My daughter and I just went to see Particle Fever. What a lovely, well-done movie; emotional, exciting, filled with well-spoken scientists talking about their passion. By far my favorite part was near the end, when images of European cave paintings are superimposed with images of equations on a chalkboard.
Bear with me, because the metaphor is beautiful and deep. Our ancestors wanted to understand the world. They painted gorgeous, intricate, carefully considered images of the natural world as they saw it – horses, rhinos, lions. They were expressing a deep need to connect with this world into which we find ourselves thrown. They were the dragon hunters, the myth makers, the dreamers of dreams.
Today physicists scribble chalk on a chalkboard, or ink on paper, or electrons on a screen. But the goal is the same. They want to understand. They want to connect. They want to grasp something of what this world is. Not just for survival, but because they are driven by an urge, one they don’t understand and perhaps are not even aware of, to know. What’s under that rock? What’s in the next valley? What’s on the backside of the Moon? What is the world made of?
Some of the physicists in the movie expressed concern, even fear, that what they uncover might not be so beautiful, might lead in the end to disappointment. Nonsense. It isn’t the facts that matter. It’s that we, a stack of walking meat with senses that often mislead us and that at their best barely get us through the day, have nonetheless grasped something of how the universe works. We did that. People. The most significant phenomenon in the universe. We can understand.
Today’s particle physicists are the dragon hunters. They are the makers of myth. They go to that dark place Joseph Campbell talks about and pull the beast out into the light. I can’t wait to see what they discover next.