The Breakfast Table

The New New Particle

Dear Matt,

Here in the West, the equivalent of crop circles is cattle mutilations, which are inevitably described as having been done with “surgical precision,” the implication being that the cause must be unnatural–a cult at the very least but preferably aliens. It’s funny how easily we assume that any kind of pattern must have intelligence behind it. That, of course, is the driving instinct behind Creationism. We forget all the beautiful patterns that emerge spontaneously in nature. But superstition also arises when the mind, abhorring randomness, sees pattern that isn’t really there, pictures in the clouds.

While I was downtown yesterday afternoon, I checked to see if the new Scientific American was out. Not in Santa Fe, anyway, but I see there is a preview on the Web. Coincidentally (or else the editors are reading our brains with tachyon beams), the July issue is a macrocosm of what we’ve been talking about. Remember the notched-stick parable about the gargantuan decoding task science will face when the human genome is completely printed out? It seems that a potential $2 billion “bioinformatics gold rush” is already afoot, with companies springing up to design software to mine the data. (I was glad to read in a piece by Ed Regis in the June issue of Wired that Santa Fe–he calls it the “Info Mesa”–is emerging as one of the bioinformatics centers. This sounds a lot less messy than uranium mining, which was billed as New Mexico’s big hope back before the American nuclear power industry was derailed by radiation fear.

Scientific American also has a piece by Chris Llewellyn Smith, former director-general of CERN (what a title! I imagine him with medals and epaulets). It’s about the lab’s soon-to-debut Large Hadron Collider. When this biggest of all accelerators is complete, it will renew the search for those Higgs bosons you mentioned. (One of the rules of the game is that when you can’t find a particle the theorists really need, you declare that it’s too massive to create in existing accelerators. Then you seek money for a bigger one.) The Higgs is supposed to flit about like Tinkerbell bestowing all the particles in the universe with their various masses. Of course, there’s always the possibility it will turn out to be a mathematical phantasm, as illusory as crop circles.