Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Hubris and the LHC

Suppose that the ultimate standard of our work were to be, not professionalism and profitability, but health and the durability of human and natural communities. Suppose we learn to ask of any proposed innovation the question ...: What will this do to our community....Suppose, in short, that we should take seriously the proposition that our arts and sciences have the power to help us adapt and survive. What then?

Well we certainly would have a healthier, prettier, more diverse and interesting world, a world less toxic and explosive, than we have now.
Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle

The scientist, a woman, is sitting in a room surrounded by monitors detailing invisible events miles away. She is smiling, so I imagine she is happy. She is happy thinking thought about things that do not exist except in her mind and on her monitors.

In her hand she holds champagne. Grapes fed the rays of the sun, lashing together carbon dioxide and water, were consumed by yeast. Electrons spilled, compounds changed. The yeast grow and divide, grow and divide, until poisoned by the same ethanol they produced.

That we can smash a couple of protons together at energies beyond comprehension, spending money beyond imagination, to search for the God particle in the name of physics speaks to our conceit.

That we celebrate such deeds while holding champagne in our hands, only dimly aware of the daily miracles that make wine, that make bread, that allow us to breathe, to drink, to eat while chasing our conceits at the expense of our neighbors speaks to our ignorance.

Michio Kaku, a physicist, writes in tomorrow's Wall Street Journal that this will help us "understand...the instant of genesis." He has said that finding new particles might "affect our conception of who we are in the universe."

Dr. Kaku speaks metaphorically, I suppose, and I reckon he'd be a fine musician of Bremen, but he does not speak for me.

Yesterday, the same Dr. Kaku said:
This is a huge step toward unraveling Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 1 -- what happened in the beginning. This is a Genesis machine. It’ll help to recreate the most glorious event in the history of the universe.

If you cannot find your "conception," your place, your existence in the life around you, you are not going to find it anywhere. Not in a book, not in a monitor, not in a 17 mile slinky toy buried beneath Europe.

The mindless pursuit of knowledge is a very dangerous game. If you're going to quote Genesis, Dr. Kaku, you'd do well to take a peek at Genesis 2:17. It is a fable, but a wise one.

Science allows us to see the world more clearly, to find patterns, to predict events. All science requires a filament attached to the natural, observable universe, a universe we cannot hope to ever fully understand, a universe not made in the image of man, a universe that may prove less forgiving than the gods we have created for our comfort.


John Spencer said...

I heard on NPR that scientists "discovered that morality is simply a magnetic reaction on one side of the brain."


I don't buy it. Don't get me wrong, I think there is something to the notion that we are all made of chemicals and that the environment does something to us.

The scientist said something to the extent that this finally proves that we have no souls, no minds apart from the brain. We're just charged particles.

And on some level all of that is true. It's just not complete.

I loved science as a little kid. I loved bugs and frogs and changes in seasons.

However, I quit loving science the day that I had to make a false dichotomy choice between faith and science, between objective reality and poetry, between love and chemical reactions.

Not entirely related, but that's how I feel.

Emily the Homeschooler said...

Hidden somewhere in your blog today is the reason that I chose to home school my children all the way through K-12. Public school disconnected me from the filament that ought to have attached me to a living universe.

I have often wondered why I have such difficulty explaining the reason I chose home education. I have been blaming myself for never finding the words. But now… perhaps it is that others have so few suitable receptors. Maybe they simply can't know.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I don't take much stock in the idea that we're "all made of chemicals"--we're greater than the sum of our parts. I know you know this already, but a lot of folks do not.

As far as being "just charged particles", the fault lies perhaps in the "just"--we have no idea what charged particles means beyond the models we create to predict and "explain" our universe.

I'm being a bit too oblique, I guess, but we all live in Plato's Cave. And you're right--it's not complete, and it never will be. The choice between faith and science is indeed a false dichotomy, despite the claims of the cognoscenti.

(I got quoted today in the local paper talking of paradoxes--your book may have influenced me. I need to post a review here.)

Dear Emily,

The real difficulty, I think, is trying to explain why we accept compulsory education that yields to the demands of people who may not have the best interests of children at heart.

I think public education is valuable, but tenuously so. I can understand why some folks choose to avoid it altogether. in some places. Here in Bloomfield I think we still have something worth your child's time.

But only you can determine that.

Kelly said...

John and Doyle - I was a little surprised neither of you commented on this post:
But I'll get over myself.

I appreciate the phrase "false dichotomy" and "just." There is nothing "just" about this. Thank you again, to both of you!