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Particles in Motion

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Last week The Scrapbook enjoyed a sensation it hadn’t felt since 1995, when Fermat’s Last Theorem was finally proved, after 358 years, by Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles. 

God Particle

Of course, as everybody knows, the theorem—which the Guinness Book of World Records lists among “the most difficult mathematical problems”—states that no three positive integers (a, b, and c) can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two. In a particularly elegant formulation, Wiles proved the conjecture in two papers published in the Annals of Mathematics—“Modular elliptic curves and Fermat’s Last Theorem” and “Ring theoretic properties of certain Hecke algebras”—which The Scrapbook still enjoys perusing on rainy afternoons.

So readers can well imagine The Scrapbook’s excitement when the July 5 edition of the New York Times arrived at our doorstep featuring this headline: “Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe.” This could only mean one thing: Some physicist somewhere had discovered a new subatomic particle that must be the Higgs boson—or “God particle,” in popular parlance—which, in the Times’s words, is “a key to understanding why there is diversity and life in the universe.” (The physicist in question, it turns out, was a team of scientists at a multinational research center in Geneva called CERN, home to the Large Hadron Collider where the experiments were conducted.)

The New York Times was shrewd to put the search for the God particle in homely terms: “Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view since last winter, as the first signals of its existence grew until they practically jumped off the chart.” You can almost see the movie about the discovery, with the Large Hadron Collider whirling violently inside the Alps while a multinational team of physicists yanks the boson into focus. 

The Washington Post, meanwhile, opted for a plain-English description of the indescribable:

The Higgs .  .  . is so fundamental to the universe that, in its absence, nothing could exist. The particle is thought to create a sort of force field that permeates the cosmos and imbues other particles with the property known as mass—the resistance to being shoved around. 

The Scrapbook likes the idea of identifying the subatomic particle that, more than any other, protects us from being “shoved around” in an arbitrary cosmos. “Actively hunted since the 1970s,” the Post goes on, “the Higgs is the final major piece of the Standard Model, which for physics is the equivalent of chemistry’s periodic table.” 

All right; we will stop here.

Now, honestly, does anyone among The Scrapbook’s readers have the slightest idea what any of this means? No doubt, there are some physicists and mathematicians in the audience who can explain it all in so many words (and without consulting the Times or Post stories). But who else can comprehend these arcane details? And we were just kidding, by the way, about Fermat’s Last Theorem, which is equally incomprehensible to The Scrapbook.

The Scrapbook does not mean to sound unpardonably philistine, and we take it on faith that the apparent identification of the Higgs boson is another step in our scientific understanding of the universe. All hail the multinational team of scientists in Geneva! But is there a journalistic spectacle more comical than newspapers relating a shipment of inscrutable information in the same terms used to describe the trade of a reliever for a veteran first baseman?

If fully comprehending the meaning of the “God particle” requires understanding anything remotely like Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Scrapbook would just as soon leave Omar Sharif unfocused in the shimmering desert.

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The Obscenity of Obamacare

The Scrapbook does not pretend to be particularly innocent, let alone oblivious to the salty language that is common parlance when discussing politics. An occasional expletive can be used to great rhetorical effect, even if we don’t necessarily condone its frequent usage. The late, great John Wayne was fond of handing out engraved cigarette lighters to politicians with the message that one should, metaphorically speaking, not-so-gently engage in carnal relations with communism. And there should be no illusions about how politicians talk privately—Nixon’s secret recordings will pin your ears back, and recall how a live mike accidentally caught Dick Cheney commenting on the proctological enormity of a certain New York Times reporter.

That said, our inner fuddy-duddy recoils in disgust from the casual obscenity that seems to have become a routine feature of the president’s reelection campaign. In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court ruling upholding Obamacare, the president tweeted that his unwieldy health care legislation was “still a BFD,” with a link to a $30 T-shirt on his campaign website with that same message on it. This, of course, was a reference to Joe Biden’s infamous hot mike moment at the signing of the legislation where he referred to the bill as a “big f—ing deal.”

This isn’t an isolated incident, either. White House press secretary Jay Carney recently admonished reporters not to “buy into the B.S. that you hear about spending.” Stephanie Cutter, the singularly grating operative in charge of the Obama campaign’s “Truth Team,” has also repeatedly accused the president’s opponents of spreading “B.S.” in official campaign videos and messages.

Making matters worse, the GOP, nominally the party of traditional cultural values and standards, is starting to get into the act. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) posted a photo on its Facebook page of a T-shirt that reads “Obama Care Still a BFTax.” According to the NRCC, if the photo got shared 5,000 times they would start selling the T-shirt.

We’d like to see the GOP keep it clean, but at least they were making a specific point in response to the president’s vulgarity. Which brings us to perhaps the worst thing about vulgarity in political messaging—it makes for bad messaging. Swearing, The Scrapbook was always taught, is the recourse of those lacking the facility with language to get their point across otherwise. (In this respect, it’s Joe Biden’s métier.) 

The spectacle of a White House press secretary and head of a presidential campaign’s self-described “Truth Team” decrying B.S., when their job is to sling it, is unseemly to say the least. And who among us does not think that Obamacare is a BFD? That says nothing about whether the president’s health care reform is a good thing. Indeed, Obamacare is a BFD—as was the Hindenburg.

Syrialeaks

While Julian Assange is holed up at the Ecuadoran embassy in London hoping to gain asylum from the rape and sexual assault charges pending in Sweden, his enterprise marches on. Last week WikiLeaks began publishing the “Syria Files,” which comprise “more than two million emails from Syrian political figures, ministries and associated companies, dating from August 2006 to March 2012.”

The documents—“from the intimate correspondence of the most senior Baath party figures to records of financial transfers sent from Syrian ministries to other nations”—will be published in a number of newspapers throughout Europe and the Middle East and, in the United States, by the Associated Press. While the media buildup surrounding the Syria Files is hardly comparable to Cablegate, the cache of U.S. diplomatic cables published in 2010 by WikiLeaks, the Syria batch is many times larger.

Perhaps Cablegate’s most surprising revelation was that the U.S. Foreign Service is a competent and literate bureaucracy that clearly understands the world—even as the State Department’s policies frequently suggest otherwise. Since the Syria Files are drawn from a period that includes much of the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, this project will inevitably show a much darker and seedier aspect of international affairs.

This is the third time that the emails of top Syrian officials have been published. In February, the Internet activist group known as Anonymous hacked into Assad’s account and those of other top advisers. In the spring, more emails were released after a source said to be placed inside the presidential palace in Damascus provided access to private correspondence between Assad and others, including his wife, Asma. The emails portrayed a vain and violent regime, reflecting the character of its chief. But there was something even worse in those emails than regime thugs blowing air kisses at each other while Syrian streets ran with blood. There was the correspondence with outsiders who showed no scruples when it came to petitioning this murderous regime for favors.

The Scrapbook has been keeping tabs for some time now on the American figures who came on bended knee to Damascus, and we’ll hardly be surprised to see them appear once again in the Syria Files. There are the journalists—like Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and Bob Simon, among others—who flattered Assad for the sake of an interview, long after the death toll should have counseled against granting him a platform.

Then there are the policymakers. Maybe Nancy Pelosi will make an appearance. After all, she traveled to Damascus in 2007 merely to lend color to her criticism of George W. Bush—in the process lending legitimacy to a state sponsor of terror who had helped kill American troops in Iraq. The man who might very well replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, John Kerry, was practically Assad’s personal envoy to Washington for a time, praising his reformist credentials until there was finally too much blood in the streets to ignore.

Yes, there will be lots of material from the Syria Files that should prove embarrassing, but probably won’t. It’s not as though the character of the Assad regime was a mystery prior to the regime’s murder, torture, and imprisonment of thousands of Syrians. The foreign courtiers who came to meet with Assad surely understood who the man was, and how he and his father before him had governed. All the regime has done for the last 15 months is turn on Syrians the same weapons that it used against its external enemies for 40 years—Lebanese, Israelis, Jordanians, Turks, Iraqis, and Americans—and none of the Assad regime’s interlocutors were ashamed then. Still, we’re looking forward to seeing what scatters when the rocks are turned over.

Required Reading

Despite its Luddite tendencies, The Scrapbook is sufficiently au courant to be aware that many of its readers are no longer packing canvas bags of paperbacks for their summer vacations but loading up their e-readers of choice. So let us recommend to the non-Luddites that they download contributing editor Joseph Bottum’s new Kindle single, The Summer of 43: R. A. Dickey’s Knuckleball and the Redemption of America’s Game. Bottum’s winning essay on the New York Mets’ celebrated pitcher will charm baseball fans especially, but like all the finest writing on that quintessentially American game, it is a treat for nonfans as well. Here’s a short sample:

A-Dieu-va, French sailors used to call out as the command to bring their wooden ships about—a more difficult maneuver than you might think, turning one of those old high-masted vessels and hoping it had enough momentum to swing it through the eye of wind and over onto a new tack. A-Dieu-va: We must take the chance, the phrase came to mean in ordinary French, and trust to God.

The throwing of a knuckleball has something of the same quality about it. You grip the ball with your fingernails, lean back, and push it toward the batter, across the eye of the plate. And then you wait to see what happens. Sometimes it just floats, a slow, easy pitch any good hitter will crush into the bleachers. Sometimes it drops suddenly, as though it had rolled off the edge of a table, batters swinging futilely a foot above it. Sometimes it flutters like a sail taken aback. Nobody knows what will happen, not the pitcher or the hitter. Not even the catcher who had signaled for the pitch: “You don’t catch the knuckleball,” Joe Torre once famously complained, speaking for long-suffering catchers everywhere. “You defend against it.”

And to our fellow Luddites, we can only say that Bottum’s Kindle singles (this is his third so far) are a powerful inducement for making your peace with this new technology.

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