August 2009

Elizabeth Bachner


Physics for Bibliophiles

I think I might need more photons and gluons in my universe. But more on that later.

When I want to learn something new, I turn to books. I'll sit at home eating caponata and making bulleted lists of how to reach peak physical fitness and climb K2. I'll plan return trips to Istanbul or the Bavarian forest. As a child, I got angry when somebody tried to get me to stop reading and go cross-country skiing or have a conversation at dinner. Now, I sometimes jerk myself into action, walking or traveling or making love. On trips, I always allow myself a cheap spiral notebook, and usually a skinny book that I will want to reread -- poems of Vasko Popa, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Fathers and Sons. If I don't record everything, I worry I won't hear myself fall in the forest. I try to fight myself on this, to walk or travel or make love and not scribble it into posterity. What if I live and die and never write another word? Will I have existed?

Still, I prefer book learning to hands-on learning, which is probably why I only made it through one day of high school physics class. Also, I am slow with the hard sciences, even when it's all just theory and reading. And math always made me cry. I do have a fondness for radicalism, New Age-y trippy-ness, the interpretive arts, metaphor and the occult. There's that story about how Samuel Johnson refuted Bishop Berkeley's theory that there is no matter outside of our own perception -- or rather, that we will never know whether there is matter outside of our own perception -- by kicking a large stone, hard. "I refute it thus!" He cried.

The world of biological determinists, sociobiologists and stupidly essentialist psychologists has always seemed to me to be full of swollen-toed stone-kickers. ("Just what that action assured [Dr. Johnson] of is not very obvious," wrote Sir Arthur Eddington in his defense of mysticism, "but apparently he found it comforting.") I have a feeling I would find some kindred spirits among physicists and mathematicians. In fact, Descartes, according to Arthur Zajonc's wonderful Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind, had some of his coolest breakthroughs via mystical dreams. But I am just too impatient or too mentally challenged or too something to understand the basic principles. My science teachers always loved me -- I always seemed like I was on the verge of finally getting it -- and I've always had at least one friend around who ended up going to Stanford to study astrophysics or who went to Bronx Science, and those friends are always just as New Age-y as I am. Berkeley loved the Greeks and got himself a doctorate in divinity. Einstein disliked the idea of God as some guy up in the sky, but was a huge fan of all things beautiful and numinous.

It seems like learning a bit about physics might be mind-expanding for me, might keep me from intellectually settling or stagnating. Even though part of me feels like I'm betraying my nine-year-old self. I can see her there, unfortunately clad in a purple minidress, weeping and consciously wishing pestilence and disease on whoever invented fractions. Sneaking into the bathroom to read Twain's essays and eat pudding-in-the-middle cake. She would hate me for thinking about doing any math when I have the option to make some nachos and watch Raising the Bar. Then again, my nine-year-old self was kind of more like Samuel Johnson -- trapped in unhappy circumstances (in my case, thankfully, not Anglicanism, crushing debt, tuberculosis scrofula, testicular cancer, or gout, but still, it wasn't good) that made me a little stodgier than I am now.

So, here I am with Why Does E=MC2 (and Why Should We Care?), by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, two young British physicists. Cox was once the keyboardist in the one-hit wonder pop band D:Ream. Forshaw is really cute, and, according to his manager's website, enjoys yoga, cooking, and rock climbing. They are so shiny, British and earnest that it feels like rejecting the Theory of Relativity to go watch bad TV would be mean; like telling your blushing student with the bad crush that you will never want him, or telling your friend that you don't like the gift she made for you. You just wouldn't do it. Once you sign in with Cox, Forshaw and Einstein; you're sort of stuck. Also, practically from page one, they bend over backwards to reassure math-challenged readers.

"If you do not want to follow the maths you can skip over the next paragraph, but then you will have to take our word for it that the numbers all work out. That goes for any other maths we might bump into as the book progresses," they say gently. (Apparently, getting startled by the maths lurking about in alleyways and under sewer grates is one of the perils of exploring spacetime.) "It is always an option to skip past it and not worry -- the mathematics helps provide a deeper understanding of the physics but isn't absolutely necessary to follow the flow of the book." They are deeply worried that we might worry about rounding a corner and stumbling into those terrifying maths, but, "Our hope is that you will have a go with the maths even if you have no prior experience at all. We have tried to keep things accessible. Perhaps the best way to approach the maths is not to worry about it."

This is not only a painstakingly accessible explanation of spacetime, mass, particles, gravity, and a whole bunch of things that are just plain not simple. It's also an explanation, for non-scientists, of what physicists do, and why they want to do it. Cox and Forshaw really love physics and find it a beautiful form of study. And they are right -- the maths are not (that) bad. I'll be curious to read reviews of this book by people who are not severely science-challenged. I wonder whether the authors' almost over-the-top patience, their care not to take anything for granted, would seem condescending to my Stanford or Bronx Science friends. Actually, it's astonishing that working physicists (and distinguished ones, at that) can even manage to see these concepts from a slow layperson's perspective.

The concepts themselves are exciting -- Ionian Enchantment. The fact that a single teaspoon of neutron star matter weighs more than a mountain, or that every second, "100 billion subatomic particles from the core of our star" will pass though your thumbnail. The idea that, before Einstein, "no one had dreamed that mass could be destroyed and converted into energy, because mass and energy seemed to be entirely different entities. After Einstein, everyone had to accept that they are different manifestations of the same thing." One of the most wonderfully convincing features of a successful scientific theory, Cox and Forshaw tell us, is its ability to predict something that has never before been seen. But they are not stone-kickers, looking for simple reassurance of their rightness. Newton was wrong, and yet:

"[O]ne hundred years later we sit here again, perhaps ignoring the lessons of the past and claiming that we (almost) have a theory of all natural phenomena. We may well be wrong again, and that would be no bad thing. It is worth remembering not only that scientific hubris has often been shown to be folly in the past, but also that the perception that that we somehow know enough, or even all there is to know, about the workings of nature has been and probably will always be damaging to the human spirit."

My favorite lesson from Why does E=MC2? is a note on the photon and the gluon: "These are the particles that are responsible for all the interactions between all the other particles. If they did not exist, then nothing in the universe would ever interact with anything else. Such a universe would therefore be an astonishingly dull place." Photons are more ubiquitous than gluons, mediating electromagnetic force. The human eye is simply a "sophisticated photon detector." Gluons mediate the force that glues together protons inside the nucleus of an atom, "hence the silly name." This all feels like a sad metaphor for my life -- all the elements are there between me and other people, all the pieces, but yet, there's no collision, no magnetism. For some reason, even though we are all beautiful particles, we do not interact.

This simple book about physics has me thinking about the physics of books. If I drop it, it falls, which would please Dr. Johnson. I read it outside the Met, where I learned that Francis Bacon (the artist, not the scientist) was so broken up about the first critical reception of his work that he destroyed a lot of it and disappeared from the art world for years. I read it and had a dream about stars, the kind in space. I read it in a café that serves lemon-infused water, and I notice a man drawing me while I read it. I see my face and arm and shoulder in pencil in his sketchbook while I go to get more lemon-water. I pretend I don't notice. The book is part of my world in a very complicated way, though I can hold it in my hand.

"In contrast to the proverbial door," writes Jean-Luc Nancy in On the Commerce of Thinking: On Books and Bookstores, "a book cannot be open or closed: it is always between the two, always passing from one state to the other." The book, he writes, can be considered neither plainly as "container" or "content": "It is not an object that can be put away on a shelf or placed on a table, but neither is it the printed text on its pages. Instead, it shifts from one to the other, or else resides in the tension between the two." It's magic, isn't it? A portal to the otherworld, there and not there, open and closed, all at the same time? A book is so mystical that it defies the laws of physics, that it revolutionizes spacetime and matter. Or, a book exactly defines and demonstrates the laws of physics.

"What comes to the reader is a world, and that world comes to mingle with the plurality of worlds that he allows to inhabit him. Reading is a melee of worlds, a cosmogony in its genesis or its last agony…taking place within the book but also between it and the cosmography of its time, whether that time be that of its writing or one of the times of its reading…"

Physically, in physics, of physics, where does the book leave off and the world begin?

There's a mention of Nostradamus in Why Does E=MC2? This sort of prophecy, according to the authors, is "amusing drivel" -- Nostradamus couldn't have seen events that happened in the future -- "to say this explicitly is almost a tautology" -- he could have caused the Great Fire but not seen it. Now, I am not a Nostradamus devotee either, but this misses the point, I think. The problem is that events are not events. Events are ideas, events are metaphors, events are dreams, mystical visions and archetypes. In fact, there's no such thing as an event, outside of our perception, however many stones we want to bash our feet against. And this is part of how a book's scary mojo works: how it manages to defy the rules of the universe (or does it?), how it manages to package the explosive collision between science and mysticism into a deceptively simple package.

See, I'm trying to understand the laws of physics. I'm even trying to have a go with the maths. And I'm lonely, even though my face is in that stranger's sketchbook. (Would Cox and Forshaw argue that my face can't be there, the way Nostradamus couldn't see the Great Fire? I think so.) I'm lonely, photon-less, gluon-less, not colliding, not interacting, except for with you. There you are, here you are, living your own mysterious life, reading my most intimate, saddest thoughts. We are connected right now, and now, in time and space. I'm thinking about you as I write this, and I'm thinking about Homer and I'm thinking about Francis Bacon (the scientist), and I'm thinking about Descartes and I'm thinking about Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw and Alan Lightman. And they were all, in a certain way, thinking of me, the way I am thinking of you. This is (partly) why I bring a notebook. This is (partly) why physicists practice physics.

Maybe it just feels like my life is lacking photons and gluons. Maybe, in fact, these particles are all around. They are just too tiny for me to see them. Maybe photons and gluons are all around. Atoms, chemistry, gravity, love, books and the world. That magical otherworld, outside of books, if there is such a thing. And, there is such a thing. I can prove it. I prove it thus.