Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe have explored the properties of nature at higher energies than ever before, and they have found something profound: nothing new.
It’s perhaps the one thing that no one predicted 30 years ago when the project was first conceived.
The infamous “diphoton bump” that arose in data plots in December has disappeared, indicating that it was a fleeting statistical fluctuation rather than a revolutionary new fundamental particle. And in fact, the machine’s collisions have so far conjured up no particles at all beyond those catalogued in the long-reigning but incomplete “Standard Model” of particle physics. In the collision debris, physicists have found no particles that could comprise dark matter, no siblings or cousins of the Higgs boson, no sign of extra dimensions, no leptoquarks — and above all, none of the desperately sought supersymmetry particles that would round out equations and satisfy “naturalness,” a deep principle about how the laws of nature ought to work.
Which is not to say Cincinnati is some transit backwater. It has its own bike-share program; it has Uber and Lyft; and come September, it will cut the ribbon on a brand-new streetcar system. It’s just that in Cincinnati, the car is still king. In 2014, Cincinnatians spent an additional 60 hours behind the wheel because of traffic congestion. When I ask Michael Moore, the city’s head of transportation, what he was doing to encourage people to ditch their cars for cleaner modes of transit, he disagreed with the premise of my question. "I don’t think it’s important to get people out of their cars," he says. "I think it’s important that we offer people choice."
But under the streets of Cincinnati lies the vestige of a different vision — sealed underneath heavy manholes, hidden behind ivy-draped steel gates, and kept out of the public eye by the city’s highest officials. This is the city’s abandoned subway system, nearly three miles of empty tunnels and platforms now decorated in dust and graffiti. It is a vast subterranean space that stands as a monument to one of the biggest transportation blunders of all time. Had it been completed, the rapid transit system could have transformed Cincinnati. Instead, a decade after the project broke ground it was canceled, never to be completed. It is the nation’s largest ghost subway.
Our world is confusing to children, and so they are richly prepared to fumble their way through imaginary ones. A new language, be it Adams’ Lapine or High Elvish or Klingon, is no more baffling than the whys and hows of adult interaction. When Tolkien explains that one can study hobbits for a hundred years and still be surprised by them in a pinch, he’s talking about humans. As the parent of an autistic child, I have come to see the subtle cues most of us think of as instinctual—the physical shifting and wrist-glancing that signify a readiness to end a conversation, inquiring politely after what an acquaintance did over the weekend despite being utterly indifferent to the answer—as the learned dialect they are. Adams explains, for example, that rabbits live in a hierarchical society where leaders only welcome suggestions if they are couched in such a way that it seems the leader has come up with it himself. That’s a lesson some of us take decades to learn.
I reread Sylvia Plath this summer on a fairly remote island off Ireland’s Connemara coast. Plath had been there once—just for the day—in September of 1962. She and Ted Hughes accepted an invitation from the Irish poet, Richard Murphy, to visit him at his home in the country’s heralded west. They were in the midst of their well documented marital turmoil. Murphy became desperate during the couple’s five-day stay, clearly internalizing the strain of a relationship in ruin. Seeking a diversion from the palpable tension, he organized an outing to a nearby island. It was this same place to which I arrived some 50 years later with a copy of Plath’s unabridged journals, a pair of walking shoes, and some empty notebook pages to teach a couple of writing workshops.