Wednesday, March 31, 2010

No black holes yet

The world has learned that the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] was revved up to cruising speed yesterday.

My home in France is not far away from the Franco-Swiss border where the subterranean device of the European Organization for Nuclear Research [CERN] is located. If ever the physicists happened to start creating tiny black holes, it's not unthinkable that some of them might stream through the ground and finally burst out into the air through the limestone cliffs of Choranche. And, if they emerged here, these black holes would surely start to gobble up various elements of the landscape, with greater or lesser effects, depending on the volume of the disappearances. If a black hole from the suburbs of Geneva were to hit one of my donkeys, say, then it's likely that the disturbance would only be noticed by me, the remaining donkey and, of course, my dog Sophia... who would no doubt smell the nasty odor of an approaching black hole, and start barking. On the other hand, if a black hole were to take out the entire Cournouze mountain, then this modification of the landscape would surely be noticed by many observers (including me, the inhabitants of Choranche and Châtelus, and countless skiers from the Drôme, driving past on their way up to Villard-de-Lans.

There's a down-to-earth question that puzzles me constantly. What would it feel like if you stepped inadvertently, while out walking, on a microscopic black hole that had just fallen onto the ground after being catapulted here from the CERN? Would you suddenly see your foot disappear mysteriously into thin air? Would you have time to jump aside before losing an entire leg? Would this kind of amputation be painful? I imagine naively that this would be a particularly "clean" kind of surgery, since any excess blood or dangling flesh would no doubt disappear into the hole, leaving the patient/victim with a nice smooth germ-free wound, which would no doubt be heal rapidly.

Enough silly joking about black holes. Let me be serious. The BBC website has produced a few excellent pages that explain the basic principles of the LHC. The stuff concerning the computing aspect of this affair, based upon a gigantic system called the Grid, is amazing. Everything about the LHC is fabulous, and I'm tremendously proud that Europe can get involved in this kind of research.

Recently, I was just as enthusiastic about this whole field of scientific investigation as I am today about genetics. In particular, I've admired the two books of Brian Greene about strings.

It's fascinating to try to compare research work and challenges in two different domains such as genetics and physics ("compare" is an inadequate word). The fields in which Richard Dawkins writes so brilliantly are in fact relatively down-to-earth, almost commonsensical, compared with the LHC universe. Even though there are still countless fuckwits who do their silly best to declare that Dawkins is wrong about almost everything, the truth of the matter is that he's operating in a scientific domain whose concepts and laws are fairly well specified by now. That explains why Dawkins can now amuse himself (as I'm sure he does) by fighting verbal battles with adepts of religion, creationism and quackery in general. I'm not suggesting that he doesn't have any more serious scientific work to do. No, I'm trying to say that, since he's standing on such firm ground, he can afford to take time off from scientific challenges in order to tackle the social and human tasks that consist of educating his fellow human beings.

In the world of physics, on the other hand, the great researchers are not yet in a comfortable position enabling them to get involved in comprehensible discussions with the general public. When geneticists set out to unravel the human genome, they had a clear idea of what they were looking for, and what they would eventually find. But there is no such clarity in the case of the LHC. There's even a distinguished Israeli physicist named Eliyahu Comay who's convinced that the CERN researchers won't find anything at all by means of the LHC: neither the Higgs Boson nor strings. And why not? Simply because such entities, according to Comay, cannot possibly exist! Any dumb nincompoop can enunciate his fuzzy personal reasons for dating the start of the universe, or the age of dinosaurs, or for demonstrating the existence or nonexistence of God. But it's a different kettle of fish when you decide to talk about the Higgs Boson and strings. Even Pope Benedict XVI wouldn't normally be expected to state his profound opinion on such matters. We know beforehand that, no matter what the people at CERN find out about the universe through the LHC, the facts and their conclusions will remain totally incomprehensible for the vast majority of observers.

In fact, that's what's nice about scientific domains that are based upon extraordinary concepts and advanced mathematics. These obstacles filter out the fuckwits. Inversely, the problem at the level of Darwin, Dawkins and DNA (just to name these three pillars) is that everything's so beautifully simple, immediately obvious and totally proven... except to loud-mouthed peanut-brained fuckwits.

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