Saturday, September 06, 2008

Boom Bang-a-Bang With Brian

If you can bear to forego the Eurovision Dance Contest and the England/Andorra match tonight, BBC4 is repeating its two excellent programmes on the Big Bang and the CERN experiment. If not, I'm sure the last two will be on the invaluable iPlayer.
If you can only watch one of them, I recommend The Big Bang Machine. The preceding one is mainly clips from old BBC science programmes though still worth an hour of your time.

I was struck by the fact that so many leading physicists have astonishingly bad teeth. Never mind gift horses, never look a physicist in the mouth.
The exception was the presenter, the young British physicist Professor Brian Cox. He has teeth that would qualify him for a role in an Osmonds tribute band. And we see a great deal of his teeth because he's always smiling. I don't normally trust people who smile a lot, particularly those who are able to smile and talk at the same time. I'm always reminded of Shakespeare's Richard III: "I can smile and murder whilst I smile."
But I like Professor Brian. I've seen him on science programmes before and I have to say that, for a physicist and for a Professor, he's decidedly fit.
Well, not unfit. OK, that might be partly down to context: surrounded by elderly physicists with grey beards and rotting teeth, even I might appear telegenic.

Anyway, if I were going to be sucked into a black hole, Professor Brian would be the perfect companion. Not only would he gently talk me through the experience and the science behind it but he would rhapsodise on the sheer beauty of what was happening.
A Byron in T shirt and jeans, he talks a lot about the beauty of physics. Maybe he ended up on a science course through some administrative mix-up in Freshers' Week and couldn't find his way back to the English department.
And if he looks like a rock star, that's because he was a rock star. He's been in two rock bands, including D-Ream, most famous for the song "Things Can Only Get Better."
Cooler than the -250C in the Hadron Collider, he should be given a long sabbatical from Manchester University and tour the schools of Britain. The flood of applications for science courses would probably send the university clearing system into meltdown.

Professor Brian roamed around CERN with the excitement of a small boy in a chocolate factory. He showed us something called the Theory Corridor. As the name implies, this was a series of rooms where leading physicists sat and theorised.
As the camera panned along, we saw some of them in conversation with a colleague standing in the doorway. As there was no sound, we couldn't tell whether they were talking about gluons and leptons, borrowing some sugar or asking "have you heard whether Kevin Keegan has left Newcastle yet?"

On the question of whether the forthcoming experiment will destroy the world (which the media is so obsessed with), a physicist said they had conducted a thorough risk assessment.
I found this reassuring until I remembered the creative risk assessments I used to knock out at work in a spare ten minutes and the fact that a risk assessment is about 'due diligence' rather than the complete elimination of risk.

Having reeled you in with this personality-based froth, I will now explain string theory.
Only joking.
Let's stick with the Big Bang. For that is based on simple and compelling logic. It has been proven beyond doubt that the stars and galaxies are moving away from each other (the Expanding Universe). It follows that if you were to rewind the process they would move towards each other, contracting to a tiny speck of matter and the 'explosion' called the Big Bang.

But there's something I should like to ask Professor Brian if he wishes to drop in for a cup of tea and a plate of Gypsy Creams.
Neither the Big Bang nor the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson (which gives particles matter) amount to a Theory of Everything nor an ultimate explanation. We are told that before the Big Bang there was Nothing. But I have not heard of any theory that explains how Something can come out of Nothing. Well, not a scientific theory as opposed to a religious one.
To say 'In the Beginning was the Big Bang' may be more evidence-based than saying 'In the Beginning was God'. But for me, it is no more satisfying as an explanation. We're back to the old problem that a First Cause that does not itself have a First Cause is a logical dead-end.

In that respect, I think that some scientists over-egg the pudding in talking up the significance of next week's experiment. Maybe you have to if you need five billion pounds of public money to create the largest scientific experiment the world has ever seen.
That's not to say it isn't hugely significant and exciting. It may well produce more questions than answers but, given the nature of science, scientists will be happy if it shows they've been asking the wrong questions or if it provides new lines of enquiry.

If you are a scientist, I think you have to proceed on the basis of a belief in incremental steps towards Understanding Everything. Otherwise, why bother to understand anything?
Similarly, those who seek to improve human societies must cling, however tenuously, to a belief in a forward-moving arrow of progress.
It may well be that both the Good Society and an Understanding of Everything are hopelessly Utopian will-o-the-wisps pursued by creatures of limited ability on an insignificant planet in one of a hundred million galaxies. But you either believe in the nobility of the endeavour or succumb to a nihilistic cynicism.
Or possibly join the Conservative Party.


At 8:30 PM, Blogger Vicus Scurra said...

I have just watched said programme. I may even watch it again. I have seldom laughed so much.
I have to disagree with you on at least two points.
I did not find Brian Cox attractive. I found his grin irritating, and was pleased when, as the programme progressed, he stopped grinning so much and simply displayed his teeth. I would prefer the company of John Ellis, although, sadly, not in a sexual way. I would have to be very desperate to shag him.
Secondly, but less consequentially, I would dispute that it has been proved beyond all doubt that the universe is expanding. I have no evidence for this, but neither am I convinced by the arguments in favour of this or any other theory. Neither am I convinced by any definition of what "the universe" is, nor of its age.
Also, I would not join the Conservative party even if the alternative was the end of the universe (whatever it is).
But all of this stuff is jolly entertaining isn't it? I will probably laugh until at least next Wednesday afternoon, at which point I will be joining you in being sucked better than either of us has been sucked before.

At 1:25 PM, Blogger cello said...

I too was rather taken with Professor Cox (that is the correct spelling I believe). His smiling was surely just an adolescent delight in things smashing together at high speed. I think enthusiasm is much under-rated.

I think being sucked into - or by - a black hole must be preferable to what I have to do next Thursday, so bring it on.

At 3:44 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

vicus: I have no desire to shag Brian Cox either. I was simply saying that he's considerably more attractive than the average science presenter.

Unlike religions, science is not absolutist. All scientific theories are provisional but some are less provisional than others. So I'm bound to ask whether you are still unconvinced by Newton's theory of gravity or the theories of Einstein.

I'm struck by the fact that people who are dismissive of 'pure science' like the CERN experiment are much more accepting of 'applied science' - for example when they have a life-saving operation. But of course the distinction is arbitrary because much applied science is dependent on the discoveries of pure science.

cello: yes, there's not enough enthusiasm in the world. And I say that as someone who's often accused of being cynical. But if I didn't have my passions and enthusiasms, I'd have cut my throat by now.
Although tending to pessimism, I fully expect the world to be here next Thursday.


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