Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The London riots

The London riots have reminded me why I helped create and now contribute to this blog. They also motivated me to write the following.

There are people in society doing incredible things. Right now, in Geneva, there is a physics experiment going on (the LHC at CERN) that is so incredible that physicists all around the world will stop whatever they are doing at the merest hint of a rumour from the scientists involved. At the LHC they are literally looking for completely new types of matter. And not just types of matter that aren't here to play with on Earth, or the solar system, but types of matter that are not present as stable particles anywhere in the observable universe. Also, at the moment, in an orbit around Earth, there is a satellite that is measuring the light that lingers in the universe from the end of the big bang. This light has existed, travelling freely, for 14 billion years and it is not a stretch of the truth to say that it really is a photograph of the big bang. This is incredible and it is, right now, being done by humanity.

A huge proportion of society, will, on the occasional, dark, starry, night look at the stars and feel a sense of wonder – so they do care. However, most people don't feel any sense of participation in this incredible stuff humanity is doing. They might know of the LHC and CERN, but they feel so infinitely detached from it that they certainly won't relate to it. But, ultimately, these experiments are an undertaking by all of Europe. The scientists might be doing the hard labour, but the capital was provided by the European taxpayer. These are the public's experiments as much as they are the scientists' experiments.

The people rioting in London are no exception. They will care too. But all they can see is a society where the purpose is to accumulate wealth. What a crappy society that looks like. Until you start a family, where's the point, the purpose, the thing in life worth caring about? Why not riot? At least it gets you in the news.

While it isn't true that if everyone in London knew about the LHC that the riots wouldn't have occurred I do believe that if people cared about the goals of their society and saw them as something to fight for that the probability of stuff like this happening would diminish, whatever the other circumstances.

So, I see this blog as a small scale skirmish in that fight. That is, the fight that first aims to make society fully aware of how incredible it actually is, and secondly aims to make society want to contribute to doing more of this incredible stuff.


  1. Disclaimers... I don't mean to diminish or ignore the many problems society has (some of which will have contributed to these riots), but equally, awareness of these problems should not diminish our awareness and appreciation of the incredible things that do exist. I also think the riots are exceptionally stupid. This doesn't mean those of us not rioting shouldn't try to reduce the likelihood of them happening again – that would also be stupid. I mentioned the LHC and Planck satellite. There are many other incredible things humanity is doing. These are just the two I am most familiar with. I was also tempted to delve into bolder thoughts relating to the purpose and direction of society, but I want to take more care if I do, so I've held back, for now.

  2. I think it's fairly safe to say that the vast majority (if not all) human conflict is based around an argument of how society and civilisation is organised and what it's goals should be. At present there seems to be a huge amount of discussion about how to organise society, be it the financial systems, education, social welfare etc, but very little on what we're actually trying to achieve as a civilisation.

    I agree with you, Shaun, that many of the disaffected people who are setting light to their own neighbourhoods consider society to be extremely aimless and individualistic. This isn't necessarily an inaccurate assumption as there is little in the way of high-profile public or political discussion regarding our common aims to understand and to express. Those of us who work in front-line science or art might find it difficult to remember that the majority of people feel disconnected from the discoveries being made, but I feel that including the rest of society in such work is extremely important in generating a sense of collective ambition and direction.

    It won't solve all the world's problems, but it might allow us to face them as a unified species driven by common aims.

  3. There's a William Carlos Williams poem that ends with this sentiment:

    All this --
    was for you, old woman.
    I wanted to write a poem
    that you would understand.
    For what good is it to me
    if you can't understand it?

    I'm struck by the idea that the incredibly specialized work happening in a physics lab in Switzerland is funded by public money. Its never occurred to me to think of it like that. But the sense of participation you're talking about is what made the first manned space flights in the 20the century a true event of the collective social imagination.

  4. I guess the thing about putting a man on the moon is how incredibly simple it is. The discovery of a new particle, while equally (or even more) significant, isn't as obvious or tangible so won't become a part of the collective imagination as easily.

    But I like the moon landing analogy and it isn't an analogy I've thought of before. The US had a vision and goal during the cold war that nowhere (in The West) really does now. I don't think it is impossible to conceive of a future where that sort of event (an entire society watching in awe as humanity did something awesome) is more common and it is a thing I want to work for.

  5. Um, "how incredibly simple it is *to imagine*".

  6. From the civilian perspective looking in from the outside it seems to me that the sub-perceptual is the 21st century scientific frontier. Live cell imaging, new particles - it is new technology that makes it possible to go there, because the scale of these objects are minute.

    So we can't see these things, fine. But that kind of evidence has never been necessary for something to be utterly imaginatively compelling.

    This is where art has a real power. When it comes out of real collaboration - or if you like conversation - art can translate the primal shock of a discovery from another domain. Maybe through abstraction, imprecision, summary, the lyric, modeling -- but in a way that makes it emotionally accessible and "leaves the spectator's intellect free and highly mobile." (Bertolt Brecht)

    [the non-editable comment function is going to keep us honest with typos and embarrassing spelling errors, I note.]