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Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/NASA

The message in the bottle

When atoms explode, we want to know how and why, but what about who?

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," April 24, 2010

It's rare when you just know: History happened. But it did, at 6:06 a.m. EDT on March 30.

In Geneva it was 1:06 Tuesday afternoon when the world's largest atom smasher-the Large Hadron Collider-set a new record for the highest-energy man-made particle collisions. Here's how: Proton beams sent round the 17-mile circular tunnel-a cryogenic track at the French-Swiss border that is reportedly the coldest place in the universe and about 325 feet underground-reached significant, record-­setting velocity. Physicists using giant magnets manipulated the beams into each other's path. When they collided, the force created particle explosions that released 7 teraelectron volts, or TeVs-three times the energy of any previous record.

One science writer compared the undertaking to "firing needles across the Atlantic and getting them to collide halfway." Physicists from around the world crowded the control rooms at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN) to watch as computer-linked detectors mapped the beams and tracked the collisions. Then they broke into applause and passed champagne.

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"This is a real event, this is not a simulation!" enthused spokesman Guido Tonelli as on the monitors behind him squiggly yellow lines of the collisions began fanning out like Fourth of July fireworks.

Most of this is too wonderful for me. I expect exciting things to come, if not to me then to my children and grandchildren, from what is widely proclaimed a new era in the study of physics. Yet it was notable how few experts could hint for me at some practical application. What can this news mean?

It all began to remind me of Walker Percy's castaway in his 1975 essay, "The Message in the Bottle." The castaway is inundated with thousands of bottles washing ashore that contain seemingly random one-sentence messages. There are scientific types on the island who want to classify them into empirical and analytical statements. The castaway has a more immediate system: knowledge and news. Knowledge, said Percy, is for the scientific observer, while news is for a man in a predicament: "To a man dying of thirst the news of diamonds over the next dune is of no significance. But the news of water is."

But our castaway needs more-not only knowledge of the world around him or "island news" relevant to his current predicament, but "news from across the seas." That's where ultimate rescue lies.

As news would have it, that same March 30 and 20,000 light years away, NASA's latest space telescopes were capturing and transmitting new images of what scientists say is a cluster of stars in which a supernova exploded-causing a burst of radiation released at velocities that dwarf the CERN proton collisions. What's left is a pulsar, the brilliant white light shown here in the center-so dense that on Earth one teaspoonful of it would weigh a billion tons, and its magnetic fields would be a million times stronger than anything we know.

At CERN someone gushed on the lab's Twitter feed, "Nature does it all the time with cosmic rays (and with higher energy) but this is the first time this is done in Laboratory!!" Indeed. If the message in the bottle reads, nature got there first, do we sort this as knowledge, island news, or news from across the seas? Those saying knowledge may look no further than cosmic structures with their gaseous masses for the keys to their origins. As New York Times science writer Natalie Angier has put it, "Other suns before this one have died to give us life."

But the castaway who knows himself to be a castaway, a man in a predicament, estranged and at sea, needs more. If he seeks only "island news" (Percy put Jehovah's Witnesses and "Holy Rollers" in that category), he may dismiss celestial discoveries and physics. If he is quickened by them as "news from across the seas," he will want to know, more than anything, Who has sent these messages? "What manner of man is this that he should put himself out of his way for a perfect stranger," wrote Percy, "and I should heed him?"
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