A big bang and ... big problems are ignored

The world will not end on Wednesday. It was all a joke, say the experts. There will be no greatest explosion on Earth somewhere beneath the Alps. The planet will not become a black hole and the only floating remnant of a collapsing supernova lives in Downing Street.

What is going on? The answer, as to all great questions in politics, is public relations. After Big Olympics we have Big Science. It takes the form of hysterical press releases and over-the-top BBC specials. Pundits brandish strings, strangelets, neutralinos, proton-smashers and facility trips.

The brief history of time has been reduced to a millionth, or perhaps a trillionth, of a second and somehow this must be turned into news. Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein are in celestial conference with Mr Spock and Indiana Jones. As a special favour we are invited to listen. Strange matter, or goo, may not quite destroy the Earth, but it is good enough for a headline.

This week the £3 billion, 14-year-old Cern nuclear accelerator on the Swiss-French border is being switched on for a split second of fame. It was begun in 1994 after the Americans had called a halt to their version, the Texas Superconducting Super Collider, as far too costly at $2 billion and rising.

Big Science rightly decided that European taxpayers were easier to fleece than American ones. But the fleecing is like outer space: it must go on and on. Hence last week’s publicity extravaganza. Not for nothing is Switzerland the home of both Cern and the International Olympics Committee.

I admit to finding the Cern experiment engrossing. It is surely the greatest of all voyages of intellectual discovery, the journey to the start of time. Cern is embarked on finding an answer to that most devastating “question of questions”, the cause of matter and the origin of existence.

As the mysterious primal explosion, the big bang, sent atomic protons hurtling outwards, creating and destroying matter in seconds, what was it that converted that release of energy into me, sitting at my desk with the sun shining and a bird singing in the tree?

Using giant magnets to accelerate sub-atomic particles and then crash them, Cern will create an approximation of that explosion. From the resulting debris it hopes to read how primitive particles behave at the extremes of energy release, and thus might have behaved at the birth of time 14 billion years ago. They hate people calling them “God particles”, but we can see why. Even atheists accept the big bang as “the unanswered question”.

Like most very expensive human activities, Cern cannot live by market forces. Like the medieval church, it needs the compulsory extortion of taxes to prosper. These days it must persuade politicians to tax the public and members of the public must believe that their money is, in some sense, well spent.

Some dubious scientific endeavours, such as walking on the moon, went to great lengths to prove a “return” on the nation’s investment. This apparently included nonstick frying pans, weightless experiments and the micro-treatment of human waste. Most are useful only to other people wanting to walk on the moon. Likewise every Olympic Games is supposed to leave a “legacy” but never does.

Cern claims that its accelerator has pioneered advances in everything from magnetic engineering to the invention of the worldwide web. But its most down-to-earth defenders, such as the scientist David Evans, admit that answering questions about the origin of matter is primarily an “intellectual curiosity”. Unlike Mr Casaubon in the gloomy vaults of Middlemarch, this curiosity is not a matter of a few books and candles but £3 billion of other people’s money.

Hence a question more immediate than what is the origin of the universe: how badly do I really want to know the answer? It could be one of those questions that I can happily leave to future generations.

In budgetary terms it is the same question as how badly do I want a British flag over the coxless fours, how badly do I want Angela Gheorghiu singing at Covent Garden or how badly do I want a replacement for the Trident missile. In a democracy these are real questions because they concern everyone’s money. Decisions are taken in everyone’s name. So how do I - or my elected representatives - decide?

I happened to be listening to the latest Cern propaganda blast on the BBC when a document fell on my mat. It was from the Reform think tank and suggested that Britain had the worst record of community involvement in crime and punishment in Europe. Britons apparently regard social discipline as a matter solely for central government. They expect some anonymous Robocop to come to their aid should anything go amiss.

On social responsibility Britain has lost its way. Prison numbers are soaring. Half of former offenders reoffend. Drug abuse in jail is out of control. Four “titan” prisons, which not a single criminologist regards as a good idea, are about to be built. Everyone knows what is wrong: we send too many people to jail but nobody can muster the will to stop it. Compared with this conundrum, Cern is apparently easy.

How is it that the Home Office can find £10 billion at the drop of a hat for an apparently useless computer system, yet cannot construct a restorative justice programme that would save millions in crime and recidi-vism? How can Tessa Jowell lift half a billion from the Treasury each year to spend preparing for the Olympics, which is more than is spent on Britain’s drugs treatment pro-gramme? How, for that matter, can you build an aircraft carrier, yet not equip a soldier in the field with helicopters or armour?

The truth is that prison reform, along with hospital cleaning, inner-city schools or armoured vests, lacks the glitz that has atom smashers, velodromes and aircraft carriers sailing through the Treasury door. A lobbyist has only to say that some giant scheme is “good for Britain” and the cabinet goes limp.

If I had a pet project to push I would include in its title the words terrorism, computers and international league table, and ensure that it cost not less than a billion. Even within the crazy Olympics budget, a programme such as cultural outreach is butchered because it offers no gold medals and requires no counter-terrorism consultants.

Assessing priorities is an art, not a science. It is the same within families as within nations. We muddle through from one chequebook to the next. Little Johnny wants a PlayStation, Sally wants to go skiing, a new car would be nice.

The only way to resolve these priorities is by discussion. As Bevan said of socialism, its religion is “the language of priorities”. The requirement of democracy is to ensure that the fight for resources is fair. Johnny may not employ a million-pound PR agency to get his PlayStation, but then he may not need to and it is not costing a billion pounds.

I am inclined to buy into Cern and eagerly await its answer, however tentative. If society cannot ask the big questions I wonder if it can grapple with lesser ones. But enough is enough. How prison reform can compete in a land where prestige counts for so much and good works for so little, I just do not know.

Simon Jenkins