Dynamite with a laser beam: artist Yvette Mattern's Global Rainbow in Whitley Bay, 2012. Photo: Getty
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Firing lasers into a box made of gold – the race to turn light particles into matter

This could prove a neater way to investigate the fundamental building blocks of nature than examining the debris created by high-energy particle collisions.

By the time you read this, someone might already have done it. The publication of a report in May marked the beginning of the race to turn light into matter. Once the race is won, we could enter a new era in particle physics experiments but the real prize is far more valuable. This is about understanding the roots of our existence.

The idea of creating particles from light was dreamed up in 1934. The basic procedure is to smash together two photons, which are bundles of light energy. Calculations showed that, if done correctly, two particles of matter would magically appear in place of the light. The procedure invokes Albert Einstein’s equation E=mc2. The same equation lies behind the release of energy from nuclear fission. Not only do we now have atomic bombs but, it turns out, we also have the technology to take things in the opposite direction.

A team of physicists from Imperial College London has worked out the details. To collide photons to make matter, first fire a laser into an empty box made of gold. This creates a sea of photons with enormous amounts of energy. At the same time, accelerate a beam of electrons to nearly the speed of light using another high-power laser. Slam those electrons into a slab of gold and they will release a stream of photons to collide with the sea of photons in the gold box. The result will be the creation of electrons – one of the building blocks of matter – and positrons, the electron’s antimatter particle.

Now that it’s clear how to do it, there is little stopping scientists from performing this astonishing trick tomorrow. There are many facilities around the world that could string the various necessary technologies together.

What’s more, ramp up the energies of the lasers and it should eventually be possible to create bigger, heavier particles out of light. This could prove a neater way to investigate the fundamental building blocks of nature than examining the debris created by high-energy particle collisions in machines such as Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. Yet the big spin-off of such feats is in firing the imagination. This is science for the soul.

What this branch of physics teaches us is that our everyday intuition is not to be trusted. That matter and energy are two forms of the same stuff is entirely counter-intuitive. We have long given intellectual assent to the idea but it is so far removed from our day-to-day experience of the world that it may always seem implausible.

This interplay of light and matter is the rock on which the modern world is built. The silicon microchips in your smartphone and your laptop – maybe even your toaster – rely on the fluidity of matter. The microscopic electrical switches they contain work only because electrons are both matter and energy, flowing from one existence to the other as circumstances dictate.

Equally, we are solidly matter in our experience, yet we now know that we are made of stuff that can, in the right circumstances, be transformed into flashes of energy. That energy could, given sufficiently advanced technology, be turned back into us.

In some ways, it is a lesson about our impermanence but it is also a glimpse of our extraordinary gifts. We are matter that began its existence 14 billion years ago as a flash of primordial light. And now, that matter has learned the first step in repeating the process of its creation. For all the conflicts, disasters and alarming election results that human beings generate, we should still be proud of our species.

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 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile