The Courage to Imagine

It’s been over a week since the New York Times delivered the following headline to my laptop:

 Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe

The particle, apparently responsible for imbuing everything with mass, is called the Higgs Boson. Generations of scientists had been hunting it for over forty years. Clearly, I hadn’t been paying enough attention. I didn’t know they were looking and I struggled to understand what they’d found. I had some catching up to do.

For some reason I thought I could get my bearings by looking at the Periodic Table of Elements I’d memorized when I was in grade 9. That was a long time ago. I’m pretty sure I memorized it because I was told it wouldn’t ever change that much; why else would anyone memorize such a thing.

Have you seen what’s happened to the Periodic Table lately?

The one I studied seems to have been developed in 1869 by Dmitri Mendeleev. Twenty new elements have now been discovered. Some are called Noble Gases. The scientific Adams have been having great fun naming things. The six types of quarks are called “flavors” identified as “up, down, strange, charm, bottom and top”.

As I was reading the article, I was drawn to the quote in the NYT stating: “The finding [of the Higgs boson] affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws — but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry.”

Scientists knew that something was missing in the “simple and elegant and symmetrical laws” of the Standard Model because the equations predicted a universe which was too symmetrical. It didn’t really account for why anything exists.

My association with symmetry is William Blake. He described the powerful forces in the universe as a tiger burning in the forests at night, and he asked:

“What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

He mean that symmetry is “fearful” because there is something stagnant about sameness and something suspicious about a mirror. Creation must have flaws. To understand the reason why the universe exists, scientists went on the hunt for the flaws, for what they called “the breaks”.

Native myths had already arrived at a similar idea. So many of them have the universe coming into existence because of an error. Raven stole from a box all light there could ever be, flew out through a smokehole, and then — he accidentally dropped it. Everything began.

This theme has fascinated me for some time. It’s present in my new novel, Bring Me One of Everything. Sophia tells her daughter that in Holland in the 1600s a single prized tulip bulb sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The tulips could “break”:

“So a red tulip might come out the next spring with the petals feathered and flamed into really intricate patterns. You know what causes this?… A virus spread by aphids. The virus is the joker in the tulip bed.”  

“Like a mistake,” Alix says. “The world begins because of a mistake. Generally caused by Raven.”  

In reading about the Higgs Boson discovery, I started to notice the allusions, the similes, metaphors and analogies being used to try to encompass and transmit this new information about the universe.

Metaphor juxtaposes disparate elements of the world. Saul Bellow observed that the range of a writer’s capacity for metaphor is a measure of the range of their cognition. The novelist, Bellow proclaimed, must be aware of nothing less than “the total human situation.”

As must the scientist, the poet, the journalist — all of us.

“Without the Higgs field… all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight.” (NYT)

Matter would flow through our hands “like moonlight” (a simile). The invisible force field comprised of the bosuns is described as a “cosmic molasses” (a metaphor). Particles “wading” through the field (of molasses) “gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.”

The tendency to end up with mixed metaphors is also fearful.

My favorite explanation came from a long grey-haired hippy with yellow teeth. This aged teacher was wearing the problem on the front his T-shirt where the equation of the Standard was written in white letters. He pointed to his chest, to the place of his heart, showing the symmetry in the equation which had to be broken.

He used the analogy of an infinite field of snow “extending throughout all of space, flat, featureless going in all directions”. I’m from Saskatchewan; I had the picture. First he had us imagine a skier there, going the speed of light, leaving no trace; then someone wearing snow-shoes, trudging along, picking up mass; finally, a man on foot, sinking deep into the snow.

This field of snow analogy was superior to conjuring up a room of journalists or a piece of legislation. It was about a journey, and a difficult one.

Some video clips were of the extraordinarily humble Peter Higgs who expressed satisfied astonishment that the boson was discovered in his lifetime. “It’s really amazing to me to find out that it [my theory] was really enough.” When Higgs first sent off his paper containing his newly minted theory to a prestigious science journal, it was rejected. Many other doubters tried to block the way. Gerald Geralnik said the discovery “… shows the value of just imagining, just asking, just trying to follow the leads that you get… We were told that we were wrong. It was scary…”

I am reminded of a comment made by my friend, James Elkins, who wrote to me recently about working on his new book: “doubt gnaws at me, and a far distant voice says it may never happen . . . you have caught yourself up in an illusion.”

After the sense of security and complacency that metaphors and analogies can deliver, many of the scientists wanted none of it. Maria Spiropulu said: “I don’t want it to be simple… or as predicted. I want us all to have been dealt a complex hand that will send me (and all of us) in a good loop for a long time.” And Stephen Hawking: “[The discovery] is a pity in a way, because the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect.”

For the rest of us, “For the other laymen out there, about 6 billion of them,” as one science journalist said at the press conference, “Did we really not have an explanation before this as to why we have mass?”

The scientist pointed to him and said, “It’s not what gives YOU the mass… The bosons get the mass, not you…”

The journalist was a little shaken. He persisted. “To the extent that I am made of fundamental particles does it not have any relevance to me?”

“I think it has a lot of relevance to you,” the scientist said. “Because if that [the boson] did not exist, you would not exist.”

This exchange was so touching. We, the 6 billion of us, are struggling to understand our place in the universe. Surely we are closer then, aren’t we, to understanding the meaning of our existence? And yet explanations fail us. Language fails.

I turn back to the poets, to Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Maybe we’re here only to say: house, bridge, well, gate
jug, olive tree, window —
at most, pillar, tower…
but to say them, remember,
oh to say them in a way that the things themselves
never dreamed of existing so intensely…”

At the end of Bring Me One of Everything, as Sophia is dying, she tells her daughter, “Call out to the universe until it answers.  No less an effort is required.”