18 June 2008

Liat versus hadron collider

Liat Collins, the managing editor of Jerusalem Post, added her own broadside to the long history of heavy bombardment the Large Hadron Collider is experiencing lately from the well meaning laymen/women of the international press. Being somewhat trained in reading articles of the kind she has produced, I have immediately zeroed on the insidious:

But I can't help thinking that the $10 billion invested in the project over the last 14 years might have been better invested elsewhere, and the project's 6,000 scientists could have put their undoubtedly considerable brain power to granting many a wish list.
If I had a dollar... nah, make it a shekel, for every time I encounter a similar sentiment... oh well, wishful thinking at its worst. Anyhow, how can I explain to Liat that, even if that amount is invested elsewhere, the 6,000 scientists freed for other gainful employment by that move, will not be able to put their brain power to, for instance, better irrigation of African steppes. That for a simple reason that scientists, like pigs trained to discover truffles, cannot be easily (if at all) re-trained to look for (to take one example) Belgian waffles. And that all these scientists will find gainful alternative employment in the only other area that is readily available - producing all kinds of weaponry for lesser or bigger tyrants of the world.

But this, Liat will claim - and be absolutely right at that - is only a technicality. Like the fact that the mind-boggling amount of $10 billion spread over 14 years doesn't even start to compare to a military budget of a medium-to-small country or to an expense budget of a serious oil sheik.

And Liat will not be stopped after a simple expression of the commonly held sentiment as quoted above. She has more to say on the subject:
The project is being described as groundbreaking. And while I doubt it will create any black holes, it wouldn't surprise me if such a subterranean collision didn't ultimately result in, for example, unexpected earthquakes in Europe. Of course, the Big Bang could end in a very embarrassing Big Fizzle, with no world-shattering discoveries despite the participation of scientists from more than 50 countries. Or something so sensational I'll be forced to admit my skepticism was misplaced and I'll have to add apologizing to one of my never-ending lists.
There definitely is a problem of perception with Liat - to start with. Science doesn't usually progress in a series of big (or medium, for that matters) bangs. It is mostly a painstaking process of thinking, experimenting, drinking lots of bad coffee and mostly thinking again. The hadron collider is not build for a single bang - but for years and years of experiments, guided by the best minds modern physics sport. And re black holes and related (or not) earthquakes - scientists rarely, if at all, deal in terms of "has the earth moved for you, dear?". So let's forget both the Big Bang and the Big Fizzle (which is clearly the outcome desired by Liat). Even if something sensational will be eventually discovered, the mere meaning of sensational in this case is not something Liat will be able to translate into another JP article that easily. It is about stuff that not too many physicists could cope with, let alone journalists.

But the above could be also qualified as a technicality. The real problem I experience is the following: how do I explain to Liat, who is apparently a bachelor in Chinese Studies and a master in communications, who went through a career in a gossip column to parliamentary reporting to environmental journalism, that science is not about instant gratification of unbearable human urges?

Maybe by mentioning that every time that Liat presses a button on one of her remote controls, starts her laptop, switches on/off the light in her bedroom, sticks the earbuds of her iPod where they belong and writes another heart-wrenching article about one of the wide spectrum of subjects she considers herself being qualified in, she is (unthinkingly) using the results of hundreds - nay, thousands - years of scientific progress (to what end could be argued about). And that many more billions of dollars, rupees, rubles and other kinds of currency, not to mention millions of person/years of work went or, maybe, were wasted - to judge by the outcome - to provide Liat with ability to perform these routine daily chores.

And speaking about the daily chores and to-do lists: my advice, Liat, will be to add a new habit: when your review your to-do list, scratch all to-do items that have to-do with science. At least the kind of science you don't have a slightest idea about.

And resist with all your considerable might headlines like "Déjà vu, again" for your articles.