Jewish World Review
August 25, 2004
/ 9 Elul 5764
Wouk's fiction reveals facts of science, politics
In the famed novelist's latest, answering arcane questions about the origin of the universe could unleash knowledge with unforeseen power to transform modern life
Though truth is often stranger than fiction, fiction often has a way of telling the truth.
Science fiction, of course, often tells the truth about the future. Fiction about science, on the other hand, can reveal interesting truths about the past. And that's what Herman Wouk tries to do in his new novel about "A Hole in Texas."
For those who weren't paying attention a decade or so ago, the hole is near Waxahachie, in Ellis County, where physicists had hoped to construct the grandest scientific instrument in history, a giant atom smasher powerful enough to probe the origins of the universe. Called the Superconducting Super Collider, or SSC, it would have fired bits of atoms at blinding speed around a 54-mile racetrack tunnel, smashing them into one another with enough impact to create particles previously only imagined.
Physicists hoped the SSC would produce an extremely elusive and mysterious particle named the Higgs boson. To oversimplify, the Higgs is the missing piece in the master puzzle encompassing the blueprint for the universe. Without the Higgs, modern science's understanding of the particles and forces making up the cosmos doesn't quite make sense. Without the Higgs, it's hard to explain even why the known particles possess any mass.
Understanding the universe's origin and the physical basis for existence seemed like a good idea in 1988, when Congress voted to build the SSC. But by 1993, with the tunnel only partly dug, political winds had shifted. Congress killed the SSC, and the Higgs remains undiscovered to this day.
Wouk, famous for "The Caine Mutiny" and "The Winds of War," tells of the SSC's demise via fictional characters who suffered because of the government's snub of science. But he places his plot not in the past but present day, in order to examine the possible perils of governmental shortsightedness. In Wouk's world, Chinese scientists report that they have discovered the Higgs boson, throwing the U.S. media into a frenzy over the possible Chinese monopoly on the "boson bomb."
Much of Wouk's tale is right on target, as his characters articulate the goals and dreams of physicists faithfully. And he captures the mix of personalities and political machinations that guide the supposedly dispassionate decisions about science policy. Also, the chief villain in this novel is, naturally, a newspaper reporter (a political reporter out for scandal, bamboozled by the science). On the other hand, Wouk suggests that the discovery of the Higgs boson was covered in The Dallas Morning News with an AP wire story, something that would have happened only over a certain science editor's dead body. And he seems a little confused over the difference between scientific journals and magazines.
Nevertheless, his story sheds a lot of light on society's misunderstandings and mismanagement of modern science. When it comes to science, politicians don't know what they're doing. Of course, when it comes to politics, scientists apparently don't know what they are doing, either. Science and politics are like matter and antimatter, annihilating explosively whenever they meet.
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Wouk's book contains hints about how to narrow the science-politics gap. The main strategy seems to be sending the book's star scientist, astrophysicist Guy Carpenter, to mesmerize an ex-movie star congresswoman with seductive tales of Higgs boson history. With Saganesque style, Carpenter links the quest for pure knowledge pursued by the ancient Greeks with the practical payoffs from modern day technology.
The Greeks jump-started science, he explained, by asking a simple question: What's the smallest thing that exists?
"By seeking and finding an answer we got the Bomb, we got nuclear power plants and submarines, we learned how the sun and the stars shine, and there were huge benefits in medical fallout," Carpenter wrote to the congresswoman.
Today, he said, the Higgs search is at the heart of the quest to answer a similarly deep question: How come anything at all exists?
Answering that question may or may not produce a payback comparable to the spinoffs from understanding the atom, Carpenter acknowledged: "It's the essence of basic research, you see ... , that its outcome is unknowable."
So it was nonsense when a fictional Peter Jennings reported on TV that it was "known" that the "boson bomb ... will exceed the destructive power of the H-bomb, as the H-bomb exceeds gunpowder."
In fact, Higgs bosons would be worthless for making bombs. If you want to outblast H-bombs, you need to make Q-balls, hypothetical blobs of "SUSY" particles (short for supersymmetric). Many physicists believe that SUSY particles lurk throughout the universe. But to produce them on Earth, you'd need a giant atom smasher, like the one that Congress killed. So it's not nonsense to suspect that answering arcane questions about the origin of the universe could unleash knowledge with unforeseen power to transform modern life.
Of course, even if SUSY particles and Q-balls do exist, it's unlikely that the SSC or any other conceivable technology could turn them into bombs or power plants or power sources for submarines. But Q-ball technology might make a great science-fiction story or Herman Wouk novel.
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Tom Siegfried is science editor for The Dallas Morning News. To comment, please click here.
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