Julian Cook’s science laboratory

This week, physicists investigating supersymmetry were forced to tell the world they’d been barking up the wrong tree for 20 years.

And quite right too

After exhausting every avenue, they had to admit that subatomic particles may not behave as they’d originally thought. It’s always tough when you realise there’s no mileage in your big dream, and no one knows this better than swarthy fast Jamaican, Usain Bolt.

Like Usain Bolt, supersymmetry is a stunning example of complex physics that makes us all positively cry out with happiness when it appears before us on Sunday daytime programming. But just because it looks the part with its imposing height and glistening flanks, doesn’t mean that it will automatically solve the question of why we exist.   

Let’s consider the men’s 100m final, which took place at the weekend in South Korea. Usain Bolt knew it was his for the taking and made us all swoon with his cocksure pre-race horseplay and impudent grin. But when the second pistol fired just a moment after the starter shot, Mr Bolt knew that he’d got it tragically and undeniably wrong. He knew he’d committed a false start and his theories about the high energy unification of electromagnetism, weak and strong interactions were just a load of old tosh.      

He immediately did what any man would do in similar circumstances and removed his top. In the language of science, this is a clear admission of personal error and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve been in that place several times during my career. But science is all about admitting when you’re wrong so in all honesty, moments like this are the reason I got into it in the first place. I’ll never forget the time we caught Professor Hawking out on his black hole information paradox – it was utterly compelling.

So, as the LHC physicists go back to the drawing board, I find myself asking, ‘could it be that our brains are just not big enough to understand the mind of God?’. Far across the universe, is there a massively advanced alien species who worked it out ages ago and are now watching us with their heads in their hands? For us, it would be like watching a rack of Herculean young track stars cued up on the starting line, but in lane five for GBR, it’s Michael Winner. What hope has humankind when our representative is wobbling around the starting blocks, making upsetting remarks about African lady runners’ vaginal areas, clutching his heart at the starter’s pistol and trying to slip his trailer key into the satchel of a snake-hipped Korean refreshments boy?

It’s enough to make you want to abandon scientific investigation forever. But, like Usain Bolt, I’ll keep lunging on, driven by the hope that one day, the Michael Winner in me will come up with the beautiful, simplistic theory that unifies quantum mechanics with general relativity. When that time comes, in acknowledgement, I will convey my message to the human race through the medium of films and e-sure adverts.  


Dr Julian Cook is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Studies