‘So what’s up Eddy?’
On this first hot day at CERN, birthplace of the World Wide Web, Higgs bosons and other amazing things, we are having lunch at the tennis club just opposite the laboratory. Lots of happy physicists, engineers and even a few tennis players are enjoying Italian food or local fare on a sunny terrace, surrounded by trees that have only just sprung into bloom. Even the new green leaves are so fragile that they look like flower petals.
‘You heard about Elena?’, he asks. I shake my head.
ELENA is a tiny particle accelerator, or decelerator more precisely, that will sit within the existing Antiproton Decelerator that Eddy and me co-designed and commissioned in 2000. Its purpose was to create large numbers of anti-hydrogen atoms to measure the properties of that rarest of all materials on earth: antimatter. And it only exists at CERN, at ‘our’ accelerator.
‘We got the funding and once constructed, we will finally measure whether anti-hydrogen will fall up or down under the force of gravity’. Eddy has a big smile on his face. As do I. In physics this is highly exciting stuff!
‘So how about Higgs? Any updates?’, I ask. At CERN, this is just polite conversation, like asking your Mum how her Geraniums are doing.
He laughs. The Higgs particle is big physics that keeps 99% of CERN on their toes. Any updates are very carefully worded, even within CERN. There are no yes or no answers for Higgs. Only cagey phrases like, ‘we confirm that the Higgs particle either exists, or it is part of a new family of Higgs bosons.’ This, at least is an improvement to the previous statement that ‘CERN had seen a particle that looked very much like a Higgs’.
Fundamental science doesn’t deal in truth. There is no true or false. At this level of science, we can only say that something is likely to a precision of 97%, for example. That leaves 3% of doubt.
My friend Eddy, and the community of physicists around him, are the 3% people. They dedicate their careers to prove that today’s physics is wrong. Not out of spite, but out of passion. If anti-hydrogen falls up, that would put a serious dent in the so called Standard Model. That is worth at least 100 bottles of Champagne in the Antiproton Decelerator control room. I’ll try and get an invitation to that party!
For me this absence of absolute truth is important. Physicists are dealing in the realest of real reality and they have learned the hard way that there is no absolute truth. Ask Newton about his laws of motion. Ask Einstein about quantum mechanics.
In the real world, there is no absolute truth.
Eddy and myself go back a long way. We started at CERN more or less at the same time, early 80’s. Although CERN is the heart of the scientific universe, for us, it was just a job. A good and interesting job, but its purpose was to allow us earn money to go skiing in the weekends and clubbing in between. In time we got more serious (read: lost the spirit of youth and life itself), and began contributing bricks to the cathedral of science in earnest. Once we finished our work on the Antiproton Decelerator in 2000, I left science for the world of business and he went on to genuinely advance our knowledge of the universe. But even from my pleasant perspective of smart corner offices, I continued to love that same science and retained my curiosity for the fundamentals of reality.
In the real world, there is no absolute truth. I had come to the same conclusion. Even truth is relative (to the framework in which it was hatched).
The philosopher Alan Watts found many answers in Zen and Buddhism and he didn’t need CERN to come to such a conclusion. He often said man’s invention of language and words turned the real world into a conceptual world. A word is a concept. Man then uses these words in his conceptual world and tries to extract truth from it. In the process he gets stuck in a web of dualities of his own invention.
Take the Big Bang for example. This ‘theory’ states that the universe was created nearly 14 billion years ago during a massive explosion in which matter, time and everything we think of as real, was somehow created out of nothing.
The question many people ask, once they hear of this Big Bang is: So what was there before?
Well, say the cosmologists, time itself was created during the Big Bang and therefore, the notion of before doesn’t apply. No time thus no before. They’ll give a similar answer to what is outside our universe: reality – our dimensions, time etc – as we know it stops at the edge of the universe and therefore there is no outside. No dimensions thus no outside.
But, Alan Watts might have said, inside and outside, before and after are language concepts invented by man. In the same way that a snake has a head and a tail but in reality is just a snake, he said that the universe is a continuum beyond our language and conceptually limited world. The universe is … . At this point he would sound a gong to take us away from language to the reality of sound.
I agree with Alan. Although science can and will go on studying our cosmos and its nuclear structure, forever, the fact that it uses language, including mathematics, tells me that they will never bridge that last gap that is predicated by the dualities that are the foundation of language. There will always be a ‘what happened before, what is outside’ question. I suspect that the final answer will be circular because only a circular line has no end. But we will still ask what happens inside that circular argument and so on.
Language and mathematics have their own biggest flaws built in.
But, like those scientists, I am curious and want to find the answer to those very questions. I have thought about this a lot. I have even attempted to create new mathematics to capture those limitations of our dualistic world. All that led to were equations without equation signs which negates the whole notion of an equation!
Fortunately, reality itself comes to the rescue of my tortured mind.
Where I live it is spring. At the end of the terrace at the tennis club opposite CERN, not far from our table, there is a cherry tree in blossom. Beautiful delicate pink petals appear to explode from the tree, like lots of little Big Bangs. Where were those blossoms last week?
Were they curled up inside a bud? No, the buds were way too small.
Were they an idea inside the trees mind? No, trees have no minds.
Were they a coded program inside the DNA of the tree? Sure, but information is a non-real concept itself.
Where was the cherry blossom last week?
The only frustrating answer I have come up with is the one all philosophers end up with. The cherry blossom wasn’t anywhere. It wasn’t. Now it is, then it wasn’t. To be or not to be. ‘Ha!”, I hear you say, ‘another duality’. Of course, how could it be otherwise if you use words?
There is only one thing left for me to do.
‘Eddy, have you seen that gorgeous cherry tree there?’
Eddy nods. He closes his eyes and takes a long slow breath. I do the same. The sweet and loving scent of the cherry tree floods my experience. The pink flavour takes me back to all the springs of my life. The experience of life to the fullest, nature at its happiest and me falling in love, experiencing life as a dream but being wide awake.
No thoughts are left in my mind. The answer to the deepest question of existence is in its very absence.
Eddy has to go back to work, he has a meeting. They are finishing the design specs for the electrostatic deflectors for the ELENA transfer line. Eddy goes back to antimatter and Higgs.
I stay on at the terrace and close my eyes again. Revelling in the only truth that I have found, I breathe that truth. And just for a moment: I am.
Eddy’s truth. My truth.
We’re just friends.