Monday, June 11, 2012

Hard Probes

The beach at Cagliari, Sardinia

The language of high energy physics is something that social linguists, like George Lakoff, would enjoy, because these physicists explore a world they can’t see without the help of technology, and they create names - like quarks and gluons - for the concepts of their theories and experiments.  These names interest me, as an anthropologist.  But I don’t have the time or understanding to delve into the anthropology of high energy physics in order to analyze the words that are used to explain the physics knowledge that people talk about at CERN and elsewhere.  I just wish that I could ask George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who wrote Metaphors We Live By (1980) to do such a study.  Or maybe a linguistics or anthropology PhD student.  The question is how high energy physicists use metaphor to explain what they are doing and thinking.  According to Lakoff and Johnson, metaphor refers to “experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”   To use a metaphor, I’m in deep water just trying to write this, because I’m sure the physicists who read what I’m writing will say I’m wrong.  

Why the term “quarks”?  It was coined by the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles and the discovery of the “quark.”  In fact, Gell-Mann took a nonsense word from James Joyce’s poem in Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!/Sure he hasn't got much of a bark/And sure any he has it's all beside the mark."  Quark – unbeknownst to Joyce – became a building block of matter.  But now with more theory and more discovery in high energy physics, there are differentiated quarks: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.  Some of these terms, in Europe, had been called something else: open charm and beauty.  Talking about metaphor…

Lakoff and Johnson write that “many aspects of our experience cannot be clearly delineated in terms of the naturally emergent dimensions of our experience.  This is typically the case for human emotions, abstract concepts [my emphasis], mental activity, time, work, human institutions, and social practices, etc., and even for physical objects that have no inherent boundaries or orientations.  Though most of these can be experienced directly, none of them can be fully comprehended on their own terms.  Instead, we must understand them in terms of other entities and experiences, typically other kinds of entities and experiences” (Metaphors We Live By, 1980:177).

So, CERN physicists have quarks, gluons, leptons, and other things I’ve heard about but barely comprehend, but I do know that the names are sometimes arbitrary – as in quarks – or descriptive – as in “top quark” and “bottom quark” (which Lakoff and Johnson would say are metaphoric descriptions).  At times, though, I think that this physics community should hire a branding consultant to help them figure out that some names are not just descriptive of their own work, but connote distinct metaphors for non-physicists.  Take the name of a physics conference that has been occurring every 2 years since 2004.  The first one was at the coastal town of Ericeira, Portugal in 2004, and ever since, the conference has been somewhere near the sea: 2006 at Asilomar in California; 2008 at Illa da Toxa in Galicia, Spain; 2010 at Eilat in Israel; and this year at Cagliari, Sardinia (Italy).

Balcony of house, Via Giovanni, Cagliari

On Via Giovanni, Cagliari

Back in 2004 when I’d first heard of this conference, I burst out laughing. “You’ve GOT to be kidding!” I said.  “What’s so funny about the name?” asked the physicist who told me he was going to be presenting a paper at the conference.

“Hard Probes?  A conference called ‘Hard Probes’?  What were you guys thinking?  Doesn’t anyone speak English?  There’s only one thing I can think of when I hear that term, and it has nothing to do with physics.” 

The physicists didn’t think my comment funny. 

Top part of the conference poster

Bottom part of the conference poster
(notice the beach scenes)

I was an accompanying CERN wife at two Hard Probes conferences, the one in Spain in 2008 and the one that just finished in Sardinia.  I enjoyed exploring Cagliari, savoring gelati, walking on the beach collecting tiny pink seashells as the water lapped my ankles, learning about a prehistoric people called the Nuraghi who settled Sardinia in the 18th century BCE, and feasting at dinners with the physicists and some of their spouses. 

A Nuraghi fortress at Barumini, Sardinia

Physicists at Cagliari's beach before the banquet

At the Hard Probes banquet

But I don’t think that these serious scientists realize that the titles of their conferences could be metaphors with other meanings to other people, like the newest conference that’s going to be happening this October: Hot Quarks.

As I write in my blog bio, “Physicists could be considered bigamists because they seem married to their work.”  No wonder they have conferences called “Hard Probes” and “Hot Quarks.”

Metaphorical flower
on tables in the lobby and bistro at Cagliari's THotel,
where the Hard Probes 2012 conference took place



  1. haha, I had no idea of the origin of "quark" :-D This post is hilarious! hard probes... hot quarks :-) Magnificent! I had a great laugh with it.

    Mariya Koleva

  2. I love this! I had never thought about the words physicists used in this way. I agree, a linguist should explore these metaphors. Hot quarks? Hard probes? Really? You've got to be kidding. Laughed till I cried.

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