Sand beneath our feet

“Think of the biggest-ever room you can imagine,” she had said to him in her innocent, tantalising way. “And then think about the space outside that biggest-ever room.”

“∞ + 1,” Merlin taunted him with its digital dots, configured to needle him just so.
“How can mankind ever hope to rationalise and reconcile the biggest-ever and the smallest-ever, Alice?” He had despaired, pulling at his hair so that he looked like an angry, golden Mohican. She, the creator of Merlin, knew the answer, of course. It was in that damn book of hers.

“Because they are the same, silly!”

Oh, the blerrie English! How he hated their voices, the words they used! And he discovered, there was nothing worse than Oxford English. For instance, how can a person from Scotland go UP to Oxford? Didn’t they know their own geography, or the basic concept of up, down?

But unwittingly, he recalled the words of his Oupa from long ago:

If we were to turn the universe upside down, these stars would become grains of sand beneath our feet.


A place where there are no stars

Excerpt from Chapter 10:

He had travelled so far from his homeland in the South African veld to this godforsaken city, where the blerrie clocks, church bells and gargoyles mocked and taunted outsiders, only to discover that his boyhood dreams were a fallacy: if you look at stars from outer space, they do not twinkle or glitter at all. The enchantment that had captivated him since he was an eight-year-old boy came solely from the earth’s atmosphere refracting millions of light particles raining down upon us from the rays of a dying sun. He remembered his Oupa’s words of long ago, which suddenly made sense after all these years: real magic is to be found here on earth. He had found it many summers ago, sitting inside the hollowed out trunk of his 1,000-year-old baobab tree.

And then in the light reflected in her kaffir eyes, he glimpsed what the universe and life truly were: the totality of the universe was just infinite light spheres blowing in and out of existence like ephemeral soap bubbles, each sphere having a different size but no total volume. Even when the spheres were compressed, this totality remained infinite. To try to catch it would be like catching infinity.

He gazed heavenwards, and up there, the sword of Orion blazed one last time in the afternoon Oxford skies, piercing the shimmering, iridescent moon.

“Catch the moon, my dear Professor,” Alice said. She watched the play of shadows across his face intently. “Let go of your stars.”


Photo: Fontvieille, April 2017

The Treacle Well

Imagine the three little sisters in the Dormouse’s tale – Elsie, Lacie and Tillie – who lived in a Universe permeated with treacle instead of gravity. Tillie who wore Mary-Janes on her feet, the typical shoes of Victorian children, and a frilly pinafore dress, and she struggled to move through the treacle. Lacie, who saw her sister’s difficulty in moving through the treacle, decided to remove her clothes and put a pair galoshes over her shoes; she moved easier than Tillie through the treacle. As for Elsie the magical child, she sprouted a pair of wings and glided effortlessly over the treacle. The three sisters who lived in the treacle well experienced treacle with different degrees of difficulty.

Thanks to the Dormouse, she understood that Elsie, Lacie and Tillie actually represent different types of particles of our world and our relationshp with the Higgs field. We are all living in a treacle-well, it is not just a fancy told by a sleepy mouse at the Mad Hatter’s tea party where the clock never moved. Tillie, who had the most difficulty moving through the treacle, is the one with most mass, whilst Elsie, who did not interact with the treacle at all, is massless.

We don’t think ‘mass’, instead we think ‘weight’, simply because weight is what we experience in our ‘real’ life. Thus we are unable to make the leap and think of mass is as a consequence of particles reacting differently to the Higgs field; rather, we choose to believe that the more massive a particle is, the more ‘stuff’ it contains. This inability to think in terms of a new dimension traps us and limits us because we are never be able to contemplate zero-dimensional particles which do not take up any space but which nonetheless possess mass. Like the beautiful distant stars that stud the endless Universe, Alice thought with a smile for PW. He, who talked so passionately about stars yet made no mention of the Higgs field.

Curiouser and curiouser, was what she used to say when she was a little girl. It was her curiosity that damned her.

The Hunting of The Snark

Meyrin was a town that existed merely as a service station for CERN and its large legion of scientists from all over the world, each pursuing his or her own science fiction in this industrial town. Here, in this clinical environment necessary for space-age research, science was as detached from the real world as can be. From his Oupa’s ancient binoculars and their homemade particle accelerator back in the veld to this.

The further our gaze travels from home or the deeper we look at our material reality, the more we will become reliant on science that is beyond common sense and the average person’s comprehension. Thus, the most difficult thing for a theoretical physicist to do often is to communicate his ideas and findings, because these new rules of reality are increasingly removed from common sense. Science communication then becomes reliant of cleverer abstractions, on metaphors. PW loved metaphors; they were a large part of his success, the way he artfully used them to fire global imagination and interest. And from metaphors, too, we get beauty and meaning.

That blerrie English girl asked him, the night they sat on the Cherwell, why was the fifth quark named Truth?

Will we ever know Truth, PW wondered. Right now, all we have is the compartmentalisation of the things into two varieties of boxes: those for the things we know unequivocally, and another for the things that we do not, or may never, know.  Metaphors, so beloved of PW the consummate storyteller, blur the dichotomous key and confuse the sorting system; we end up thinking that we have more content in the ‘Don’t Know’ box than we actually do.  But like it or not, our experience and memory of exploration within and beyond is becoming more belief-ridden. That is, until we get more cold hard facts from these monster machines that fire particles at each other forty million times per second twenty four hours a day and seven days a week.

Someday, I am going to build an accelerator so large that it can be seen from the skies, the poster  announced boldly in childish scrawl. It was made for him by his eight year old son, Dawie, his precious child whom he told stories of the meteorite that fell to earth, magnetic spheroids, buckminsterfullerenes, and all the magical things to.

He cast his eyes heavenwards. “God, please give me a Higgs Boson,” he said, heartfelt words that he uttered for the ten thousandth time since he began this journey out of the veld.

  • Note: the title of this post was borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s poem (published in 1876) of the same name and the image from the book published by MacMillan.