It was somewhere over the heart of Africa that the woman on the plane cried out. “Help me. Someone. Please help.” Her desperation choked shared uncomfortable slumber awake into the garish yellow of overhead lights. I don’t remember her husband’s name even though she said it over and over as she tried to shake him from the froth-covered pit into which death had funneled. Waiting. Later the stranger next to me would offer me his shoulder to sleep on with an inappropriate smile. Later, starting to pass out, I would crawl over tray tables to try to escape the silent aftermath. I crouched by the bathroom door and for the first time in my life I was terrified of flying.
A few days ago the headline read “Proof of ‘God particle’ found.” I pored over article after article about the Higgs boson and stared at the pictures of explosions of lights: an encapsulated firework the perfect accompaniment to the Independence Day announcement. In my country, on the brink of official election season, mass divided. The creation debate rose from the rubble of crashed proton beams. From the rabble. The neon lines of the Higgs boson bled: card X of the Rorschach test.
I saw a mountain. A colorful, deafening, unintelligible Sisyphus creeping up both sides. Scientists clinked champagne and called it the Genesis machine. God obsolete. Others took to the pulpit and read. In the beginning. Straining against their respective boulders, they sought the same footing: religion and science cannot coexist.
Elections are sexy because sex sells. Some call it the oldest profession. Dressing discovery up as debate forces division. Without division, we can’t exist. Originally it was nicknamed the Goddamn particle.
Why are we, meaning we the public, so vulnerable?
The first three women I knew to have abortions were Catholic. Three is considered to be the most important number in Catholicism. Three times I imagined the hunt for answers in the dark void where spheres collide. When the public engulfs the private we are vulnerable. Reality is a black hole where we lose our authentic selves in the impossible search for the particles of our faith.
Nothingness is everything. Life is a game of chance.
I read that scientists were told to hang the number one hundred and thirty-seven on the walls to remind them of the unknown. One hundred and thirty-seven is considered to be the most important number in physics. Some say the search is profound and beautiful. Is that reconciliation?
The invisible barrier that keeps us from knowing the truth is called the Higgs field. Its icy tentacles reach into every corner of the universe, and its scientific and philosophical implications raise large goose bumps on the skin of a physicist.
A piece of saran wrap was all that separated me from her heart. It was called the Norwood procedure, the first of three surgeries to save her life. They weren’t Catholic, but three became the most important number in their faith. I looked into their new life and watched her heart beat. Every furious pump visible, I choked on the memory of my own words, felt this baby know the truth.
When my friend found out that she was pregnant she also learned that there was a lump on her ovary. I whispered that I would have chosen differently. The doctors said they could remove the growth, but they’d have to terminate the pregnancy. One mass of particles for another. She chose the unknown and let the baby and the tumor grow. I couldn’t understand a mother’s sacrifice because my own womb hadn’t yet echoed the clamor of God particles.
All faith is selfish.
In the end, it wasn’t my view through the invisible barrier that gave me goose bumps. It was the infinity of her eyes. Their daughter, her age still counted by hours, opened the vault just momentarily to look at me. That black magic gaze was existence. I yearned to prove her future. They said her heart wasn’t related to the tumor: it was just a matter of chance. I don’t understand the theory of relativity, but I know its crux lies in the number one hundred and thirty-seven.
I want to believe that she was one hundred and thirty-seven hours old when we locked eyes. I want to believe that she forgives me.
The Higgs field works its black magic through — what else? — a particle. The particle goes by the name of the Higgs boson.
My friend gave her daughter the name Genesis. In physics, the number one hundred and thirty-seven answers to the name Alpha. Both names mean the beginning. My own first one was born at dawn. Behind closed eyes I saw neon lights, but when I opened them I bore witness to silence. I bled: card VII of the Rorschach test.
I saw his passage. He didn’t cry. Hands whisked him away to the corner and I propped myself up into searing calm. I prayed to be selfish. I promised everything.
Everything is nothingness. Death is a game of chance.
As a child I feared the questions. How far back does time go? How big is the universe? In the dark of my bedroom I would imagine space beyond space beyond space until I ran from infinity to my mother’s arms.
There is, we believe, a wraithlike presence throughout the universe that is keeping us from understanding the true nature of matter. It’s as if something, or someone, wants to prevent us from attaining the ultimate knowledge.
My son’s age was still counted by days when my country elected a new President. I read his words: politics exploit faith to drive us further apart. He promised change and named hope audacity. I want to believe it was raining. The newspaper bled: card II of the Rorschach test.
I saw palms placed together in harmony. For a moment I was audacious and I walked barefoot in my garden. My feet firmly planted in the dirt: we are all connected. Dressing hope up as reality coerces union, but the God particle hadn’t been proved. There was nothing to hold matter together.
I wrap my arms around my son and I fear the answers. I watch him fall asleep and sense spheres colliding in the dark of his bedroom. He exists and I am vulnerable. He is three and we are all vulnerable. I fear the answers because attaining them requires sacrifice. Without division, we can’t exist.
Disbelief is selflessness.
(All excerpts taken from Leon Lederman, 1993, “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?”)
The warning against travel to Beijing was lifted days before we arrived in the summer heavy city. The day we bought our tickets for the train my mother called to warn us what she was hearing on the news. I told her not to worry: China’s government said it wasn’t that bad. The SARS will surely be conquered by our government under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. On the train we bunked with an old Mongolian man and his granddaughter. When everything finally lurched to a stop a Chinese guard stepped into our room and silently pointed something metal at my forehead. It took me a few sinking moments before I realized it wasn’t a gun. I only recognized her weapon as a thermometer because my dad is a large animal veterinarian. She shot my partner and then the Mongolians, one by one. Having determined that none of us had a fever she moved on, never speaking a word. And so we crossed the border.