Tuesday 16 September 2008

The well of utter hopelessness

So we are all still here, then. Despite my innate pessimism, I had a hunch we might be.

Last week’s switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN has so far generated only the latest in a long series of end of the world scare stories which have come to nothing. Remember the Millennium bug? I have a sneaking suspicion that we will somehow muddle through the credit crunch and global warming, too.

Mind you, so far the scientists have done nothing more with their gigantic machine than powering it up. As the recent purchaser of a new computer, I can testify that this is the easy bit. Actually getting it to do anything will be much more of a challenge.

When the protons do finally start crashing into each other, the main fear of the scaremongers is apparently not a restart of the Big Bang, which would at least be mercifully quick. They are talking instead of the possible creation of a black hole which could swallow the Earth over a period of years.

Nothing much to chuckle about there. Well, apart from the fact that it would start with Geneva and reach Sunderland before it got to Newcastle, perhaps expiring with a cosmic belch after it had eaten Monkwearmouth bridge. On the other hand, we would almost certainly get Robert Peston on the news every night throughout the process, gurning and waving his hands as he talked us through the dire economic consequences.

It’s enough to make you lose the will to live, isn’t it? Particularly if yours is as fragile as mine, which nearly collapsed in the face of a mere Edith Piaf impersonator on Saturday evening.

Compare and contrast this with Professor Stephen Hawking, whose synthesised voice was all over the airwaves last week, as the giant atom smasher was turned on. I used to run into him nearly every day in Cambridge 35 years ago, and even then he was in a dreadful state. I did not know who he was, but any fool could see that he was not long for this world.

Imagine my surprise to discover many years later that he was not only still alive but one of the cleverest men on the planet, who had managed to beat even Salman Rushdie’s impressive record in flogging completely unreadable best-sellers.

I think that identifying what gives the Professor his truly colossal will to live, in the face of such horrific disabilities, might contribute more to the happiness of the human race than answering the question of what the universe is for.

Perhaps he has already shared the secret with Gordon Brown, who gamely soldiers on despite being right at the bottom of an infinitely deep well of utter hopelessness, which is rapidly filling up with something considerably less pleasant than water. While his Cabinet colleagues shout down “Chin up, mate, we’ll have you out of there in a jiffy!” before glumly shaking their heads at each other.

Sceptics ask why the Government is spending millions on theoretical scientific research when there is so much simple human misery left to tackle.

The obvious answer is the unexpected spin-offs. It is possible to be cynical when we are told that we would never have had the non-stick frying pan if man had not set foot on the moon. But CERN has already spawned the World Wide Web, which has done more to transform our lives than any other invention since the wheel.

No, crack on, I say. With one important caveat. Surely the only thing that is keeping Professor Hawking going is the desire to be still here when the key to the universe is finally discovered. So in order to keep this national treasure with us, we must all pray that no-one ever actually finds out.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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