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Cern, The Divine Comedy and All That

The links between Dante's The Divine Comedy and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN are deeper than one might imagine.

James Burge | Published 30 April 2012

Domenico di Michelino, La Divina Commedia di Dante (Dante and the Divine Comedy). Fresco in the nave of the Duomo of Florence, Italy.Having just gone through a sharp career change from writing a biography of Dante to preparing a television documentary about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, I have found myself searching for a connection between these two apparently widely disparate projects. The fact that I have managed to find one highlights a thread which runs through the history of ideas.

The connection lies in the desire to find an overall principle which explains the complexity of the universe. This, as I expect you know, is the stated aim of the scientists at CERN: they want to find the equation which underlies all events in the universe. That is their principal goal and finding the pesky, elusive Higgs boson will serve only to confirm that they are on the right track, probably.

It is less obvious that Dante, author of The Divine Comedy, was after the same thing, but he was. At every stage of the Comedy, a narrative account of a journey from the centre of the universe (Hell) to the edge of space-time itself (Heaven), we are reminded of the guiding principle of the universe. Of course Dante, being a man of the late middle ages, refers to his guiding principle and Divine Love but that separates him from the CERNistas less than you might think. He applies to his theology a ruthless analytical logic akin to scientific rationalism. Every event and remark in the comedy is intended to reinforce his message of a logically and elegantly ordered universe. That includes his observations of everything from ants to the zodiac: theories as to why there are spots on the moon, opinions about human reproduction and speculations on the gravitation conditions at the centre of the earth. To him it is the ordered principle that makes the world wonderful and Dante celebrates the wonder of nature with a fervour that is only equalled by Brian Cox in his documentaries about the solar system.

The audacious search for a grand theory of everything is part of a European tradition of thought that manifests itself in many ways. Of course there are real differences between Dante and the CERN scientists. They would argue, correctly, that they have a near monopoly of scientific rigour and testability but for me the salient difference is in the pay-off they deliver. Dante’s overarching principle enables him to incorporate not only the sun and the other stars but ideas of good, evil, justice and also his own all-consuming love for his late girlfriend Beatrice. That door is now firmly closed to seekers of universal theories. All they can now hope for is a feeling of wonder and an elusive boson.

Never mind, the mountains around CERN are still beautiful.

James Burge is the author of Dante's Invention (The History Press, 2010)

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