Saturday, December 02, 2006

Big Science

Panspermia- the theory that life on earth was seeded from space - finds support from the discovery of hollow spheres in meteorites. These could have rained organic molecules on to the surface and got the whole show on the road. In fact, panspermia does not seem to explain very much, but it's a theory of which I have always been fond. To my mind, it implies that we are the alien invaders of earth, which is exactly what it feels like early in the morning on the Norfolk saltmarshes. Meanwhile, the final superconducting magnet has been delivered to the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. In about a year this machine will start smashing particles into each other in an attempt to decipher the physics of the Big Bang. American interest in big physics seems to have declined and Europe is now in the lead. The pictures of the LHC are thrilling, not least because I - not being a physicist - don't really know what it is for. I am not convinced anybody does. This gives it the mad, heroic uselessness of one of the great Gothic cathedrals. The builders of the cathedral at Seville, the biggest Gothic church in the world, said they were doing it so that men would think they were mad. It is nice to think that something truly, magnificently mad is being done in Geneva of all places. All of which is to say that theology is, contrary to some reports, not dead. It lives on in the imaginations of the physicists and cosmologists, our contemporary cathedral builders and watchers of the heavens.


  1. The LHC is the latest in a line of experiments exploring the structure of matter, which stretch back over a century, and which have so far yielded television, X-ray medicine, transistors, microcomputers and thousands of other things that have transformed our lives for the better. What is the LHC for? To continue that work, expand our understanding and very probably transform the lives of future generations. You seem to view the world in terms of theological mysteries - if you glibly project that world view on to anything you don't understand, there is a danger that you are deliberately sealing yourself off from ever understanding it; retreating into a cotton wool bed of comforting confusion.
    -- Ursa (Minor)

  2. Fair point, Ursa (Minor), except that there's nothing comforting about my confusion. But the important point is that in comparing this science to theology I am not insulting it in any way. I rate the terms of theology very highly and I think to see this quest as continuous with the theological speculations of the past is to honour. I know scientists tend not to see it this way. And, if the collider, is as good as a great Gothic cathedral, then it's pretty damned good, whatever the practical outcomes.

  3. Indeed, the LHC should yield some fascinating results. The standard model of particle physics employs a hypothetical flying buttress called the Higgs boson to unify the weak and electromagnetic forces. Particle physicists in the 1990s didn't find the Higgs boson at the energies they were expecting to find it at. If the LHC does find it, then it will be the final triumph of the standard model; if the LHC doesn't find it, it will be time for a revolution in theoretical particle physics.

    But, standing out from all this, comes the final paragraph in the article from Wired News, where we encounter the University of Wisconsin physicist, 'Dick Loveless'. This has almost made my day. I recall from the early 1990s that there was also a NASCAR driver called Dick Trickle. God bless America!

  4. Just because we don't know what something is for, doesn't mean it is useless. There is a button on the dashboard of my car which I'm not sure does anything at all. At least when I press it nothing seems to happen. But I trust Nissan not to have put it there to confuse people like me who can't be bothered to read the manual. I think I'll just put my trust in the physicists on this occasion, Bryan.

  5. If America seems to have lost interest in this, it's probably because of the disastrous "Supercolliding Superconductor" that Congress gave gazillions to some Texas contractors to develop in the late '80s/early '90s. They didn't develop it; they absconded with the bucks.

    During my very brief stint as a Congressional court reporter in D.C., I recorded the session where various members of Congress fried one of the guys who took the money. I was sitting next to him with my tape recorder and notebook and, my God, he *reeked.* It was the smell of fear -- at last I know what that smells like. Tom DeLay was, for once, utterly silent during the proceedings. Of course he'd helped shepherd in the dough to Texas.

    I believe novelist Herman Wouk ("The Winds of War," "The City Boy," etc.) later wrote a comic novel about this fiasco.

  6. That's interesting, Susan, I didn't realise that there was some form of financial impropriety associated with the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC).

    When the project was given the go-ahead in 1987, the estimated cost was around 4-6 billion dollars. By the time of its cancellation in 1993, the estimated cost had risen to 10-12 billion dollars. 2 billion dollars had been spent, and multiple shafts, and miles of tunnels had been constructed under the cotton and cattle fields near to Waxahachie, Texas.

    'Big Science' itself was driven by defence interests during the Cold War, and with the fall of the Soviet Union, this motivation was obviously no longer present in 1993.

  7. Thank you, Gordon, that is the right name -- even then I couldn't say it right. I was taping a House subcommittee -- "Oversight and Investigations," I think it was called. We met in the Rayburn Bldg. and this would have been June or July of 1992 because we left D.C. for Phila. in August.

    It was pretty clear during that subcommittee meeting that money had been squandered and that a working superconductor/collider/whatever had never been built. I'll tell you what, though, I got to see America's Congress at work -- and to see just how smart these lawyers really are. Most of us only see them campaigning, but I got to see them grilling expert witnesses. Perry Mason could not have done it better, which is probably why this guy was exuding the musk of fear in great waves beside me!

  8. Did I read somewhere recently that this contraption could inadvertently create a black hole? Although I didn't get beyond the dust jacket to Hawking's bestseller, I believe black holes are not to be trifled with.

  9. I think the real danger, Neil, is a phase transition in the cosmic background which would flip the universe into a higher stability.

  10. It has been suggested that particle accelerators could create mini black holes, but such black holes will 'evaporate' very quickly (if quantum field theory in curved space-time is to be believed), so it probably is true to say that the main danger is the possibility that our own universe may not yet reside in the true vacuum state, and the destructive transition to this vacuum state may be triggered by a particle accelerator. The conventional counter-argument is that cosmic rays have been detected at much higher energies than those which will be created even in the next generation of particle accelerators.

  11. Just read your Sunday Times piece on Hawking, Bryan, as a storm of Victorian-proportions rages in the background. My first thought is that, rather like belief in God, reverence for Hawking actually died some time ago, at least in the UK. An attack on Hawking is therefore rather akin to Dawkins's attack on religion.

    A colleague I worked with last year, a perfectly intelligent chap in his middle twenties, didn't even know who 'Stephen Hawking' was. He didn't recognise the name, and didn't even recognise the description I gave of, "you know, the wheelchair-bound physicist?"

    Your point about the inconsistency in Hawking's belief system is well-made; Hawking endorses a type of anti-realistic philosophy of science, called instrumentalism. This, indeed, claims that scientific theories are just tools to organise, explain, and predict the empirical data. Instrumentalism is often justified by citing the 'underdetermination of theory by data'; i.e., it is sometimes actually the case, and, arguably, always possibly the case, that more than one theory is capable of organising, explaining and predicting the data. This is, indeed, inconsistent with belief in convergence towards a single, final, theory of everything.

    However, if one endorses a realist philosophy of science, then it is still perfectly consistent to believe that we are converging towards a final theory which organises, explains and predicts all phenomena, precisely because that theory represents the mathematical struture objectively possessed by the physical world.

    And, just in passing, I'd like to take a pot-shot at M-theory: it makes no predictions at all, so it is not a theory which "accords with current observation" at all.

  12. "It would take a Wittgenstein, not an Einstein, to decipher the correspondences between such strange words and whatever residue of reality remains."...,,2092-2483494,00.html

    What the author of the above piece fails to grasp, although he does earn Brownie points for sharing with us his badge of pride..“a failed intellectual” you can be prepared to find merely Pulp Fiction in his Rovings ....... is that Reality is that which is being Questioned/Investigated...... and for that you do need a Mind at least the Size, well, of Several Deep Black Holes, for what they show you, as your Mind Imagines where Time and Space go to, is that Anything can be True for only as long as IT is thought about. Hard Copying Thought allows for some interactive Third Party partying with Imagination which invariably seeks to either dismiss or build upon earlier Imaginations, Shared. Given Man´s inate predeliction to obfuscate Truth if it will reveal their Partnership/Support Role in a Lie, it is as well to expect any Good Book to be nobbled to support the Home Team. ...... in much the same way as the Times article does.

    I wonder if, if he was to write it again, Stephen Hawking would change the end of a Brief History with the words: “Then we shall know the mind of a God.” ..... for it is surely illogical to Think that there can only be One, whenever, if you Think prelogically you can Create Substance and Matter from ur IDers/Give Substance and Matter to ur IDers.

    “Hawking may not actually believe the laws of science are God, but, in his thinking, that is exactly the role they play.” ....... I´d risk a beer with him though that he actually believes they are God´s laws.

    “The basic assumption of science is scientific determinism”..... A Premise itself which if dismissed-realised as a false basic assumption, would allow for Fresh Thinking about Research which has thrown up anomalies.

    “As in that decade, it disseminated a myth and a theology. That myth was based on the contemporary vanity that our age has unique access to the deep truths of the universe and the theology was that we are no more than creatures of known, deterministic laws. The first is self-evidently untrue and the second cannot now or perhaps ever be known.” ........ Yes well, it is no myth that our age has unique access to the deep truths of the universe and you can Thank the World Wide Web and MetaData Search engines for that, so if the first part of the last sentence is self-evidently untrue, what are we to think of the second part?

    Are we to consider it as part and parcel of a badge of pride? Is Pride the same as Envy in some Dimensions?

    And now having said all of that, I would like to commend Mr Appleyard for bringing Viable Intelligently Designed Imagination ...... AstroMetaPhysics ........ more into the MainStream.

    M Theory though, gets ITs Power from the MainSXXXXtreme for in the Infinite Pleasure of the Controlling Orgasm is the Mirror to the Universal Understanding of Life through the Simple Complexity of Love Given Unconditionally.

    A Totally Addictive and Ever Strengthening ReSearch Field which has one moving on to Pimping for Goddesses for God´s Brothel.....Angels for Virgin Soldiers.

    And as would be the case, QuITe who would be Servering Whom would keep the Game Alive and Vital.

    "I think the real danger, Neil, is a phase transition in the cosmic background which would flip the universe into a higher stability.".... Higher stability a real danger? Hmmm only if you are into instability, I suppose. Given the information in this thread, it would appear to pay well into the Billions which may be why it can be so popular.

  13. I see. Thanks for that Bryan. Will that affect my no-claims bonus?

  14. What a DisappoIntment! I was hoping that all the ungrammatical Capital letters would spell a secret message when placed bacK to back!

  15. CERNs web site states that we have not been destroyed by effects of cosmic rays and micro black holes will evaporate.

    However, cosmic rays travel too fast to be captured by Earths gravity, and Hawking Radiation is disputed and contradicts Einsteins highly successful relativity theory. Collider particles smash head on like a car collision and can be captured by Earths gravity, and relativity predicts micro black holes will not decay (Hawking called Einstein doubly wrong, yet it is Einstein who is repeatedly found to have been correct in his theories). There is currently no reasonable proof of LHC safety, LSAG (LHC Safety Assessment Group) has been trying for months to prove safety without success. I hold the minority opinion that it may not be possible because it may in fact not be safe.

    Cosmic Rays from the legal complaint.

    any such novel particle created in nature by cosmic ray impacts would be left with a velocity at nearly the speed of light, relative to earth. At such speeds, . . . , is believed by most theorists to simply pass harmlessly through our planet with nary an impact, safely exiting on the other side. . . . Conversely, any such novel particle that might be created at the LHC would be at slow speed relative to earth, a goodly percentage would then be captured by earths gravity, and could possibly grow larger [accrete matter] with disastrous consequences of the earth turning into a large black hole.

    If this thing is so safe, why arent CERN scientists allowed to express any personal fears they might have about this Collider?

    Alleged in the legal action: Chief Scientific Officer, Mr. Engelen passed an internal memorandum to workers at CERN, asking them, regardless of personal opinion, to affirm in all interviews that there were no risks involved in the experiments, changing the previous assertion of minimal risk.

    (Statisticians generally consider minimal risk as 1-10%).

    What do you think about what Professor Dr. Otto E. Roessler says about possible danger from the Large Hadron Collider at (translation from German at