Euler, Mexican Gold, Curiosity, and the Biggs Hoson
August 25, 2012
It is said that Catherine the Great once asked Leonhard Euler to rebut Diderot’s advocacy of atheism. Responded Euler, "(a+b^n)/n = x, therefore God exists," thus crushing Diderot, who apparently had slept through eight-grade algebra. I am not going to fact-check this story as I do not want to endanger it. Anyway, the proof seems as good as most. But I want to add a third proof (in addition to Mexico’s winning the gold in Olympic soccer, which could prove the existence of at least two gods):
Proof three: NASA actually got Curiosity, its prongy weird-looking electro-buggy, to land on Mars in one piece. This was obviously impossible. When something impossible happens anyway, God has to be involved. There is no other explanation.
Think. Do you know how far away Mars is? Throwing a funny-looking one-ton dingus that distance, and having it hit within a mile and a half of where you aimed—can’t be done. Anybody who has gone bowling knows this.
When I found that the landing was going to be distributed live on the internet, Vi and I fired up the Dell and prepared to supervise. From the first, none of it made sense. For example, Curiosity and associated pieces were going to enter the atmosphere of Mars at 13,000 miles an hour. Clearly an unworkable idea. It would burn up. It would melt.
Except…it did it.
Then the thing was supposed to sail along under software control with enough controllable lift to get it to where it was supposed to land. Which wasn’t going to work. Too iffy. There would probably be a bird strike.
Did it, though.
Next, at Mach two, it was supposed to open a supersonic parachute. A what? Parachutes are by nature not supersonic. They are into slow drifting, like dandelion puffs. You jump out of a high-wing Cesna, reach terminal at maybe 125, and open the chute. Not at Mach two.
Except it did it.
I watched despondently, knowing better than to get my hopes up. The rest of this pipedream was beyond the merely impossible: The beast was supposed to slow to zero, then hover at just the right altitude by using a passel of rockets. Which any fool knew it couldn’t do.
It did, though. I decided that I wasn't just any fool.
I was biting my nails up to the shoulder, thinking, “Just maybe…come on, baby….naw. Impossible.”
See, the idea was that the whole package would hover and let the rover down gently on a bunch of ropes. This was cockamamie. Even Rube Goldberg wouldn’t have bought into this one. It was a roaring, clawing, frontal assault on Murphy’s Law.
So much for Fred on interplanetary thingamawhatsises. I whooped so loud that Natalia came running to see whether I had found another scorpion. Euler had been right after all. God did it. I mean, you can’t send anything that complicated to do anything that complicated, all by itself, with no driver, and have it work. It just can’t be done. A thing isn’t possible just because it happens.
It took me back to the Heroic Age of American technology, to Apollo and the Saturn V and the early Shuttle launches. In those days the US space program was Godzilla. You could be proud of it. Today we have Stalinism aborning, a federal bureaucracy that would embarrass Haiti, and, well, not much to be proud of. But NASA has done pulled it off again.
With class. In 1969 for some reason I was in Saltillo and watched the first moon landing on Mexican TV: on live TV. Here was a splendid chance for disaster, for the crew to be trapped on the moon and asphyxiate slowly to everyone’s horror, or just blow up, or not be able to get back to the mother ship. Russia would have launched secretly and then lied when it didn’t work. Not NASA. Balls to the wall, double down, bet the ranch and the petroleum rights, throw in the dog…on live freaking TV.
Which it did with Curiosity too. That’s class.
Speaking of God, I suppose that you have heard of the dyslexic agnostic insomniac who lay awake all night, wondering whether there really was a dog.
This column is going to hell.
Now, in a twelve-g literary turn: particle physics, another realm of expertise in this corner of the internet. I have read that physicists have recently found the Higgs Boson. I wasn’t aware that it had been lost, and I hope they will be more careful with it in the future. The Higgs boson is a subatomic particle, sometimes called the God Particle (See?) discovered at CERN in Switzerland with a multibillion-dollar supercollider. This latter is a huge ring full of magnets that makes particles go in circles really fast and run into each other. Why this is thought desirable is one of the unsolved mysteries of science.
Here you have to understand that particle physics, like everything else, is about money. Particles have fairly little to do with it, being hardly more than innocent bystanders. The physicists get paid for looking for hitherto unfound particles. It is something like an Easter egg hunt in which the point is not to find the egg: When you are paid to solve a problem, you have a powerful incentive not to, so that you can keep getting paid. So physicists hunt for imaginary particles which they assume can’t really exist. This is called Conservation of Rarity.
The Quark served for a while. This strange attractor of money—it is strange that it attracted money, since no one especially wanted a quark or knew what to do with one—was discovered, threatening mass unemployment among those hunting for it. So they invented the Higgs Boson, which among themselves they swore could not exist. Money flowed and particles sang zzzzzzz around the ring at CERN and everyone was happy. Until some rascal actually discovered the damned thing.
A crisis ensued. At MIT the physics department sat, suicidally depressed, in the artificial-intelligence lab, seeking a way out. They were drinking a powerful if not particularly legal juice distilled in the chemistry lab by Bo Murchison, a grad student with an IQ of 238 and a penchant for Harley hogs and Hawaiian shirts. He called this potion Bo’s Einstein Condensate, and said it stimulated groundbreaking inspiration by combining alcohol and peyote. By all accounts, they got really fried.
Finally Bo himself made a leap of genius. He proposed that they assert the existence of a co-particle of the Higgs Boson, a sort of boson’s mate, and call it the Biggs Hoson. They agreed that it couldn’t possibly exist. They would tell the press that it would help find a cure for cancer, allow better prediction of weather on the earth, and explain the origin of life—these being the standard things to tell the public when spending huge amounts of money for no discernible purpose. The Biggs Hoson ought to attract lots of money.
A pressing problem of high-energy physics had been solved. God clearly existed.