Exile and the Scientist

Atomic Bomb Test - Bikini Atoll 1946. The small black figures just outside the cloud are decommissioned World War II Battleships from the US Navy.

Albert Einstein arrived in America on October 17 1933, an exile from the Nazi regime that had just risen to power. The scientist was 54 years old and spent a lot of his time at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton becoming a public figure, investigating subatomic physics, and opposing the military aspects of the nuclear age he helped to create.

His work provided a catalyst for the transmutation of matter into energy – a new form of power that had as much social and cultural impact as the development of steam engines and electricity had during the 19th century. The originality of his thinking stems from his focus on the relative over the absolute, on the infinite over the particular, and on the power of the imagination over the physical. His very human approach to science made him profoundly disturbed with the development of atomic weapons, and the negative side of technology. Images of early nuclear tests in the Bikini Atoll during the 1940s evoke the two-faced nature of energy: like the Hindu god Shiva, their ability to create is inseparable from their ability to destroy.

In 1757, Edmund Burke published his Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, in which he names awe-inspiring works of nature as vessels for the sublime: “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, what is any sort terrible… is a source of the sublime.” Kant develops this idea further, situating the sublime in one’s response to the object, rather than in the object itself. This instinctive terror of Nature’s power is in turn crystallized in one’s realization of the individual’s own power. For Kant, the question of human agency comes to the fore, though it is still secondary to the grandeur of the natural.

Large Hadron Collider. A section of one of the magnetic sections in the 17-mile acceleration route.

A century after Einstein’s  E = mc² , the theory of mass-energy equivalence, developments in atomic physics have been realized most dramatically in the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The most commonly cited photograph of the LHC is not from the reaction chamber itself (which is dark, monochrome, and inert), but rather a view looking down one of the magnetic particle detector sections. This perspective offers a better impression of the machinery needed to accelerate particles close to the speed of light. The dramatic shift in scale between the 17-mile long acceleration chamber and the subatomic particles creates a “technological sublime”, where an experiment at the scale of a landform recreates conditions analogous to those at the beginning of time.

This shift in the idea of the sublime is part of a continuous progression from nature to artifice, and also has defined spatial characteristics. Whereas the idea of nature in the Sublime was expansive and pervasive, the atomic tests in the Bikini Atoll were highly visible, external and extensive, and the Hadron particle accelerator operates in an invisible, internalized, and intensive space. Whatever the dimensions of the technology, the popular fear of a black hole appearing in Switzerland and swallowing the earth as a result of experiments at the LHC demonstrate our persistent fear of the unknown.

Heavy Ion Collision


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