Wednesday 10 September 2008

The end of the world is not as nigh as I had hoped

I’d really rather not know what my weight is; 6.6 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,244; Oop North. At last it’s here! Big Bang Day on the BBC. Which frankly proved to be a colossal disappointment. Though perhaps less so for me than for my elderly neighbours, who had misheard the trailers as Big Band Day, and laid in extra supplies of nice biscuits to munch as they happily relived their memories of Glenn Miller, Ted Heath and Joe Loss. I did not even bother getting dressed or having a shower before settling down to listen to the historic moment as Andrew Marr reported live from the French-Swiss border on the switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider. Why fanny about with trivia when the planet might be about to disintegrate beneath me? The bloke doing the countdown under Switzerland screwed it up a bit, but then he did sound Welsh, so what else would you expect? When he finally reached zero, giggling with delight as though he had just got a sheep’s back legs down his wellies for an hour or two of passion, part of me hoped to be fleetingly conscious of the largest explosion imaginable. And perhaps just a glimpse of an old bloke with a flowing grey beard up in the sky, mouthing “Oh no, not again!” But as you know, since you are reading this, precisely sod all happened. I later established that what they were doing this morning was literally just powering the thing up; the equivalent, albeit on a somewhat larger scale, of connecting the power supply of my new MacBook to a socket. It will take weeks or even months before they actually start doing any proper experiments. And my naïve worry that they might thereby cause a recurrence of the Big Bang is apparently misplaced; the basis of the legal actions to stop the project in its tracks has apparently been concern that it might create a black hole, which could swallow the Earth over a period of a few years. Which would at least guarantee no surprises about the lead story on the BBC news every night, at any rate until it reached White City. I wonder if they were thinking this far ahead when they decided to relocate so many of their functions to Salford? The synthesized voice of Stephen Hawking was all over the airwaves before the switch-on, dispensing reassurance that “the world will not come to an end”. The only problem was that I could not help thinking that he had much less to lose than almost all the rest of us if he turned out to be wrong. I used to see him on most days in Cambridge in the early 1970s, as I plodded wearily from my college to the history faculty in the very late morning, and even then he was in the most dreadful state. “Poor soul,” I thought. “He’s not long for this world.” I had no idea who he was until many years later, when he achieved global fame as the author of A Brief History of Time. The hardback has been sitting on my shelves ever since, with a bookmark where I got stuck on page 3. Even Salman Rushdie has not been able to break this record. With him, I usually get at least halfway through the first chapter. It is particularly annoying to reflect that Professor Hawking not only has a brain the size of a larger than average planet, and has added greatly to the sum of human knowledge; but, with his two wives and three children, he has also had a much more interesting and fulfilling personal life than mine. It is clearly important for an educated and able-bodied bloke to set aside the sense that “It’s just not fair” and raise his glass to someone who had demonstrated such a colossal will to live in the face of such utterly crippling disabilities, and managed to overcome them. What a loss to science it would have been if he had been a Newcastle United supporter, and turned his face to the wall every time Wor Lads suffered a minor setback on their predestined road to sporting glory.

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