Atomic Speak (Kimota)

by Justin

This made every meal an ordeal for Dirac: he had no talent for languages, and his father was an unforgiving teacher. Whenever Dirac made a slip – a mispronunciation, a wrongly gendered noun, a botched subjunctive – his father made it a rule to refuse his next request. This caused the young Dirac terrible distress. Even at that time, he had digestive problems and often felt sick when he was eating, but his father would refuse him permission to leave the table if he made a linguistic error. Dirac would then have no option but to sit still and vomit. This did not happen just occasionally, but over and over again, for years.

-from The Strangest Man: The Secret Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom

I was/am working on a piece about the final collisions at the Tevatron, the premiere atom smasher in this country. That sprawling beast of a story, about the history and legacy of the sprawling underground beast that is the Tevatron, dominated the past three months. Particle physics is a lovely and dangerous subject for writers.

On the one hand, you cannot get too grandiose: the most brilliant minds in the world build the largest machines in existence to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang and answer the most fundamental questions about the universe. These guys invent things like the World Wide Web just to facilitate the interrogation of the cosmos. On the other hand, the revelations about the inner magic of atoms appears as, wait for it, numbers and graphs. Info that shakes our sense of the universe manifests as statistical bumps.

In playing with the need to make mathematics sexy (it is), I leaned on Dirac and his particular notion of the Word:

“One could perhaps describe the situation by saying that God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe.”

Dirac, a staunch atheist, believed that the universe expressed itself in elegant formulae. In that sense, physicists are translators. The universe speaks its own dense language – but she neglected to bring along anyone bilingual to teach her native tongue. C’est la guerre. So physicists take full stories and work backwards, deconstructing the language to its most basic elements, and try to get into the universe’s thoughts. Stephen Hawking (also an atheist) said that this science moved toward knowing the mind of God.

Dirac himself was a miraculous translator, uniquely gifted at divining truths through nothing but mathematics. He predicted the existence of antimatter without experimental evidence. He followed the logic of formulae. Bonkers. I think it was Heisenberg who described the Dirac equation as plucked from the heavens. Amazing that Dirac’s childhood in a multilingual home with so cruel a father developed into a singular ability to translate the for the universe. The full biography, by Graham Farmelo, is wondrous.

The idea here, stolen from someone, is that all of existence ripples out from quantum phenomena. Quantum fluctuations are the articulations of fundamental (divine, ultimate, universal, what-have-you) energy. Math can express that.

I love imagining physicists as translators, statistics as the renderings of cosmic thoughts, and the likes of Dirac as devastating linguists.

We science writers, in turn, are another degree removed from the source material. I am always envious of the minds and the expertise of scientists. Can you imagine having your ear to the atom? It must be like reading Marquez in Spanish.

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