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Smashing more atoms is not a sign of scientific progress

The proposed supercollider in Texas, at $8.4-billion, may be one of the greatest boondoggles of all time. But the main problem concerns something more fundamental than cost. The supercollider is a 53-mile circular tunnel that would accelerate atomic particles at supersonic speeds, smashing atoms into smaller and smaller bits.

Many of its proponents tend to argue, among other things, that science may discover the smallest building block of the universe and that the universe can be explained by a Grand Unified Theory. Both assumptions are outdated.

The reduction of the universe to an essential basic particle was first attempted in the 5th century _ theoretically, since he had no microscopes or atom-smashers _ by Democritus, who gave us the name and theory of the atom, establishing it as the basic unit of matter, a notion that has not changed for more than 2,000 years.

Democritus thought the atom was absolutely indivisible. We know that this is not so: During this century (mostly because of equipment capable of "smashing" atoms) physicists have found that atoms include other, smaller particles.

Consider the names physicists have given to many of these particles _ names that are often nothing but tortuous linguistic inventions. In his book The End of Physics _ the Myth of a Unified Theory, the physicist David Lindley _ senior editor of the journal Science _ writes that "the quality of nomenclature in particle physics (has sunk) to new lows." Well after physicists discovered the "neutrino" (to be distinguished from the "neutron") we now have "selectrons" and "sneutrinos" and, "worst of all, the whole set of quarks turns into a corresponding set of "squarks.'


We are, after more than 500 years, back in the presence of the medieval superstition of nominalism: the tendency to think that once we give a name to a phenomenon we've "got it."

That is the very opposite of realism, which in philosophy, art and, indeed, in all intellectual endeavors began to replace nominalism around the time of the Renaissance.

But the assumption that the universe can be reduced to an original particle has already changed _ or, rather, degenerated _ into a second assumption, the myth of the Unified Theory. Many physicists are now inclined to believe that even if we cannot find the smallest building block of the universe, we can find a mathematical formula that will explain the entire universe: a Theory of Everything.

Given sufficient money (and, I assume, voltage) the supercollider may or may not "produce" the basic unit of the universe, while it will create more subatomic situations that may be formulated mathematically. But more and more mathematical formulas about subatomic matters consist only of untested and untestable assumptions, all of them theoretical and abstract.

The belief that the universe is "written in the language of mathematics" is not only wrong, it is entirely outdated.

"What is there exact in mathematics except its own exactitude?" Goethe wrote. He was right, as mathematicians in the 20th century have confirmed.

Near the end of the Middle Ages, a few theologians _ the "scientists" of that time _ persuaded a king of France to give them permission for an experiment that had been forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church.

They were allowed to weigh the soul of a criminal by measuring him both before and after his hanging. As usually happens with academics, they came up with a definite result: the soul weighed about an ounce and a half.

We laugh at such things, of course. But remember how much suffering such coarse and foolish ideas about the soul produced in the wars of religion during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age.

We ought at least to consider the possibility that 100 or 200 years hence people may laugh at the pretensions of some of our scientists, as well as at our gullibility at the end of the 20th century.

The time has come to rethink not only some of the technical applications but the very meaning of "progress." To oppose the supercollider is by no means a reactionary position. To believe that the United States must not commit itself to such a financial and scientific boondoggle is a step forward, not backward.

My argument is not simply that it is not given to humans to explain everything, including the universe. When human beings recognize that they cannot create everything and cannot see everything and cannot define everything, such limitations do not impoverish but enrich the human mind. They mark the evolution of our consciousness.

Nearly 50 years ago, the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos said that the atom bomb was "a triumph of technique over reason."

Fifty years after us, rats may scurry through the 50 miles of tunnels under Texas hardpan and a few tourists may gape at the remnants of the supercollider, at the ruins of a monument to unreason.

John Lukacs is author of The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age.

New York Times News Service