A nightmare à la Card

I’ve missed writing my posts for three days straight. 🙈 I don’t know about you but I’ve certainly let myself down. I have a trove of excuses but I’m sure none of them qualify.

Today is Higgs Day. I’m not sure the name is fitting: the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced on this day in 2012; the particle itself had been discovered in late 2011, while further experimental confirmation concluded in January 2013. Perhaps designating a single day as ‘Higgs Day’ serves to write and share popular articles about the goddamned particle, but it pays to remember that particles are not discovered on one day. In fact, one of the foundational premises of the Large Hadron Collider was to provide the long-overdue experimental data of the Higgs boson’s existence, and it took over a decade to plan and build the machine.

I asked @AboutTheSouffle yesterday whether anything had transpired in the last six years concerning this particle that was worth writing home about, or in fact in the last one year: for the five years before, there have been clockwork articles every 12 months about what physicists need to do next. The reason such an impetus exists is known semi-popularly as the nightmare scenario: wherein more elusive particles that physicists had expected the LHC to find haven’t shown up in the data. As a result, they have had to confront the theory of fundamental particles they have been working with for decades – the Standard Model – and look for deformities in its metaphorical façade.

Why is this a nightmare? Because the Model has been picture-perfect since the 1960s, or at least the physicists who built it and continuously use it have thought so. Imagine crafting a singularly awesome sculpture over a whole year and then, one day, becoming convinced that there is an imperfection somewhere that you must find… It can be maddening.

This state of affairs often reminds me of the opening scenes of Xenocide, the third book in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game quadrology. They describe the life and penance of Han Qing-jao, who, under the tutelage of her father Han Fei-tzu, is tasked every day with following numerous linear markings that traverse the floor and walls of her room from start to finish, without losing track. If she does lose track, she must start over. Qing-jao does this over and over again over many, many days, with no end of the torment in sight.

In Card’s conception, Qing-jao and Fei-tzu are both members of a rigid caste system concerning the class of people known as the ‘godspoken’. These people possess great intelligence – whose provenance the inhabitants of the world of Path trace to gods – as well as an acute form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is later revealed that all the godspoken are the children of a devious government experiment that sought to create exceptional minds and then control them by programming any rebel tendencies to trigger debilitating OCD behaviour.

Like Qing-jao and Fei-tzu, some ‘godspoken’ (a term I use à la Card) physicists obsessively trace the sinews of the Standard Model, filament by filament and strand by strand, from start to finish in the hope that they will find that one blemish they are sure exists. Even others – in a tenuous parallel to Fei-tzu’s evolution – are not so obsessed with preserving an older system and have already set out on the path of alternative theories, some quite brilliant (although that’s not a comment on their plausibility). While Xenocide sets the stage for Card’s series to wind down in an explosion of happy endings (in Children of the Mind), it seems rather futile to hope that that will be the case in reality.