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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2017 is the year we realise we've been doing the Internet wrong

Networks can distribute power or they can centralise it.

A couple of years ago I visited Manchester tech start up Reason Digital. They were developing an app to help keep sex workers safe. The nature of sex work means workers are often vulnerable to crime, crimes which can be particularly difficult to solve because witnesses are reluctant to come forward and crime scenes often public and subject to interference.

Reason Digital thought if they could alert sex workers of relevant incidents in their vicinity – harassment, a foiled attack – that would help sex workers protect themselves.

So, of course, they created an app which tracked the location and habits of all sex workers in Manchester in a central database and sent out alerts based on where they were and what they were doing, right?

Did they hell.

They knew a real-time centralised, location database would immediately be a target for the very people they wanted to help protect sex workers from. Moreover, they wanted their app to empower sex workers, to put them in control. And they knew that sex workers would be reluctant to hand over any part of their hard fought privacy.

So the Reason Digital app kept the location and other data on the sex workers’ smart phone and let it decide which alerts were relevant and what information to share.

That is the kind of distributed, autonomous app putting people in control we just don’t see on the Net.  No, all the apps that improve our lives – from Facebook to Uber to match.com – cull the intelligence and data from the user and stick it in the vaults of a company or, occasionally, a government.

Thankfully, the majority of us are nowhere near as vulnerable as the majority of sex workers – to physical crime at least.

But we are increasingly vulnerable to cybercrime, a vulnerability which will increase exponentially once everything is connected to the Internet of Things.

And we are vulnerable to the exploitation of our data, whether through data mining or algorithmic determinism. Google’s search engine can be “gamed” by extremists, used to strengthen hatred and spread stereotypes. I have also been told one major dating site optimises it matchmaking algorithm for short term relationships – it means more return business. And Uber have admitted it knows you’re likely to pay more for a ride if your battery is low – which it also knows. Our data is what drives services and profits on the Net - but we’re unable to reap the rewards of the value we create.

That’s why 2017 will be the year we realise we got the Net wrong.

Not the underlying internet, designed by the public and third sectors in the seventies to be as distributed and autonomous as possible.

Or even the World Wide Web, invented in the nineties by the public and private sectors, again without central control.

But the apps developed in the last couple of decades to use the infrastructure of the internet to deliver services.

Networks can distribute power – like the electricity power grid –  or they can centralise it – like old boys networks.

Increasingly, I fear the Net is doing the latter.  And for three main reasons.

Firstly, a technical legacy of the early internet: in the days of slow broadband and unreliable devices it made sense to transmit as little as possible and control your user experience by centralising it. That problem is by and large history, but the centralisation remains.

Secondly these apps were mainly developed by a small group of privileged people – white, male, relatively well-off engineers. That’s why, for example, the biggest campaign of the early  internet pioneers was against porn filtering. Yes, for many years the most inspirational internet civil rights struggle was for rich western men to have absolutely untrammelled access to porn. So often I was the only woman at the conference table as this issue was raised again and again, thinking ‘is this really the biggest issue the tech community faces’?

But there is a seam of libertarianism in technology which sees it as above and beyond the state in general and regulation in particular. Even as a replacement for it. Who needs a public sector if you have dual core processing?  When tech was the poor relation in the global economy that could be interesting and disruptive. Now tech is the global economy, it is self-serving.

And thirdly these apps were developed in a time of neoliberal consensus. The state was beaten and bowed, shrunk to its role of uprooting barriers and getting out of the way of the brilliant, innovative, invisible hand of the private sector.  When I was at Ofcom in the 2000s we strove valiantly, day and night, to avoid any regulation of the internet, even where that included consumer rights and fairer power distribution.

As a consequence now the Net is distributing power but to the wrong people.

  • It’s not empowering the poor and dispossessed but the rich and self-possessed.
  • It’s not empowering sex workers in Manchester but criminal cartels in China.
  • It’s not empowering the  cabbie in Coventry but the $62Billion Uber everywhere.
  • It’s not empowering the plucky little startup in rural Hexhamshire but the global enterprise headquartered in Bermuda.
  • It’s not empowering the Nigerian market woman with a yam to sell but the Wall Street stockbroker with your data to market.
  • It’s not empowering the Iranian dissident but the Russian state.

That’s a betrayal of the power and original purpose of the net: for greater human empowerment.

To be sure some of that is happening. The Arab Spring, for example  Campaigns for the tampon tax and Black Lives Matter are enhanced by the web. Apps such as Pol.is and MassLBP look to make 

digital democracy work. Institutes like Newcastle’s Digital Civics Institute are working at systems to enable real democratic collaboration. Groups and enterprises such as Medical Confidential, MySociety, Cap Collectif and Delib try to deliver control back to the citizen consumer. European research project d-cent has helped develop tools that can make deliberative democracy work.

But against that we have the rapacious data centralisation of big companies and, at times, the state.

What we need is a government that is capable of leading and inspiring the tech sector to empower citizens and consumers. Ignoring the libertarian technocrats who say it’s for them to determine how tech power is distributed and remembering that the white heat of technology should be at the service of the people, not the other way round.  This government has neither the capacity nor the will to take on that mission. As part of our review of industrial strategy, Labour will be examining ways in which tech can be empowered to deliver the economy we want, and people empowered to make the best use of it.

Tech and politics are the twin drivers of progress, and I’m lucky enough to have worked in both. If there is one thing we have seen it is that as people become richer they have fewer children, more education and a greater sense of privacy and autonomy.  2017 is the year to start giving back to the people the data and control they should never have lost.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.