Almost Nothing vs The Sense of Beauty

I was invited to briefly introduce the movie Almost Nothing – CERN Experimental City at Cinema Ariston, Mantova. Here you can find the Italian audio version of my ten-minutes presentation. Let me embroider it.

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Just one year ago came out The Sense of Beauty – When Science Meets the Seventh Art, another movie about research at CERN. Both movies offer an artistic viewpoint on the activities at CERN. My interpretation is that they offer two almost antithetical ways of conceiving the scientific enterprise, and quite possibly also the artistic enterprise (but I’m no expert on this). This is in line with how the conversation about science is changing. Furthermore: the very fact that these movies exist may be revelatory of a crucial social change within CERN.

But first: I am no particle physicist at all (my apologies to all my friends who do work on projects at CERN). But precisely because I do not talk “on behalf” of CERN, or of “physics” for that matters, my point of view may turn useful. I talk as an external member of the broader community of researchers in physics who have been observing CERN from the outside for many years, with good insights on the physics and the sociology involved in the project.

So, in what sense are these two movies completely different? I cherry-pick two moments out of each movie.

In Almost Nothing, there’s a chill-out moment with beers on a terrace towering Geneve. The interviewer asks:

“But there’s no chance that you wanted to see it, and that’s why you see it?”

A young researcher by the name Daniel Figueroa answers

“When you are creating knowledge, there is always that chance, you can be completely biased. But there’s something I would call robust science, which is, when it’s being observed from many angles, from many perspectives, from many different experiments, or from many different observations that are not even related, but still they give you the same information, and at some point your theoretical framework may fit sufficiently well, such that you understand that it’s really the explanation. But it’s true you are not there to prove it, you are just using your intelligence to use all the observations to build up a coherent explanation. It works too good to believe that this is not the case.  In science, when something is fake, it reveals immediately the patterns.”

In The Sense of Beauty, on several occasions Gianfrancesco Giudice is interviewed. The first time he says:

“Physical laws as were known in the 19th century correspond to our common perception. The laws of quantum mechanics, instead, are paradoxical, therefore they seem far from reality. What is bizarre about this is that reality instead follows the laws of quantum mechanics. That is the true reality, because it is there where we go find out the essence of nature.”

In both quotes the italics is mine. In Giudice’s words, we find an almost religious concept of science as the pursuit of an ultimate truth (theoretical physicists tend to have a very platonic mindset). In fact, all of the movie The Sense of Beauty parallels science to religion in a more or less direct way. CERN is portrayed as a cathedral. The epigraph goes:

“Some call it the religion of our time.

Even if it broke the mirror of the world into a thousand fragments.

Science.”

More subtly, at some point it is said that:

“Sometimes [science] is taking us by hand, without telling us where we are going”.

Again, science “in a strong sense” is seen as something that exists on its own, and that feeds the minds of people who work for it. Revelation. Furthermore, in Giudice’s words, it is nature that follows the laws of  conceptual construction developed by humans. A more secular view could be that the “laws ” of Quantum Mechanics are some sort of arrangements humans momentarily stipulate to follow what “nature” does. This overturning is precisely within the lines of western religiousness, first of all of Christianity: the fact that God has knowable human features captures the desire of the human to replace nature, not to be respectful of it and accept its mystery. And we are back to the very first verses of the bible…

With all the outspoken and militant atheism running down the corridors of physics departments, I find it quite ironical that the greatest scientific experiment humans ever made is portrayed as a cathedral, and science as a religion. Maybe that should ring a bell.

On par with that, The Sense of Beauty also seems to have a similar take on the artistic enterprise in terms of absolute beauty, but I will keep my hands off of that.

Almost Nothing takes a quite different view, portraying science “in the weak sense” as a social activity and not indulging on esthetics. The CERN is portrayed as a (particularly ugly) city where humans are engaged in social activities that make it a meaningful experience (and where shooting cool situations is nearly in impossible, so says the movie director).

The social aspect is also present in the conception of science. Let’s go back to Figueroa’s words. He says create knowledge, instead of, say, discover truth. He uses the word coherent instead of true. Science is robust (and not, say, evident) when things are figured out by many from several angles and perspectives: again a social practice (Nietzsche: “We can say nothing about the thing in itself, for we have eliminated the standpoint of knowing. A quality exists for us, i.e. it is measured by us. If we take away the measure, what remains of the quality?”).

My points is that this difference in perspectives is not only in the minds of the authors of these documentaries, but it is also very present within the scientific community,  whenever a researcher deals with how to narrate his story to himself first, and then to the community of scholars, and then to the so-called “stakeholders”. In my view, the shift from the science-as-truth to the science-as-social-activity paradigm is necessary at times where the authoritativeness of science is under attack. Portraying “weak science” is now more cogent than “strong science”.

The very fact that these movies exist is a piece of evidence that CERN is in search of a new identity, that the Higgs boson isn’t enough. And, after all, maybe it had never been about the Higgs boson! Maybe it was just about creating a community who could preserve an important form of knowledge. Now, the community at CERN has two ways to go: either borrowing from the repertoire of communication experts, strategists, etc. to focus on the object, say the Higgs boson, to make it cool (but not necessarily well understood…) – that is, to grab on the mystical aspects of science; or else to embrace the fact that what was more important was the process, embodied in all those rituals that the community celebrated to gain credibility, and that could be resumed as the scientific method.

 

 

 

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