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Friday, 12 November 2010

Just for the record, I like scientists

And now I’m going to cry! Not great floods of tears (after all, it’s not as if Wales have won the Six Nations again) but a definite welling; a lump in the throat. Because there He is. Just a short distance away – I don’t know how far, the water makes it difficult to judge and distance is the last thing on my mind – is the blue whale. The sea is calm and there is still snow on the mountains around the bay. As He surfaces you can see the muscular blowholes burst open and we hear His mighty, exploding gasp of breath. With little warning He displays the tell tale signs of preparation for a deep dive. And as surely as the earth spins His flukes are lifted from the water. There is an awestruck murmur. From one person a cheer. And He’s gone.

Now there are animals and then there’s the blue whale. Finding adverbs for how He moves is a fruitless task. You couldn’t say that He was cutting or scything through the ocean, His progress is too stately. It’s certainly more than just swimming. The arc of His back as He rolls between air and water, stitching the sky and the sea together with long undulating needle strokes, is graceful enough to make you believe in sea serpents.

Finding new ways to describe their size is equally useless so I’m not going to bother. Go to Google, look for the superlatives. Suffice to say that these beings are on a scale that is still alien to us. In a world where we’re frustrated by the things we can’t catalogue, quantify, codify and categorise there are entities like the blue whale that will continue to cloud our sense of what’s possible. At the very moment we think we’ve mapped the life we experience the blue whale appears from beneath us bringing us a message that we may have named and categorised His race but that He is still representative of deeper mysteries of understanding; and most elusive of all, we haven’t begun to understand why He makes us feel as we do. His appearance makes us tear up the map and want to start again.

But it’s ironic that He just seems too big to deal with. Does the strange way we react to its presence make us want to put it away so we can deal with our feelings later? Is the blue whale so awkward? And is this why the world is so obsessed with beginnings at the tiniest scale? At the Large Hadron Collider they’re looking for something to explain the beginnings of the universe. But within yards of where I was standing was something much more tangible that explains what the universe means to me, to us. And what it means here and now, not 6 billion years ago.

So scientists of the LHC, I invite you to remove your hard hats, your fetching white rubber wellies and your one piece contamination suits. Put plastic sheets over your microscopes and take off your goggles. Close down your spreadsheets and silence the oscilloscopes. And when you’ve done all of that go whale watching. Come and feel what it’s like to share a brief moment with something that will defy analysis and description; something that you can’t put into a formula. Something that’s so big (and not just in its physical size) that in all your academic brilliance you will not be able to see the beginning or end of the theory behind it. I promise you that all you will be able to do is stand and realise that, as Goethe has it, “I am here to wonder.”