Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The God Particle

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 17 mile-long particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland, is the world’s largest atom smasher. I sometimes wonder if it might be the world’s largest man-made anything. Certainly it’s the world’s largest tool.

Meanwhile, the Museum of the San Raphael Swell, in Castle Dale, Utah, has a remarkable set of artifacts on display—a complete Stone Age tool kit, including letter belt and holsters, that was once the property of a Fremont Indian. The kit contains an array of stone chopping tools running from large to small. (I wonder if the individual who owned it was “union.”)

Neither tool is really of much use to us today. Stone tools are rather clumsy, even when they’re very sharp. And the LHC is only used for looking at things so small they don’t seem to be there.

It was rumored recently that the physicists conducting experiments on the LCH had found the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle sometimes referred to rather frivolously as the 'God particle.'

Some insiders dismissed the “leak” as a hoax, while others lauded the find as a potentially huge breakthrough in our understanding the how the universe works. 'If it were to be real, it would be really exciting,' physicist Sheldon Stone of Syracuse University exclaimed, upon hearing the rumor.

In the currently orthodox Standard Model describing the “building blocks” of the universe, six elementary bosoms seem to be required by the math. (We’ll leave the fermions for another time.) Of the six, only the Higgs has never hitherto be actually seen or detected in any way…until now. Yet it is the Higgs bosom, physicists theorize, that bestows mass on all the other particles. Without that tiny and elusive particle, the Standard Model offers no explanation for why objects have mass.

When reading popular reports about scientific breakthroughs, it’s always a good idea to listen closely for the metaphors. I wonder, for example, in what way a particle “bestows” mass on other particles. The image of a knight bestowing knighthood on another, kneeling knight, springs to mind. It seems to me (in my ignorance) that a particle either has mass or it doesn’t. Better yet, why don’t we just say that all particles have mass, and that “things” lacking mass aren’t particles but forces.

Adopting the semantic approach for a moment, I might suggest that objects have mass by definition. Objects that don’t aren’t objects. They just fly off into space like balloons, never to be seen again.

Even those physicists who do the most arcane math end up using metaphors and tinker-toy models to explain what they think they’ve discovered. And they make use of huge devices like the LHC to slam particles together at enormous speeds, just to see what comes flying out, because numbers themselves aren’t “real.” We just use them to describe the behavior of real things.

Not long after the rumors about the Higgs boson began circulating, physicists began taking bets about whether it would hold up to close scrutiny. Some were confident it was a false result, while others were hoping it was evidence of an entirely new particle that a new generation of physicists could spend their careers exploring.

When asked about the rumor, Nigel Lockyer, director of Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, TRIUMF, said: 'We are so close to learning something profound.'

Yet here again, we must ask ourselves what is “profound” about a particle that bestows mass? Especially once we’ve smashed it to bits and exposed it to the light of day. And why, for that matter, is this particle referred to as the God-particle? Is there something intrinsically divine about mass?

Or are we merely enchanted by dark spaces clothed in unintelligible symbols and enormous force, the way our ancestors were enchanted by the cryptic tales of the mighty Lancelot and the noble Yvain?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

New Orleans: Jazz

I have heard more than one person say recently, “New Orleans is my favorite city.” A cyclist we met on the Natchez Trace the other day said, “New Orleans. You either love it or you hate it,” and then added, “I want to be there right now.” My sister’s one-sentence appraisal is, “It’s smelly and dirty: I hate it.”

To each his or her own, as they say.

After having spent a mere two days on foot in the French Quarter, I’m in no position to call New Orleans my favorite city. (New York? London? Rome? Paris?) But I can say that New Orleans is fascinating and full of history and energy and music and color. If the Minnesota State Fair were held on the Left Bank in Paris, the atmosphere would perhaps resemble that of the French Quarter in New Orleans.

To which remark the learned might reply, “There is very little French architecture in the French Quarter. The neighborhood is largely a reflection of Spanish building and decorative techniques.” All well and good. Let’s just say that the open-air bohemian café-sitting, the street musicians, the various little shops and museums, the urban intimacy created by the side-streets and courtyards and grade-school kids in uniform marching toward the waiting bus, give the place an attractive European ambiance, while the affordable and unfussy Cajun cuisine and the ubiquity of tourists in flip-flops and tank tops divest the area of the slightest whiff of haughtiness or pretense.

Here’s a theory: The French Quarter is the anti-Las Vegas. Everything is small and closed in, some of it is venerable and most of it (dare I say it?) is sort of “real.” Yet it shares with Las Vegas the sense that those who come here know why they came, and they know how to have a good time while they’re here.

Ten minutes after we’d hit the streets, slightly overwhelmed by the age and glitter and grit of the Quarter, we turned a corner and happened upon the Smoking Time Jazz Club, a brass band that was playing some old-time tunes like “Sweetheart on Parade” and “Livin’ in a Great Big Way.” A lithe young couple was doing the Charleston (or something) on the street in front of the band. They were part of the band, in fact. The musicians were equally loose and the soloists took to their sixteen bars of fame with brash and joyous aggressiveness.

Ninety degrees. Trumpets blaring, limbs flaring. It was a great introduction to the city. We even bought one of the band’s CDs—a self-produced item sans label wrapped in a sheet of yellow construction paper. (I’m listening to it now. It’s good.)

That night (after returning to the room for a nap, a shower, and a glance at the laptop in search of entertainment ideas) we wandered back down to Bourbon Street, which was just coming alive. Monday is probably the quietest night of the week, but there was still plenty of music blaring out of doorways, block after block.

Folks were wandering here and there with green Hurricanes in hand, though they weren’t staggering yet. It was exhilarating to thread that gauntlet, though nothing I heard sounded all that tempting to me. The Dixieland bands were less youthful and brash that what we’d heard at noon, and though the Cajun band we listened to for a while from one doorway was good, we’d been hearing that kind of thing for days and the dance-floor inside was already packed. The ubiquitous, noodling white blues guitarists that came into aural range, block after block, were uniformly dreadful. That’s just my opinion.)

Eight or twelve blocks on toward downtown, we finally wandered into the marble-lined, fern-festooned halls of the quiet, largely empty, and unmitigatedly staid lobby of the Royal Sonesta Hotel.

The choice was neither arbitrary nor escapist. We’d come to the Irvin Mayfield Jazz Playhouse to hear the The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, which has a continuous record of performing in New Orleans dating back to 1910. A few of the original members have “passed” by now, of course. But drummer Bob French has led the group since 1977, which isn’t bad. The band was good-natured and eager to please. The white guitarist (who, to judge from his solos, might once have been a protégé of Johnny Smith or Howard Roberts) looked like he’d just stepped off the set of I Dream of Genie. A black torch-singer in a white spaghetti-strap gown stepped up onto the stage to do a few songs, and at one point the trumpeter cut loose with a brief but startlingly inventive solo. All in all, the set was “good enough,” considering there was no cover and a one-drink minimum.

It was made more interesting by the fact that a pleasant, uninhibited, middle-aged woman joined us at our table. She’s spent the previous week at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with a “gold” pass. She was thrilled to have heard Sonny Rollins at the final concert, and was a little surprised to learn that the Northerners with whom she was sharing a table had heard Rollins—“Yes, live”—several times during the ‘70s, when he was still in his prime.

She was an interesting woman—she called the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound home. Evidently she didn’t need money and wandered where she willeth, but she wasn’t trying to impress anybody. She seemed to have roots in New Orleans, too: as it happens, she was dating the bassist—a tall, elderly black man with a well-trimmed mustache and courtly manners who came over to join us after the set. He’d been engaged throughout the Jazz Festival with one combo or another, and the two of them re-lived the exciting moments they’d heard or participated in while we finished our $6 pints and prepared our exit.

“How long will you be staying in New Orleans,” the man asked us genteelly as we rose to depart. “We’ve only got one more day here,” I replied. “We’re due back in Minneapolis on Sunday.”

“But that’s four days!” he blurted out, somewhat surprised.

“We’ll be doing a bit of zigzagging through the Ozarks,” I replied apologetically. (But it was true.)

We could have learned a lot from those two, but it was a little hard to hear what they were saying across the table with the music being piped into the room.

The next day was walking tours (National Park Service) and museums and beignets and blackened catfish po boys, and I was surprised when, back at our hotel room at 6 pm, I looked over and saw Hilary with her curlers in her hair. I guess we’re going out again.

Bourbon Street was a bit more animated, and there were quite a few more women of all ages and shapes in fringed bikinis leaning from doorways toward the passing businessmen.

We got to the Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta before the set started. We listened in as the drummer (Jason Marsalis) chatted with the reedman (Rex Gregory) about the chord changes on some obscure Art Blakey LP from the mid-1950s like a couple of precocious college ethnomusicologists who were specializing in bop.

As I sat in my Victorian chair fifteen feet from the stage, the talented but self-effacing bassist, Peter Harris, looked like a surfer Wilson that was too clean-cut to join his older brothers in the Beach Boys. Marsalis himself looked like a young Will Smith. And Rex looked like a thin white guy with a cap trying to be cool. I mention the strangely collegial appearance of these folks as a prelude to declaiming that the set they played was one of the best I’ve heard in years.

As I remember it, a week or two after the fact, the play-list included a Charlie Parker tune (“Barbados”), a Monk tune (“Nutty”), a Hoagy Carmichael tune (“Stardust”), and “All of Me.” But Jason Marsalis, like his older brother Wynton, is not only a fine musician but a musical scholar and a resident of New Orleans. Therefore, he felt compelled to grope even deeper into the past to come up with “St. James Infirmary,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and finally even “Bourbon Street Parade.” But there was nothing academic or Gunther Schuler-esque about these performances. Marsalis provided the percussive energy and Gregory sustained the lyric spark. I kept saying to myself, like Redford (or Newman), “Who are those guys?” The absence of a piano was a blessing. Genius in our midst. Egoless expression. These people don’t know how good they are…

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Acadiana Travelogue

The term “acadiana” has been appearing in the news of late, because that’s the region of Louisiana that will bear the brunt of the Mississippi flooding now that they’ve opened the Morganza Spillway. It wasn’t coined to the until the 1960s, but the French-speaking Acadians to which it refers began to arrive in the region in the eighteenth century, having been expelled from Nova Scotia by the British for “security” regions, though they had maintained a posture of vehement and long-standing neutrality in the colonial wars of the era.

Today few people in southern Louisiana speak French of any type, I suspect…but their grandfathers did. Yet the culture of the region is distinctive and colorful, with crayfish, Roman Catholicism, jambalaya, bayous, alligators, and the Cajun two-step adding to the fun. There’s a lot of oil industry activity as you approach the gulf, of course, in towns like Houma and Morgan City, and the Gulf Intracostal Waterway cuts through the region like an enormous gash.

On the map the entire area looks to be a maze of rivers, swamps, bayous, and canals, but anyone who pays a visit will see that most of “acadiana” consists of flat fields planted with sugar cane, wheat, and rice. As you travel south down the minor roads that parallel the major bayous, the fields turn to grasslands and water.

During the three days we were in the area, we caught a bit of the local flavor. I think our most pleasant morning was spent in St. Martinville, where we toured an Acadian plantation and ate some fabulous biegnets at Le Petit Paris Café. A group of women were having breakfast when we arrived. One of them told us that they attend Mass every day at 6:30, arriving 30 minutes early to do a few rosaries. On Saturdays they have breakfast together after Mass at the café across the street from the church.

“St. Martinville is a dying town,” the woman told us. “You can see for yourself.” And she gestured toward the empty storefront of Hebert’s Jewelry store next to the café. “When they built to freeway from Lafayette to Baton Rouge, the businesses began to drift north to Breaux Bridge.” All the same, she was born and raised there, and she lives next door to her brother, who has taken to shooting the armadillos that tear up the yard with their snooting and shoveling antics.

Breaux Bridge is famous for its Café des Amis, which serves some very fine food and holds a Zydego brunch every Saturday morning. We’d eaten lunch there the previous day, and also caught some of the Saturday morning Zydego action before walking a half-mile on up the highway past the Piggly-Wiggly supermarket to the Breaux Bridge Crayfish festival.

Mulates is a more traditional Cajun roadhouse out on the highway, with lower ceilings, more frequent live music, murals of the bayous on the walls, and a bigger dance floor. (You can watch a video of the Saturday morning action at Cafe Les Amis at the end of this post.

A few miles south into the backcountry (presuming you know the way) is Lake Martin, the shores of which are ringed with half-submerged cypress trees.

It’s easy to spot alligators near shore, and at one point the scrubs contain a rookery where we watched little blue herons feed their babies as roseate spoonbills flew back and forth from their nests in the pines further out in the swamp.

As you proceed south and east toward Houma, the vast workings of the oil industry begin to manifest themselves. Cranes, vast fields covered with pipes and machinery. Helicopters here and there. And as you continue further south toward Cocodrie, farms give ways to grassy expanses, and villages are replaced by fishing “camps” sitting on fifteen–foot stilts.

It’s beautiful down there. But it’s the end of the road. And much of it will be under water soon.

Back in Breaux Bridges, we took some dancing lessons at the Crayfish festival. Then we ate three pounds of crayfish. In fact, we bought three pounds, but once you’ve torn the heads off, and peeled way the legs, there isn’t much left: I’ll bet we didn’t eat more than a third of a pound apiece.

We would have danced—there were several bands playing—but I couldn’t figure out what to do with our lemonade glass that guaranteed unlimited $1 refills. (It was 92 degrees.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mississippi Floods

It's been in the news, I know. The masses of water barreling down the Mississippi. We saw it all from the bluffs in Natchez and Memphis. But when you're driving around amid the bayous of southern Louisiana, you don't get the news. There's still a lot of dry ground between Houma (which is an hour southwest of New Orleans) and the Gulf of Mexico.

There are interesting bridges along the backroads that parallel the bayous on the way south to Cocodrie to allow the shrimping boats to get through. Much of the landscape is water, though there's also a lot of grass--it looks like a very unkept corner of the Netherlands. The houses and shacks that line the bayous are all perched fifteen feet in the air, with cars and boats stored in the open air underneath.

I spotted a least bittern fly into a roadside march and then run delicately along the tops of the reeds in pursuit of a fish. Forster's terns were flying overhead, and helicopters passed repeatedly much higher up carrying men and parts out to the oil rigs in the gulf.

A construction worker at a snow-cone stand along the canal told us that they were going to open a spillway and flood the town of Morgan City, which we passed through yesterday. We told him we were headed for New Orleans and he said: "They're also going to open up the Morganza spillway. You'll be going right over it."
"Can we get through?" I asked.
"Of course," he said, "There's bridges."

From the waterfront in the French Quarter, the river looks like a mile-wide rapids... but the ships are still moving up and down the river. Music is playing on the Riverboat Natchez. They're serving beans and rice and beer and hurricane drinks at a dozen restaurants in the Quarter. It's 90 degrees, and it's fun.