He only knows that he does not know – do you?
Despite a Christian upbringing and the wasted years I spent studying physics, my views on life's mysteries were best summed up in the cartoon strip "The Perishers", which used to appear in the Daily Mirror. A regular feature was a rock pool in which lived some rather argumentative crabs. Every summer the shaggy dog – one of the main characters – lowered his face into the pool for a few seconds to look at them. For the dog a mild curiosity, but for the crabs it was the annual manifestation of the mystical Eyeballs In The Sky. It had become a cult. It even had crab priests to interpret it with strict rules of observance.
So it all depends on your point of view. Without a sense of scale, context, humility, and a garnish of humour we can all turn into crabs.
Last week Professor Peter Higgs was granted his inevitable reward, a Nobel Prize for his "discovery" of the Higgs-Boson particle, also playfully known as the God Particle. The inverted commas are all mine, as it was arguably the most expensive Eyeball in the Sky yet. Mr Higgs along with hundreds of thousands of others is far cleverer and better at science than I am, but perhaps he hasn't noticed that our discoveries of these ultimate particles relate exactly to the tools with which we seek them. Once microscopes proved the molecule was the smallest thing on earth, then we found the atom, then we even managed to split that to bits. Now, with the luxury of the largest instrument ever built, the 17-mile circular Hadron Collider, we think we've found a smaller bit. Is that the end of the story? Of course not. The quest to split the Higgs-Boson is probably already under way, though we may have to send it to the sun and back to do it.
I enjoyed learning science. It made sense of light, speed, weight, heat, and other basics of life. I also liked the mental rigour, part of which was the absolute rule to be honest about what you observe, not try to fit it into some pre-set theory. Sherlock Holmes said much the same, though all he had was a magnifying glass.
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What's happened to that? In modern science everything is theory. The art is to spot a gap in the jig-saw, give it a name and then "discover" it. Despite the hoo-hah the Higgs-Boson doesn't act exactly as predicted and there are some apostate crabs who still don't swallow it, but the general feeling seems to be hey, it's near enough, and it took so long to find it so let's not be too picky. Einstein, after all, faked one of the factors in the Theory of Relativity to make the equation come out, so if it's good enough for Einstein...
Look out for the next discovery in the Eyeball line, Dark Matter, and its cousin Anti-Matter. Apparently our sums about the universe don't come out either without the presence (absence?) of a balancing substance we haven't found yet, though the universe is apparently full (empty?) of it. But we've given it a name, so we're at least half-way there.
Dark matter. The God Particle. The Grand Unified Theory. The Standard Model, that Higgs has helped to "prove". Gaps in our knowledge, gradually being filled until we know pretty-much everything about everything?
Nonsense. Our discoveries don't fill gaps in our knowledge: at best they establish a few islands in our ignorance. The idea that a vulnerable humanoid on a titchy planet whirling round one of billions of stars who doesn't even know how his own brain works, has it all sorted? Please!
Thus with science, thus with God. No wonder those who spend their days with such self-delusions invoke Gods almost as equals. They think that through the mega-world of string theories or the mini-world of a tiny thing in a tunnel at Avignon they're finally closing in on Him/Her/Themself, not by an act of unscientific belief but by sneaking in via particle physics, down black holes, hidden by dark matter. Gotcha.
Let them dream. Thank God the rest of us have common sense, the instinct to get on with the realities of life, to use our brains for something useful, to use science to make people's lives better, to amuse ourselves with art or science or cross-word puzzles, but please not to pretend we have the answers and know the unknowable. To move forward not sideways.