John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Science bursts back into life

Photos of the Earth taken from space missions in the 1960s made our planet appear strong rather than helpless in the face of man's influence. Photo / Nasa
Photos of the Earth taken from space missions in the 1960s made our planet appear strong rather than helpless in the face of man's influence. Photo / Nasa

It seems a long time since pure science was as exciting as it sounded this week. Physicists have found the stuff in atoms that they have long suspected stops everything in the universe flying apart.

By smashing protons together at the speed of light in the huge underground tube near Geneva they have isolated a new particle that existed in the collision for a trillionth of a second, then shattered.

In that moment a 48-year theory became a fact. The glimpse of the 'Higgs boson', or something like it, allows minds to boggle on the existence of "dark matter" and the possibility there really is a dimension to the world that is beyond human sensory perception.

Who knows where that knowledge will lead? Next they will work out how to control the particle, then they will remove it to enable things - people - to travel at the speed necessary to explore the galaxy.

Who knows? The excitement generated by the announcement in Geneva on Wednesday had nothing to do with science fiction, it was simply that the physical world is once again a realm of wonder and awe.

It has been a long time since science captivated most of us with a sense of nature's power and possibilities. Scientists complain from time to time that that subject is not attracting the interest in schools they think it deserves. I have a theory about that.

I remember the science class in my last year of school, 1969, when the teacher introduced us to a new concept called ecology. Her eyes lit up with excitement as she described the scale of damage that human activity was believed to be doing to the world. She was excited because it meant that science would become socially and politically "relevant", a powerful word in 1969.

I remember my heart sank, not so much that the world was being damaged but that it was being diminished. Suddenly we were no longer a puny lifeform amid nature's grandeur, we were monsters and nature was at our mercy.

Since then, this idea has been so embedded in our consciousness that to question it invites ridicule. Yet every time I'm close to an ocean or flying above continents I still feel minuscule. The lights of great cities from the sky at night look like lonely settlements in the dark.

Perhaps if I went as far as astronauts began to go in the 1960s and looked back at the planet as they did, I would have shared their new-found sense of its fragility. But their celebrated photographs didn't give me that impression. Mother Earth didn't look vulnerable to me, she looked large, fertile and magnificent.

When the astronauts looked back, science changed far more profoundly than it would from any discovery they made on the moon. Science decided we were giants.

It takes an earthquake or a volcano to restore a sense of scale. The quake that rattled the lower North Island this week was reported to be centred 230km below the seabed off Taranaki. Ponder 230km. That is the distance from the Bay of Islands to Auckland, straight down.

And that is just the crust of the planet, the skin on the porridge. The whole boiling pot is simmering down there regardless of the ants on the surface. It is hard to believe our industrial emissions matter beside the planet's natural eruptions. The deepest oil drilling we can do is a pinprick in its sediments.

If science had not succumbed to environmental hubris, a generation of New Zealanders might have gained a geological view of this country.

They would see it as not just the islands of the familiar map but as a submerged continent 20 times larger, stretched from New Caledonia to the sub-Antarctic zone, surrounded by deeper ocean.

It is a distinct crustal mass ridged and pitted with mountain ranges and basins and over eons of geological time a constant rain of organic matter, mostly dead plankton, will have settled in the basins. There it would have been buried by mud erosion from the mountains and fossilised into oil or gas trapped in layers of rock.

Geology says we should let oil prospectors go looking for it, environmentalism says we should not. Greens see a threat to rare sea life at that depth and a risk of ocean pollution if an accident happens.

If it happened I dare say the Southern Ocean would deal with it much as oceans deal with undersea volcanoes and material constantly vented from the cauldron below.

Science has been dominated by environmentalism for too long. What it gained in political attention and research grants has come at a cost to its power to excite us. If a subatomic particle has opened a door to phenomena we can barely comprehend, science will be wonderful again.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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