Monday, September 08, 2008
The former government chief scientist Sir David King, a good man, suggests we should redirect our research efforts towards the most pressing practical problems - climate change, African poverty - and away from particle physics and space exploration. This, of course, is the week in which the LHC - a wonderfully abstract and impractical way of spending several billions - is to be fired up for the first time. Personally I am drawn to the poetry and architecture of the LHC. Constructing large interior spaces to discover or express what is seen in any particular age as the ultimate truth of the world is a distinguished human tradition. On the other hand, Sir David may be right. People are dying in Africa and climate change may threaten our species so now is perhaps not the time to glory in abstractions. This reminds me of my teenage years when I decided not to follow the rest of my family into the sciences. I used to wonder about the difference between 'pure' and 'applied' maths. Could any maths be applied, could any be pure? Sir David's distinction may seem clearer, but I'm not sure it is. As in all religions, in science the abstract and the practical are entwined. We can't, for the moment, see the ethical content of the LHC, but one day, in the distant future, somebody will.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 7:52 am