, 10 September 2008

(4) News at 10, BBC, 10 September 2008

(5) Climate crisis needs brain gain, BBC News, 8 September 2008

(6) Large Hadron Collider fired up in ‘God particle’ hunt, CNN, 10 September 2008

(7) Big Bang, The Engineer, 10 September 2008

(8) Hadrons and Humanity, The Times (London), 8 September 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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