Appliance of science

Who needs design when you’re searching for the Big Bang? Hugh Pearman celebrates the rehabilitation of those erstwhile heroes, the boffins in white coats

I once had to go to look at the public art programme being rolled out in the fast-regenerating Cardiff Bay area.

You always fear the worst on these occasions. Too much public art is like those pretty sticking-plasters children get when they fall over in the playground/ it doesn’t heal the wounds, just dresses them up in a slightly jaunty fashion.

Cardiff’s programme wasn’t too bad. I did not leap for joy, nor did my toes curl. Trouble was, it had competition.

This was not wholly a post-industrial scene. A large section of the docks was still operating. Cranes, bollards, winches and sundry other dockyard apparatus were in use. Big ships were still moving in and out through massive hydraulic lock gates. No intervention an artist might make could remotely compete.

Industry, then, can always trump art because it has art enough of its own. If you go to Runcorn or Middlesbrough, what defines those places are the huge petrochemical works. At night particularly, when they’re glittering like space stations, you don’t find yourself wishing they were a bit better landscaped. You don’t want to redesign the thickets of pipes.

I feel the same about the newly rediscovered appeal of Big Science. Remember how everybody used to love the men in white coats? The people who got us to the moon, invented nuclear power, eradicated smallpox? We loved them. Then we fell out of love with them, and science was suddenly a bad thing. Nuclear power? No thanks. Food additives? Yuk. Apart from the odd wonder-thing such as the Hubble Space Telescope, we lost interest. We found other heroes – designers, engineers, architects. People who made things more directly connected with our everyday lives.

And now, there’s been a turnaround. Design looks pretty feeble compared with the scientific wonder of our time, the Cern Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva. The world’s largest particle accelerator, with some 8000 physicists from 85 countries involved, it will aim to replicate the conditions of the Big Bang. They are searching for the as-yet theoretical and wonderfully named Higgs Boson, which will apparently explain life, the universe, and everything. Some call it the ‘God particle’.

Understandably, there’s saturation media coverage of the LHC, as it’s known. A universe being created in a vast circular underground laboratory beats a nice new chair or olive oil bottle any day. The LHC switch-on was treated like the first moon mission. The only shame is that what the LHC does is, visually, utterly unspectacular.

Of course, it’s all designed – you can download the LHC design report, and I defy any non-physicist to understand more than the odd word of it. But design in the more aesthetic sense? It doesn’t feature. Even the LHC website is totally functionalist. No bells and whistles. Just stark facts and the odd diagram. No effort at presentation, beyond the amateurish 1950s-looking logo for the Cern organisation.

And we know why that is, don’t we? The LHC no more needs a dusting of design fairy-dust than an Indian shipbreakers’ yard requires a piped-music soundtrack. It hurts to have to admit it, but some things are, and always will be, beyond the reach of the design business.

Did I say it hurts? Of course it doesn’t. It’s a huge relief, once again, to be able to trust those men and women in white coats.

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