Friday, 18 May 2007

The LHC in the news

The Large Hadron Collider has been in the news lately, with half a page in the SMH a few weeks ago, and big articles in the current New Yorker, and the New York Times science pages.

The LHC is the world's next big particle physics endeavour, and due to switch on soon; my colleagues in the particle physics groups at the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne are working on one of the experiments there, ATLAS.

The NYT article is quite ambitious, skating over a lot of ground; it also manages to be quite jaunty. And in the spirit of a picture telling a thousand words, it links to a beautiful interactive graphic that clearly distinguishes the general-purpose experiments (ATLAS and CMS) from the specialist ones (LHCb and ALICE), and explains what the detectors are doing.

The New Yorker article misses out on things like this, giving the impression (for example) that there are four experiments doing basically the same thing. I actually have a bunch of gripes with the New Yorker article: it disses the CERN cafeteria; it canvasses the idea that the LHC could destroy the world in an ice-nine-type catastrophe (it seems we'll never be free of that one); and it indulges a theoretical particle physicist in a theorist-as-performance-artist act, which is getting a little old. But if that's the worst I can say about a seven-page article in my own field, then it is clearly doing something right. The writer is engaged with the subject; she has talked to a variety of people; she is thinking.

There are, however, some bad thoughts expressed in memorable language, that seem destined to live forever. The New Yorker repeats the dread line that all science is either physics or stamp-collecting: an idea utterly without merit, but still in circulation. But what goes around can come around. Today's (Thursday's) NYT editorial on the LHC contemplates a scenario where the project fails, putting another nail in the coffin of the Age of Physics, in favour of the Age of Biology.

Yeah, right. Physicists, like everyone, are a menace when they get arrogant. So what should we do about it? Hey! I know! Let's replace them with arrogant biologists ...

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