Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Importance of Exploration

About two weeks ago, give or take, scientists at CERN fired up the Large Hadron Collider for the first time. They shot a beam of protons at close to the speed of light around a ring 27km in circumference. Such was the speed that the protons flicked around this ring 11,000 times every second. That alone is mind-boggling, but couple it with the fact that it was a man-made event, and it becomes truly astounding.

Bear with me, this short scientific spiel is important.

Depending on the sources people cite, or the currencies in which they operate, the LHC cost $6-10bn. It is the largest machine ever built by man, it is the fastest any matter has been made to spin by man, and it operates in an environment as close to Absolute Zero (-273.15 degrees Celsius) as we can get, all while being 100 metres below France and, at times, Switzerland. Is that not one of the most impressive things you have ever heard? Humans have dug a massive tunnel, have constructed an incredibly intricate system of inter-connecting pipes and magnets, and have constructed all of this with a margin of error of mere microns.

This is the pinnacle of human exploration thus far. Scientists are probing the structure of sub-atomic particles, examining the very fabric of reality and, according to some plebian scum, putting the world in grave danger. Why? Because it's there (or in the case of the Higgs Boson which physicists are trying to detect, because it may not be). Humankind is playing with what used to be the sole property of the stars, and it's terribly exciting.

For some, this is a staggeringly momentous occasion; the point where everything we know about physics and reality may depart us, leaving us to re-evaluate everything we thought we knew about, well, everything. For other people the experiment at CERN is a symbol of extravagant and wasteful spending. This saddens me greatly.

Where did the joy that filled the hearts of these people as children go? Do they not remember the euphoria they experienced when they reached the top of a previously unclimbable tree?
Exploration is what humans do. We ask questions. We travel over the horizon. We look to the stars, below the waves, beneath the earth, over the hill. And do you know why we do it? Because these things are there. Who knows what benefits will be reaped from the seeds of our effort?

In the olden days, and I use the term because it seems that in the eyes of many, these days are well and truly gone, explorers lived up to their name and trekked the mountains and sailed the seas in search of 'what was over there'. Columbus sailed west, looking for a faster route to the East Indies, but instead ran into the North and South Americas. Whether he actually landed there first or not is moot, because the fact is, he found something that he wasn't expecting, and look how it has improved the world today. New resources, new people, new ideas. I do not care about politics here. The world was made richer for his exploration.

James Cook went looking for Australia, because some jokers thought there might be something down there. The list of explorers and adventurers goes on and on, but the point remains: they changed the way we see the world. Their expeditions were expensive, people called them mad, but they persisted and everyone benefited.

The same goes for the LHC and other expensive scientific and exploratory endeavours. The Hubble Telescope. There, another marvel of engineering. Its original reflecting mirror was out by 4 microns. That is smaller than the gap you get between your fingers when you hold it up to a half-open eye. It is tiny, and yet it rendered the multi-billion dollar telescope useless until they made a new one. Naysayers clamoured for the program to be axed, because they did not appreciate the art of discovery. They were fools, because shortly after Hubble was restarted it gave us pictures like this:


Is that not one of the most beautiful things you've ever seen? That is out there, beyond our world. Had people not persisted, we would have no appreciation of how large our galaxy is, no appreciation of how colossal our universe may be, no concept of how stunning the forces of the cosmos can be. We have benefited from experiments like Hubble. We can track asteroids that may one day smack into us. We can see deep into other solar systems. We may even find signs of life. It's exciting because once upon a time these things, as far as we were concerned, did not exist, and now they do, and that is amazing.

The desire to learn about our world is so strong that we went to the bottom of the ocean 'just to have a look', much like we trekked through jungles to find traces of people who once lived there. To what end? Why, to see what was there of course! It just so happened that along the way we stumbled across the reason for the demise of the Mayans of central American (they literally ate themselves out of house and home and had to move on). With this knowledge we can take steps to avoid repeating these mistakes. Finding a source of renewable geothermal power on the ocean floor would be a pretty massive achievement too.

The Japanese have created an organisation which aims to build a Space elevator (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article4799369.ece).
In short, it's a capsule which ascends wires into orbit. It'd be cheaper than rocketry, more environmentally friendly, and will allow the easy transportation of equipment and people into space. Whether they'll get it working or not is another story, but the fact remains that they are dead serious about it and are giving it their all. The price tag they have set is $9bn for the project which, all things considered, is pretty damn cheap. People wax lyrical about the virtues of spending this money on food and attempting to eradicate poverty but this simple fact remains: we don't know what can be gained by doing this, so we must do it to find out.

People are constantly looking for greener grass. They are looking for new jobs, new houses, new cars, new foods, new sources of energy, new ways of conducting business, new ways of improving our blue marble (psst, it's 'Earth'). People are exploring every day, whether they are conscious of it or not, and yet still have the nerve to call expensive forms of exploration a 'waste of time and money'.

Questioning our world and the knowledge and beliefs that govern it is of utmost importance. Without questions we stagnate and find ourselves living in an inferior manner to what is achieveable. The unknown is tantalising and, sometimes, better than the known.
Exploration is magnificent but it's the Discovery that is wondrous.

I started with the LHC because it is the greatest machine ever conceived by man, and it has been built in our lifetime. It is colossal, it is frighteningly cold and it is asking some pretty massive questions. 'How does matter have mass?' for instance. Did you know that physicists don't actually know why stuff has a mass? Based on what the smartest people on our planet know (and this includes Stephen fucking Hawking), stuff should not have mass, and yet it does. Finding out why could have far-reaching benefits which we are completely unaware of. If you didn't click the link to my site and read that line, then you'd still be in the dark. You wouldn't have undertaken the noblest of pursuits. You would not have explored.

You learn something every day.


For more information on the Large Hadron Collider I highly recommend watching 'The Big Bang Machine'. It's floating around the net, and may even be on Youtube. It puts the whole thing in the simplest of terms, which is brilliant, because I'm certainly no particle physicist. I just think large-scale exploration is wonderful.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Choose your Rapper name carefully

'Eminem' is a reference to his real name, Marshall Mathers (the 3rd for anyone playing at home). 'M and M'. It makes sense, it's catchy, you can slur it, and you can turn the letters backwards to make it look 1337. In short, and as far as names in the music biz go, it's a clever and memorable one.

I discovered another name this morning and it's memorable for all the wrong reasons. This guy's name is Rodney Jerkins.
Yep, Rodney Jerkins. Let me say it again, 'Rodney Jerkins'.
I'm not lying either:


'Other BMI Urban Award winners included Soulja Boy, Polow Da Don, Rodney Jerkins and DJ Montay'

You can't tell me that Rodney Jerkins doesn't evoke images of a polite, yet rather stiff (dick joke number one) English butler. 'Would sir like some tea with his scones?'
'Yes Rodney, that would be delightful.'
'Excellent, sir. I shall have it served in the conservatory.'
'There's one more thing, Rodney.'
'Yes, sir?'
'Your full name is Rodney Jerkins, is it not?'
'Sir is correct.'
'That is a smashing name for a butler.'
'Thank you, sir.'

That's how I imagine every conversation involving anyone called Rodney to go. He has a stiff (number two) upper lip, a neatly-pressed shirt, and an impeccable, if somewhat sober taste, in suits.

At the same time, this is how I imagine the conversation went when Rodney-fucking-Jerkins parents told him his name for the first time.

'Yo dawg, I chose your name, wanna hear it?'
'Rodney Jerkins'
'I fucking hate you'.

Feel free to insert more 'yo's', 'dawgs' and 'sups' in there where you feel appropriate.

Now, I'm fully aware that Rodney Jerkins is his real name, and I'm fully aware that he's a producer and not a rapper. But... really? If he changed his name when he was younger, I think everyone could understand (unless he came from an illustrious butling family). Jenkins I get - it's an old name, but Jerkins? Sure, it means 'Leather vest', but it isn't exactly hard-hitting is it? Wikipedia.org indicates that his nickname is 'Darkchild'. So at least he's on the right track, insofar as much that his badass nickname rated a mention.

Here's the clincher though. In the world of Eminems, Soulja boy (LOL, come off it man, learn to spell or get the fuck out), could it be that Rodney Jerkins has hit on the perfect marketing ploy? Could it be that by using his real name he shows that he doesn't care what people think and can use this to produce honest, quality music? Could it be that using his real and definitely giggle-inducing name has meant that he has become a standout in the industry? The latter, yes, the former, no. He produced Britney's 'I Love Rock and Roll' J.Lo's 'If You Had My Love', so I wouldn't call it honest or quality music. His name does stand out though.

Rodney Jerkins... really?