This is a very exciting day in particle physics.
My father is a theoretical physicist; we summered at what I did not at the time realize were the securely fenced-in cement structures and boxy metal military-style housing on the grounds of Brookhaven National Laboratories.
Theoretical physics–of theoretical picnic fame–is really pure math.
Before there were whiteboards, my father’s office walls were covered with blackboards underneath which stubs of chalk had been plunked haphazardly into pine sills after the conclusions of series of mysterious numbers and symbols. Sometimes these equations leaped from blackboard to blackboard. My brothers and I loved to visit there and scribble our own “equations” among the somewhat more professional mathematical work.
I am comforted by the sound of chalk clacking against a blackboard. I still love the smell of chalk and of chalkdust-dense erasers which could be clapped together to make a puff of white dust that would make us sneeze. And somewhere in my mind remains a scent I loved but which no longer exists: the smell of the stairs in Pierce Hall, which were covered with a black material that looked like coarse sandpaper but glittered as if it were embedded with silver dust.
My sons’ undergraduate majors are combinations of physics and mathematics (and one son has tossed in an oddly reality-based additional degree program in mechanical engineering). One teenage daughter picked up some serious-looking eyeglass frames before recently travelling to deliver an equation-laden paper at a signals processing conference.
Earlier still, when one of my children was in pre-school, we had one of many “Could I have a word with you?” teacher moments when my daughter’s teacher reported that the children had been sitting around in a circle one-upping–or perhaps, in the circumstances, one-downing–each other by announcing that they had assumed the identities of ever-smaller creatures. “I’m a bunny,” one had said. “I’m a chick,” said the next. My daughter had brought this repartee to a screeching halt (similar to the effect of ending a first limerick line with the word “orange“) by announcing, “Well I’m a subatomic particle and there’s nothing smaller than that.”
We have a proud nerd tradition.
Unless you have a similar familial fondness for physics, it is difficult to picture the excitement that attended today’s announcement of a new particle–quite possibly the Higgs Boson.
At my father’s university, professors of theoretical physics don’t really retire, they just move up a floor–so they’re a little closer to God. (So unconcerned are they with the accoutrements of more traditional fame and fortune that it was merely a pleasant surprise when one of them won a Nobel Prize and, at the age of 85, finally was blessed with a secretary.)
Perhaps Professor Higgs, who also is in his eighties (theoretical people sometimes have to wait a very long time for the pure experimental people to confirm their hypotheses), moved up a floor at his university as well. The Higgs Boson is, after all, the “God particle.” (In fairness, of course, the term is said to have been shorthand for the “Goddamn” elusive particle.)
Although I am enamored of physics, I do not have much more of a talent for it than when I was a little girl visiting my father’s office. But, for perhaps obvious reasons, I am drawn to the concept of things we know exist but cannot be seen. Only their influence–the effects of their existence–can be measured.
This is of course the same way I try to process the legacies of people we love and have lost, and lets us know they haven’t really been lost to us. They have made our lives different, and better, forever.
Even now I can maintain a good dose of denial about death, but I wrestle with existential questions: what does it mean for us to live, and to live on when we can’t be seen?
One of the most comforting thoughts I’ve come across is in Frederick Buechner’s definition of grace: it “means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.”
I can only hope I made Jim’s life better. I know our children did, immeasurably. Our friends and family did as well.
One of Jim’s sisters, during overwrought teenage days, is reported to have been fond of saying, “I didn’t ask to be born!” Evidently no one ever responded, as I would have, that none of us does. We might never have been, but we are.
And the party would not have been complete without Jim.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon