Incommensurable

Sophie Houdart

 

2011 saw the start of an installation project on the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) later bearing the name "Propagation of monotony ", launched by F93 (Archives F93 of 2012); the anthropologist Sophie Houdart, the photographer Grégoire Eloy and the artist Stéphane Sautour being the major contributors. In 2015, all of Sophie Houdart's research on the LHC will be gathered within a book published by Zones Sensibles (with the help of F93).

 

Extract from the introduction:

More than twenty years have passed since the publication of the comparative survey led by American anthropologist Sharon Traweek on communities of particle physicists working on the five major accelerators at the time. This survey, carried out in the mid 1970s, is remarkable for being one of the first to be conducted by anthropologists in laboratories – at the same time as those conducted by Bruno Latour and Trevor Pinch. Together, these early studies of “science in the making” served to found the theoretical and methodological principles of what was to become the Sociology of Science. Starting out from the same field, how should this work be conducted today? What questions should be asked to broaden further our understanding of what is known as Big Science?
In her study, Sharon Traweek makes use of at least two types of very different reasons to explain the extraordinary implications of physics and physicists in our contemporary societies: firstly, their organisation (physicists’ ability to organise themselves into wide-interest communities, easily representable before authorities responsible for international decision-makers); followed by “the emotional power of cosmology” that lends physicists an aura worthy of Promethean heroes in search of the truth about the mysteries of the universe: physicists “bring news of another world: hidden but stable, coherent, and incorruptible. […]The extraordinary scale and costliness of much physics research if anything reinforces the cultural value [of this gospel]. The great accelerators, for example, are like medieval cathedrals: free from the constraints of cost-benefit analysis”. From the perspective of France, the symbolic and material burden falls on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to attain the rank of sacred monument. We thus read on the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) website, “The LHC, the world’s biggest and most powerful particle accelerator, coiled 100 metres underground, consists of a 27-kilometre ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way. Inside the accelerator, two high-energy particle beams travel in opposite directions at extremely high energies before they are made to collide. The particles, launched at 99.9999991% of the speed of light, travel round the accelerator 11,245 times per second, colliding some 600 million times per second…”  The eloquence of these huge numbers alone cannot but leave any ordinary observer speechless in the face of this extraordinary machine. And everyone in Meyrin, this valley outside Geneva, seems aware that “here, under our feet, are detectors that accelerate particles in order to understand how the world is formed…”
“The LHC is a machine that can only be described using superlatives” writes the astronomer Martin Beech, and it is precisely on the grounds of this magnitude that it can be counted, along with majestic monuments, among the “Wonders of the World”. In a book of this title that I found in the CERN library along with books on physics theories, cryogenics manuals and the history of the institution, are catalogued the “seven wonders of the ancient world” (the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the Alphabet and the Rosetta Stone, the Great Wall of China, the Greek statues and the funereal stele in Paros); the “seven wonders of the medieval world” (Hagia Sophia, The Book of Kells, the Aachen Palace, the Bayeux Tapestry, the Castel del Monte, the Welsh castles of Edward I and the monasteries of Batalha, Tomar and Bélem); the “seven wonders of the Renaissance” (the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, the Palazzo del Te, the Villa Barbaro, the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorialles,  Saint Peter’s Square, the Palace of Versailles and Greenwich), and lastly, the “seven wonders of the modern world” (the Earth seen from space, the bridge of Forth, the skyscrapers of New York, the Big Boy locomotive, the  double helix structure of DNA, Concorde and the CERNs particle accelerator). Although they have not yet “passed the test of time”, the wonders of the modern world – primarily the double helix structure of DNA and the CERN’s particle accelerator – deserve their place in the limelight in that they have “profoundly changed the way in which we understand ourselves and therefore in how we understand the world. To an extent that not even the poet William Blake could have dreamed of, fulfilling the desire he had to ‘see a world in a grain of sand’”. 

 

Edition: book containing 192 PAGES, 17 PHOTOGRAPHS, 14 X 20,5 CM.
published by ZONES SENSIBLES, BELGIUM, iN 2015.
ISBN 978 293 0601 17 8.

 

Book cover photograph : PIERRE ANTOINE

Incommensurable