In the week following the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider it seems mandatory to give it a mention.
Hands up those who don't know what the Large Hadron Collider is. Well, it's a Swiss machine immured in an alpine tunnel and it's 27 kilometres long, placing beyond all dispute its claim to being called “large”.
Hereinafter to be referred to as the Hadron - a word susceptible of truly catastrophic misprinting of a kind that totally destroys the seriousness of any discussion - this interesting monster arranges for protons to smash into each other at blinding speed thereby duplicating the conditions which immediately succeeded the Big Bang.
It's doing that right now, as we speak: crash thump go the protons with sounds of Woomf or possibly Plungggg ... I'm not sure what acoustical phenomena accompany the arguments of protons but, anyway, released by the scientists, they're doing their thing.
If you happen to be one of those people who keep abreast of the ever more unimaginable world of physics and astronomy - if you are a regular reader of, say, the Collider Monthly or the Meteorite Collector's Handbook or the Geneva Guide to Very Large Dangerous Machines in Swiss Tunnels after 2007 - then you will have a sophisticated grasp of the whole Hadron landscape. A privileged few will even know about the curious, secretive, Dan Brown-like conclave, the Swiss Hermeneutical Hierarchy of Hadron.
But for most of us, knowing only what we learn through commercial channels, the really intriguing, rumoured aspect of the Hadron is that its activation could precipitate the disintegration of the entire galaxy or the universe or some other very large entity that normally we would not anticipate losing. It was this angle rather than the potential scientific revelations about the origins of things that tended to capture the popular imagination.
Not surprisingly, as a matter of fact. The Hadron has simply provided another trigger for humanity's innate proclivity for millenarianism.
The most recent outbreak of this curious rage for finality was at the dawning of the year 2000 but millenarianism - the confident prediction of and preparation for the end of the world and the various episodes of acute and sometimes destructive disappointment that ensue when the stubborn universe refuses to implode - has a long, eccentric and not especially honourable history.
In 1976, South Australia's charismatic premier, the late Don Dunstan, confronted one of these millenarian outbreaks head on. A self-styled mystic had predicted that a tidal wave would destroy Adelaide on January 19. It was the punishment of God, he said, for Adelaide's having become a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah of the south. A bizarre hysteria gripped the city; some people sold their houses forthwith and left.
On the crucial morning Dunstan marched across Glenelg beach and faced the sea. Thousands watched as, at the appointed time of reckoning, there continued to emerge only the benign wavelets of St Vincent's Gulf.
It seems that even the smallest encouragement by circumstances or fanatics is enough to set off chiliastic impulses - the behaviour associated with the end of thousand-year periods but not confined to exact millennia.
In Lower Burma in January 1931, 700 Burmese peasants armed with knives, spears and a few antique firearms advanced into the teeth of heavily armed Indian and Burmese mercenaries convinced by their magic-inspired leader that they had become invulnerable and would establish the new order on earth. They were of course massacred.
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