So on September 10 CERN switch on the Large Hadron Collider – the biggest scientific experiment of all time. Will it simply create a black hole that will suck the Earth into oblivion? I think I can say with absolute certainty that, No, it won’t. Of course, the only reason I am so confident is that if I am right then I can crow about it afterwards, but if I am wrong, exactly who is going to tell me so?
Another thing I often hear about these experiments is that they will move us a little – or maybe a lot – towards the scientific grail – the Theory Of Everything – which, rather inelegantly for a holy object, is often referred to by lazy typists like me as just plain TOE.
This ‘Theory of Everything’ stuff impresses me though. A Theory of Everything, eh? So it will explain the weather? The nature of beauty? Why feudalism gave way to capitalism? Whether or not we will deal with climate change? Why I talk to my cat? The nature of consciousness? Why I think Eddie Izzard is funny? How about something a lot simpler, like the nature of life? Or are such things, as people who cannot handle complicated things (like reality) like to say, unreal, epiphenomena, or secondary (whatever that could possibly mean)?
I’m not sure that anyone is claiming that TOE will explain anything like this. So what is the problem? Qualitative change – which necessarily cannot be explained in mathematical terms – is perfectly real. Not in the sense that something magical suddenly appears, but in the sense that novel structure of the kind that the first consciousness, the first life and the first atom were all derived from not only stabilises existing patterns of activity but also reveals new patterns. That is after all why we have not only physical action but also chemical reactions, life and natural intelligence.
So why is it that scientists like to repeat that this really will lead to a genuine Theory of Everything? It may well tell us really important things about the physical world – though even that is likely to be limited to a certain level – but ’everything’? Absolutely not.
(Incidentally, the BBC’s webpage on the day poses the fascinating question ‘Is particle physics the new rock n’ roll?’ I think I can reply with some authority on this one: No. And please don’t say anything so silly again.)