Like any documentary, biography, or other educational program on the radio, Will Self’s five-part radio program Self Orbits CERN is partially a work of fiction. It is based, to be sure, on a real walk through the French countryside along the route of the Large Hadron Collider, on the quest for a promised “sense of wonder”. And it is based on real tours at CERN and real conversations. But editorial and narrative choices have to be made in producing a radio program, and in that sense it is exactly the story that Will Self wants to tell. He is, after all, a storyteller.
It is a story of a vast scientific bureaucracy that promises “to steal fire from the gods” through an over-polished public relations team, with day-to-day work done by narrow, technically-minded savants who dodge the big philosophical questions suggested by their work. It is a story of big ugly new machines whose function is incomprehensible. It is the story of a walk through thunderstorms and countryside punctuated by awkward meetings with a cast of characters who are always asked the same questions, and apparently never give a satisfactory answer.
Self’s CERN is not the CERN I recognize, but I can recognize the elements of his visit and how he might have put them together that way. Yes, CERN has secretariats and human resources and procurement, all the boring things that any big employer that builds on a vast scale has to have. And yes, many people working at CERN are specialists in the technical problems that define their jobs. Some of us are interested in the wider philosophical questions implied by trying to understand what the universe is made of and how it works, but some of us are simply really excited about the challenges of a tiny part of the overall project.
The central conflict of the program feels a bit like it was engineered by Self, or at least made inevitable by his deliberately-cultivated ignorance. Why, for example, does he wait until halfway through the walk to ask for the basic overview of particle physics that he feels he’s missing, unless it adds to the drama he wants to create? By the end of the program, he admits that asking for explanations when he hasn’t learned much background is a bit unfair. But the trouble is not whether he knows the mathematics. The trouble, rather, is that he’s listened to a typical, very short summary of why we care about particle physics, and taken it literally. He has decided in advance that CERN is a quasi-religious entity that’s somehow prepared to answer big philosophical questions, and never quite reconsiders the discussion based on what’s actually on offer.
If his point is that particle physicists who speak to the public are sometimes careless, he’s absolutely right. We might say we are looking for how or why the universe was created, when really we mean we are learning what it’s made of and the rules for how that stuff interacts, which in turn lets us trace what happened in the past almost (but not quite) back to the moment of the Big Bang. When we say we’re replicating the conditions at that moment, we mean we’re creating particles so massive that they require the energy density that was present back then. We might say that the Higgs boson explains mass, when more precisely it’s part of the model that gives a mechanism for mass to exist in models whose symmetries forbid it. Usually a visit to CERN involves several different explanations from different people, from the high-level and media-savvy down to the technical details of particular systems. Most science journalists would put this information together to present the perspective they wanted, but Self apparently takes everything at face value, and asks everyone he meets for the big picture connections. His narrative is edited to literally cut off technical explanations, because he wants to hear about beauty and philosophy.
Will Self wants the people searching for facts about the universe to also interpret them in the broadest sense, but this is much harder than he implies. As part of a meeting of the UK CMS Collaboration at the University of Bristol last week, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar by Professor James Ladyman, who discussed the philosophy of science and the relationship of working scientists to it. One of the major points he drove home was just how specialized the philosophy of science can be: that the tremendous existing body of work on, for example, interpreting Quantum Mechanics requires years of research and thought which is distinct from learning to do calculations. Very few people have had time to learn both, and their work is important, but great scientific or great philosophical work is usually done by people who have specialized in only one or the other. In fact, we usually specialize a great deal more, into specific kinds of quantum mechanical interactions (e.g. LHC collisions) and specific ways of studying them (particular detectors and interactions).
Toward the end of the final episode, Self finds himself at Voltaire’s chateau near Ferney, France. Here, at last, is what he is looking for: a place where a polymath mused in beautiful surroundings on both philosophy and the natural world. Why have we lost that holistic approach to science? It turns out there are two very good reasons. First, we know an awful lot more than Voltaire did, which requires tremendous specialization discussed above. But second, science and philosophy are no longer the monopoly of rich European men with leisure time. It’s easy to do a bit of everything when you have very few peers and no obligation to complete any specific task. Scientists now have jobs that give them specific roles, working together as a part of a much wider task, in the case of CERN a literally global project. I might dabble in philosophy as an individual, but I recognize that my expertise is limited, and I really enjoy collaborating with my colleagues to cover together all the details we need to learn about the universe.
In Self’s world, physicists should be able to explain their work to writers, artists, and philosophers, and I agree: we should be able to explain it to everyone. But he — or at least, the character he plays in his own story — goes further, implying that scientific work whose goals and methods have not been explained well, or that cannot be recast in aesthetic and moral terms, is intrinsically suspect and potentially valueless. This is a false dichotomy: it’s perfectly possible, even likely, to have important research that is often explained poorly! Ultimately, Self Orbits CERN asks the right questions, but it is too busy musing about what the answers should be to pay attention to what they really are.
For all that, I recommend listening to the five 15-minute episodes. The music is lovely, the story engaging, and the description of the French countryside invigorating. The jokes were great, according to Miranda Sawyer (and you should probably trust her sense of humour rather than the woefully miscalibrated sense of humor that I brought from America). If you agree with me that Self has gone wrong in how he asks questions about science and which answers he expects, well, perhaps you will find some answers or new ideas for yourself.