Below is the latest The Pain -- When Will It End?
Updated 07/09/08



Artist's Statement

What exactly the Large Hadron Collider will do is something I can understand only in the most reductive, metaphorical layman's terms, in rare, momentary satoris I really have to strain for, and usually only when Brian Greene, or sometimes Lisa Randall, explains it. The main thing they’re hoping to accomplish is find evidence of a Higgs Boson, the only elementary particle predicted by the Standard Model not yet observed, and the one that gives other particles mass. Do I really have any idea what this means? I do not. What I do get is that it is only at extremely high energy levels that certain phenomena which would otherwise remain totally theoretical can be observed. These gigantic supercolliders are the only way to test some of the more otherworldly implications of particle physics and string theory, such as the nature of dark matter and the existence of higher dimensions. I find this cool.

The U.S. was to have built such a supercollider in Texas, but congress cancelled funding for it back in 1993. Science is one of the stupider things I can think of to get jingoistic about—it's up there with art as one of the great collaborative intergenerational human undertakings--but it still disappoints me that my own country, which split the atom and landed a man on the moon, decided it didn’t have the money to resolve some of the profoundest questions about the nature of reality but did manage to come up with funds for the destruction of Iraq. This seems to me kind of like not being able to afford music lessons for your daughter but somehow always having enough cash on hand to buy cocaine every weekend. It was a symbolic turning of the tide in this country, receding from our high water mark of scientific preeminence. Now the Europeans are hosting the project instead, while we’re still debating the monkey trial.

It’s funny that evangelicals only stage really organized outcries over evolution, rather than, say, geology or particle physics. How come no picket lines in front of the moon rock repository, where scientists have blasphemously dated basalt back 4.5 billion years, well before the appearance of the moon on Day Four of Creation five thousand years ago? Why no demand for equal time for Creationism at conferences on string theory, which doesn’t acknowledge the hand of a divine creator in supersymmmetry? Perhaps I'm belaboring the point. It is because they are too stupid even to have ever heard of these things. None of their sources of information--their pastors, Good Morning America, USA Today, Time magazine--has told them about bosons or or branes or the electroweak force.

Lately I find myself feeling less contemptuous of Creationists than sorry for them. The creation myths of religion were only primitive efforts to understand the origin of the world and the nature of being in the absence of any information. Now, for the first time in history, we’re actually able to get at the answers--the actual, correct answers--and most people are too blinded by their emotional attachment to the old bedtime stories to look at the truth now that it’s staring them in the face. It’s especially depressing because the truth, insofar as we’re able to apprehend it, is so much more elegant, complex and beautiful, a far more aweful revelation, than the crude fables of religion. Our spiritual lives may be more impoverished, but our picture of this universe is so shockingly immense and rich compared to the dwarfish, arid worldview of five thousand years ago. I recently went to Baltimore's the Walters Art Gallery to see an exhibit of ancient maps and an ancillary exhibit of photos from the Hubble telescope. Compare the crude Medieval maps that show the earth as a disc divided cleanly into the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa (with the Garden of Eden at the center), with the Hubble's Deep Field image—galaxies like handfuls of jewels, each an unreachable island universe teeming with worlds we’ll never know. A glimpse of this vision, like seeing Zeus in all his glory, is enough to make you fall to your knees and cover your eyes. The human imagination is incommensurate to the mystery we inhabit. Biblical (or Talmudic, or Koranic) literalists remind me of children wrinkling their noses at Belon oysters and asking for more Chef Boy-R-Dee. They just want the world to be as simple as they are. (Which is one reason evangelicals, as a group, hired a guy as dumb as they are for the job of running the country; they hoped that intelligence wasn’t that important, that guts or faith or “moral clarity” would be enough, which, it turns out, sadly, no.)

And yet I share some of Carl Sagan’s naive belief that if only science were more widely publicized people would might take more of an interest in it, might learn some skepticism, and might even, per Brian Greene’s recent op-ed in the Times, quench some of their thirst for wonder that’s otherwise being lucratively slaked with cheap, dehydrating New-Agey booze. Instead we get a steady diet of political gaffes and celebrity gossip, sports and infotainment, Doritos for the mind. (See my artist’s statement for “Enough Local News” for more of my mouthing off on this subject.) Oh, never mind me, I’m just some snobby Ivory-Tower elitist who thinks some board of philosopher-kings ought to confiscate all the TVs and shove string theory and Proust down everyone's throats. Forget it! Let’s go back to talking about Miley or A-Rod or whoever.

In the interest of scientific literacy I should clarify that there is just about no realistic possibility that the LHC will generate a mini black hole, strangelet, or any other phenomena that might destroy the world. Some doofi did sue the LHC in a Hawaii District Court, demanding that they, like, cease and desist until filing a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement reassuring us that they were not going to accidentally suck us all into Yuggoth. You can read the LHC's safety report here, if you're really worried about it.

Thanks to my friends Ellen, for good advice on the Lovecraft panel, and Cynthia, for help thinking up New York Post-style headlines. It's harder than you'd think.

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