New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:

Big deals

Agnostics Anonymous

Douglas Adams didn't live to see the Human Genome Project completed or the Higgs boson identified. But in a scene in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy he captured perfectly the sense of baffled anticlimax that followed these breakthroughs in 'Big Science'. Having pondered for millions of years on the great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, the 'Deep Thought' supercomputer finally reveals the answer: it's '42'. As Deep Thought explains to his dissatisfied human creators, the real problem is they never knew what the Question was in the first place.

The Manhattan Project fulfilled its remit by flattening what was left of Japan. But in less martial times, Big Science justifies itself by tackling Big Questions. Science's bills grow in line with its ambitions, and public enthusiasm for paying them is sustained by promises of major revelations to come. Nowadays science must reveal what makes us 'uniquely human'; or else unveil, in Stephen Hawking's phrase 'the mind of God'.

That kind of revelation is the province of biology. The Human Genome Project stated clearly what it means to be a human: it's 'attcgatgct', or billions of words to that effect. That's also what it means to be a chimp, a citrus fruit, or a clostridium difficile. The devil's in the details, which are too intractably complex to summarise. Any single Answer condensed from the great ocean of data would sound as arbitrary and pedantic as that mocking '42'.

Meanwhile, despite its 'god particle' billing the Higgs boson was never going to herald a new Heaven or a new Earth. Its discovery instead provided experimental buttressing for the Standard Model of physics. Personally, I'd always assumed that the Standard Model must be wrong, just on aesthetic grounds. Surely that messy assortment of weirdly-mismatched particles, spins and charges couldn't really be the elemental stuff of nature? Like late pre-Copernican cosmology with its intricate epicycles offset on deferents, the whole thing cries out to be swept away and replaced with something simpler.

But the scientists working at CERN eventually detected the god particle in the machine. The Higgs exists, so the Standard Model is presumably broadly correct. So that's the universe we live in. Various leptons, quarks, bosons and whatever- else, which combine to give 90-odd atoms, which in turn form molecules. Some of which trace out a long and intermittently comprehensible message in As, Gs, Ts, and Cs.

None of this tells you what it means to be you or what God thinks about anything. But perhaps those weren't the right questions in the first place. Perhaps those were always little matters to task Big Science with, and there are actually more things in heaven and earth than us and the gods we make in our image.