Lucretius at the LHC

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Lucretius at the LHC. Cf. @platobooktour.

Visiting CERN, disappointed “and Void” missing from sign seen here. Taken for granted? Many have argued against it.

I ask my CERN guide, “Why do physics?” I hear of the pleasure of understanding. Would total understanding bring total pleasure?

Epicurus recommended constant activity in the study of nature as a means to bring calm to one’s life. (Ep. to Herodotus 37)

I learn the LHC is used to discover particles and their properties. Facts of the matter, you might say.

I hear of potential limits of knowledge due to certain quantities being brute facts of this cosmos, irreducible &contingent. Cf. @tegmark.

Epicurus to Herodotus (45): “There is an unlimited number of cosmoi, and some are similar to this one and some are dissimilar.”

I ask, “What effects have CERN’s discoveries had on how people live?” A confused look, then: “Oh, tech spinoffs? The Web started here.”

I clarify: “Has CERN reduced superstition?” My guide appears nonplussed, then responds, “I suppose the Web has… hmm.”

I do not see the connection to CERN, but, like @platobooktour, I have been captivated by the Web since my return. And by Twitter.

I find the Web’s first server, now off despite the note affixed. I learn the Web persists even as its parts come and go.

I am happy to find atomic theory has developed nicely but disturbed to find “atom” used to refer to things that have parts.

My guide explains the LHC collides protons — atom-parts — and shows me a bottle of the sort used to supply them.

Me: “The knowledge you seek; is it in the bottle to begin with?” My CERN guide: “No. Yes. No, it is not like that.”

I volunteer to my CERN guide that some have considered me a physicist. He asks my specialty, and it is my turn to be confused. “Nature.”

He inquires as to what I have published. “One volume of six books, for a lay audience. A Latin poem.” His eyes grow wide.

I pull a small red hardcover volume from my pack and offer it to him. “Latin on left, English on right.”

“You wouldn’t believe the crackpot papers I receive in my inbox,” my guide says while taking my book. “Each a ToE — a Theory of Everything.”

He flips through the pages and says, “What is the translation of the title ‘De rerum natura?'” Me: “On the nature of things.”

“But it is not a theory of everything,” I continue. “In fact, the last section was cut short by a… deadline.”

“I cover fundamental physics, atomic theory, spirit & mind, sensation & thought, origins of cosmos & life, meteorology. Hardly everything.”

“I had hoped to write a book on the atomic nature of the gods, but time has not permitted.”  My CERN guide promptly hands back my book.

“Not another book on the ‘God’ particle, I hope,” he says. Me: “The subject is well covered?” Guide: “Do you follow @seanmcarroll?”

“I do. I even maintain a list of physicists on Twitter. I’ve not seen any address the atomic nature of the gods.”

The rest of the CERN tour group enters. Our guide, with a concerned glance at me, says, “We’ll now watch a short video on the LHC.”

The video shown on the CERN tour is in 3-D. I am distracted by the distinction between perception and reality and miss much of the film.

The video ends, the lights return, and I remove the glasses. The 3-D world seems to have less dimensionality than the film; how is that?

We proceed to a room filled with screens where bits flow to and from the operators and scientists, collisions controlling their minds.

The tour ends and the group disperses. A few visitors pose parting questions to our guide. He eyes me as he edges toward the door.

The last visitor satisfied, I approach my departing CERN tour guide. As I follow, we nearly collide with a woman entering. My guide smiles.

“Hi Lisa,” he says. Then to me: “This is Lisa, a friend I texted during the video and asked to come meet you. Lisa, this is, um…”

“Lucretius,” I offer. My guide: “Lisa studies the history and philosophy of science and enjoys talking with persons such as yourself.”

“Physicists?” I venture.
“Those who send us theories of everything,” he says. Lisa winces.
“Thanks for coming; I have to run.” And he goes.

“Lisa, I am afraid I told him my theories hardly encompass everything.”
“Perhaps I should be the judge of that,” she says.

I hand her my copy of De Rerum Natura. “It is all I have had to say.” She leafs through it.
“I have read parts. You are the author?”

“Why did you come to CERN today?” Lisa asks. I respond, “To assess the status of atomism.” “What have you found?” “Uncertainty.”

“Do you have a more certain theory to share?” Lisa asks. “No, I am certain only that I have questions.” “Let’s get coffee,” she suggests.

Carefully stirring and watching the swirling cream in her coffee, Lisa says, “What did you mean by finding uncertainty at CERN?”

“There remains a limit of knowledge, a boundary of ignorance. Is this a permanent state of affairs?” The contents of her cup become uniform.

Lisa says, “Would you have there be a limit to ‘why?’”
“Perhaps, at least, a limit to ‘how?'” I reply.

“What of the view that the laws underlying the physics of everyday life now are understood?” she asks.
“Yes, I took it in De Rerum Natura.”

Lisa: “But there is much you misunderstood.”
Me: “I argued all is atoms moving in void. Matter, energy, space, time. Is more now known?”

I continue: “My aim was to show cosmos where some saw chaos. The existence of ‘a’ mechanism is key; not identification of the ‘right’ one.”

“Most now take the mechanistic view for granted and labor to identify the particular mechanisms,” says Lisa.

“Progress of a sort. But, if they fully accept the mechanistic view, then what motivates continued research?” I respond.

Lisa: “In some areas, utility. In others, beauty.”
Me: “Not fear?”
Lisa: “Of what?”
Me: “Fear of chaos lurking beyond the known.”

Lisa: “No, not fear of chaos in nature. However, there is a fear of professional chaos due to failure to obtain funding and positions.”

Me: “In disputes that rattle the foundations of science, I see the older fear.”
Lisa: “Such as anthropic arguments?”
Me: “Coincidentally.”

Lisa says, “Could not resistance to anthropic arguments be driven more by disappointment in absence of beauty than by fear of chaos?”

Me: “If so, it is misplaced. Would the sunset be more beautiful if it were not contingent?”
“You mix subjects.”
“You separate them.”

To be continued.