September 09, 2008

Tomorrow, CERN will switch on the Large Hadron Collider -- or, more accurately, bump up the experiments which have already been going on for some time into those places that only the LHC can reach. Odds are very good that it will go without visible incident, and may continue going without visible incident for some time.

And people will point to these immediate results and laugh at those who had shown concern, saying: "See? We told you nothing bad would happen!"

(Which, ironically, is much the same thing most of the physicists involved have been saying, based on exactly the same amount and type of evidence.)

The recorded human history of the world spans only about ten thousand or so years. Our longest-lasting political institutions have debatably spanned a tenth of that; our longest lifetimes a hundredth and proprotionately shrinking: in time, but especially in cumulative human-years, drowned against the human billions who increasingly walk the earth. Like the newborn time which may have sprung out of the Big Bang, individual meaning seems to be spanning an increasingly small, shattered part of that history: swinging us toward ever more drastic actions in order to leave our mark. In history, many of the greatest minds of their time carved their initials in fire and pillage across their pieces of the known universe ... and a very few of them were able to build something up out of it afterward.

How can individuals of a species acting individually not be forced to the extremes, simply to show to the world that we have individual value?

It seems to make no difference to us that now those same actions of trying to leave our individual mark are no longer a matter of a few decimated villages but now have the real potential to destroy us utterly. How could it? Our perceived individual value, in our own eyes and those of others, has always been tightly linked to our ability to make the choices which affect others. Risk only increases the value, and consequently the intensity, of feeling. At the level of the individual, the riskiest choices are as individually life-affirming as it gets. The more the natural limits of life are seen to hold us back, the more we are forced to the extremes simply to prove that we have individual value, forced into a prisoner's dilemma of raw reproductive competition. A species never makes a conscious choice to go extinct.

Perspective is a difficult thing. What would be a year's delay for caution be against the history of humankind? but against the individual, how can any delay not be seen as time running out? We have been known to be a politically fickle species. Here and now, the technological imperative charges forward largely unquestioned and hindered only by a monetary and ideological translation of resources that, in themselves, are certainly more than adequate. Given time to reflect, we might even decide that our current level of technology has far outstripped our societal ability not to be wielded by it ... and just maybe we might decide to hesitate, or even to take a step back until we can better evaluate the cliff.

Who knows if, within a single human lifetime, the pendulum would yet swing back?

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