Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Terry Pratchett and the Higgs Boson

CERN, also known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (I have to look that up whenever anyone asks what it stands for), has been in the news quite a bit lately for a variety of reasons: potentially ending life as we know it with world-crushing black holes, producing neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, and even possibly seeing glimpses of the Higgs boson. Of course, as with almost all stories out there, many news outlets take the time to do the proper research on these stories and get them right, but some do not, and these stories can result in some incredible rumours flying about. Consequently, one would expect to find CERN in modern thrillers like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code or Michael Crichton’s Sphere and Timeline, but one would hardly expect mention of CERN or particle physics in modern fantasy.

Imagine my surprise then, as I was eagerly making my way through Lev Grossman’s latest novel, The Magician King, and ran across CERN! To put the following quote in context, a magician (not to be named here for fear of spoilers), has just found a group of magical researchers, and is being introduced to their research.

“I think of it more like CERN,” Pouncy said. “It’s an institute for high-energy magical studies.” … “So I’m looking around for like a Large Hadron Collider or its magical equivalent.”

Perhaps what excited me the most about this quote was that it indicates that CERN is bringing the ideas behind high energy particle physics research to the attention of the public. So much so, that CERN has even made its way into popular fantasy literature, and in my book, learning more about physics is never a bad thing.

But this analogy between magician and scientist is nothing new, and oftentimes the character traits used to describe wizards in fantasy novels are based directly on the commonly perceived traits of scientists. Terry Pratchett in his Discworld series takes this one step further and parodies the relationship between wizards and scientists, or in Pratchet’s case, specifically high energy particle physicists. In one of Pratchett’s more recent books, Unseen Academicals, he describes one of the wizards on staff, Ponder Stibbons, at Ankh-Morpork Unseen University (or UU) as having this look:

“Perhaps it was the look of someone permanently doing sums in his head, and not just proper sums either, but the sneaky sort with letters in them.”

As a particle physicist, I can certainly attest to the fact that many of our sums are quite sneaky and truly not “proper sums,” both in the world of Terry Pratchett, and in the world of mathematics (our Standard Model is built on “improper integrals”). However, this quote is only the tip of the iceberg in Pratchett’s Discworld. Unseen University has a “High Energy Magic Department” which is being challenged by the “Higher Energy Magic Building” of the rival Brazenbeck University, almost certainly an allusion to the friendly rivalry between Fermilab, located near Chicago in the United States, and CERN.

Pratchett does not just make a connection between scientists and wizards, but delves even deeper into the world of high energy particle physics. Oftentimes the language he uses to describe magic-- “thaumic particles,”etc.--closely mimics language used in particle physics. He even goes so far as to make puns that only someone with some familiarity in particle physics would get. In Going Postal, Ponder Stibbons uses the universities “thinking machine,” HEX, to create a billiard table which moves balls through “baize-space.” When I first read this passage I immediately saw the connection with “phase-space,” the concept describing the allowed range of motion of a particle in physics. Only later, with the help of a dictionary, did I learn that “baize” is “a coarse, feltlike, woolen material, used for covering billiard tables.”

Even though Pratchett alludes to particle physics in his books on a regular basis, there are fantasy books which rely even more heavily on particle physics, books that include particle physics as one of the primary plot devices. When I first read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the particle physics was in such plain sight that I completely failed to take notice. All three of His Dark Materials books focus heavily on “Dust,” which Pullman alludes to as being some sort of undiscovered fundamental particle, or dark matter (perhaps even “his dark material”). One of his main characters, Dr. Mary Malone, is a particle physicist and plays a prominent role in the final two books of the trilogy. Even the first book was released as Northern Lights, alluding to the well-known phenomena of high energy particles impacting the earth’s upper atmosphere.

The exciting thing for me about all of these books is that particle physics is exciting enough to be used in fantasy novels. I have heard people bemoan the fact that we live in a time too late to explore the world, and too early to explore the universe, but this simply is not true. We live in a time where we are exploring the borders of our knowledge, not just with particle physics, but with every aspect of human research, whether literature or science. Or perhaps more aptly put, as Terry Pratchett wrote about high energy magic in Guards! Guards!, we are minds ”probing the very fabric of the universe, whether it liked it or not.”