Stone Lions and the End of Particle Physics

September 22, 2008

On Thursday I attended a meeting of the SLAC User’s Organisation (SLUO). Half the talks were about astrophysics, and even some about light sources, but the tone and the worry was dominated by particle physics and its position in the US. There were talks from suits at DOE, the NSF, and the OMB, all of whom had warm words and encouragement, but also barely coded hints about the scepticism in Washington. “Why does it have to be so all or nothing ?” and “does the US really need to lead this area ?'” and of course “whats the economic impact” ? Its very frustrating because the people in power do believe its gripping stuff – thats not the problem –  and with the LHC switching on the next few years will be very exciting  .. but they don’t see where its going, why it has to cost so much, or why anybody needs a big machine in the US, as opposed to some postdocs analysing data. Strikingly, the afternoon had several talks from particle physicists who were re-training themselves as astrophysicists, who explained how much fun it was. More of them later …

Two days later I was catching a flight from San Francisco to London, for a two week stint of back-to-back meetings in the UK. I am typing this about thirty hours later, still only mid-Atlantic, having been booked at various times on seven different flights (involving five different cities) only three of which I have actually been on … This sort of thing hasn’t happened to me too often I am glad to say, but periodically every traveller hits a nightmare journey like this. At first you get real tense, and your adrenalin rises as you try to calculate the options and optimise .. but eventually you just figure what the heck, when I get there I’ll be there, and you start joking with the flight attendants stuck in the same situation.

Suddenly I remembered a poem I read many many years ago. I can’t remember the title or the author, so if the the poet happens to read this blog one day, please forgive me for stealing your idea uncredited. It was in a magazine called Crabgrass. So here is my clumsy prose rendering …

… one morning the citizens of London wake up to find the streets entirely filled with stone lions. Motion is impossible. Half the workforce get on the phone, try to figure out a way round it, register complaints, send apologies to bosses and instructions to underlings, and so on, but all to no avail. The other half stare for a few minutes, then go back inside, make some coffee, read a book, and have an unexpectedly pleasant day.

You join the dots.