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James Beacham and the other end of the black hole

Innovation Explorer 2023: James Beacham Interview.

Interviewer: Dessisalva Boshnakova

1. In your TEDxBerlin lecture you look for answers to the most important open questions of physics using the biggest science experiment ever mounted, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Which according to you is the most important open question of human kind and what is the equivalent of  CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to be able to find the answer?

The most important open question of humankind — the one that would affect the largest number of people in a profound way — is the question as to why our species has become stuck. How did we get stuck with a dominant social, political, and economic system that is exploitative, extractive, has destroyed Earth’s environment, and has resulted in a situation where a few dozen individuals can hold as much wealth as billions of the rest of us combined? If an alien species observed our civilization they would be horrified. How did we allow ourselves to develop and maintain this system? And how do we upend this system and replace it with something equitable and sustainable for all people? There is right now no experiment or tool to find the answer beyond education, mutual aid, organizing, and love.

2. How can you convince a scientist of the importance of science communication? If, of course, you belief in the power of science communication?

If a scientist cares about making the world a better place, they should care about science communication. (I’m a science storyteller more than a science communicator, so perhaps I’m the wrong person to ask, but here we are.) But science communication is like any other kind of communication: It requires determining what this specific audience needs to know about your topic or topics in a particular way that will enable them to understand why your topic is important to them. If one is a scientist, this applies whether one’s audience is one’s peers or is a group of non-specialists. Effective communication requires thinking about narrative and execution, and it’s important because communication is how we persuade people to work to change the world for the better — which is my goal. (My goal is not to recruit people to study science, although that’s a fine side effect or a fine goal in and of itself. It’s just not my goal.)

3. Why scientists have to dare to give a TED or TEDx talk?

Because such events are fun! Such an event format is a good opportunity to experiment with communicating complex ideas in ways that people will care about what one is saying. I don’t think scientists should feel *obligated* to speak at public events like TEDx or similar (and there are a large number of great events out there), but they are great ways to develop communications skills. Anyone — scientist, artist, writer, architect, etc. — who cares deeply and passionately about their practice or research will be stretched intellectually by endeavoring to distill their passion into a short presentation for people who are not in their field — if they haven’t done so already.

4. In your project EX/NOISE/CERN you are exploring the musical unknown? What kind of project we need to explore the human unknown?

The human unknown is being explored by all of us every day, whether we realize it or not! Humanity itself is a project of exploration. Our ability to be curious about and investigate the world around us is one of the most spectacular hallmarks of our species. Ex/Noise/CERN is one project of many that I’ve mounted that exists in this space between or outside scientific and artistic exploration, and it’s one of many fascinating projects around the world. As a filmmaker as well as a science storyteller / performer I’m interested in what the biggest open questions in science say about our priorities as a society — and how we can use our attempts to answer these big open questions in science as inspiration to address our social inequities and our destructive, exploitative systems. We need big, radical projects that dare to question the basic assumptions of our human societies — why did we get stuck with this one destructive, exploitative worldwide system? — to be able to truly explore the human unknown. Humans are meant to be curious, investigate, explore, and cooperate; we’re not meant to exploit and be exploited.

5. Answers me the questions you have wanted always to asked, but nobody ask you?

I feel like I’ve been asked a large number of questions over the years, but here are some favorites that deserve more attention. 🙂

6. Which do you think we’ll have first, full-scale quantum computers or usable fusion power?

I think quantum computers will come first. They are both nearly unfathomably difficult physics problems to solve, but there are so many economic and practical pressures on quantum computing that it seems reasonable to think it will arrive sooner.

7. You wrote a paper about building a particle collider around the circumference of the Moon to reach collision energies a thousand times that of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Are you crazy?

Possibly! But the fact remains that big, inspiring, bold-step-forward projects like a Circular Collider on the Moon aren’t impossible impossible. They’re regular impossible. And regular impossible we can do! There are no showstoppers to building a collider on the Moon. We just need further development and time. We should definitely expect our great-great-great granddaughters to be lunar particle physicists.

8. Is Elon Musk a fraud or a grifter?

Why not both?

9. What are some books you’re reading right now?

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison G. John Berger, The Dawn of Everything. David Graeber and David Wengrow

10. Does romantic love really exist? Or is it just a cold evolutionary strategy?

Despite much evidence in support of the latter, I choose to behave as though the former is true. In those moments when one feels it deeply, it doesn’t matter whether it’s simply an evolutionary adaptation: It’s just love.

11. If you can ask me one question, what that question would be?

If you were offered a one-way trip to Mars, would you go? Why or why not?