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Pathfinders: Higgs Story in the Making

Last month’s big science news, perhaps the news of the decade, was the Higgs discovery, or rather the discovery of a new particle of some sort which may or may not be the Higgs or some relative, close friend, neighbour or chat-room acquaintance thereof. Ask anyone on the street what the significance of this is and they will cheerfully tell you they’ve no idea. The physicists are none too sure either. Their jubilation is due to a twofold success story, the one of theory, the other of experimental ingenuity. Theorists can dream up all sorts of exotic ideas, but testing them is quite another matter. The Large Hadron Collider and its two detectors CMS and ATLAS are probably the most complex machines ever built by humans. They would be a triumph of engineering even if they hadn’t found anything. The discovery doesn’t push back the boundaries of the unknown, nor even positively confirm what is known. Like a man found at a crime scene holding the murder weapon, the particle may look guilty as hell, but so far the evidence is all circumstantial and other interpretations are possible. Even if it cries ‘Fair cop, guv, I’m the one wot done it’, it’s just one gangland boss in a whole shadowy organisation, behind which lurk the elusive grandmasters gravity, supersymmetry (maybe) and who knows what else? The Higgs does not so much expand our collective knowledge as confirm the majestic scale of our ignorance.

Socialists spend a lot of time talking about what capitalism does badly, but it behoves us to acknowledge too when capitalism does something well. Science has been a galloping success and its expansion shows no sign of slowing down but instead is accelerating. It is sobering to reflect that Einstein in his prime had no idea that galaxies existed. The fact that the universe itself, like science, is also expanding and that this expansion is accelerating is a fact now probably known to most schoolchildren, yet it was not known when Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power, and the Nobel prize for this discovery was awarded just last year.

This is one of the most contradictory and confusing aspects of capitalism. It is not just averagely good or bad at doing things, it is amazingly good and bad at doing things. When the history of this epoch comes to be written, perhaps by future socialist scholars, people will scratch their heads over the triumphant success of experimental high energy physics on the one hand, and the utter failure of society to make any progress over climate change on the other. How is it that we could explore, with an unprecedented level of cooperation, cost, accuracy and dedication, the fundamental nature of matter, while managing to overlook the fact that our collective laboratory was burning down around us? Why did we pour such ingenuity into, say, fat research while ignoring mass starvation, or epidemiology while doing nothing to stop the epidemics of easily preventable diseases?

It’s all about the money, obviously. Some might wonder why 111 states, with their eye always on the accounts, ever came to pay £6bn for an experiment which shows no obvious prospect of producing a financial return, especially when these same states show no similar cooperation over climate control. But that is to forget the casino nature of the system. Capitalism backs science like a gambler backs horses, expecting losses but hoping for a few big wins. Nobody has any idea whether or how the Higgs might represent a win in money terms. It may do or it may not. The Caderache fusion reactor (Pathfinders, May 2012) will probably cost three or four times this amount, and may produce nothing. Roughly $150bn has so far been lofted into orbit in support of the International Space Station, with again no certainty of a payoff.

What is certain is that poor people don’t pay, no matter how much research you put in, no matter what experiments you do. Putting food in a hungry child’s mouth is never going to make any sense in capitalism. That horse simply won’t run. Climate control, similarly, is a loser. Collective rationality just doesn’t come into it. Expecting capitalist states to agree to climate control is like expecting trees in a forest not to try to outgrow each other. Whoever cheats will gain an advantage, so everyone must cheat. Even though everyone ultimately exhausts themselves in the effort, nobody can afford to be left behind in the race.

So while we should acknowledge the amazing success of science within capitalism we have to recognise its political context. Its achievements are those which capitalism wants, its agenda that which capitalism writes. Those who support science can sometimes fall into the habit of reifying it as an ideal, as a ‘value-free’ quest for knowledge which transcends all other considerations. For them, the portrait of the astronomer peering through his telescope and writing his notes can never be anything other than a noble vision.  But we are not living in a noble vision and science does not exist in a bubble. Outside the quiet observatory the world is immersed in chaos and murder. For all its monumental achievements, science can never really be true science while it is forced to flow down the channels money cuts for it. And human society will never be truly scientific, no matter how far it pursues the secret facts of nature, while it continues to ignore the salient facts of life.

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Users: 1 -  Software Mafia: 0

Ongoing tribulations with capitalism’s attempts to commodify the unquantifiable: knowledge. Now in a major blow to the software industry the European Union has ruled that software companies have no right to prevent customers from reselling old second-hand titles (New Scientist, 14 July). Up to now the software mafia have insisted that knowledge is a hitherto unique type of commodity, where you don’t buy the thing itself but instead buy a licence to use it. Since this militates against most people’s conception of common sense in capitalism, it was widely misunderstood or disregarded. How, people wondered, could you pay for something and still not own it? The new ruling throws out this bizarre anomaly, but it does more than that, for who is to say who’s bought what from whom in the second-hand market? The worst fears of the industry will now be realised, to the delight of users, as we all go around ‘selling’ each other our software for a notional penny. Which we may never get round to paying. It’s nice to see, for a change, capitalism’s efforts to create artificial scarcity being given the bum’s rush.