"We're just coming in."
Dirk Planck was referring to himself, Axle Foley, and me when he said this to the security guard at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. It's an atomic supercollidor located about an hour west of Chicago, the kind of place that people worry will some day create a black hole that will consume the earth. While no atoms had been smashed here for a few months due to a lack of funding, the facility was still actively engaged in research. Indeed, much of the research that was use to confirm the recent discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle at the Hadron supercollidor in Switzerland came from work done here.
He handed the guard his credentials: a military ID listing his name and rank. A military recruiter working out of a strip mall in Chicago, his office is wedged between a McDonald's and a Karate dojo. He is not a nuclear physicist, nor is he conducting research at Fermi.
A loss borne by science, and science alone.
Security Guard: "Alright, have a nice day."
There was a sign ahead: "No Fishing in Main Ring."
* * *
We didn't waste any time.
I: "Dirk Planck, let's talk Higgs-Boson."
I: "What is it, I mean?"
Planck was unleashed.
We were now driving through a nature preserve that exists in the middle of the collider ring. It is populated by large cranes and a variety of smaller birds, and houses what can only be described as the greatest treehouse ever built - apparently a bird observation platform.
I: "So in order for mass to be demonstrated, it must be measured in opposition to something."
Planck: "With every particle, there is an anti-particle. So what they're saying is that with the Higgs-Boson, the next jump is being able to prove the existence of dark matter, dark energy. For example, why is there more matter than anti-matter in the universe? The two should have cancelled each other out."
I pondered the implications of dark matter: estimated to compose 84 percent of the universe, but completely unobservable to modern science. In other words, the only way the smartest people on the planet can presently explain how the universe works is to say that it is presently impossible for us to know what 84 percent of it is. 84 percent of all the matter that you see and breathe every day is unseen and unseeable to a species advanced enough to hear what the beginning of the universe sounded like and to intentionally beam signals explaining our existence to distant star clusters.
And people think Roswell and the Shroud of Turin are riddles worth trying to crack.
I: "You are familiar with the notion of flatland? A world of two dimensional beings? Does the existence of the Higgs demonstrate a much vaster reality that we are not equipped to conceive of in the same way that a world composed of two dimensional triangles and squares would not be equipped to conceive of our own?"
Planck: "First, you have to understand that there is a one in three million chance that the data is not accurate. And even if they do conclusively demonstrate it's existence, the standard model isn't the unified theory of everything. The whole point is that this could take us further, and get us into super-symmetry, and string theory."
A man wearing capri pants and a reflector vest jogged passed us. We took in the spectacle before resuming our discourse.
Planck: "It's the idea that there are more dimensions that we can see."
I: "I think that's what I'm getting at.*"
Planck: "It's the current leading candidate for a unified theory of everything. It's the idea that there 11 dimensions."
I: "Do you think it is possible for a solitary human mind to understand all of this?"
Planck: "It's too much to grasp. And even if you were able to come to the point where you did understand it, how would you convey that to somehow who didn't?"
I: "It's like 2001: A Space Odyssey. The idea that the technology a civilization creates must one day leave the species behind, or perhaps merge with it. And that's where you get into the idea of 'is there a soul?' And the question that if human race was to encounter intelligences that exist in more or different dimensions than we do, would we even know what we were looking at?"
Planck: "Trying to comprehend how vast the universe is and all of the forces that govern it would be impossible. It would be like trying to keep one million separate numbers in your head at the same time."
We pulled our heads out of the clouds and started taking pictures of weird buildings.
* * *
There was this one, with a Star Trek IV/Planet of The Apes III vibe. I called it "The Home Office":
And this crowd pleaser, which we dubbed simply "The Device":
It was getting dark, and we didn't want any further confrontations with the security guards to end badly for them. So we left.
The talk on the drive back shifted to war stories. You see, Planck and I spent fifteen months driving Freightliner tractor trailers and hanging out at olympic swimming pools in Mesopotamia together. And Foley had recently returned from twelve months which saw him get shot by Taliban while living in an abandoned schoolhouse with a group of Americans and Afghans.
"Do you remember when so-and-so hooked up with so-and-so?"
"And how much the flash of IEDs exploding looked like red light cameras taking your picture so they can give you a ticket?"
"One time we were stuck on top of a mountain with no food or water for three days. The day before, we shelled a hilltop we kept taking fire from with close to forty mortar rounds."
"Afghanistan smells like feces and jet fuel."
Planck waited until shortly before we retired for the evening to drop this bomb on us. One which tied the whole room together:
Planck: "My grandfather was in the Army back in the fifties."
I: "Oh yeah? Korea?"
Planck: "No. He was used as a test subject in nuclear detonations in New Mexico. He said that the safety brief they received went like this: 'Turn your back to the explosion. Once the flash of light goes away, turn back around so you can get hit by the blast wave.' He died of a weird form of cancer."
Foley: "Damn, dude. That's fucked up."
* * *
We linked up with my friend Courtesan the following night, at a lounge on the 95th floor of the John Hancock building. We met at a wedding a few years ago. She is a software consultant who does stage acting on the side, including a role in a recent production of Reefer Madness.
Our conversation focused on life in Chicago: the neighborhood loyalty, the local cuisine, the city's ethnic composition. Cubs fans versus Sox fans. The conversation was fascinating, insights from a native that the two of us were happy to receive. But I couldn't help but feel my gaze drawn back towards the west.
The place where humanity's brightest were at work on unlocking the secrets of the universe. Questions such as "why is it currently impossible for us to know what 84 percent of the universe is?" The notion that the country, indeed the very city, that unleashed the world's first sustained nuclear chain reaction, was forced to play second fiddle to the European Union in unlocking the most significant scientific discovery of the past several decades.
I thought of Planck's grandfather, crouching in the desert and waiting for the light to go away so he could turn around and take an atomic blast like a man.
I once had a conversation with Lord Juggernatha about what the most badass possible way to die would be. I proposed the following:
I: "A catastrophic nuclear exchange has occurred. The ICBM's are in the air, but have not yet impacted. You grab a lawn chair, cooler full of cheap beer, and a stereo. You take yourself and these things to the roof of the closest building. Playing Bocelli's rendering of Ave Maria on a loop, you sip the beer and watch our race become extinguished by it's own hand."
He has yet to best me.
I looked out to the west and thought of guys wearing uniforms just like the ones Foley and I used to wear, and the one we saw Planck wearing the next day* pushing the respective buttons in underground command centers at various points across the globe. A sense of tragic catharsis brought to the human experiment, some shedding of tears. Maybe in some alternate past, maybe in our own future.
I couldn't shake Ave Maria from my mind.
* I was the only person in the car who knew that "this is what I'm getting at" meant "currently the entire purpose of my life."
* I attempted to fraudulently enlist as a supposed convicted felon with no GED at Planck's recruiting office. I did not acknowledge that I knew Planck, who was sitting immediately behind me the entire time. His colleague was not eager to enlist me, which ruined the entire joke.