Thursday, 19 November 2009

Cloud 9

Yesterday clouds came down to earth. Morning started with great white curls of clouds stretching along the Jura mountains, following every curve, bump and cliff, like an uncanny etcha-sketch echogram. The heartbeat of a November morning at CERN written in the sky. By afternoon, the purest clouds on earth were being created, when the CLOUD experiment went live for the first time. Pure elements of air were pumped into CLOUD's chamber, driven by delicate motors and filters. And there was CLOUD itself...the container which 3 weeks ago looked like a shiney bathyscope lying on its side, now shrouded in a metallic crunchy coating and transformed into something you would encounter on a moon-landing. So much has happened so quickly, with intricate rigging lines and a portakabin turned into a control room, full of the requisite monitors to control the experiment and with a dozen scientists in attendance.

There is alot of brilliance about CLOUD. It is an experiment in which Jasper Kirkby, a leading particle physicist, is working with atmospheric chemists - a unique collaboration. There is also the fact that cloud formation - that most ethereal of creations - is being recreated down here on earth, and that the effects of cosmic rays on the cloud droplets and even ice particles will be studied too. But most of all, there is the sheer enlightenment of the CLOUD enquiry. It is an experiment which may proove that the cosmos has a role to play in climate change. For some, who have battled so hard to get climate change accepted as a human-generated catastrophe, which now politicians accept, this is unpalatable and a knowledge which they dont wish to be publicised. Last year a Scandinavian journalist had her story on CLOUD spiked because it mentioned this fact. Censorship is an emerging phenomenon in the climate change era.

What CLOUD shows is a pure drive for truth and knowledge. Even in this fractured century, in which climate change is now threatening to become a new orthodoxy which no-one should dare effect in any way, CLOUD is going for the pure ideal. It is the real deal. The truth of the matter - knowledge contained in the secrets of a droplet.

Monday, 2 November 2009

The Art of Physics

The punchline in this Sunday`s Observer newspaper said it all: " If it works, we will have built the most complex machine in history. If not, we will have assembled the world`s most expensive piece of modern art"

This unattributed quote by a physicist at CERN, talking about the switch of the LHC later this month, shows a division in perception about art and science. A redundant machine becomes art. Art is useless - dysfunctional and prohibitively expensive: literally costing the earth. Whilst science is functional and complex, and earth shattering too: it makes history. Breaks the mould of time.

There is alot at stake here. And it`s not just the elegant universe. There seems to be a vast ocean between the worlds of art and science. Yet look at the great detectors at the LHC from an artistic point of view, and you are blown away. Recently Vanity Fair came to CERN, taking the lifts down to the underground at ATLAS and CMS, emerging half an hour later, blinking into the light. The Vanity Fair photographer said he had never seen anything so beautiful. He was incredulous that something so precisely engineered could have such unintentional beauty. Look at the slices which make up the detectors, and they are giant eyeballs, lying on their sides: unblinking, with a steadfast stare. They are looking beyond - across and through time. Or look at them another moment later, and they are great peacock tails, which the German sculptress Rebecca Horn might have created. There is utter beauty in the micromatic precision of the sensors melded with the metal as well as the kaleidoscope of colours too which they display in their components and wiring.

`I cant believe it that these guys dont see the beauty of what they created,' opined the photographer. But the truth is, he couldnt believe either that such beauty could be created without intention. Or that the beauty the scientists judged their machines on was not about form, but totally about functionality. Beauty as utility.

Yet the irony is particle physics and the LHC in particular is predicated on the visual. On the beauty of seeing. The invisible and infinitely tiny particles are detected by these great monolithic machines aglow in their red, yellow, orange, green and silver colours and the shining metal which is calibrated so precisely that it makes these extraordinary structures the as yet unacknowledged 8th wonders of the world.

To think these detectors in the LHC are discovering how the universe started - with such a technologically advanced way of seeing that a particle collision appears on a monitor like a flash, the infinitely invisible made visible. There is such beauty in it. And artfulness too. The art of physics. It takes some beating. Art and science are not that far apart. They both seek meaning. Truth is beauty. Beauty is Truth. They are a blip on a monitor. A twin heartbeat. A pulse. A moment. At any given point. Now