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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Low Hanging Fruit
As you’ve no doubt deduced by now (fingers crossed), we here at The Open Bar have finally gotten our act together and have been providing you with a series of daily distractions from your work, partners, children, and aging parents. As part of our continuing commitment to this heroic endeavor, we will be digging through our archives every Thursday and posting some of our favorite fiction, nonfiction and poetry. With over ten years of amazing writing available, there really is no excuse for you getting anything productive done.
We start things off with Jim Shepard, whose “Low-Hanging Fruit” appeared in Issue #40. You can catch him reading this Sunday, along with Elissa Schappell and Karen Russell, at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Be sure to heckle.
When I was twelve my father bought me a sailboat—nothing America’s Cup-ish, just something he thought even I couldn’t get into trouble with—like a Sunfish, only tubbier and slower. The first day I owned it I dragged it to Long Island Sound in a thunderstorm. People were sprinting from the beach and here I was hauling this low trailer through the wet sand the other way. The rain was so heavy it knocked me to my knees. Lightning stripped the color away and left the afterimage of dune grasses and their individual shadows. It occurred to me that I should let go of the metal mast. When I did, it started this low keening, and my hair lifted, as if in celebration, and even I knew that something amazing was transpiring on a very fundamental level. My father appeared, in his raincoat, and dragged me off the beach by the collar. He wondered aloud then and later if his son had the brains of a walking doorknob. He was at that point interrupting his son’s first stirrings as a theorist. His son had been modeling something in his head, thinking that maybe there was already lightning inside the mast, and inside his head, trying to connect with some kind of energy in the air.
It wasn’t the stupidest idea I’ve had. As my father and my wife would be the first to point out.
I’m a particle physicist. Most of us here could be dumped into that hopper, in terms of category, though of course there’s the specialized-within-the-specialized: don’t tell the accelerator physicists that they’re particle physicists.
Here is in the general vicinity of the Large Hadron Collider, or in my case, this room with that screen, that chair, and that locker for my coat. My coat doesn’t fit in it. It’s not like they didn’t warn me: when I’d wandered, stunned, out of grad school and into the job market, I’d been thinking mostly about Fermilab. And it’s not like the CERN people gave me the hard sell. They told me: you come here, your office’ll be a closet. Everyone’s here.
Everyone is. Three thousand physicists, all roaming through how many little Swiss and French towns in their off-hours? Every one of them slopping food around and breaking things. Every one of them with a different idea of what constitutes collegiality. And as for all of the different project groups: well, let’s just say that we’ve got some rivalries going. Even the engineers seem well-adjusted next to us. And they spend their every waking hour petrified of system failures.
What are they worried about? Well, what could go wrong? They’ve only cobbled together the most massive and expensive and complicated piece of scientific equipment ever built. Never mind the collider itself; some of these detectors are so big that working on them requires climbing gear. Everybody has triple and quadruple-checked everybody else’s numbers, but so what? Tell that to the people on the Challenger. There’ve already been double-digit serious breakdowns.
But for us—the theory people—all that’s neither here nor there. We’re all like: C’mon, let’s get this thing going. We only have so much data to work with. As far as we’re concerned, an ideal world is a place where experiments happen faster.
All of us have kids and spouses and pets and hobbies but that’s not where we live. Where we live is that part of the cortex where we do our model building: what my advisor liked to call Adventure Travel Through Concepts. And that’s an ongoing whipsaw between exhilaration and despair. Welcome aboard, loved ones. Strap in. We call this the Widowmaker.
First you hope you come up with something. Then you hope that it leads to something else. Then that the something else doesn’t bore you. Then that you’re not just entertaining yourself. Theorist friends when they get uppity tell me they do real theory, not phenomenology. Me, I think: Whatever’s in my intellectual playground better connect to the outside world. Because I’m not doing too well with that, otherwise. I’ve got the kind of life where even computational work makes me feel closer to the human race.
“You got that right,” my wife said when I made that joke in her presence.
She was talking about my capacity for certain kinds of curiosities and my apparent incapacity for others. Did I notice that she barely came out of her room all weekend? Did it seem to me that dinners had been a little quieter those last few weeks before I left? Those questions and others hadn’t seemed to have crossed my desk.
She claims I have a Dad thing going with my old advisor. She had some training in psychology and comes out with stuff like that every so often.
She complains that theorists say they have all the ambition, but really what they’ve got is vanity. But I say: when that curiosity’s gone, what’ve you got?
Some stuff you come across and bam, you drop to your knees right there. You think: that’s it—that shifts the paradigm. Other stuff, you’re like: why is this taking up everybody’s time? Some of the bigger-name theorists, they’re just out there hustling. They’re better salesmen.
The key is to go after the major stuff. Otherwise, you’re one of those guys who’s looking for what we call low-hanging fruit: the questions that are the easiest to answer.
I’m not the world’s worst husband but there’s a whole lot that I’d walk away from to be a part of something like this. To be a part of something one third as cool as this. The kind of collisions we’re going to be generating should knock all sorts of stop-the-presses particles onto our screens, the way two torpedoes colliding head-on should knock some spray out of the Atlantic.
Imagine what it’s like for us most of the time. We spend our days in front of chalkboards. Progress is slow. The tea gets cold. Our one idea of the last three weeks fizzles out.
Results that just confirm the standard model—as in, Oh, look: there’s a Higgs boson—that’d be the most depressing result. We’ve been sleepwalking through the last thirty years waiting for what’s going to shake us up.
My wife was crying next to me in bed the night before I flew to Geneva, and I put my hand on her forehead in the dark. She said, “Remember when you told me that the one thing physics teaches you is that the reality you think you observe doesn’t have much to do with the reality that’s out there?”
We’re not entirely well-matched emotionally. My dad’s way of putting it when I told him we were getting married was, “Well, it could work for a short while, if everything breaks right.”
She had a miscarriage and felt like I wasn’t entirely on board for the stunned-by-grief thing. She’s also been blindsided by my refusal to try again.
I tell her: the overarching lesson from science in the last century is that my experience is not going to help all that much, in terms of providing a guide to yours.
It’s like when she heard me sparring with an old friend who’s a string theorist about the way some of the follow-up discoveries about the likelihood of the Higgs field were redefining the meaning of empty. She’d snorted. “What was that?” the string theorist asked, all the way from Berkeley.
They think this is even bigger for them than it is for us. This is the chance for what they do to make contact with observable physics and become an experimental science. If strings are as large as some of these people think—a billionth of a billionth of a meter—that’s within reach of the LHC, and we’ll see new particles whose masses line up like harmonics in a choral piece. We’ll all be notes from the same melody, patterns from the same single kind of object: a string. They’ll all go nuts with joy. As he puts it, they’ll hear the shrieks over in the Humanities buildings.
Every time you turn a corner, something gets defamiliarized. This is the elevator that’s going to take us to the next floor. Some of those nuts that have been too hard to crack are about to get pried open. What are you really looking for? my wife said to me, last thing, before I left. What we’re all looking for. That saving thing, I think: that something that right now is beyond our ability to even imagine.
Shepard is the author of six novels, including Project X , and four story collections, including most recently, You Think That’s Bad. His short fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, the New Yorker, and Tin House.