2000s >> 2007 >> no-1231-march-2007

Pathfinders: Particles of faith

According to legend the ancient Greek natural philosopher Democritus was eating a piece of cake one day, and with a knife idly cutting it into sections, when he embarkedon a thought experiment. Suppose, he wondered, one had a knife that was infinitely sharp and infinitely thin, how many times could one divide a section of cake until the resulting piece was something so small no knife could ever cut it. Would this piece represent the ultimate building block of all matter? He supposed that it would, and he gave to this hypothetical building block the term ‘a-tom’, meaning ‘will not cut’, and to posterity he gave the solid beginnings of atomic theory.

Since Rutherford cut the ‘uncuttable’ and split the atom in 9 3 scientists have pursued the quest to find the smallest irreducible particle, and they still haven’t managed it. While this may seem only of mild interest to the non-scientific public, what does seem rather astounding is the eye-watering budgets which this continuing, some think Quixotic, quest seems to attract from what are, after all, capitalist governments with more interest in profits than proton colliders.

Great excitement is being stirred up at the moment by the imminent firing up of the biggest and most expensive research installation the world has ever seen, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the Centre for European Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. While the physics and engineering are state-of-the-art, the concept behind LHC couldn’t be more old-fashioned. If you send two particles flying around a long tube in opposite directions and smash them into each other at stupendous speed, you get an explosion of bits and pieces flying off, and some of these bits and pieces might be new particles unknown to physics.

Why does this matter so much to physicists? Because, with its two intractable paradoxes of dark matter (which nobody can find) and dark energy (which nobody can find) forming essential cornerstones supporting the ‘standard model’ of physics upon which everything from Einstein upwards is based, physics can reasonably be said to be in a new dark age. It is enough to make anybody’s head ache.

Either Einstein’s general relativity is wrong or quantum mechanics is wrong, but they have both passed every known test and fulfilled every known prediction. The essential problem is that of the four known forces, three, the electromagnetic, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, are mediated by particles. The fourth, gravity, is apparently not.

Gravity is the black sheep of the family in other ways too, being thirty orders of magnitude weaker than the other forces (think of fridge magnets), and uniquely exerting the same force on all objects regardless of weight (keeping both you and an ant on the ground). What possible Unifying Principle can be behind all this? To which the physicists reply: we have no idea, but give us billions of dollars and let us smash things up, there must be some more particles out there somewhere.

But why does this matter so much to the rest of us? The answer, perhaps shockingly, is that it doesn’t matter a damn. If the arguments between the handfuls of people worldwide who really understand the various brands of string or quantum gravity theory are ever resolved, nobody else will understand the answer anyway. What will, ahem, ‘normal’ people get out of it? Nothing, in all probability.

Bear in mind that nobody is arguing for investment on the promise of profits from by-product technology, as we saw from the space race with such things as digital watches and vastly better computers, and even Velcro. There is no known military application. There is no suggestion of being able to harness or use the energy involved for practicalpurposes. To be sure, government investors are being kept on the hook with tantalising talk of ‘quantum computers’, a concept which might reduce supercomputers from filing cabinet to fingernail size, despite the fact that the physics is hotly disputed, it is a paper-only theory and no experiment has provided even proof of principle never mind an actual demonstration of viability. But there must be an angle here somewhere, surely? Hard-nosed governments know better than to throw away billions on vague guesswork. Don’t they?

No, they don’t. Capitalists, and the governments who mediate their interests, don’t invest in horizon science because they believe it will go anywhere, but because they can’t be entirely sure that it won’t. It’s a modern form of Pascal’s wager, which proposed that the risk of being wrong if one worshipped God and he didn’t exist was as nothing to the risk if one didn’t and he did. If anything ever came of this atom-smashing malarkey in Switzerland, what capitalist wouldn’t want a piece of the quantum action? And if nothing comes of it, well then, they’ve all lost money equally.

What all this does of course is to play into the hands of a small handful of physicists who want big toys and who can invent impenetrable arguments which capitalists can’t fathom and don’t dare ignore. Moreover, these same physicists are in a position, with lofty talk of understanding ‘where the universe came from and where it’s going’, to browbeat the rest of us with a quest that is so transcendently  awesome that all other quests for knowledge or human improvement appear to pale into insignificance. Quite simply, and with the entire history of scientific enquiry and endeavour stacked up against us, we don’t dare ask the question ‘what does it matter?’

That it matters, in some profound philosophical sense, is of course unarguable. But the question we, as socialists and as scientifically-minded members of the modern age, should be asking is, does it matter now? In a world already half-destroyed by the consequences of a steam-age political system, is this really what we should be spending our time and effort looking into? Aren’t there more pressing things for science to be doing?

This is all pure heresy, of course. But in a recent New Scientist review of Oliver James’ book Affluenza, which describes western capitalist populations’ unhappy love affair with consumerism, the reviewer constantly demands more evidence and better research before accepting the validity, albeit intuitively acknowledged, of much of what James has to say about the meaningless of a life lived for material gain alone. A cynic might conclude that when scientists are not interested in the debate, they demand impossible amounts of evidence while making no useful suggestions about what evidence would satisfy them or what methodologies would be acceptable. When the debate concerns their own fascinations, however, they rely heavily on funders being willing to speculate wildly, without any evidence nor any guarantee of success.

Democritus is referred to as a ‘natural philosopher’. The term ‘scientist’ was not coined until 833, at which point the deep-seated respect for the ‘polymath’ who was good at lots of things was replaced by a new Enlightenment-age adoration of the person who did just one thing. ‘Scientist’ describes what a person doesn’t do as well as what they do, a single-tasking paradigm which tries to exclude the real world and its values, from the simple and ‘pure’ mono – dimensional thought-process.

We need scientists to join the rest of us in the real world, and help us do the research and find the evidence we need to prove to the world that a non-market economy can work better than what we have, or conversely, prove that it can’t. But it seems they are too busy chasing bucks and bits of quanta, all in the Nobel cause of selfless enquiry.

Another ancient story has it that Archimedes, he who expressed such delight in flooding his bathroom, was so absorbed in mathematical calculations that he ignored, in the middle of the battle for Syracuse, an invading Roman centurion who was demanding his attention with extreme prejudice. The Roman, evidently miffed at the other’s lack of social graces, shoved his sword in the mathematician and killed him. Which just goes to show, if you don’t pay attention to the world around you, things can get very sticky.

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