A TROJAN AFFAIR - The S.K.A. at Carnarvon

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Chapter 8

Across town Marsha was reading the same report from the ‘bdlive’ web page out aloud to a visiting friend, Chris Weber.

“…‘While the SKA project cannot uplift an entire town, it is sensitive to the effect that such a big construction project has on the lives of locals, and is investing in human capital development programs that may provide a step up for some of them.

It has already provided hundreds of bursaries and scholarships to university students in mathematics, science and engineering.

Earlier this week it launched a quarter-million dollar e-schools initiative with industry partners who will provide three hundred and fifty laptops and Internet access to five schools in the area. Those laptops are preloaded with mathematics and science learning resources’.”

She stopped reading and frowned in contemplation; “They’re actually very nice people, Chris”

“The workers…? The poor in the article’s heading?” Chris asked.

“No… Well yes. The workers are very nice, very charming. But the farmers, I mean, the local Afrikaners... really lovely people. Some of the old guard is particularly edgy right now. But this whole development, it is having an impact… a lot of farms are being bought up to accommodate the project and not all of them are keen sellers. They’ve got a lot of generations invested into the land and they’re feeling aggrieved and robbed of heritage.”

“Sure… like any big civil engineering project that displaces people. I’d be angry too if I were them,” Chris suggested.

Chris Weber was a Quantum Physicist working at CERN’s Hadron Collider. He and Marsha had been friends for decades and, since he was in Cape Town on vacation, she’d invited him to spend some time in the hinterland.

“This impact’s bigger than most projects though,” Marsha pointed out. “If you’re building a dam, you flood a valley and displace a few families who get compensation… But here its millions of hectares that we need to push a century back in time. You can’t live on a modern farm under the conditions we need, they lose all the conveniences of modern life… no mobile phone coverage, no engines, no planes… They can’t use those things once we’re operational. The problem’s that radio is such a slippery medium and our sensitivity to it is off the charts. We can’t even allow windmills to turn because the friction in their mechanisms interferes with us. Just that alone sets in motion an environmental impact on the game and sheep that rely on the scarce water.”

“Granted, but it’s a desert… what are we talking? A few dozen families… maybe a few hundred?”

“More than that… because they have staff and the towns are totally reliant on the farming economy. The towns die if the farms stop working.”

“But you’ll pick up the slack… provide employment?”

“During construction, sure, some. But tens of thousands of jobs…? That’s a stretch.”

“Why’d they take it on here then? Australia was also bidding.”

“Rumours around town are that the original numbers were fudged. I can’t confirm it because I wasn’t on the bid committee. The farmers reckon that the bid understated the economic activity of this region.”

“Why don’t these folks complain then,” he frowned with skepticism.

“Depends who you talk to… they are complaining, complaining bitterly, but they say they’re not being heard. I can kinda see their point, you and I peer in as outsiders. We see a bunch of mainly-white farmers howling about losing their mobile phone signals and satellite TV, or maybe being forced to sell their farms and we think. ‘…It’s in the name of progress for the betterment of all humans…’ or ‘…your apartheid past doesn’t give you the best platform to complain now about mistreatment…’. Who outside of this impacted community is going to listen to their gripe…? We see them as the products of institutionalized bigotry, so who cares about their hardships now?”

“Okay… wow… and I thought it was all going swimmingly.”

“The project’s steaming ahead beautifully, just these tensions are weighing on me.”

“Why take it on…? It’s not your problem.”

“The thing with Dara...” she looked at Dara sitting quietly listening, “…it highlighted for me that there is a problem. It was suggested to me that he reaped the whirlwind I’m part of causing.”

“You can’t feel guilty about the whole situation, you’re not paid enough to worry like this. Just do your job and let the decision makers do theirs.”

“I'm a fool, all liberals are… we think too much. The boy who hit Dara was just acting out on what he hears from the adults.”

“Don’t excuse it,” Chris admonished.

“That’s not what I mean, and Dara knows it… I mean that the younger folks… the kids and even their parents. The ones born after apartheid began crumbling; they’re more open to negotiate this out. It’s the older generation that are implacable.”

“A big generation gap?”

“Like anywhere going through rapid modernization, sure.”

“Well… it’s going ahead, so you have to choose and then live with it.” There was a long silence until Chris piped up with a cheerful ring to his voice, “It’s a hell of a project wherever it goes,” he tried to lift the mood of gloom. “Exciting time in all the sciences.”

Chris had been on the team that in 2012 had announced the confirmation of a Higgs Boson—a sub-atomic particle so elusive that the media had dubbed it “The God Particle”—derived from the frustration scientists expressed in looking for “that Goddamned particle.”

The relevance of uncovering the Higgs would keep echoing down through all of the sciences and cosmology well into the future, Chris went on, connecting for Dara how the very small of his quantum mechanics were the foundation of the cosmology that his mother, Marsha, was a part of studying through the SKA project.

Still silently soaking it all in, Dara was a sponge in this type of company, and occasionally he’d deliver a question or observation that could derail even the smartest among these hyper-thinkers.

The Higgs, Chris explained, is that impossibly small component—possibly just a dancing filament of pure energy—deep within and intrinsically part of the nucleus of every atom. It is the Higgs that causes the atom to interact via its own Higgs Field with other atoms—attracting them. Collectively, this attraction we experience as gravity.

It is gravity that gives mass to matter, he explained, it is therefore the Higgs that makes ‘things’ weigh something. Gravity was the cornerstone of the entire cosmos—on the biggest scales, causing gas clouds in space to collapse in on themselves to become suns, in the process of nuclear fusion, cooking simpler atoms of hydrogen and helium into the progressively more complex atoms—Carbon, Oxygen, Calcium, Sodium… Chlorine and all other elements, and radiating heat and light in the process.

The language of Chris’ professional world was not English or any other human language—it was the language of the cosmos, mathematics. The concepts of quantum mechanics, expressed in English or any language other than mathematics made next to no sense. Quantum, he explained, is not a philosophical or even a logical deduction, it is purely a mathematical reality that is borne out by observation.

“But what good is it?” Dara asked.

“Thirty five percent of the United States’ GDP relies on a thorough knowledge for the application of Quantum mechanics,” Chris immediately responded. “Without our understanding of quantum theory, electronics simply don’t work. And, forget the thirty five percent of GDP—without electronics we go back to the stone-age.”

It was sobering.

It reminded Dara of his mother telling him that the Wi-Fi he took for granted had its invention in her own field—“An Australian Astrophysicist in the nineteen fifties was looking for Black Holes in deep space and invented a type of mathematics to tease the signals he sought from the background radio noise—and it is that development that Wi-Fi uses to allow multiple electronic components to all communicate seamlessly in the same space.”

Blue-Sky investments they were called—these mega-scientific investments; Hadron Colliders and SKAs. They set out to looked for one thing and quite often found many others by accident.

“They’re Moon-Shots, Dara,” she’d said when she’d told him that she was going to accept this new position at Carnarvon, and she would have to move them down from a cushy lifestyle to Africa.

Dara had a commercially orientated mind, so she’d sold the move to him in those terms; “They’re called ‘moon-shots’… like NASA’s Apollo Mission of the sixties, they’re vast in scope, have a defined objective but generally return investment by non-anticipated discoveries. Apollo is said to have returned a dollar and sixty two for every dollar invested via unexpected spin-off commercial products. Teflon is just one.”

Now, Chris and Marsha were heading into realms of discussion to which Dara, for all his stockpile of knowledge, could not yet follow them:

“The most powerful shortcut for completing the supergravity calculations emerged some time ago from the discovery at our CERN Laboratory,” Chris explained. “We found that gravitons behave like two copies of gluons, the carriers of the strong nuclear force, which “glues” quarks together inside atomic nuclei,” Chris had pointed out. “This ‘double copy’ relationship between gravitons and gluons has shown up in every variant of supergravity our researchers have studied, and they expect it to hold in the correct theory of quantum gravity, too, regardless of whether super-symmetry exists in nature.”

Dara’s mind boggled. He had no idea what they were on about, but he was impressed that they did.

Marsha smiled. Evidently she knew what it meant, “So in practice, the discovery means that once a gluon’s scattering amplitude has been computed in a particular form to a given level of precision, extracting the gravity amplitude is child’s play?”

“Indeed, yes. The double-copy property is more than a calculation tool. This is very concrete. It makes it absolutely clear that gravitons and gluons really do belong together. They really should be part of a unified theory.”

The details were getting further away from Dara with each sentence they spoke, but he kept listening; satisfied that if two intelligent people understood, he eventually could too.

And, he noted, it was not a superficial pretense at understanding or a philosophical one—it was one vested deeply in observable and repeatable disciplines. The words of Richard Feynman, another of the great contemporary thinkers and acquaintance of his mother came to Dara’s mind. Richard had once said, “Stick to the facts, ignore opinions. Nature doesn't lie.”

“We are subjecting N-equals-eight supergravity to an unprecedented test,” Chris went on. “We intend to calculate what happens when gravitons collide to a level of precision known as “five loops” in a fictional world with four point eight space-time dimensions.”

“Of course, fractional dimensions can’t really exist,” Marsha added for Dara’s sake in case he misunderstood.

Chris nodded agreement

“Of course,” Dara replied—more than a little out of his depth, but he was fascinated and didn’t want to divert the conversation; he made a mental note to quiz his mom later and she’d explain it then.

“We’ve seen that the five-loop calculation for four point eight dimensions roughly corresponds to a much more difficult seven-loop calculation in the dimensions of the real world. The harmonious interplay between the particles in N-equals-eight supergravity would go beyond what we currently understand.”

The discussion of high-science had gone on a while until it returned to the more mundane but pressing issues of economics with the context of the deprived community into which this relative opulence of academia had inserted itself.

“If the SKA had gone to Australia,” Marsha was saying, “I think we’d have seen a whole lot fewer problems… Or more accurately, different problems. The reality is that this community has some money, but it is very concentrated. There is a huge contingent of have-nots who are looking to us as a fairy godmother. That fact is that if we force farming to stop, the towns die and countless livelihoods are lost. We’re constantly bogged down with these sort of social responsibilities that go along with local politics.”

“I hear you,” Chris agreed. “You only need to look around. When we dropped in at the event yesterday—the one report you just read from—I could feel for these poor and desperate people. So much hope in their eyes, so much enthusiasm in their singing and dancing; but there’s not a lot the average person around here can hope to get besides handouts. What you’re telling me is that the social problems may increase, not decrease?”

“It’s something I’m not qualified to answer,” Marsha admitted. “I’m just seeing the tensions and feeling for all parties… Some of these people have been on the land for half a dozen generations and more. You watch a grown man cry…” she swallowed, her own eyes misty as the memory of witnessing it washed over her for a moment. “…Cry for the loss of land he’s worked a lifetime to hand to his kids. You see the hatred in his eyes for what we’re doing to him. It’s not easy,” she shrugged, “…but, like you say, I have a job to do.”

“I’ve met some very clever kids,” Dara volunteered, feeling uncomfortable for his mother’s anguish.

“Dawie and Tjaardt,” Marsha agreed, taking the escape door that Dara had opened for her to close the topic. “Especially Dawie… Why don’t you get Dawie over, Dara—I’d like Chris to meet him.”

Dara went to make the call.

Chris remarked. “How many more years left for Dara?”

“This coming one will be his last at school,” she replied.

“Are you worried about the project…? The opposition to it. Second thoughts?” He looked concerned for her stress.

“I hate politics and I hate that we’re causing stress to the locals and maybe ecology.”

“Things like this can go pear shaped if the locals don’t feel invested,” he observed just as Dara came back.

“The government Minister I spoke to about the religious backlash… The Israel-Visie, they’re called. I looked them up, and they’re crazy. I mean, genuinely barking mad.”

“Yeah… seems that crazies are everywhere these days.”

“I think this level would be hard to beat.

“Dawie’s busy with chores, mum. He’ll let me know later if he can make it.”

“I’m here for a few more days,” Chris assured. “Plenty of time.”

“One of the problems, Chris, is world-view,” Marsha had re-gathered herself. “When you’re born in a place like this, so isolated, I guess you don’t grasp the scale of things. The only thing the local population, and I mainly mean the labourers here who are in the majority… all they know is what their employers, the farmers, are doing, or what the church is doing. There’s really not very much other economic activity to speak of. There’s certainly no industry. The only other player in big infrastructural projects is the government,” Marsha shrugged, “The SKA is at a scale that a small town and people with such limited vision really find hard to grasp. They can’t seem to make a distinction between their own government and outside investment. I think it may be rooted in tribalism or clan-hood, but the rigid mechanisms of control that are cemented in their minds just won’t detach our presence here from their notion that we are a delegation of the political parties—perhaps come to exchange some upliftment for their support. I think this is how it’s going to be till we can get it through to them… if we ever can get through to them. Seems we’re bound to remain at loggerheads.”

“Sort of a cargo-cult mentality?” Chris remarked, his observation harking to a well-known social anthropological reaction by indigenous cultures that experience colonization. The name derived from the apparent belief that ritualistic acts lead to a bestowing of material wealth. “The way they all broke into song, yesterday. Chanting, shuffling in unison, almost a trance-dance… choreographed, as if they’ve been practicing. To get a bunch of Europeans to do that sort of singsong you’d spend a lifetime of practice. It was quite spectacular to watch.”

“Watch their local TV news here and you’ll see it at every political rally, and not just down in the masses; up on the stage the leaders are completely in tune with it.” Marsha pointed out. “So, I don’t know… There’s a vast disconnect here between getting the infrastructure designed and built so that we can get on with this exciting work. Its very frustrating to keep having to stop and deal with a myriad of social issues that I’m not vaguely qualified to deal with. Don’t get me wrong—I understand and wish I could help—but it’s not the best use of my time and I don’t really have the aptitude.”

“We hit the same headwind with anti-investment at CERN.”

“The same…?” Marsha cocked a brow.

“Well… Fair enough—not the same; not the same league, impact or intensity, I grant you.” Chris recanted. “But it’s the same kind of disconnection—goofy ideas the public get that aren’t logically connected to the issue at hand; ‘You could buy millions of baby incubators,’ the vegetarians will tell us, ‘…rather than waste it on studying atoms’.”

“The vegetarians?” Marsha inclined her head.

“Yeah-yeah… the lentil-eaters… tree-hugging pinko-liberal commy-socialists… present company excepted. You know me, Marsha; Vegetarians is a good catch-all name that summarizes the reactionaries; I haven’t changed.”

She liked it in Chris—he was a realist and full of humor and quips; he didn’t’ take himself or anything but his work too seriously.

“It’s our era,” Marsha sighed. “We have to keep reminding ourselves that we’re very young at this science-thing. A few hundred years into systematic thinking is all that we as a species have under our belts. A few decades of major science infrastructures built… This is just a start. It’s not like we’re far enough down that path to have brought all humanity with us yet. It’s not enough time for those not intimately involved to have wrapped their heads around the outcomes we’ll achieve in the long-term. And the situation’s hugely amplified around here with so many living at the subsistence level, just focused on the now.”

“Yep.”

“I’ve got to prepare a keynote address and, with the resistance rising, it’s a political tightrope. As I said earlier, a sect of the farmers and white townsfolk here aren’t much better,” Marsha lamented. “The old guard… they’ve got this old-school fire-n-brimstone thing going. They take their Bible very seriously—very literally, and they try to influence the moderates with it.”

“Oh… it’s going to be fun then when Al arrives then!” Chris was referring to Marsha’s husband, Dara’s Indian father, Alok, and his fame for writing and teaching evolutionary studies.

Alok had a long running spat with American creationists who regularly disrupted his debates and book launches. The internet was full of epic debates he’d held with leading theologians—the topics of which ran a full gamut of sub-topics within the wider standoff between science on the one hand, and religious fundamentalism on the other.

Marsha rolled her eyes, “As if Dara and I haven’t stirred up enough trouble to prepare the way. What a family, hey?”

They laughed. Dara was immensely proud of his father and his special capacity to communicate sometimes-complex ideas in easy terms.

“I’m getting hints that this lot here are connected to the Evangelists in the States.”

“Not impossible.” Chris agreed.

“They know about dad and that he’s coming,” Dara confirmed. “Dawie says the grapevine’s abuzz with it.”

“Yep… but Al’s a big boy,” Marsha assured. “He can look after himself, even here.”

Dara had been pondering the public’s opposition to investment into the sciences that Chris had mentioned a few minutes earlier.

“I don’t understand the concept of ‘wasting money’ on science,” Dara reverted back to that segment of conversation. “With a science investment, billions of dollars are brought into the country and spent on salaries and equipment; and the salary earners spend that money on food, and cars, and petrol, and other things. How can that be a waste? It’s just money going round and round. The local people can get their hands on it if it’s brought here and spent here. If this investment isn’t made, the money never comes.”

“From the mouths of babes,” Marsha proudly smiled.

“I’m hardly a babe, mum,” Dara complained, and Marsha playfully ruffled his hair because he hated it.

“You’ll always be my babe,” she hugged him to her cheek and he kissed her on it.

“You’ve got it.” Chris agreed. “I can’t put it any better… I’m wondering what it’s like with two famous scientists for parents?” he quizzed Dara.

“It’s… normal,” Dara suggested.

“I’d hardly think so… You don’t seem normal… I mean, in maturity—you’re far ahead of your years.”

“Thank you,” Dara knew how to take a compliment.

“Question is, how normal are you going to be? No little rebellion coming on? Maybe some weed or chase bad girls… Or, maybe you’ll go to the other side and join a cult?”

“I doubt it,” Dara considered the musing quite seriously, “I guess I like predictability too much.”

“Predictability?” Chris tested.

“Well… with two scientists for parents, I’ve learned that science is predictive, religion isn’t. It makes religion is unstable… why would I follow an unstable system?”

“Unstable? That’s an odd word,” Chris kept pressing.

“How many versions of just Christianity are there? It’s unstable because it constantly splinters… the interpretations of holy books are too wide open to interpretation; I don’t like that.” It seemed like he’d finished, but before Chris could respond, Dara summarized it, “…that’s why the modern world is made by scientists, not by theologians.”

“Did you teach him that,” Chris was impressed. “It’s pretty tight reasoning.”

Marsha was impressed and a little taken aback, though not shocked, by the impromptu speech her son had just given, “Not in as many words,” she admitted, “But we all only know what we’ve learned, so I’d like to think I put some of those thoughts in this baby,” still in her arms since she’d hugged him, she kissed his head, “…but they’re his words. I was always careful to teach him how to think, not what to think,” Marsha added.

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