Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My Baby's Universe And Symmetry

My "baby" (a Mom's relative term) is nine years old, and he is very interested in the Universe lately.

As I read about the Physics Nobel Prize going to Makoto Kobayashi, Toshihide Maskawa, and Yoichiro Nambu recognizing their work on the hidden symmetries of elementary particles today in the New York Times, I realized I better figure out how to explain quarks to my little scientist. I managed to explain the basic Atom to him the other day, but quarks are a different story. And symmetry - can get a feeling for it in the above picture of the Golden Rock Kyaiktiyo Pagoda.

In 1972 three kinds of quarks were known - the up, and the down and the strange quark. In 1974 charmed quarks were discovered, and then in 1977 and 1994 bottom and top quarks. It made me laugh when I read this. This would make a cute children's book. Quarks are the constituents of protons and neutrons which make up the nucleus of an atom.

That which holds together the nucleus, is the pion, which is the carrier of the strong nuclear force. The lightness of the pion is its magic and gives the nuclear force it's reach to hold together elements that are constructed in many different size configurations. Pretty cool stuff.

Then there is the mystical Higgs-Boson - the hidden molasses and stubbornness of the universe that theoretically gives everything its mass. We may find out soon how this works, but then - we'll have to find out what the Higgs-Boson is made of and to do that we usually think we have to take things even further apart.

When I was nine, my universe was much more manageable, made up of the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, stars, the Milky Way, and space - lots of space!!! - and everything I knew here on Earth was made of invisible, small atoms. God knew all , and I knew somehow that I would too, when dead.

My son on the other hand- as a fan of the Science Channel, "bets" there is life in the ice covered oceans of Europa, and in the lethal clouds of opposite-to-Earth-spinning Venus. He bases his guesses on the thriving life in the lethal environments of our deep sea volcanic vents. As far as everything here on Earth is concerned - atoms to him will be tiny, gigantic things made up of whole universes (once I explain them properly). And God - just seems to be known to him. No explanation needed. Here You Are may have something to do with that, without me ever having had to explain much.

The world of atoms and subatomic particles he is not yet very impressed with - because the eternal question: "And what are those then made of?" - no matter how many times we split nothing into nothing, cannot be answered by me, at least not in terms of physics. The truth that we don't exist at all and that all this matter is an illusion, is no fun for a nine-year-old, and simply annoying to almost everyone else. It can put a knowing smile only on the face of an old sage.

In meditation there is also a point of perfect symmetry.The way I usually explain it is with the image of standing under the sun at noon at which point the shadow matches the soles of one's feet. It appears and disappears according to the balance of two things. Once they are out of perfect alignment "the third" appears, in this case the shadow, and takes on infinite forms and shapes. The koan to contemplate is: "Is there a shadow under your feet?"

When you are nine, your shadow (thought) is still small
and you are very busy growing it. Only later in life do you start longing for the days of small or absent shadows and try to find your way back. Meditators find their way back to this original state of union - that perfect symmetry - through love, trust , infinite patience and courage. Those are the same qualities required of parents.

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