SerendipitiesJul 24th, 2008 | By Ian Poulton | Category: Personal Columns
Flying back from Vancouver two weeks ago was a new experience. The in-flight entertainment system was a monitor installed in the back of the headrest of the seat in front with a handset that could be detached from the armrest to the left. There was a complete menu of films and television and radio programmes, together with a CD juke box catering to all tastes, and even a list of games one might wish to play. It was excellent – I compiled my own playlist, but then reverted to listening to the Bruce Springsteen album ‘Magic’ in between snatches of sleep on the overnight flight to Amsterdam.
Something had been lost though, another possibility of the serendipitous, another possibility of discovering a gem had gone.
The Internet and digital television and radio mean we can choose exactly what we want when we want and those moments when we did something, or went somewhere, or read something that wasn’t our first choice, but led to something unexpected, are becoming few and far between. Even when driving through Canada there was the option to listen to the BBC on the digital car radio and not to encounter the Canada conveyed to listeners through CBC.
Serendipity runs counter to the spirit of our times because it is about chance, it is about risk and risk is something now considered bad. A whole insurance and assessment industry thrives on eliminating the unpredictable – children are guarded against doing almost anything because of risk – as if life itself was not a matter of risk.
Chance and risk and unpredictability are disliked; perhaps because they are problematic for market capitalism which likes reassuring stability so that people will go and spend money; perhaps because they raise questions about life and existence and purpose which a culture focused upon present-moment consumerism find uncomfortable.
Science has thrived upon chance, from an apple landing on Newton’s head onwards; Wikipedia has a wonderful list of accidental discoveries. There is almost an expectation now that endeavours in one direction will produce unanticipated benefits in another.
All of which arises from checking the date when the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN Project in Switzerland will be switched on. The CERN website assures readers that the particle accelerator, which is intended to produce conditions similar to those moments after the big bang, poses no risk to the public.
Nature forms black holes when certain stars, much larger than our Sun, collapse on themselves at the end of their lives. They concentrate a very large amount of matter in a very small space. Speculations about microscopic black holes at the LHC refer to particles produced in the collisions of pairs of protons, each of which has an energy comparable to that of a mosquito in flight. Astronomical black holes are much heavier than anything that could be produced at the LHC.
According to the well-established properties of gravity, described by Einstein’s relativity, it is impossible for microscopic black holes to be produced at the LHC. There are, however, some speculative theories that predict the production of such particles at the LHC. All these theories predict that these particles would disintegrate immediately. Black holes, therefore, would have no time to start accreting matter and to cause macroscopic effects.
A black hole would not be serendipitous, but no-one is completely certain what other discoveries might be made.