Friday, February 23rd, 2018

The first particle physicist


The God Particle – 5

The unkempt stranger, still wearing his time travel toga, was Democritus, and Lederman engaged him in conversation:

LEDERMAN: Excuse me. Are you the new mathematician they were supposed to send over from the University of Chicago?
GUY IN TOGA: Right profession, wrong town. Name’s Democritus. I hail from Abdera, not Chicago. They call me the Lauging Philosopher.
DEMOCRITUS: Town in Thrace, on the Greek Mainland.
LEDERMAN: I don’t remember requisitioning anyone from Thrace. We don’t need a Laughing Philosopher. At Fermilab I tell all the jokes.

As the middle of the night conversation wends on, it turns out that Democritus has been doing a lot of time traveling. He didn’t think much of “that softhead Plato.” he said that he borrowed part of his philosophy “from a guy I met in the sixteenth century.” When asked how he figured out time traveling in fifth century BC Greece, he said

DEMOCRITUS: Time is a piece of cake. It goes forward, it goes backward. You ride it in and out like a California surfer. …Why, we even sent some of our graduate students to your era. One, Stephenius Hawking, made quite a stir, I heard. He specialized in “time.” We taught him everything he knows.
LEDERMAN: Why didn’t you publish this discovery?

Turns out he tried, but his publisher wouldn’t advertise. Sounds like an insider joke among Ph.D.s. This conversation rambles on for another 26 pages or so. The point Lederman is making is that there were many scientists and philosophers involved in bringing science to its present state over a period of eons. In this pseudo-conversation between Lederman and Democritus we learn some interesting stuff about the ideas of the ancients with regard to the world as they knew it. That fellows with names like Anaximander and Thales in Miletus saw the world as being composed of warring opposites–hot and cold, wet and dry. After all, water puts out fire; the sun dries up water, does it not? The idea that Democritus picked up on later, that everything was made up of a-toms, little specks that could not be subdivided, doesn’t sound all that different from our “atoms.” Anaximander called the primary stuff of the world apieron.

LEDERMAN: So this aperion was something like your a-tom–except that it was an infinite substance as opposed to an infinitesimal particle? Didn’t this just confuse things?

DEMOCRITUS: No, Anaximander was on to something. The aoeiron was infinite, both in time and space, but it was also structureless; it had no component parts. …In fact, my point is to embarrass you by noting that after two thousand years, you are finally coming around to appreciating the prescience of my crowd. …I think your P.A.M. Dirac finally began to give the vacuum the properties it deserved in the 1920s. …Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell called it aether.

So their conversation drones on, and by eavesdropping you and I can’t help but be impressed by the contributions the ancients made to our present understanding of the cosmos. Pretty neat, eh?

Dave, impressed in spite of himself.

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