An excerpt from

Not From Above!

Alexander Mayor

Managing expectations

The day we turned it on? God that’ll remain long in the memory. Of the survivors at least. Countless changes, great and small.

It’s ushered in something of a new era of discovery too – in fact, our aim had always been focused on solving one big question... and now? Now all the little things we took for granted seem to contain this new, previously unseen physical property: “quantum peril”. The location of towns, the weight of water, the possibility of heights, each a little bit broken. It’s heartbreaking really.

In retrospect the research was both amazingly detailed, rigorous and compelling, and yet also breathtakingly narrow. We probably need a new word for that. It might help to place the whole episode in context for future generations. Assuming there are future generations.

Problem is, you stop seeing some of these theoretical nuances when the equipment gets beyond a certain physical size. People get invested in it, the wiring, the colourful ducts, the sheer amount of lasers. I vaguely recall we gave some of them names early on, Henry, Cressida, Alonzo and so on, you know, to gin up some public enthusiasm during the build phase. It was a different time.

We turned it on at exactly 12.12 GMT+2 on the 12th of December 2012. Clive Maddings, engineering co-lead, had confided in me that this was a physicists’ in-joke about atomic densities’ behaviour under conditions of near-unknowable pressure. One of those cutely cocky gestures that typically only gets noticed in the New Scientist’s diary column, and possibly a few of the geekier podcasts. It was low on my list of must-disseminates certainly. Yet somehow this attempt to stick the fundamental building blocks of reality into a long-running maths in-joke came to frame, understandably sourly, the public’s response to the whole affair. Everything from “12 reasons why science can’t be trusted” to the more bombastic “Hang the boffins!” which made dispiritingly regular appearances in the tabloids.

Of course I’m not blaming the public. Anger born of loss is understandable. Particularly in the immediate aftermath, once it had become clear we’d lost some of the German-speaking part of Switzerland. And those pretty bits of Northern Italy. Those are now Z-space; dimly comprehensible to humanity as not-really-height, yet somehow ineffably more horrible to deal with than not-width-or-mass. You told yourself, well, that area wasn’t that densely populated, hillside agriculture was becoming financially untenable anyway, but the nagging sense of guilt was still there, casting peak-like shadows.

By the way... the Esperanto word for “sorry” is “bedaûras”. We all did a course. It sounds better, doesn’t it? I see a cottage with candle light coming from the windows.

The button itself isn’t really the issue. People do love to ask though. And yes, one of them was red as it turns out. I suppose that’s an understandable mis-expectation. Blame Hollywood. There’s been a massive box in which to type the password for so long, it must be true.

Ha! No, in reality it’s a series of levers connected to a massive array of switches routed together by virtual cables that exist in a fluctuating power matrix which runs out of the complex and into the … mechanism above. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs, it hardly seems important given where we are now but yes, of the four master controls one was red as it happens.

I just thank God that when the original press release went out, to announce that we were... going to turn it on, that we really had all our ducks in a row. I mean back then there were people who couldn’t see the value in getting bound copies to give out in the room or having the risk assessment professionally typeset. But I told them, ‘no-one on this team is going to undermine 27 years of literally weapons-grade scientific endeavour and a budget that could run a medium-size Balkan nation for the sake of a poorly chosen typeface’.

You have to see an macro-scale scientific endeavour like this in the round. Yes, a lot of it involves advanced mathematics and the precise alignment of lasers more powerful than the Sun, deep within the bowels of a concrete building in a place we used call Bern. But I’ve always maintained science is really about storytelling. Advanced maths, high-power lasers, and story-telling. If you haven’t got all three, pulling together, you really don’t have ‘a thing’.

It was a hard sell at the Institute but we got the funding and the budget was there, no question. Educate, elevate, oxygenate. ‘But must we not also demonstrate mastery of the science of communication?’ I would often ask at the start of meetings. It feels like an empty flourish now.

Creatively, the agency’s concept to have those underprivileged school children from Chamonix turn it on, was... possibly a symptom of an idea that had got a bit out of hand. Over-confident, I mean over-confident. It got out of hand about 16 minutes later.

But yes, perhaps the team probably should have spent those final few hours re-running the risk algorithms rather than helping out on a video for that, at-the-time-adorable, song they’d written … about the machine.

Of course it’s a little too early to say if the fact that most of the people in the control room, die kinder included, became a new kind of gelatinous gas only visible in the octo-prismic register is actually a bad outcome, per se. I mean they could be having the time of their lives. I’m assured we won’t know until we complete the next round of experiments.

Sadly those are a ways off at the moment, as most of the publicly identifiable scientists have been hunted down for now. That’s those that weren’t immediately thrown into the howling six-dimensional portal that opened up between Avignon and, well, somewhere ‘else’ is our current working assumption. These days a little humility over large claims comes with what’s left of the territory.

Me? I guess like so many things on this once beautiful planet, I’ve found I’ve had to pivot to a new position. But if a marketing qualification is about anything it’s about finding new ways to cast old, or as in this case, perpetually recent, problems.

So let’s reflect on what we learned the day we turned it on, say I. I’m often called on to provide leadership for those coming up, the recent graduates, the marketing newbies, or even those who’ve literally and unnervingly just winked into existence. I have my stump speech ready. It’s from the same one I used at the trial.

‘What makes us what we are isn’t the towns we build, the symphonies we write, or even the number of dimensions we can regularly comprehend with the faculties we now know that God definitely didn’t give us. No, what makes us truly us, is our ability to translate. Maths into energy, English into German, danger into opportunity, love into understanding. Translators have to make and we’re makers, every single one of us. And that’s what’s going to get us through the next unquantifiably shaped, yet somehow reassuringly horrifying combination of bent time and tentacular verticality that we used to call “the future”. Love you guys, now let’s get out there and share the good news.’