Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ignorance, the Two Cultures, and the Meaning of Life

All right, this post isn't about politics, so sue me. I have to attend a meeting today, so I won't have time to read the papers. But in my morning scan of the news, I came upon this item in the Financial Times about the LHC: "CERN atom smasher set in motion." Now, one comes to expect an almost universal ignorance of science among journalists and even among my university colleagues in non-scientific fields. People who would be surprised to learn that a colleague did not know about the assassination of a certain archduke in a certain Sarajevo are almost proud to profess that they haven't the foggiest idea what Schrödinger's equation is. This docta ignorantia always astonishes me. I recognize that I'm that rare bird who has migrated across the boundary between the sciences and the humanities, but still I think it's not unreasonable to expect a minimum of scientific literacy in a world in which the mundane realities of production and power are so heavily dependent on scientific knowledge. So I find it truly appalling that a journalist for a newspaper as excellent as the FT, assigned to write an article about the LHC, is capable of calling it an "atom smasher." As Wikipedia (or etymology) could have told the writer, the LHC is a "hadron collider": hadrons are heavy subatomic particles (as opposed to leptons, light subatomic particles), in this case protons. Two counter-rotating beams of protons crash into each other--"collide"--hence the name. This is 2008; the FT seems to think it's still 1930.

You can follow progress at LHC on this blog. You can brush up on the Higgs mechanism here. For a complete rundown of quantum field theory and the standard model of elementary particles, try Steven Weinberg's remarkable trilogy, if you happen to have a spare decade to set aside for reading. Or you can simply admire the screen shot above: the LHC works!

1 comment:

Leo said...

I agree with you that journalists should know something about the subjests they are covering. Although I have tried to read about particles physics, I have found it quite daunting and still regard myself as a card caryiing ignoramus. Some journalistic explanations would have been welcome.
I am pleased with your last sentence extolling admiration for those pictures. It reminded me of the awe displayed by the exponents of the theory of super strings at the "elegance" of their idea.
Allelujah! Scientists have a heart! (No berating intended).