Two worlds collide

Will science and religion ever work out how to coexist peacefully?

There’s not much on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) calendar this year. Most of it is green. According to the colour key, that indicates a “technical stop”: in February, the LHC will shut down for an 18-month upgrade. Before that, there’s a bit of yellow (“protonion set-up”) and a gold block that starts the week after – the “proton-ion run”. The few other events marked come from another world: Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whitsun and Christmas.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also has a to-do list and this one can’t ignore religion, either. One of the WHO’s aims is to make Africa polio-free (Nigeria is the only state on the continent where the disease still lurks). Another is to continue its immunisation programmes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At least one of those goals is up the creek. In Pakistan, the immunisation programme has been suspended – just before Christmas, nine health workers carrying out the vaccinations were shot dead.

The shootings are believed to be the work of those who believe that the vaccination programme is a western plot to sterilise Muslim children. It sounds ludicrous but it’s a popular conspiracy theory; the claim has left Nigerian children as the only Africans still fully exposed to the debilitating virus.

There is growing concern in the Muslim world that western science is encroaching on religious territory and this anxiety has some basis in reality. While health workers in Pakistan debate whether to risk their lives, the scientists at Cern will use proton-ion collisions to probe the Creation story. The result of these collisions will be a quark-gluon plasma.

Smash apart the protons at the centre of atoms and you will find that they’re composed of particles called quarks, held together by other particles called gluons. Seeing this stuff requires a lot of energy: the quark-gluon plasma exists only at temperatures of a few trillion degrees. Researchers first created one on earth about a decade ago and it demonstrated some extraordinary properties that are well worth revisiting. For instance, the primordial soup of particles has so much energy and such strong interactions that it pulls new particles out of the empty space in which it resides. In effect, it creates something from nothing.

The only previous time a quark-gluon plasma appeared in the universe was a microsecond after the Big Bang, when the universe was the size of a small town. As things cooled down, the quarks, the gluons and the electrons congealed into hydrogen atoms. Eventually, everything else formed: stars, galaxies, bigger atoms, planets and people.

In the 200,000 years since they first appeared on earth, those people have demonstrated persistent curiosity, with interesting consequences. Questions about their origin led them to form religions. That led to rituals and festivities, creating well-bonded communities that valued co-operation, which gave rise to what we call civilisation, which in turn birthed science – another way to satisfy that human curiosity.

Science provided a way for people to agree on answers to what the world and the universe are made of, how it all works and where it all might have come from. The co-operative side of human nature, meanwhile, has caused nations to work together on things such as re-creating the moment of Creation (religious festivals permitting) and establishing international vaccination programmes to alleviate suffering. All we have to do now is work out how the two might coexist without people getting shot.

A graphic showing traces of collision of particles at the Compact Muon Solenoid. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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25 years on, here are the worst ever predictions about the internet

Back in the Nineties, many experts didn't think the internet would live to see its first, let alone 25th, Internaut Day. 

On 27 February 1995, the American magazine Newsweek shared the truth about the internet.

"The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works," wrote Clifford Stoll, in a piece that has thankfully been preserved online for the ages. "How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc," Stoll went on, "Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet. Uh, sure."

17 years later, Newsweek ceased print publication and became exclusively available online.

On the 25th anniversary of the internet becoming publicly available, it is very easy to laugh at spectacularly wrong predictions like this one. In 2016, we use the web to find jobs and homes, shop for clothes, diagnose our illnesses, make friends, fall in love, and tell strangers that their opinions on the Labour party are wrong. In fact, the web is so pivotal to modern life that two months ago, the UN declared internet access a basic human right.

Still, Newsweek wasn’t alone in failing to understand the impact Berners-Lee’s world wide web would have on the wider world. Even the man himself, posting on a forum of early internet users in 1991, summarised the invention as, “[aiming] to allow information sharing within internationally dispersed teams, and the dissemination of information by support groups”.

“This summary does not describe the many exciting possibilities opened up by the WWW project, such as efficient document caching…” he continued, blissfully unaware of the forthcoming arrival of Nyan Cat.

In fact, its safe to say that a couple of decades ago, absolutely no one had any idea what we were getting ourselves in for. 

John Allen, on CBC, 1993:

"One would think that if you’re anonymous, you’d do anything you want, but groups have their own sense of community and what we can do."

Speaking to the Canadian television channel CBC in 1993, internet expert John Allen mused about civility and restraint on the internet (you can view the full clip here). Allen shared his belief that our internal rules and values would restrain us from saying and doing terrible things to one another over the world wide web.

Incidentally, an Australian study in March this year discovered that 76 per cent of women under 30 have experienced abuse or harassment online

Robert Metcalfe, in InfoWorld, 1995:

 "I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse."

Just five years in to the web's public availablity, Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, gave the whole thing a 12-month life expectancy. Still, he ate his words just two years later when, during the sixth International World Wide Web Conference in 1997, he blended a copy of his column with some water and then consumed the resultant smoothie with a spoon. 

Waring Partridge, in Wired, 1995:

"Most things that succeed don't require retraining 250 million people."

According to a report from the International Telecommunication Union, the number of internet users increased from 738m in 2000 to 3.2bn in 2015. Still, we're not sure you could describe them all as "trained".

Brian Carpenter, in the Associated Press, 1995:

"Tim Berners-Lee forgot to make an expiry date compulsory . . . any information can just be left and forgotten. It could stay on the network until it is five years out of date."

Anyone wary of outdated internet information has clearly not discovered the joy of the 1998 promotional website for the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks rom-com You've Got Mail.

Tim Berners-Lee, in Information Week, 1995:

"I'm looking forward to the day when my daughter finds a rolled-up 1,000-pixel-by-1,000-pixel color screen in her cereal packet, with a magnetic back so it sticks to the fridge."

To be fair to Tim, the least likely element of this scenario is that Kellogg's will bring back free gifts, not that magical screen stickers won't become a thing.

To have fun searching through weird and wonderful predictions about the internet yourself, check out Elon University School of Communications' "Early 90s Predictions" database.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.