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Thursday, 11 September 2008

Pathetic and bathetic: the music of the spheres as played by a journalist

Now here's logic for you – and an indictment of the state of popular journalism. First a quotation from a story about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) (see "D:REAMs and conCERNs" from yesterday's Pink Triangle posts) on the BBC website:

It [yesterday's historic switching-on of the LHC] is not the first time that a scientific study of the universe has inspired awe and wonder.

The crew of Apollo 8 were so moved by their experience, they felt moved to read passages from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968.

OK (apart from the clumsy repetition of the word moved), by all means mention an emotional moment among a group of astronauts. Who among those of us who have never seen Earth from way up there or seen the moon close up can say just what emotions they felt, and who can deny them the right to express them in whatever way they wished? Anyway, even to us godless hellspawn – the secularists and atheists and doubters who are responsible for all the ills of the world – Bible language is poetic and great to read aloud.

However, that quotation followed this short passage:

He [physicist-turned-priest the Rev. Professor Sir John Polkinghorne] said: "Physicists are deeply impressed with the order of the world. It is rationally beautiful and structured, and the feeling that there is a mind behind it is a very natural feeling to have."

Does that juxtaposition of paragraphs, that conflation of situations, not strike you as the typical way in which a journo will try to find a link, however tenuous, to hold a story together? I mean, the astronauts are clever people and all that, and need to know lots of really brilliant technical stuff to get themselves into space. But they're not particle physicists (unless by a happy coincidence). They're not studying such things as the so-called "God particle", the Higgs boson, that "crucial part of the standard model of particle physics", to quote a long article in National Geographic.

So to come down from such heady speculation on the origins of the universe to how the astronauts reached for the Bible when they saw their planet from a great height seems to me to be bathetic in the extreme (yes, they were likely all Judeo-Christians, but my point would cover the Koran if they were Muslims or the Vedas if they were Hindus or the words of Guru Nanak Dev if they were Sikhs).

Genesis may be poetic, but it isn't particle physics, merely a metaphorical way of describing how the world began (though thought literal by many people, even today). And it was the world in those days whose origins they thought they were describing – i.e. the planet, geocentric, flat – not the universe we have since come to know as something huge beyond imagining, of which that Earth is a small part.

Perhaps I'm making too much of this. It just seemed an odd conflation by the journalist: on the one hand, a team of physicists speculating scientifically on the God particle and another group – whose own science didn't create the planet, or the moon, but merely allowed them to fly far away from the former – reach for the Bible on seeing Earth from a distance, beautiful though that may be, and read passages from it.

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