December 12, 2007

Why the Classics ii

Physicist Martin Perl theorized that there had to be a lepton heavier than a Muon. Though his colleagues, Kenneth Ford tells us in his delightful book The Quantum World, doubted he'd find it--he was "guided only by curiosity and hope, not theory," Perl persisted, and ultimately identified the Tau particle. A worthy pursuit:

Addressing the question of the usefulness of the discoveries like that of the tau lepton, Perl said, "The use of the discovery of basic particles is indirect. We have found that everything of a complicated nature is made from three basic families of particles. Eventually, this will lead to an improved understanding of energy and time. From that we hope will come new ideas that lead to applications like a source of cheap energy which is truly safe."

I thought first of Martin Perl when I read, in this column on Hanukkah by Christopher Hitchens, the following passage:

And, of course and as ever, one stands aghast at the pathetic scale of the supposed "miracle." As a consequence of the successful Maccabean revolt against Hellenism, so it is said, a puddle of olive oil that should have lasted only for one day managed to burn for eight days. Wow! Certain proof, not just of an Almighty, but of an Almighty with a special fondness for fundamentalists. Epicurus and Democritus had brilliantly discovered that the world was made up of atoms, but who cares about a mere fact like that when there is miraculous oil to be goggled at by credulous peasants?

One can be repulsed by Hitchens' insensitivity to religious belief (I wonder whether his rhetorical approach is ultimately counterproductive to his aims: he seems sometimes to strive to insult more than persuade), but that should not deter us from noting his argument. The atom, as Epicurus defined it, was the indivisible, smallest constituent of matter. A sword is not just a sword, it is made of iron, and the tiniest bit of iron is an invisibly small particle of iron. There had to be such a particle, Epicurus reasoned, and it had to have certain properties to distinguish it from other properties. The process is the same as Perl's theorizing of the tau particle, and suggests that were it not for humanity's propensity to go down so many blind alleys, we'd be much closer to understanding what the universe is (something we still don't know...)

Posted by Ideofact at December 12, 2007 02:23 AM