Archive for February 7, 2019

The Future Circular Collider: what’s the MacGuffin?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on February 7, 2019 by telescoper

I’ve been reading a few items here and there about proposals for a Future Circular Collider, even larger than the Large Hadron Collider (and consequently even more expensive). No doubt particle physicists interested in accelerator experiments will be convinced this is the right move, but of course there are other projects competing for funds and it’s by no means certain that the FCC will actually happen.

One of the important things about `Big Science’ when it gets this big is that it has to capture the imagination of people with political influence if it is to be granted funding. Based on past experience that means that there has to be a Big Discovery to be made or a Big Idea to be tested. This Big Thing has to be simple enough for politicians to understand and exciting enough to capture their imagination (and that of the public). In the case of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), for example, this was the Higgs Boson. In the case of the Euclid space mission, the motivation is Dark Energy.

The Big Thing that sells a project to politicians is not necessarily the thing that most scientists are interested in. The LHC has done a lot of things other than discover the Higgs, and Euclid will do many things other than probe Dark Energy, but there has to be one thing to set it all in motion. It seems to me that the Big Question about the FCC is whether there is something specific that can motivate this project in the way the Higgs did for the LHC? If so, what is it?

Answers on a postcard or, better, through the comments box below.

 

Humphrey Bogart with the eponymous Maltese Falcon

Anyway, these thoughts reminded me of the concept of a  MacGuffin. Unpick the plot of any thriller or suspense movie and the chances are that somewhere within it you will find lurking at least one MacGuffin. This might be a tangible thing, such the eponymous sculpture of a Falcon in the archetypal noir classic The Maltese Falcon or it may be rather nebulous, like the “top secret plans” in Hitchcock’s The Thirty Nine Steps. Its true character may be never fully revealed, such as in the case of the glowing contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction , which is a classic example of the “undisclosed object” type of MacGuffin, or it may be scarily obvious, like a doomsday machine or some other “Big Dumb Object” you might find in a science fiction thriller.

Or the MacGuffin may not be a real thing at all. It could be an event or an idea or even something that doesn’t actually exist in any sense, such the fictitious decoy character George Kaplan in North by Northwest. In fact North by North West is an example of a movie with more than one MacGuffin. Its convoluted plot involves espionage and the smuggling of what is only cursorily described as “government secrets”. These are the main MacGuffin; George Kaplan is a sort of sub-MacGuffin. But although this is behind the whole story, it is the emerging romance, accidental betrayal and frantic rescue involving the lead characters played by Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint that really engages the characters and the audience as the film gathers pace. The MacGuffin is a trigger, but it soon fades into the background as other factors take over.

Whatever it is or is not, the MacGuffin is responsible for kick-starting the plot. It makes the characters embark upon the course of action they take as the tale begins to unfold. This plot device was particularly beloved by Alfred Hitchcock (who was responsible for introducing the word to the film industry). Hitchcock was however always at pains to ensure that the MacGuffin never played as an important a role in the mind of the audience as it did for the protagonists. As the plot twists and turns – as it usually does in such films – and its own momentum carries the story forward, the importance of the MacGuffin tends to fade, and by the end we have usually often forgotten all about it. Hitchcock’s movies rarely bother to explain their MacGuffin(s) in much detail and they often confuse the issue even further by mixing genuine MacGuffins with mere red herrings.

Here is the man himself explaining the concept at the beginning of this clip. (The rest of the interview is also enjoyable, convering such diverse topics as laxatives, ravens and nudity..)

There’s nothing particular new about the idea of a MacGuffin. I suppose the ultimate example is the Holy Grail in the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in which the Grail itself is basically a peg on which to hang a series of otherwise disconnected stories. It is barely mentioned once each individual story has started and, of course, is never found. That’s often how it goes with MacGuffins -even the Maltese Falcon turned out in the end to be a fake – they’re only really needed to start things off.

So let me rephrase the question I posed earlier on. In the case of the Future Circular Collider, what’s the MacGuffin?

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