More Splintered Than Common Sense

May 7, 2011

The other day I ran across this on the Internet: “A particle accelerator in the U.S. has shown compelling hints of a never-before-seen particle, researchers say,” which was intriguing, because even though I was a lousy physics student in high school, I found the discoveries of physicists mind-blowing in my adult years and read as many books as I could about the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. I’m talking, of course, about books written to instruct the mathematically illiterate — someone who still adds on his fingers.

If you’re curious, it’s hard not to be impressed by anyone who knows the language of mathematics well enough to understand what E=mc² (Einstein’s fundamental equation of relativity) really means — without being translated into common language, that is: Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.

“Uh, cool,” I’d say. “Now explain that in English.”

But having heard hints of a never-before-seen particle my day becomes new. The blue day is further fractured: Oh great, not only do I have to deal with a government that’s splitting to smithereens, but I’ve also got to shoe-horn the possibility of a new sub-atomic particle into my reality. All of a sudden, what were already small thoughts become more pint-sized than the nonsense of politicians; smaller even than the bits of stained tile mosaic under my feet beneath a urinal.

But this first annoyance passed as I read on. I became hopeful. In the article by Jason Palmer of BBC, I learned that “ . . . if proved, it will be a completely new, unanticipated particle.”

Completely new! This was the kind of pick-me-up I needed, especially in days when everything pouring in from the outside world is as old as the hills — old as self-interest, as tired and crass as consumerism, as antiquated as religious zealotry. But just as I was being stoked and hyped with anticipation, it turned out that, according to researchers, this “unanticipated particle . . . cannot be the much-sought-after Higgs boson.”

It figures. I’m crushed. After being so set up, they tell me this is not the much-sought-after Higgs boson; the very boson I’ve been pursuing my whole life (along with liberty and happiness), looking for it between the pillows of my couch where I often find keys and nickels or dimes. Hope surged when I first heard the news but then, without warning, life again seemed to be shy of something elemental, and yet my tomatoes have just perked green in several of my potting flats — their petite leaves pulling-in light — so how bad can still not discovering the elusive Higgs boson be?

Still, despite its apparent irrelevance to the prospects of my tomatoes, you might be interested to know how this discovery came about.

Palmer informs us that, “the team was analyzing data from collisions between protons and their anti-matter counterpart antiprotons. In these collisions, particles known as W bosons are produced, along with a pair of ‘jets’ of other particles,” which, after all, seem not so unlike the collisions taking place nationally with birthers bumping up against Hawaiian state officials in the great where-was-Obama-born debate or religious antimatter buffeting protons of reason . . . stuff like that. Unlike the iffy fruits of politics, physicists actually came up with something.

Says Palmer, “It was in these jets that the unexpected ‘bump’ in the team’s data came to light, potentially representing a particle that the current understanding of the zoo of subatomic particles — the Standard Model — does not include.”

Fascinating.

None of this is to suggest that such scientific discoveries are pointless: I’m no Luddite. I like plugging in my computer and asking electrons to pluck my e-mail from the orbits of servers. From one angle, such applications of intellectual prowess may be considered sublime in that they inhabit a realm far removed from the mud, muck and stupidity of politics  —down here where we live. They only seem pointless because their purpose and precision is so alien to the apparent randomness and raggedness of human beings trying to get along and carve out a placid place in the world.

So putting aside my disappointment that this new particle is not the Higgs boson, its newness alone is refreshing in a world bulging with archaic thought. Scientists say this hinted-at particle could actually be a new force of nature, beyond sex perhaps; maybe greater than greed. Who knows what new element of nature they’ve found hinted at in their accelerator in unexpected bumps in jets of colliding particles, which they note while sipping Starbucks as the white dust of a sugared torus settles upon the lapels of their lab coats and the macro-world simultaneously fragments with the micro into something even more splintered than common sense?

Not me.

by Jim Culleny
for the Shelburne Falls Independent, 4/29/2011

Poem: More Splintered Than Common Sense

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