7-14-12: Al and the Higgs Boson

On this Bastille Day, some of my thoughts are in Europe. A former neighbor visited a week or so ago, bringing along a laptop slideshow of the new home he’s building near the Adriatic and of his farmhouse—an hour and a half distant—near Ljubljana, Slovenia.  I loved all the pictures. The farmhouse with its Old World charm and beautiful plantings has all the romance of the Europe that’s long been a draw for the rest of the world, both imaginatively and literally. The house under construction has the excitement of something truly new. Al, who’s as high energy a person as you could ever meet, is building a dream house that, in spite of exterior stone dug from a hillside and cut by master stone carvers, is all forward-looking twenty-first century Europe.

To start with, it’s solar powered and so has an infrastructure that includes a control room with a massive water tank that has two levels of heat—one for bath and kitchen use and the other, at a lower temp, for in-floor heating pipes—and batteries for storing energy gathered from solar panels. The house is all about air circulation with fifteen-foot ceilings, and fans mounted alongside modern lighting tracks, and huge windows with automated awnings that open wide to the view or shut down or provide a horizontal shade from the sun. My favorite kind of building material in the project is the “foamed cement” that comes in ten pound blocks that can be cut to size for whatever configuration of insulated wall. (And I can get excited about building materials.)

Around the time of Al’s visit, the Higgs boson particle was discovered at the European Large Haldron Collider. I make no pretense of understanding physics and the importance of this discovery. But I like discoveries, particularly ones that offer the real possibility of extending the reach of our knowledge of the universe. I think it’s great that the Europeans built the collider, though I find it a little sad that America pulled the plug on our own collider project two decades ago. I don’t really understand the way Americans seem to have drawn back from science and even the inventiveness that has always been our hallmark. I recognize us more when we take giant or small steps into the unknown.

Which brings me to something else related. Recently, I was talking with a friend about the possibility—even the necessity—of keeping two narratives in our heads about given situations. For instance, do parents ever not worry when they send their children off on their own, certain they’ve left them wholly unprepared in key ways? Yet, most often, don’t they also launch them with a sense of anticipation about the new ways they’ll engage the world? I’ve lived many years with my own competing narratives and, though it occasionally means real discordance, it’s something I’ve learned to accept. For as much as I would never want to turn away from the warm beauty of a Slovenian farmhouse or the familiar universe pre-Higgs boson, I’m also ready to welcome things that engage my mind and eye in novel ways. It’s a bit like my son and daughter at a bullfight when he was four and she was seven. He decided to look and she didn’t until he said it wasn’t very scary. Right or wrong (and questionable parenting or not), they took their chances on this new and violent mystery.  I thought it was sort of American of them, venturing out from their normal securities.

Not that I looked myself.

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