Magazine article The Spectator

The Hunting of the Quark

Magazine article The Spectator

The Hunting of the Quark

Article excerpt

If you did well at school, you got into the scholarship year, and then they told you secrets, things kept dark from the lesser boys (the thick or lazy ones who now have big houses, trophy wives, porno yachts and cars with genuine upholstery). The Head of Stinks told me a good one. `Next time he gets on his high horse,' he said, pointing downwards to where, two floors below, the Welding Department (aka his professional enemy, the Head of Physics) lay, `Ask him a simple question. Ask him what electricity is. He won't be able to tell you. The buggers don't know.'

Later on, I learnt another anti-highhorse device. Next time you are at a dinner party and some fool is maundering on about how science has replaced art as the source of revelation, glamour and delight, and how easily he himself swims between the two cultures, ask the smug amphibious shag this: `Can you explain exactly what Einstein said?'

Three to one, he'll mumble something about relativity, observers, trains, the speed of light and something quite incomprehensible about a tautly stretched india rubber sheet with a boulder on it, but in truth. . . The. Bugger. Won't. Know.

Which puts the layman, trying earnestly to surf the Zeitgeist and believe that science has supplanted religion, in a tight spot. It's one in the eye - no, let's be fair; more like 8.6937 x 10-1 in the eye - for the archly rational arch-rationalist Professor Dawkins to realise how much of the modern, reasonably educated man's `understanding' of science - and particularly of physics - is really a matter of faith, a submissive obeisance to confident hierophancy. Our everyday discourse on matters of cosmology is in essence no different from that of our ancient forebears; only the terms have changed. Now, we speak of quarks and red-shift; then, they spoke of ensoulment. But in neither case can Quotidian Man hope to verify the evidence for himself. Instead, he must rely on illdigested bulletins from a hierarchy of the elect, a hierarchy he chooses to believe is reliable, honourable and devoted to the pursuit of truth.

There was a time when the Church was widely held to be just such an organisation, with the added strength of a divine franchise, a guarantee that it would never be permitted to fall into irrecoverable error. Now, in our revisionist age, we are encouraged to think of it as a mighty, more or less venial and self-deluding conspiracy, and its place has been taken by science which, like theology, is devoted to the refinement of an elegant and internallyconsistent model of the universe, and which, like the Church, believes itself to be ultimately protected from error by its reliance upon natural, rather than divine, revelation. Both labour in the shadow of Kurt Godel's demonstration that any formal axiomatic system must by its very nature contain propositions which that system cannot prove; but we are all in that particular boat, just as we are all under a death sentence, and it would be infantile to whine or consider ourselves unfairly singled out.

The distinction on which science bases its claims for the superiority is that its model can be tested experimentally; to which a truculent theologian might reply, `Just wait until you're dead, boyo.' But the practical truth for Quotidian Man is that we are handed down the test results just as we are handed down the model, with no means of checking for ourselves that we are not being sold a pup. …

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