Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Olympic Torch of Freedom

Like millions of others around the globe, I watched most, if not all, of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. After trying to intepret what seems to have been a history lesson—laced with typically British humor, and capped by Sir Paul McCartney playing one of the great Beatles anthems from the 60s, Hey Jude—I wondered where all this chauvinistic theater came from. Aside from the nostalgia generated by Hey Jude (my nephew, Jay, loved hearing his not-too-sober relatives singing this song), and the admiration for the Brits celebrating their Health-Care-for-All System (compare that with the invective hurled at our President for a Health Care Reform that can’t even be mentioned in the same breath with British coverage), the whole pageant of national self-congratulation seemed awkward if not embarrassing. China’s celebration of four years ago elicited the same response in me. What does all this national breastbeating (carried by a super-commercial television extravaganza reaping huge profits) have to do with a sporting event that is supposed to celebrate amateur athletics? Amateurs, as the root suggests, play sport for the love of the game, not pay. How does this fit with the over-hyped prancing of national athletes and the repulsive we’re-the-greatest-nation stomping of USA! USA! we’ve heard so incessantly in recent years?
            It turns out that the modern games were revived in 1896 by a Frenchman, Pierre de Couberin, and taken up by other nations in the early twentieth century as a way of promoting physical fitness and themselves. The Opening Ceremonies were then codified at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, to include the raising of the host nation’s flag and performance of its national anthem, an artistic display of music, singing, theater, and dance expressive of its culture, a parade of athletes into the stadium, and finally the carrying of the Olympic torch into the stadium to light the Olympic flame in a waiting cauldron. This last moment, the lighting of the torch after relay runners of the host nation carry the flame from the source of the games in Athens, is usually portrayed as the most ancient of ceremonies linking the modern games with their origin in Athens some time around 776 BC.  
            The truth is far different. In fact, the Greeks had no torch relay at all. The torch relay, according to, originated with the Nazis at the 1936 games in Berlin. Most Americans know this as the Olympics in which Jesse Owens won the sprint to upset the Nazis’ boast that their Aryan athletes were the world’s best. But the 1936 Olympics was far more. Conceived by the Nazis as a great propaganda maneuver, it was designed as the perfect forum for showing off  the organization and power of Nazi Germany to the world, as well as demonstrating that the German race was the natural heir, both physically and culturally, of the Ancient Greeks. Oddly enough, Adolf Hitler at first displayed contempt for the modern Olympic movement, calling it the “invention of Jews and Freemason.” But Goebbels convinced him of its propaganda value, with the torch relay (the brainchild of games organizer Carl Diem) to be the smashing opening act. So the Nazis staged the torch relay as a German production: the steel-clad torches were crafted by German munitions giant Krupp, Germany’s Zeiss Optics built the mirror used to light the flame via the sun, and an Opel car trailed the runners with a spare Olympic flame in case something happened. Goebbels then commissioned famed filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to film the relay as part of her 1938 film “Olympia,” though Riefenstahl, dissatisfied with the original, staged a more cinematic lighting of the flame in Berlin after the games were over. Among the highlights of the 2,000 mile torch relay were its entrance into Vienna on July 29, 1936, where Austrian Nazis, who had assassinated the country’s chancellor two years earlier, greeted the flame with cries of “Heil, Hitler!” while shouting epithets at Jewish members of the Austrian Olympic team. Similar crowds of Nazis welcomed the flame’s crossing of the Czech border, while on August 2 some 100,000 Germans bellowed their delirium as German runner Fritz Shilgen carried it into Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. In two years, of course, German troops would invade Czechoslovakia as well as Austria, this time with Krupp-made weapons instead of torches of “peace.” But that’s what propaganda is about: a cover for treachery.
            It turns out that the Nazis also initiated television broadcasts in 1936, though only to local audiences. Internationally televised Olympics began in 1956 with the Winter Olympics of that year in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy (my favorite name for an Olympic site). After that, television stations began to pay huge fees for TV rights, and the Olympics, now broadcast to an international audience, became the games we now know, targeting not just sports lovers, but the world’s people in a competition to demonstrate, via athletic prowess, something about the superiority of a political/cultural/ideological system. All of the chauvinistic and commercial stupidities of recent years have followed from that.
            Too bad. It is fascinating to watch superb athletes compete in all the sports that are now included in the Olympics. It is equally fascinating to reflect that only the Brits could have conceived of the hilarity of James Bond accompanying the queen of England in a parachute jump into the Olympic Stadium. In fact, watching this whole staged setup made me wonder if the great Beatles’ ditty, “Her majesty’s a very nice girl,/ But she doesn’t have a lot to say,” would follow. But no. The Olympics are serious business after all, and the staging had to fit the commercial breaks and the dignity of the host government in the end. The queen was shown having been driven into the stadium after all; the parade of athletes took its endless, boring place; and the “torch of freedom” was carried up the Thames and transferred to a runner, who brought it in to great cheers and lit it in a cauldron so artificial it might have been an alien spaceship; all the while, few in the huge TV audience suspecting that we have the Nazis to thank for the great Olympic flame relay, and for the propaganda that athletic competition has become.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A U.S. of Zombies

There is not much profit in expatiating once again on the perils of an armed-to-the-teeth populace in the United States—thanks to the National Rifle Association (NRA). We all know the false mantra that has become so sickening in our time: guns don’t kill, people do. If you want to read chapter and verse about this organized insanity, check out Saturday’s piece by Matthew Chapman, “What Will it Take for Americans to Reject the NRA?” I also just saw an interesting statistic from a similar piece today: there are 58 murders a year by firearms in Britain, and 8,775 in the United States.
            For me, though, the Aurora Colorado massacre evokes other sadnesses and ironies. To begin with, isn’t it fitting that a 24-year-old all-honors grad student should enter a theatre premiering the latest violence fantasy, style himself as The Joker, and open fire on the crowd? Batman in the films based on the comic is always battling evil geniuses—the Joker being the most memorable—who commit virtually motiveless violence. They’re just evil. James Holmes seems to be, or want to be, one of these. No one had done him any harm. He doesn’t seem to have been psychologically maimed in any obvious way—indeed, his latest project was investigating the "Biological Basis of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders." And yet, he carefully plans his murderous spree, entering the theater normally, exiting from a side exit whose door he carefully leaves ajar, arms himself with assault weapons, tear gas, body armor and a gas mask, and re-enters to begin his slaughter of people he knows nothing about. He apparently just wanted to kill people.
            Questions immediately come to mind. Did he realize what he was doing? Did he have any idea what it’s like to be shot, to bleed, to suffer, to be devastated by the loss of a child, a lover, a relative? Did his mirror neuron system—that system which allegedly gives us our most precious human quality, that of empathy—work at all, or was he one of those, classified as psychopaths, whose mirror neuron system seems to be defective or inactive? And then we have to think: this guy was only 24, and had probably grown up as a devotee of precisely the comic and film fantasies glorifying violence, growing always more graphic in their depictions of slaughter, that are replicated in video games and TV shows daily, hourly, constantly as our most common form of entertainment. Watching killing, simulating killing, identifying with killers, in short, is our main form of fun. So why should we be surprised when young men like Holmes, or the high school students who shot up Columbine High School, or the student named Seung-Hui Cho who shot up his Virginia Tech classrooms, or any other mass murderer splashes into our lives to chill our souls. Shouldn’t we, rather, expect it to happen regularly—especially given the fact that the weapons of mass destruction these guys use are as easy to procure as chewing gum?
            And this doesn’t even take into account our history. America began with violence, with a violent takeover of occupied land, and has continued with similar violence ever since. Settlers were all armed so they could slaughter Indians who showed any reluctance to hand over their lands. Southern planters were armed so they could demonstrate to the slaves upon whom their wealth depended that even a hint of attempting to escape or rebel would be met with lethal force. Animals—first the buffalo, then the predators that might threaten livestock, like wolves, bears, and cougars—were slaughtered with increasing fury, the heirs of this slaughter being the hunters on whose behalf the NRA still justifies the “right to bear arms.” Any excuse to start a nice little war was taken as yet another opportunity to expand our always-expanding territory: Mexico, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, Hawaii, and on and on. Today, the weapons industry is perhaps the most vital, the only vital industry at which America still leads the world. And even where the product is not weapons, American capitalism is by its very nature a violent sport—its object the destruction of any competitor or regulation or worker organization that stands in the way of always increasing growth, always spiraling profit? So why should we be surprised when a young man absorbs all this, and decides to kill himself a few folks, just for the hell of it?                               

            And yet we all are. Just looking at his face—the face of our latest mass murderer—alarms us because it seems to lack that in us which we imagine gives us our humanity. That inclines us to recognize in other humans, at least, kindred spirits deserving of our sympathy and empathy; beings whom we go out of our way to help, if we can, rather than blast to nothingness. And yet, Holmes’ face exhibits none of this. He looks to us more like a zombie. An automaton acting as if on automatic pilot to destroy human beings at random. Without passion. Without animosity. Without any emotion whatever, apparently, except perhaps the joy of a boy engaging in the wanton destruction of insects. And in this, he reminds us of some of the other destroyers in our culture. Encased in body armor and wearing a gas mask—all to make himself invulnerable—he reminds us of American troops advancing on Iraqis and Afghanis in their body armor; of armored Tac squads advancing on demonstrators in our own streets; the objects of their “cleansing” simply trash to them. And then there are our weapons du jour, our infamous drones. Poor Holmes apparently couldn’t get his hands on any of these, but they are, in many ways, just like him. Invulnerable to attack, because they are destructive weapons without a human face, drones are the perfect expression of the cowardly violence of our time. They are precisely targeted from thousands of miles away by computer techies at keyboards guiding them without fear or risk of retaliation. And they strike with deadly force and allegedly deadly accuracy anywhere in the world where “terrorists” are presumed to be gathered, giving no warning whatever. Perfect. Weapons that eliminate anyone or anything that appears to threaten us, all with no risk to American personnel, no blood on the hands of those who can go home to dinner after their remote-control killing is done, and play with the kids.
            Is Holmes a drone? a zombie? Perhaps not. Perhaps he has his story to tell. But wittingly or not, he has become the latest expression of our increasingly soul-less nation in our increasingly soul-less time. Predictably shocked that such a nice boy, from such a nice family, in such a nice neighborhood, could possibly act as if he were one of the living dead.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Higgs Bosons: What's the Big Deal?

The news wires have been buzzing this week with the possible discovery, at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, of the long-sought Higgs Boson—aka the “God particle.” Just that nickname is enough to set journalistic hearts a-flutter. But, as always in high-energy physics, there’s more to the drama than meets the eye via standard news accounts. This is not to say that I, a mere dilletante, really understand it, but reading lots of accounts and seeing several videos has made some things clearer. Perhaps I can convey that to a few readers.
            To begin with, the real action here lies with the proposed Higgs field, the Higgs Boson being only an indication that the theorized field actually exists. But the Higgs field is not like the usual fields—the magnetic field around earth, or the gravitational field around our sun, or an electromagnetic field around a generator—we’re familiar with. Those fields require an energy source, like the sun, to generate them; furthermore, the size of the force (of gravity say, from the sun) varies with the distance from the energy source. So, the farther we get from the sun or the earth, the less force we feel from its gravity field. In short, most fields dissipate with distance because the number of particles constituting the field (virtual particles) is fewer (this last is due to the quantum understanding of fields, which used to be thought of as continuous, but are now thought of as composed of particles, like all else).
            The Higgs field is not like that. Theoretically at least, the Higgs field remains the same throughout the universe even though there’s no source generating it (if I understand it correctly, the Higgs field would have been generated in the first nano-seconds of and by the Big Bang). Its force doesn’t dissipate with distance because of this lack of a specific energy source. It’s everywhere.
            This means something fundamental: there really is no empty space anywhere. The entire universe and all in it is saturated with a Higgs field (or as many as five Higgs fields) all the time. And of course, like any field, what makes up a Higgs field are Higgs bosons (subatomic particles). It is believed that these Higgs bosons interact with all subatomic particles, dragging on them, thus giving them their mass. Some have compared the Higgs field to an ocean of molasses; any particle with mass that tries to get through it feels a drag on itself—and this is what is meant by its mass. The only particles that don’t get dragged on by a Higgs field are the virtually massless ones: photons (light particles), gluons (force particles between quarks) and gravitons (the theorized and yet undiscovered particles that express gravity). The sun-generated neutrinos are also, like ghosts, exempt from the Higgs field’s drag. So, because of the Higgs bosons dragging on it, a particle such as a top quark (quarks are the components of protons) has a very large mass—indeed it is 350,000 times the rest mass of an electron (even though both particles are about the same ‘size.’)* 

            So why is it so important to find evidence of Higgs Bosons and hence Higgs fields? There are two basic reasons. First, finding the boson will firmly, experimentally establish that the Higgs field exists, and therefore, that it is what gives matter its fundamental property of mass. This is key because in order to rationalize and complete the standard theories of particle physics, an explanation is needed for this phenomenon of mass. That is, why should some subatomic particles have no mass (such as photons), while others have varying degrees of mass (such as the W and Z bosons carrying the weak nuclear force).  This would then fill out the Standard Model in a way that would be impossible if the Higgs Boson could not be detected.
            Second, there is a related and perhaps even greater problem that the “b” portion of the Higgs Boson experiment is attempting to solve: the problem of symmetry. Symmetry gets to the fundamental problem of why there is matter in the first place. In the Standard Model, that is, matter and its oppositely-handed twin, antimatter, are conceived as symmetrical twins. For every piece of matter, there is a corresponding piece of anti-matter, and when the two meet each other (as has been demonstrated by experiment), they wipe each other out. The question is, why, if the two are equal or symmetrical, there is so much more matter than antimatter in the Universe we know? And related to this: given that there was, in the very first moment of the Big Bang, also symmetry between the force particles, and hence between the forces they convey, why are there differences now? That is, at the first moment of creation, photons were the same as the W and Z bosons. There was no distinction between the weak nuclear force (W & Z bosons being its messenger particles) and the electromagnetic force (photons being its messenger particles). But there is now.
            The big question thus becomes: how did this apparently universal symmetry yield to the Universe we have now? What gave matter its edge, its ability to exist? What gave the Universe its ability to produce all the matter we see, including ourselves? Why didn’t it remain perfectly symmetrical? The physicist Michio Kaku, talks about this in terms that would almost convince one he was talking about God or Genesis. He refers to the physicists’ “dream of perfect symmetry” at the beginning of the Big Bang where everything in the Universe would have been the same. He calls it a state of “perfection” where particles and forces and fields were all the same. But then something, some slight “imperfection,” caused the Universe to fall into a less symmetrical state. Some tiny fluctuation led to the appearance of distinction:  distinct forces, distinct fields, and matter itself with its myriad distinctions. All of which happens in logical sequence leading eventually to stars, galaxies and us, which means, says Kaku,
            “..everything we see around us is nothing but a fragment of that original perfection.”
            It is this fall into asymmetry and all the rest of our Universe that proceeds from it, that physicists find fascinating, and that the discovery of the Higgs boson may help them, and us, understand.            
            There is more to this, of course, and as one goes deeper it gets very complex and very mathematical. But briefly, there is a relatively new theory called supersymmetry, or SUSY, according to which all the currently known particles have heavier supersymmetric partners, known as “sparticles:” quarks have their “squarks” and photons have their “photinos.” And it may account for nature’s apparent preference for matter over antimatter by positing not one but five Higgs fields with asymmetry built-in, thus giving rise to the excess matter we see. All this requires that physics would have to go way beyond the Standard Model as it is now conceived. But that could be one perverse result of the LHC experiments. For if, as now seems possible, the new particle recently announced at the LHC is not a standard Higgs Boson, fitting perfectly into the Standard Model, but rather a strange particle with an odd decay pattern, well then it’s a whole new ball game. As one physicist put it recently:

            “The Higgs sector particle not being the simplest Higgs boson would be the first indication that, yes, there is new physics out there. And that would provide tremendous momentum to the whole field.” (Christian Science Monitor, July 5, 2012)
The discovery of the ‘God particle’ would, in that case, turn out to be not the satisfying vision capping a century’s long search, but in fact, the beginning of an entirely new quest and new model—one that might finally be able to account for “dark matter” (fully 84% of the matter in the Universe, about which almost nothing is known), gravity (and its messenger particle the ‘graviton’), and the deep conundrum of matter itself.
            So stay tuned.

Lawrence DiStasi

[i] Just to keep things clear, in the so-called Standard Model of quantum physics, there are three sorts of particles: 1) matter particles like quarks, and electrons; 2) force particles (akin to lumps of energy) like photons, gluons, and W and Z bosons; 3) the sought-after and possibly found Higgs particle. The last two can all be classified as “bosons,” because they have the remarkable property of being able to occupy the same place in space.