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Why Physicists Are the Coolest People on the Planet

The following is from my essay, “Why Physicists Are The Coolest People On The Planet,” which was a result of my interviews at the Particle Accelerator at Stanford University (SLAC). I was doing research for the screen adaptation of my lunatic novel, Cosmic Banditos, commissioned by John Cusack

Why Physicists Are the Coolest People on the Planet*

*a dilettante’s view
by A.C. Weisbecker

An odd occurrence, even by my standards.

I’m touring the Stanford University particle accelerator (SLAC) – I rated a private go round, expertly guided by two voluble, bright-to-the-point-of-luminosity grad students, and set up by SLAC communications – and, apparently, my watch stopped. I say “apparently” because I didn’t actually see the watch stop… wait… how does one “see a watch stop” under any circumstances?

You may already be getting an idea of what can happen to a dilettante as a result of hanging out with a bunch of folks whose life work involves the search for ultimate causes, i.e., What It All Means.

It can be disorienting.

But back to the matter of my watch. My accelerator tour done, I’m in my room at SLAC’S The Guest House and look at my watch – I have an appointment to interview theoretical physicist Stephon Alexander at 6 PM and don’t want to be late. My one-month-old Swatch reads 3:32, which I know is not correct; it’s later than that. Plus my watch’s second hand is stock-still. I look at my room’s digital by the bed. It reads 5:14 (I wrote down the times – my watch and the digital -- intuiting that something odd may have happened). Working backwards in time (another disorienting concept that physicists take for granted) I calculate that my watch… malfunctioned… while I was in the bowels of the accelerator.

Thinking that I may have been exposed to some untoward subatomic debacle, I step to the nearest mirror to see if I’m glowing. No more than usual. No biggie, I finally conclude. My watch happened to… malfunction… while I was in close proximity to a device meant to duplicate conditions immediately after the Big Bang -- back before… I’m going to get in word-trouble again… before “time” had “started.” Again, most likely a “coincidence.”

Okay. I interview Stephon. It goes very well indeed – I can tell because as a result of speaking with him I reach a heretofore unscaled stratum of disorientation. (I’ll return to the interview in a moment.) Later, around sundown, Stephon is holding court with a group of Italian physicists at a picnic table outside the SLAC cafeteria. Stephon is insisting that we all go listen to reggae at a local club. Hesitation and excuses from the others. Stephon will not hear of it. He says in exasperation, “The problem with physicists is they don’t have enough fun!” Then he adds, “We’re here once and that’s it. Let’s make the most of it!”

It’s precisely here that I glance down at my watch to see what time it is, forgetting that it… malfunctioned. Yes, it still reads 3:32. Then I notice that the second hand is moving. So: it just now must have started up again. (As of this writing three weeks later my watch has worked flawlessly.) “Coincidence” is supposed to mean a lack of cause and effect between two events. This is undoubtedly the case here. I one hundred percent know that.

Here’s something I learned at SLAC, although I already suspected as much: Physicists, at their best, are different. Speaking of which, here’s something Stephon Alexander told me. Are you ready for this? Okay. I asked him why he became a theoretical physicist.

His answer: “I was angry at God.”

Which somehow brings me to what I was doing at SLAC in the first place – it’s about time I explained this, no?

My aforementioned book, Cosmic Banditos, is being developed into a movie by the good people at New Crime Productions (in L.A.), which is the actor John Cusack’s company. John got interested in physics while filming the movie Fat Man and Little Boy, the story of the making of the atom bomb. Aside from my authorship of the book, and given my background in movie and TV writing (I was one of the first writers on the old show, “Miami Vice,” among others), I’ve been hired to write the screenplay.

See, one of the main characters in my book is a particle physicist and, with the craft of writing, I’ve found that there simply is no substitute for knowing the world of your story.

So I was at SLAC interviewing physicists and also just sort of creeping around the deceptively mundane-looking grounds, essentially spying, trying to get a handle on what physicists do and what they are like as people. (Oh: And having my watch stop while I was in the bowels of the particle accelerator, then have it start up again immediately upon a physicist explaining that we’re only here once and should make the most of it.)

Know the world of your story. Perfect example: Stephon Alexander became a theoretical physicist because he was angry at God.

Hearing those words put me just a little-tiny-bit-quantum-pubic-hair’s-breadth closer to knowing the world of my story.

If you’re thinking that that doesn’t make sense, since being angry at God is so… unusual… so unrepresentative of the “normal” motivation for becoming a physicist, you’re mistaken in the essential goal in writing a good story. Or for that matter, in my dilettante’s view, doing good physics. Which is this: To avoid cliches.

Isn’t that what, say, Einstein did when he came up with relativity? He avoided the cliché known as Newtonian physics. What a grand storyteller he was!

So: a physicist’s job and mine as a storyteller are really one and the same.

A related hallmark of the physicists I met as SLAC: If I asked a question to which they didn’t know the answer – which was rare and usually based on my asking a dubious question – they didn’t hem and haw; they just said, “I don’t know.” When I asked Joanne Hewitt if she thought mathematics was invented or discovered, she said, “I don’t know… let me think for a moment.” So she thought for a moment.

Joanne guardedly thought mathematics was discovered. Which was what I was hoping she’d say. Because I think mathematics is the language of God. It’s there, with us or without us. So it was discovered, not invented. (Perhaps “deciphered” is better still.)

More God stuff.

I asked folks what they might learn from recreating the conditions just after the Big Bang – I mean really really really really just after the sucker (speaking of quantum pubic hairs). Experimental physicist Mike Woods’s answer left me in the dust (although, of course, I nodded a lot), but I’d caught a vibe.

“You mean there might be a message from God in there?” I wanted to know.

This made Mike smile. Then he said, “Okay.”

I can use that, maybe, I was thinking.

The world of the story.

I loved Mike Woods’s blackboard, by the way, for the childlike (not childish) drawings mixed in with his arcane equations. Later, talking to someone who knows Mike, I mentioned the childlike drawings. “That’s just the way he thinks about physics,” was the explanation.

I’m in awe of this sort of thing.

An operational example of my awe occurred while I was on the Stanford campus after my first interview with a physicist. Due to the disorientation factor, I got lost.

“I’m lost,” I said to a student, a female. (Not wanting to frighten her, I didn’t bring up my disorientation.)

“Where do you want to go?” the student asked.

“I’m over at SLAC,” I said, and tapped my little security badge. Listen: I made this declaration as if I were claiming to be “with the band” at a Rolling Stones concert. (The security badge was my back stage pass -- this notwithstanding that in large letters on the badge were the deflating words “Escort Required.”)

A related matter is the SLAC security gate. Generally I don’t like this sort of thing and, theoretically, I should have liked it even less here, given that SLAC is a pure research facility – no secret weapons or technology are being developed (not counting someone accidentally coming up with an antimatter cannon or stumbling upon a wormhole portal to a bizarre branch of reality where George W. Bush can correctly pronounce “nuclear,” or the like). But I didn’t mind here. Maybe because the security guy would wave me right on through – I was, after all, with the band.

But what is the reason for the security gate and the passes (and subjecting me to the humiliation of the Escort Required caveat)? Why should anyone worry about the happy-go-lucky SLAC crew and their search for ultimate causes, their quest for…

Okay… I think I have it.

Picture this: Washington, D.C. A secret underground bunker. The red phone rings. “They’ve come up with The Meaning Of It All at SLAC!” General panic in the secret underground bunker. “Call the security gate! Tell them to seal the place up!” “Find out who’s behind this!” “I bet it’s that guy who’s angry at God!” “The Meaning Of It All!” “We can’t let that get out!” And so forth.

Another anecdote, although I’m not sure it’s relevant. We’ll see how it develops.

My first day at SLAC, just arrived, my first ride on the Stanford shuttle bus, on Marguerite (what a great name for a bus!), sweet Marguerite -- I need to go find a phone card to call home. There’s one other passenger, a studious-looking fellow with a briefcase. Being a nosy sort, I strike up a conversation, get right to the point, ask what he’s doing at Stanford. Maybe he’s a physicist. Hey: Maybe I can get disoriented while at the same time scoring a phone card. Kill two birds, etc.

The fellow says he’s developing a computer program combining the classics of literature with some other stuff in order to solve the major problems of modern man: economic, environmental and social ills.

I dunno, I’m thinking, let me think about that.

I mean how would that work?

I tell the fellow that if there’s one thread that runs through classical literature, it’s that human beings are incapable of solving problems. In fact, if you read the classics, from Homer through Shakespeare right on up to Weisbecker, you’ll find that as soon as human beings try to solve a problem, they invariably make it exponentially worse. Hence the carnage, the suffering, the tragedy with which classical literature is rife. The incapacity for problem solving might even be the best definition of what a human being is. In other words: An organism that is a complete and utter screw up. If one meant to sum up the legacy of classical literature, some version of this thought would work pretty well, I opine to my sweet-Marguerite-fellow-passenger. The fellow nods uncertainly; he doesn’t say anything. (If a light bulb went off over his head, it was a dim and depressed one.)

So – I’m on a real roll now – plugging classical literature into a program meant to solve the major problems of modern man might in fact be the cause of the final apocalypse.

Okay, I didn’t say the last bit about the fellow’s life’s work causing the final apocalypse – he seemed a nice enough fellow. I’m just thinking of this now. And getting cranky. The final apocalypse could very well affect me personally.

Believe it or not, I don’t think I’ve wandered off-subject with this anecdote. The related point, the connection (or maybe it’s more like an entanglement) is this: Physicists are the exception to my human-beings-being-complete-screw-ups assertion.

I emphasize physicists above because I suspect that when physicists are not doing physics they manage to screw up as catastrophically as the rest of us. But let’s not dwell on a depressing subject. Let’s look at what physicists do in their work, from my dilettante’s view.

Try it this way: What would a physicist think about my sweet-Marguerite-fellow-passenger’s theory of using the classics of literature to somehow solve the major problems of modern man? Do you think a physicist would figure it has merit?

The correct answer (in my dilettante’s view) is this: Probably not.

I emphasize probably because physicists (scientists) would hold off final judgment until they know more – my description of the fellow’s work is meager at best, and is, of course, second hand. They’d want the fellow to produce evidence that his program, his theory, works. And the evidence would have to be just so: it would have to be provided via the experimental method.

Thing is, what I’m so briefly alluding to here – also known as the scientific method -- is not just the way a physicist does his/her job. It’s a whole way of seeing (in the broadest sense). And what that whole way of seeing does is solve problems. It is, in short, a way for human beings to quit screwing up. Look: Even when physicists screw up, i.e., come up with a non-useful theory, they don’t really screw up – they learn something; sometimes, based on their screw up, they intuit a path to not screwing up. Plus, some great scientific advances have been made as a result of them screwing up.

As I’ve more or less said, but bears repeating: The problem is that the scientific method is tough to transfer to everyday life – or to solving the major problems of modern man, for that matter. Hence my observation that physicists, in their everyday lives, can screw up just like the rest of us -- I bet that there are a few physicists out there (but not too many) who believe there might be something to astrology, or that the reason the United States invaded Iraq has anything to do with freeing the Iraqi people.

But, again, let’s not dwell on a depressing subject.

This problem of transferring how physicists do their work to everyday life -- it seems to this dilettante – is in defining the problem to be solved, the question to be answered. Mathematics – the language of both physics and God – provides real answers, but more importantly, real questions as well.

In talking to one of the SLAC physicists, and in bringing up the question of What It All Means (via the search for ultimate causes), I got this answer: 42, i.e., What It All Means is the number 42. This is an old physics joke, taken from the Douglas Adams book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – but what makes the joke significant is the subtext of it. Which, I think, is this: Whatever physicists find after the good old Higg’s boson (the current candidate for the “ultimate particle”)… or if that’s not the last little bugger, after whatever does come last, if it’s mathematical, it won’t be meaningful (at least to us humans) in terms of ultimate causes.

Going out on a dilettante’s limb: Physicists will never really find that ultimate cause because that cause won’t, can’t, be mathematical. Which in turn means that in their life’s work, in the end they’ll pretty much… screw up. And I think they damn well know it.

But they’re giving it a shot anyway.

I love that about them.

Physicists are the coolest people on the planet.



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