Saturday, May 21, 2016

Four Meetings

Nick Herbert and Rudy Rucker: Boulder Creek, CA
These days I'm pretty much of a hermit living with my cat Onyx at the Boulder Creek Quantum Tantra Ashram, going into town a couple times a week for food and spending much too much time indoors browsing the Internet. Occasionally however I enjoy meeting offline with real people.

A few days ago my friend, science-fiction writer Rudy Rucker, dropped by for his traditional yearly pilgrimage to Reality House West and brought bread and cheese for lunch. Rudy is best known for his Ware Tetralogy, a high bizarro-density drama of near-future Earth. Rudy is also a publisher (Transreal Books, Los Gatos) and the editor of Flurb, an on-line anthology of high-weirdness sci-fi stories by Rudy and his pals. He also paints pictures in a primitive style suggestive of Grandma Moses on mescaline and is an accomplished photographer.

After the usual jokes about my Dogpatch lifestyle, Rudy and I exchanged gossip and he shared the excitement about his latest project Million Mile Road Trip in which Dark Matter is made of consciousness and is called "smeal". Consciousness is one of our favorite topics and we engaged in the usual speculations typical of humans at this stage of ignorance about the way the world really works. As he departed, Rudy gifted me with Transreal Cyberpunk, a recent collection of sci-fi "buddy stories" written in collaboration with his buddy Bruce Sterling, a similarly daring explorer of edge-science themes.

Gabriel Guerrer and Nick Herbert: Boulder Creek, CA
A week after lunch with Rucker, I was visited by Gabriel Guerrer, a physicist from South America (Sao Paulo, Brazil) who is also interested in the topic of consciousness. Gabriel had worked for a year at CERN investigating the properties of B-mesons -- a peculiar member of the particle zoo that violates time-reversal invariance, a puzzling glitch in the deep nature of things. Gabriel had worked both in high-energy physics and in high-finance but is now situated at the University of Sao Paulo's Center for Anomalous Psychology attempting to replicate Dean Radin's elegant experiment measuring the effect of human intention on a laser-sourced double-slit interference pattern.

We met at my German-born friend Reno de Caro's house where we were joined by Bruce Damer and Allan Lundell (Dr Future) who participated in a conversation centered around the life experiences that led Gabriel (and the rest of us as well) to take an interest in the risky off-beat territory of consciousness research. I was pleased to see that someone so smart, enthusiastic and qualified as Gabriel was carrying on the torch. A good time was had by all. And Reno captured most of our conversation on video.

Patricia Burchat and Nick Herbert: Stanford Physics Department
About this same time last year, Reno de Caro, who is interested in the history of WW II, decided to travel to the Hoover Institute at Stanford which houses one of the world's largest collections of original documents on World Wars I and II. I decided to tag along on Reno's trip to the German-language archives both as a tour guide and as a returning alumnus of the Stanford Physics Department (graduate class of 1967). Stanford is very picturesque, a reflection of its eccentric founders. Reno brought his camera and captured some beautiful scenes, including candid pictures of excited young men and women dressed in suits and gowns to celebrate their graduation from this prestigious institution.

While Reno was busily copying microfilmed pages of the Joseph Goebbels Diaries onto a thumb drive, I ambled over to Stanford's physics and engineering sector which seemed to have quadrupled in size since I left its hallowed halls. I decided to stop in the physics office to inquire who was around during graduation break and immediately ran into Patricia Burchat, whom I recognized from alumni publications as a former head of the physics department. Jackpot! We talked about the changes in the department and what we both found exciting in the field. Before we parted, I mentioned the old grad student Christmas Party tradition of spoofing the professors and the field of physics with corny, insider-joke skits. Burchat replied that this tradition was still going on. And that she was often one of the organizers of these amateur theatrics. I told her about Les Blatt, a fellow grad student, who, if he had not majored in physics, might have made a name for himself writing Broadway musicals. I mentioned that I still possessed the script from Les's clever parody of My Fair Lady and would send her a copy when I returned to Boulder Creek.

Like Gabriel Guerrer, Patricia Burchat had spent time investigating the kinky behavior of B-mesons, not at CERN but at the BaBar B-meson factory powered by the Stanford Linear Accelerator. Burchat was a prime mover of the BaBar collaboration which published hundreds of scientific papers on the behavior of B-mesons and anti-B-mesons -- symbolized by B-bar, an upper case "B" with a line on top, hence the whimsical name for the project and its association with Babar the French elephant who naturally became the mascot of this giant particle physics collaboration. Patricia is presently associated with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile which, when completed in 2023, will take high-resolution photographs of the entire sky every three nights for at least 10 years. One of the primary goals of this full-frame sky video is to discern the effect of invisible Dark Matter on the matter we can actually see.

Blas Cabrera and Nick Herbert: Stanford Physics Department
On a second occasion when Reno was copying documents at the Hoover Institute, I took him and his camera on a tour of campus hot spots ending up again at the Stanford Physics Department. Once there I discovered that my old grad student office was now occupied by Blas Cabrera who is famous for designing a detector of magnetic monopoles that picked up a single signal of the right magnitude on St. Valentine's Day 1982. But Cabrera's detector and others like it were never able to repeat this momentous event, leading physicists to conclude that if monopoles really exist they are very rare in this part of the Universe.

In my former office I discussed with the new occupant changes in the department that had taken place since the sixties while Reno took pictures of our conversation. I was especially curious about the giant black-and-white diagrams posted in the hall outside Cabrera's office. They looked like some kind of labyrinth or the esoteric badges of a mysterious secret society. Turns out that they are the detector design drawings for the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS). As Cabrera explained to me how these sophisticated detectors were expected to respond to Dark Matter (an explanation I could barely follow), I asked him if these giant charts represented the actual size of the Dark Matter detectors. "No," he replied. The actual detectors are only about 3 inches in diameter" "And made out of Germanium."

I found it a bit odd that the two physicists with whom I spent the most time at Stanford were both involved in experimental searches for Dark Matter: Patricia Burchat in the foothills of the Andes in Chile; and Blas Cabrera thousands of feet underground in an abandoned iron mine in Canada.

1 comment:

RoseRose said...

i enjoy those meetings vicariously. time maybe for one of our own!