Woomf! Plunggg! Protons collide with doomsday fanaticism

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The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN, Flickr image by Image EditorIn the week following the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider it seems mandatory to give it a mention.

Hands up those who don't know what the Large Hadron Collider is. Well, it's a Swiss machine immured in an alpine tunnel and it's 27 kilometres long, placing beyond all dispute its claim to being called 'large'.

Hereinafter to be referred to as the Hadron — a word susceptible of truly catastrophic misprinting of a kind that totally destroys the seriousness of any discussion — this interesting monster arranges for protons to smash into each other at blinding speed thereby duplicating the conditions which immediately succeeded the Big Bang.

It's doing that right now, as we speak: crash thump go the protons with sounds of Woomf or possibly Plungggg ... I'm not sure what acoustical phenomena accompany the arguments of protons but, anyway, released by the scientists, they're doing their thing.

If you happen to be one of those people who keep abreast of the ever more unimaginable world of physics and astronomy — if you are a regular reader of, say, the Collider Monthly or the Meteorite Collector's Handbook or the Geneva Guide to Very Large Dangerous Machines in Swiss Tunnels after 2007 — then you will have a sophisticated grasp of the whole Hadron landscape. A privileged few will even know about the curious, secretive, Dan Brown-like conclave, the Swiss Hermeneutical Hierarchy of Hadron.

But for most of us, knowing only what we learn through commercial channels, the really intriguing, rumoured aspect of the Hadron is that its activation could precipitate the disintegration of the entire galaxy or the universe or some other very large entity that normally we would not anticipate losing. It was this angle rather than the potential scientific revelations about the origins of things that tended to capture the popular imagination.

Not surprisingly, as a matter of fact. The Hadron has simply provided another trigger for humanity's innate proclivity for millenarianism.

The most recent outbreak of this curious rage for finality was at the dawning of the year 2000 but millenarianism — the confident prediction of and preparation for the end of the world and the various episodes of acute and sometimes destructive disappointment that ensue when the stubborn universe refuses to implode — has a long, eccentric and not especially honourable history.

In 1976, South Australia's charismatic premier, the late Don Dunstan, confronted one of these millenarian outbreaks head on. A self-styled mystic had predicted that a tidal wave would destroy Adelaide on 19 January. It was the punishment of God, he said, for Adelaide's having become a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah of the south. A bizarre hysteria gripped the city; some people sold their houses forthwith and left.

On the crucial morning Dunstan marched across Glenelg beach and faced the sea. Thousands watched as, at the appointed time of reckoning, there continued to emerge only the benign wavelets of St Vincent's Gulf.

It seems that even the smallest encouragement by circumstances or fanatics is enough to set off chiliastic impulses — the behaviour associated with the end of thousand-year periods but not confined to exact millennia.

In Lower Burma in January 1931, 700 Burmese peasants armed with knives, spears and a few antique firearms advanced into the teeth of heavily armed Indian and Burmese mercenaries convinced by their magic-inspired leader that they had become invulnerable and would establish the new order on earth. They were of course massacred.

On 22 October 1844, about 20 families assembled on the banks of the Schuylkill River at Phoenixville to watch the second coming of Christ and be drawn joyfully up into Heaven. His failure to show up cast all into deepest gloom and darkened the lives of many of them forever.

And so on. The desire for and expectation of a triumphant, cataclysmic or enlightening resolution has surfaced regularly for as long as men and women have wondered what on earth (!) they are here for.

The Large Hadron Collider is the 21st century's way of pursuing the age-old question of where we came from and why we are here, but for those of chiliastic persuasion, it becomes simply another, if technologically cutting-edge, risky and astonishing, occasion for speculations, forecasts and doomsaying which are as old as history.

Characteristically, as tensions and expectations rose during the final years of the 20th century, satirists posed the power of custom and age-old routines against the pull of millenarianism.

'The world is about to end,' proclaimed Monty Python's Flying Circus. 'Mountains will split open; seas will overflow their shores; the air will be sucked out of the heavens, the planets flung from their orbits. In the afternoon, however, conditions will moderate, rain will contract to the east and temperatures should be average for the time of year.'

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG.

Topic tags: brian matthews, Large Hadron Collider, doomsday, particle accelerator, Don Dunstan, millenarianism



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Thank you Brian Matthews. I laughed out loud. (Or should that be lol.) On this day after the death of capitalism we all need to lighten up!
david hicks | 17 September 2008

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