The ghostly, homely faces of these beasts floated into my mind earlier last week when I misread a New York Times headline at the top of my webmail page. “Physicists will have to wait a little longer for Higgs Boson,” the tagline read. Of course, I read it first as “Higgs Bison.” But considering what unites great forces of matter and creation in the universe, that may — poetically, at least — not be entirely wrong.
The Higgs Boson, in the entirely English-professor-ish explanation I am able to generate at this point, is a subatomic particle “whose existence,” according to the Times, “is a key to explaining why there is mass in the universe.” It seems to appear as a giant “bump in the data,” a mass of electron volts about 250,000 times heavier than an electron, which comes and goes, appearing and then subsiding again, within physicists’ fields of measurement. Immediately I remembered a T-shirt a friend and physicist colleague of mine was wearing last summer: “I believe in the
Aether Higgs.” I emailed her and asked, “so, maybe I get the joke on your tshirt, kind of… is this Higgs thing the ‘God particle? is that what makes the punchline?'” “Not necessarily,” she wrote back. “It is simply the idea that if we find the Higgs, everything makes sense. If we don’t find the Higgs, then it’s back to the drawing board like it was with the Aether circa 1900.”
At this point I had to sit still and let the smoke subside from my brain, which was working furiously — but enraptured — in this unfamiliar field. What if this explains everything? What if finding this particle opens up a door into a physical, materialistic version of what Plato believed to be reality — a world of forces and pressures and forms underlying the world of trees and houses and flowers we can actually see? What large forces swim underneath our daily lives at every single second, bearing up the surface of the reality we assume we know? Then I remembered “the big Bloop,” mentioned in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s great essay collection Pulphead — one of several mysterious, deep sounds recorded by NOAA, this one in 1997. NOAA does not believe the Bloop is manmade (submarine or bomb) or geological (icebergs calving, plates shifting.) “Its voiceprint made it clear that it belonged to something biological,” Sullivan writes, “only, in order to make a sound this large, the animal would have needed to be vastly larger than any animal we know about.”
So: The Bloop is not a whale. It’s bigger. If an animal is making this sound, it’s not an animal we’ve ever seen. It could make octopi or tigers (to name just two other beasts I’ve been reading about) seem, well, tame in comparison – or at least known, knowable, in a way this big creature, which could strain all human knowing, is not. Is it a sort of natural-world analogue to the Higgs particle? Coming and going across our fields of measurement, edging into view and then vanishing again to remind us of, among so many other things — as Wendell Berry would say – of the necessity for humility?
Here, for comparison (and miraculous in its own right) is a blue whale song. I thought, as I listened, of a favorite recent article from the NYT Magazine on whale/human communication, and the damages our sonar systems are wreaking on whales: “Whales, we now know, teach and learn,” writes the author, Charles Seibert. “They scheme. They cooperate, and they grieve. They recognize themselves and their friends. They know and fight back against their enemies. And perhaps most stunningly, given all of our transgressions against them, they may even, in certain circumstances, have learned to trust us again.”
This is the point at which my brain really explodes, swamped with notions from within and beyond the human world of creatureliness, mightiness, and grace — and possibility. So much of spiritual and political life and practice involves making space to let the big things move on their own terms and their own time, to let Gandhian “soul force” operate, even if its timetable is more vast than any we can see. Life itself began in a soup of small particles swarming and teeming with possibility. What makes them knit together like Ezekiel’s dry bones, stirring and clattering with sudden creaturely life? From whence does this whole vast miracle spring? It sounds like Milton, like Beethoven, in your mind when you think of it. And like something for which there is no sound, no explanation, no language beyond wonder.
Change happens, new life comes into being, even if only in the accretion of smaller efforts: as Tim Flannery writes in the review cited above, “No less than the US Department of Agriculture warns that snails have been known to work together to escape their shipping crate while en route to a restaurant. As Bailey puts it, ‘With one purpose in mind, they join forces, push up with their muscular heads against the top of the crate, and pop the lid right off, gliding slowly but steadily toward freedom.’” Small efforts add up. Especially if we can create the space of silence, of expectancy, in which they can join. In a famous passage from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, one brother constructs a fable in which the Grand Inquisitor — burning and punishing “heretics” in the name of God — lectures Jesus Christ himself, who has fallen into his hands, on why he must not be allowed to live. Christ is too inherently disruptive, too irrespective of law and creed set up by the Inquisitor himself, and his Church. For pages and pages, Christ listens silently to the speech. Then still silent, he steps forward and kisses the Inquisitor on “his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips. That is the whole answer.”
Sometimes the best thing to do to start down paths of change is to listen to mystery, as it already exists. Silence and intention – particularly good intention – can have a gravitational power and mass of their own. When you have decided, really decided, that something needs to happen for good in your life, it usually does. Think of how your life changes when you make a decision like this. A great stirring bump. A glacier — in that resonant word — calving, birthing something new in your own life and mind. Tectonic plates meet and clash, thrusting their meeting edges up as mountains. And a new beast, a new type of reality and change, is born.
A new year is upon us, and — I hope — a new type of change. Something is coming. Something good.