The action in the book my agent is now shopping, Two Graves, takes place far away from the Palo Alto and Silicon Valley I know so well. I had -- the horror, the horror -- to do research. Thus, it was a relief to start working on a sequel to Dot Dead.
But as Robert Burns wrote in "To A Mouse," "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, gang aft agley." It turns out that the action in the sequel occurs not only amidst intrigue in high-tech companies, but also at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). Alas! Research. As I've mentioned before, I've been reading books on particle physics, but yesterday I took a tour of SLAC, where I'd never been even though it's about five miles from where I'm writing this posting.
When I was in high school, we learned that the nucleus of an atom is made of spheres known as neutrons and protons. Wrong! Quarks were discovered by three scientists at SLAC who won the Nobel Prize for their work. A neutron or proton is made up of three quarks, of two different types, and is mostly empty space. Few people seem to know this. When I asked #1 if she'd learned about quarks in high school physics, she said no. Her class focused on electromagnetism, acceleration, etc. Newton probably could have done a fair job teaching the syllabus.
Why don't we care about the mysteries of "inner space?" Breakthroughs are coming to explain more about what makes up the universe, but chances are slim that Americans will be the discoverers. The world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator is about to become operational outside Geneva, not here. The SLAC budget is being cut by 20% next year and the mission is being redefined to focus on medical uses of high energy particles.
In a time where natural selection has become debatable, we Americans seem to be moving away from pure science -- knowledge for knowledge's sake. During a 1969 colloquy, Senator John Pastore tried to get physicist Robert Rathbun Wilson to say that reason to fund physics research was for our national security. Pastore was just looking for a hook to hang his hat on, but Wilson would not give it to him:
Pastore: Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?
Robert Wilson: No sir, I don’t believe so.
Pastore: Nothing at all?
Wilson: Nothing at all.
Pastore: It has no value in that respect?
Wilson: It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending
During my tour, I stood in the hills above Stanford in the exact spot where a murky view of what makes up our universe came into clearer focus. I stood at one end of a room that was two miles long. (See picture above). I got chills. There are only two tours left of SLAC. (Sign up here.) Budget cuts are ending them even though our wonderful and passionate tour guide has offered to give them for free. Sigh.