A barrage of fireworks, both legal and illegal, is going off outside of my window. Some of them are damned impressive, and beautiful, and the sounds of controlled explosions melds beautifully with the music of Andrew W. K. blasting from my stereo. It’s the night of the 4th of July, and it occurs to me that I probably should have gone to a barbecue or something. Instead I’m inside slamming down coffee and donuts, because I can’t stop thinking about the Higgs boson and dinosaurs and old-timey history puzzles.
See, I’ve got this book called The Next Fifty Years, edited by John Brockman, published in 2002. It’s a collection of essays written by scientists who were tasked with the challenge of predicting what advancements, both practical and theoretical, the scientific community would achieve in the first half of the twenty-first century. Today was the perfect day to take this book off the shelf and re-read it to see how their predictions have fared in the decade since the book was released.
Why? Because this morning, at least one of those predictions came true: researchers from CERN announced that they had finally detected the Higgs boson particle. Grill any physicist and they’ll tell you that we were guaranteed an answer to this question in the near future one way or the other. After all, the Large Hadron Collider was designed specifically to run the experiments that would tell us definitively if the Higgs existed, or (and this is actually the more important part) definitively if it didn’t exist. The point was a lack of ambiguity. Now we live in a world where the Higgs has been identified, and a whole new field of study can begin in particle physics.
Meanwhile, in the world of paleontology, a new dinosaur fossil was announced on Tuesday which was unusually well-preserved and gives ample evidence that it was covered with feathers. Feathered dinosaurs have been discovered before, but this particular dinosaur, cumbersomely named Sciurumimus albersdoerferi, goes back 150 million years, and has been identified as a major precursor to all theropods. (Translation: theropods are those two-legged dinosaurs like you see in Jurassic Park, and are also the descendents of modern birds.) Combine that with discoveries of quadrupedal dinosaurs found elsewhere, and it’s evident that the reign of the dinosaurs was absolutely choking on feathers, just like those pillow fight orgies they hold in Washington Square Park.
And lest we forget the realm of more recent history, a new expedition was launched this week to confirm Amelia Earhart’s final resting place on an island in the South Pacific. While no definitive remains of Earhart’s body or plane have yet been found, there is ample secondary evidence in the discovery of freckle cream, a zipper, and a knife all from her time period. Researchers are on their way to the island of Nikumaroro, and proof is, hopefully, on its way.
And that’s all just things that happened this week, folks.
People routinely make a big deal about major advances in consumer electronics; the transition from analog records to digital downloads, the transition from writing letters to e-mailing them, the transition from pining wistfully at photos of high school sweethearts to stalking them on Facebook, and so forth. What we tend to focus on less is the extreme shifts in our understanding of the basic fundamentals of existence and ancient history that we sometimes experience within the same short time period.
When I took junior high science class, I learned that we were all made up of these little things called protons and neutrons and electrons. A child growing up today will be able to learn that there’s this boson that’s responsible for all of the tiny things we’re made of having any mass in the first place. When I was a child in the 1980s, the plastic dinosaur toys I played with were all bald and covered in scales, just like a lizard or a crocodile. A child born today will grow up knowing that the damn things should be covered in plastic feathers. Furthermore, in recent decades Amelia Earhart’s story was often overshadowed by silly supernatural stories about the Bermuda Triangle. She may soon be allowed to rest in her proper place as a respected symbol of female equality.
It’s been a damned good week for the advancement of human knowledge, folks. And that’s an excellent reason for my neighbors to get drunk and fill the sky with colorful explosions, whether they know it or not.