Interpreting Eureka! The Possibilities of Plurilingualism

Presented by co-author Jeffrey A Kappen in Copenhagen, Denmarkย at GEM&L 2017

“Revisiting Multilingualism at Work:

New Perspectives in Language-Sensitive Research in International Business”

GEM&L, Groupe d’Etudes Management & Language, is the French Research Group on Management & Language.

“back to the base”

I hope Koen was being prophetic and not just descriptive. It is strange, btw, to be me!

There’s no time, now, to properly process the odd collection of blogable bits that I wish to re-compose, suffice a listing with minimal commentary.
Sunday: I missed the concert but caught up with everyone immediately afterwards. “You have nice friends,” said one about another. Yes. Lucky me! ๐Ÿ˜‰ Eventually we arrived at Den Draak, only Annmarie was missing (and Vee & Vivaldi) or the symmetry would have been perfect. I had no idea where we were going – having left all responsibility for decision-making to others. They could not have known that this last outing arrived to the same location as the first one last fall.
Monday: I will not miss the Belgian bureaucracy! I’d been told I did not need an appointment to de-scribe my registration as a resident, but the woman at the desk tried to tell me to return at 9 am tomorrow morning. “I can’t,” I said, “I’ll be on a plane to the US.” “Then come at 1:30,” she said. Hello? I had to ask for a manager three times before someone intervened and confirmed that they could, in fact, take care of this right now.
Retrieving the historical translation from French to English was much smoother. ๐Ÿ™‚ The Little Shop of Translations is the best! “Optimism,” the manager informed me, “is misinformed pessimism.” Not only do they provide high quality translations into and out of all European languages, but they never failed to call out my Americanness in our casual conversations. (I’m gonna miss you!)
Then there was Marsi: “You’re older but I’m bigger.” She promises to threaten me over Skype. We’ll see. We waved each other goodbye for half-a-block, and then Topi and I followed suit….
Antwerp ~ thanks for a tremendous year!

Van Gogh and the Musicheads


“Nothing happens in my world. If something happens at my party, at least I can gossip!”
“Do you feel discrimination often?”
“Sometimes. I usually ignore it. Some of it sticks.”

“Horses startle themselves on purpose.”
“They must have a short memory!”
“I slap myself sometimes.”

There were more Americans than Dutch at the barbeque, but Juriaan insisted he’s not into all things American, he just happens to know some of us. I had to meet him twice because I’d forgotten about the first time. “Girlfriend, that was only half-an-hour ago! You came in, huddled over in the corner looking all scared, so I thought I’d come over and say hello.” Vaguely, slowly, the neurons of short-term recall reconstructed the memory . . . he had that foreign-sounding name, right? and no wonder, then, that he looked familiar… he hates political crap but has quite solid political views: “I have my own party.”

I had three encounters with characteristic Dutch brusqueness yesterday. It crossed my mind that the Dutch attitude is a bit like Black American cool, especially as evidenced in rap, an aggressive kind of presence. I think I could get used to it pretty quickly, it doesn’t seem too far removed from American Deaf directness, although perhaps a bit more physically embodied. The moments (enhanced by special intercultural commentary provided by my co-sojourners in Dutchland) helped me gain perspective on a difficult encounter during fieldwork last year.
After re-discovering the fact that all shops close at six pm (expletives deleted) and watching small jets of water spurt out of recessed spigots to clean the roads, I was informed that there are two things the Dutch have not figured out:

  1. short words
  2. bicycle theft

We were looking for some straat, reminiscing about Michael Jackson. (Did you know he had a patent that helped him defy gravity in Smooth Criminal?) We finally arrived to “one of the finest locations in Amsterdam,” Renee & Paul’s rooftop patio. Angie, in un-MJ-like form, explained how she managed to go for a bicycle ride without causing an accident but still acquired tread marks on her clothing. The accident-prone side of her character is not displayed in the portrait Renee painted, although mine was demonstrated when I forgot that I was drinking water from a glass instead of a bottle, missed my mouth and poured water down the front of my shirt and all over the floor (with “Loser” playing in the background). Steven described the local protocol for beer distribution and replacement, and Dustin gave several anecdotes illustrating “there’s something wrong with Brussels.” “The EU thing?” Juriaan inquired. “That too,” Dustin said, but most of his stories involved police corruption. “The Belgian police are notorious for corruption,” Juriaan agreed.

I was feeling a bit out of place. Angie and her husband had just flown over from Colorado for the weekend. In a private jet, I wondered? Later, I realized maybe they grabbed seats on a commercial flight as an employment perk from her airline industry job. Several tunes from the Rolling Stones roared out of the bedroom, enlivening the quite comfortable social atmosphere. In climate terms, the evening was absolutely perfect. The temperature was warm (not at all hot), the sky a soft blue with puffy white cumulus clouds scattered about. Was it someone’s birthday? Juriaan was arguing to only mark the decades: 40, 50, 60 . . . Michelle and I talked about time compression – when you have so many experiences in such a short time that it takes awhile to unpack and sort them out… and I (in the cultural/critical part of my brain, thought) of course, if everyone just keeps partying then the time for reflection can be postponed indefinitely….

“Wait a minute, what does it mean, ally?”
“It means friend; I’m on your side.”
“Or a dark alley, depending on your interpretation.”
“You could be the author of many people’s misfortunes!”
“Missed fortunes? Mixed fortunes?”
“I’ll have to read to see if I made the cut!”

Everyone (who speaks with me and gives permission) makes the cut. ๐Ÿ™‚
I’ve been to so many parties – not just over the last year, but also back in the day of my late twenties and early thirties. I wasn’t fully conscious yet. “Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!” Conversation moved on to gender-based dress codes (girls = glamour, boys = whatever). My new look? Terrifying. “Let’s get together and be all right.” “What did you do with your mullet?” Smuggled it into the European Parliament on the head of a UMass teddy bear!
Internet-based communication was also a topic: you can’t get away anymore – Facebook, MySpace, two email addresses . . . there’s no place to hide. Blogs!? In my delusional state, I kept giggling to myself, imagining new acquaintances reading this and wondering where did she come from? Who let her in?! I do not know Sign Nepali but Lava and me go way back to the time when bowling saved my life. I felt like dancing last night but was feeling self-conscious: beyond the desire to enjoy each other’s company (which I share!), I also couldn’t help but wonder: are you safe, do you care, do you want to be part of something bigger? Or are you trapped in the cynicism that so many smart people feel about the way we (through government and big business) continue to hurtle towards planetary damage? I know tone is hard to read in this print-only medium, so I can only ask that you be generous in interpreting my intentions. I want to be invited back, to belong in the circle of friends, and . . . we really do have a crisis to address and resolve.

Lava: “I’ve seen what you’ve been posting on Facebook. It’s really gotten to you, hasn’t it?”
Steph: “Yep, I see that expression, those rolling eyes – she’s gone over the edge!”
Lava: “You can do more! It’s all in your head!”
Steph: “I’ve had enough!”
Lava: “Ah Steph, when are you going to learn?”

Hmmmm. Maybe when you join me? ๐Ÿ˜‰
Come on, it’s really time to Stop It!
(Take out the “really.”)

“so many good people in the same place”


Koen summed up the entire evening in a single phrase.

The Summer Solstice Celebration started suitably slow, the pace of preparations expanding to proper proportion within these longest days of summer. Although I had moved the start time up a bit (hoping to make the trip from Brussels more feasible), no one noticed. ๐Ÿ™‚ The first guest arrived an hour “late,” and Steven filtered in last, only four hours after the scheduled start (an hour earlier than last time!)

I had been anxious for days whether we’d even break out of the single digits (so many of my friends had other plans), but the first few hours at the Elcker-Ik Centrum passed peacefully while I busied myself with the veggie pasta, listening to the CD from Winter Solstice: a bridge from the dawn of winter to the peak of spring. In a measured fashion, guests began to arrive and the noise of chatter incrementally rose until the music was barely detectable beneath the buzz. The party really started with the arrival of Mahtab (Princess of the Grin) and Maryam & Maryam with their infamous Iranian rice and a delightful range of supplements. Combined with everyone else’s contributions, the feasting commenced: did we ever eat! (and eat!)

The only hint of any kind of separation occurred over the meal: the Iranians at one table, the lesbians at another….I sat with two (straight) Belgian guys. (Make of it what you will, wink!) Right after we had all settled in I got up to take a phone call, when I returned from the hall the tables had been circled! At whose initiation I have no idea, but I read it as proof that what brings us all together is a widely-shared impulse to belong with each other, no matter the differences.

Topi (lost in her own neighborhood? Hello?!), Eva, and Natalie arrived just as most of us were finishing the meal. (Thank heavens for Armando, the local tele-navigationer.) The need for introductions facilitated the transition to the entertainment portion of the evening’s festivities.

Robyn’s rendition (in Fula) of a West African story illustrated two proverbs:

The forest recognizes no one; and no man can know another man, but a man can know his own heart.

The telling foreshadowed the range of talent and content yet to come, the language’s sounds a rich vocal mix of speech and song, with gesture playing a significant part. Armando followed with a tribute to Jacques Brel, getting us all to join in singing the chorus of the popular translation into English:

We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun.
But the hills that we climbed
were just seasons out of time.

Aaron (can you tell he’s a diplomat?!) improvised a speech on the theme suggested by Natalie, “God is love.” Caroline read two short poems in Portuguese, the first about the sea. The bubbles she blew after the second poem delighted everyone, especially Mahtab, who blew them for the rest of the evening. ๐Ÿ™‚ I don’t know if Anneleen had decided in advance what she would play on the clarinet, but its deep notes rumbled like ocean tide.

Gudron mimed chasing – and capturing – a fly. Or at least that’s what I saw! Then Maryam offered a Persian song, concerning a broken heart on the floor about which one must tread carefully. As safe and insulated as we felt in our togetherness, global life nibbled at the edges of our comraderie. Earlier in the evening Amin had received a phone call from his mother, who had just been exposed to tear gas in Tehran.

“Interesting music,” Koen teased me about my performance choices, “very sentimental.” Well, come on! It was an ‘until I see you again’ kind of party! I interpreted The Wind (Cat Stevens), Hammer and a Nail (Indigo Girls), and Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow (Fleetwood Mac) into ASL.

After the show, mingling and more mingling for a comfortably long time. Most found room for one or two of the five dessert cakes. People were inclined to talk and talk, rather than dance (we did squeeze in a few numbers eventually). My Affinity with Stone book went around. What a joy to read the new (and re-read the old) this morning; I’ll carry your words with me always.

space out of time

a new attitude?


The first question directed to last night’s speaker at Frank’s International Soiree had to do with survival, the second with definition. Suddenly we were immersed in the midst of a dialogic surge with all the characteristics of the storming stage in group development. I immediately began to wonder if we could turn this to a sustained dialogue? Or would it fade into another instance when a bunch of individuals take up characteristic group member roles and enact the usual clash of competitive discourse
Yes, I linked “discourse” to “path dependence” on purpose.

(Are you checking the links? Some links are topically informative: they give background on the concept. Other links are conceptually informative – they are trying to show you how I’m thinking. It seems to me that the relationship between the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ in real, live communication gets lost when we’re trying to find solutions to big problems, because we get caught up in our own reactions, thoughts, and gut instincts that lead us to say the things we say and to hear (interpret) others in the ways that we do when listening to what they say.)

I make the connection between talk and institutions because this is one of the ways that the relationship between language and social reality becomes visible.
The storming phase of group development is when a group engages the questions of power and control: e.g.,

  • what does the group want to do (if anything)?
  • Will I like its leaders?
  • Is my opinion going to matter?

I was astonished – and delighted! – that such dynamics emerged in this setting. Frank throws this monthly event bringing together diverse people with big dreams to give us a chance to meet and network with each other. This occurs generally through one-to-one conversations in small groups over a kind of rotating dinner: we switch tables throughout the meal in order to meet as many people as possible. I’ve only attended one previous Soiree, so I do not know if last night’s event was atypical. It felt special and, in my experience, relatively rare.

I’m not exactly happy to admit that I didn’t listen well to the scheduled speaker; my mind was somewhere else (I don’t even remember) – my attention was drifting. He was speaking about a sustainability initiative – such a vogue topic about which so little is actually being accomplished. The first question was from the journalist who had covered Palestine, who wanted to know about the pragmatics of funding. Another issue getting so much airtime (in these days of “the financial crisis”) without constructive effect on the economic insfrastructure. Then the philosopher fired off a sharp challenge about whether the concept of sustainability, in the speaker’s usage, was limited to the environment or could include things like language and culture… tension rose in the room – how was the speaker going to respond? Deftly ๐Ÿ™‚
Perhaps the fact that he was unruffled (at least he did not display if he was rattled inside) gave the group confidence to take the plunge? Suddenly we were arguing about what could be included in the concept of sustainability (e.g., economics) and what should be excluded (the Irish language was given as an example). The role of consumption and consumers came up including some anger and frustration at never being asked, in the role of consumer, what one might be willing to do. Instead, the fraud investigator whispered to me: “We are just told that if you are a good enough person then you will just pay the extra…”
Meanwhile, someone else was asserting, urgently, that “we’re too nice! We need to cause more panic!”
Ah yes, panic. I thought of colleagues in my graduate program who are interested in social panics. (Interesting that the wikipedia link on this is an orphan.)
My mind flitted about, seeking context. Were we picking up some vibe from protesters of Ahmadinijad’s questionable re-election in Iran? Is fear of the consequences of global warming reaching critical mass – and similar outbursts like this are beginning to happen in groups across the globe? Not only do scientists’ concerns continue to increase as policy makers miss crucial deadlines for changing policies and big business delays implementing serious structural reforms, I had just read a proposal for geoengineering to temporarily lower the earth’s temperature in order to buy us time.
One woman explained that if we continue to use resources at the rate of the United States, we need four earths. Even, she continued, if we adapt to the lower-consumption rates in Europe, we still need two or three. “We only have one.”
And we’re gutting it. The argument made by in the new film by Yann Arthus-Bertrand is that we have only ten years in which to act decisively to avoid crossing into climactic conditions for which there is no precedent in nine billion years of life on earth. The last ten minutes of the 90 minute film make the case for hope – there are projects underway and success stories we can build on: but we can delay no longer. Somehow, we have to confront our fears, deal with each other’s defense mechanisms, and challenge our rationalizations. We must work through the storm.


about Frank’s International Soiree:
in French

Speaker: Max von Abendroth of 3plusX

Home: the new film by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Worth a second viewing, or if you haven’t seen it yet: An Inconvenient Truth

It’s Time to Cool the Planet

Science Tourism: Max Planck Institute


Ok, maybe it isn’t quite as exciting as the Large Hadron Collider, but I stood in the very office where Heisenberg worked. I tried to absorb any lingering quantum waves that might collapse as particles (in the form of a brilliant idea) in my mind. I did actually have a new thought about the dissertation today, a title for the chapter on language ideologies: Language as a club. I can’t remember, now, whether I had the idea on the way going there or on the way back… but with relativity perhaps it doesn’t actually make a difference?! I’m also thinking about rearranging the sequence of chapters . . .
The reason I was at the MPI at all was mundane – I had to submit my final report on the grant. “Who still uses Internet Explorer?” Dada asked. Hmmph. I agree! The IIE must have a contract with Microsoft that precludes using other platforms, such as Firefox or even Safari. So I was fortunate that the Institute has a small computer room with terminals for visitors, otherwise I’d be up to a very un-fun scramble to meet tomorrow’s deadline.
I picked up the Excellence Cluster Newsletter (Issue 2 May 2009) and read the Public Outreach Coordinator’s statement on the successful launch of “Herschel” and “Planck” from a European spaceport French Guiana. Herschel’s job, according to POC Barbara Wankert, is ‘to explore the mechanisms of star formation;” and Planck aims to generate “a better understanding of the energy fluctuations…that formed the template for today’s distribution of galaxies.”
Meanwhile, I am returning to The Man Who Knew Too Much, a book I started last November and had to set aside. Until now!



“Do you know where I live?”
I had remembered on the plane. When Koushik got his postdoc at the Max Planck Institute I was so proud to know him! Then he moved here – ok, I’m still delighted to rub shoulders with him (cool cosmologist and all-around great guy that he is!) but it turns out MPI bought a few of the apartments in the housing complex built for the 1972 Munich Olympics. I wondered if it would feel creepy to be on the site where several Israeli athletes were killed by commandos of a Palestinian terror organization, Black September.
All the apartments were sold after the games to private citizens or companies. The balconies are overflowing with plants, the complex seems abuzz with life. Dada and Jhunu’s apartment is cute and comfy. I think I’ve become a bit numb to the present-ness of the history of violence in Europe – having felt it intensely in many places over the past eight months.
What does strike me as one of those strange coincidences that populate my life is how immersed I am in co-writing a chapter for a book coming out of the Dialogue Under Occupation conferences that I’ve been attending since 2006. The chapter is an endeavor to act into Bakhtian dialogic space and turn discourse to dialogue. In some ways it is a response to the challenge of a Palestinian professor during the opening of the second DUO conference at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem: “Go ahead and see what you can do.”



I made eye contact with the Princess of Sweden! (Bright green jacket, big grin? That was me!)

It was a few days ago; I’m slow blogging…we had just stopped by the Stockholm Town Square. I commented on how small it is compared with those in Brussels and Antwerp, and more plain – the buildings are functional, clean, not ostentatious. Augustus thought we had enough time to walk around to see the Palace Courtyard, so we headed that way…there was police tape across the road but the Police Officer wasn’t stopping people from crossing under it, so we did. Huh – what had we stumbled upon? There was a contingent of soldiers – the Royal Guard? – dressed in bright blue with helmets adorned with . . . blonde horsehair? Oh for a camera!
So we dallied. It took a while for the whole show to get organized, and we did already have plans, but the novelty of having stumbled upon preparations for the start of the royal parade for Sweden’s National Day was too much to pass up. This peak moment competed with many others during this two-day respite from the otherwise persistent whirlwind of activity composing my last month in Europe.
I snuck out of the conference a bit early to run around the city with some Italians. As I told them, I haven’t met that many but all the ones I know are special. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Then I rendezvoused with a previously unmet friend of a friend….
After getting plenty of sleep (ahhhhh), we rode into Old Town, walked the groovy yellow-and-stainless-steel pedestrian tunnel, then hopped tram #7 to Djurgarden. He was just explaining to me about this really old tram they still use, all made of wood, when we turned the corner and there it was! Vagn No. 113, with 24 sittplatse. We watched everyone grin as they boarded, nearly half also took pictures. Folks had their cameras because of the holiday – and there were flags around (contrary to a critique offered by a Swede a few days earlier that Swedes won’t wave flags in order not to disturb anyone) – but not in overwhelming numbers. The tram traveled at half-speed, which fitted our pace.
The park is quite lovely, we walked around, stopped for carrot cake and tea, peeked in the Astrid Lundgren Museum – and were totally disturbed by a woman who literally freaked out when her husband told her (calmly) that he couldn’t find their daughter. She started calling, then yelling, then screeching… it was truly uncomfortable. We were both unsettled for awhile after that. (They found the little girl in no more than two minutes.) I could understand the mom’s fear but not how fast she escalated; that seemed potentially traumatizing for her daughter – it was such a contrast to the pervasive mood of calm pleasure. :-/ Even the kids at the carnival were peaceful in their expressions of exuberance!
We did our best to shake it off, hopping the ferry back to Old Town where we stumbled onto preparations for the Royal Parade. We mused about the lives of soldiers – so much time standing around! and I thought they might look bored but I bet everyone of them was thinking about what happened during Holland’s Queen’s Day a few weeks ago. Augustas – peering over the crowd – kept me posted on developments as we waited: “There’s some action inside.”

“They’re doing a circle.”

Folks asked what was going on. As if we knew! Some arcane ritual in which the horse-drawn carriages must be circled seven times to ward off bad fortune?

“They’ve stopped walking now, maybe there is some other action.”

“They’re still going in circles.”

Eventually – after we’d watched the navy-blue uniformed troops join the bright blue uniformed squad, and the horse patrols had arrived, and everyone had duly established positions and perimeters – finally right on the dot of 18:30 the procession began. “It’s the Queen!” The King was not smiling. “Do you think we should wave?” After all that anticipation? You bet!
Then we had to sprint across town to snarf dinner before dashing to catch Peterson Toscano’s Transfigurations. From one spectacle to another! I especially enjoyed the Q&A afterwards, because Peterson explained the background of each character and how he had come to recognize the non-normative gender qualities of these historical figures in scripture.
Dinner (what was that exquisite Indian dish?) was calm, scented with flowers popular during someone’s relatively recent (!) childhood in Lithuania. All in all, a lovely day full of surprises – and it was merely prelude!
The next day, after Augustas voted in the European Elections, we went to the nature reserve at Akeshov’s slott, where I had a peak experience walking the trails in search of De Geer’s Moraines. (I need a geologist to disambiguate the type of moraine: visually it didn’t seem so impressive – assuming we actually laid eyeballs on one of the actual formations!) At any rate, the combination of birdsong and frog croaks, fresh mountain tree-smells, and warm sun struck me with visceral force; I felt the power of embodiment, of being a mere tourist on this earth.
The grounds of Drottingham were next, where I purchased souvenirs and told my fantabulous tour guide,

“I want to ask the Royal Guard some questions.”
“No! That’s so American!”

“Can you talk with us?”
“What do you think about, standing there for such a long time?”
“I have to.”
“Do you daydream, think about your life?”
“Nothing, really.”
“How long is the shift?”
“Two hours.”
“Long enough to get bored, but not so long as to go crazy.”
“It’s not so bad.” (grinning)

I agree. Not bad at all!

the last days…

Wilrijk & Middelheim
photos from Brabant,
the European Parliament, and

arbor in Stillewater.jpg


We saw a strange movie the other night. I was wildly amused: although bored at times and put off by some of the surrealism, I recognized much that is familiar in Synecdoche, NY. By “familiar,” I do not mean flattering, but I have to admit that I could see myself, my logic, and some of my life experience reflected in the mangle of enactments and re-enactments. The funniest part, however, was the company with whom I saw the film – I knew they were suffering through on my account and I love them for it. ๐Ÿ™‚

Another day:

“You like to fight,” she said, and continued: “I don’t.”

Not really, I thought about the first. I know, about the second.

last castle FB annual event.jpg
“I’m a magnet for conflict,” I told some friends later in the day. “Do you really think so?” they asked. I do. It’s the concept of valence; whether I want to be or not, my attention is drawn to tension. The more others try to get by, pass, or otherwise slide around it, the larger it looms in my consciousness. What, I begin to wonder, is so bad or terrible or fearful or otherwise so undesirable that someone would prefer to ignore it?

Sometimes I feel trapped, as I watch others “read” me, attributing their meanings to what I say, to what I’m doing. I understand that they perceive me making things worse, yet I only say the things that I say because I perceive it as a contribution along a path to resolution.

You have a balanced head,” the photographer said.

“People pick out only one part,” he said, “but the overall, the whole, is balanced.” I never saw this man before, he knows nothing about me and didn’t ask. But I felt seen. “Artists,” a friend later scoffed, teasing me about how easily I was seduced, “they know just what to say to get what they want!” ๐Ÿ™‚ Maybe. It was quite an experience, though, in the moment, before and after listening to four piano pieces that sorted, scattered, and then re-organized my consciousness.

my pen.jpgThe concert began with Sonate in sol groot by Franz Schubert (opus 78, D894, 1826), played by Charlotte Otte. The familiar enough romantic classicism enabled my thinking to settle, slowly sorting and separating the intertwined threads of a book review, a job application, an upcoming presentation, the beginnings of the dissertation, and a chapter for an unrelated publication… so many ideas to be placed, positioned in counterpart and harmony, composed to produce a whole…

Then came Schonberg. The dodecaphony destroyed my ability to conceptualize, not that I had been thinking in any concentrated or focused way before, its just that I had been aware of thoughts and now there were none! Jasper Vanpaemel’s rendition of the Cinq pieces pour piano (opus 23, 1923) wrenched me out of myself. Next he played Etude nr 4 (1999) by Pascal Dusapin: the minimalism allowed the neurons in my brain to resume firing in a more-or-less normal manner. Finally, during the last piece, Variationen uber Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (1862) by Franz Liszt, my mind felt whole again, recomposed.

egg sightings and guerilla gardening

  • Sacred comedy offers its own rich twist on these, the lingering last days. What was I doing with my head on the ground, nestled among last fall’s composting leaves and this spring’s still fresh green shoots?!
  • Did I actually hit the right note (!), “consecrating the tonality” of Do, Re, Me as I learned about the socialized difference between 7 and 12 tone scales?
  • How bad/boring is The Sound of Music? (“It’s 50 years old!” Ah, the troubles of teaching (some) young people today – they want to absorb videos passively rather than actually think!)

no conclusions
Interactions with different individuals, across generations, nationalities, and contexts … yet similar themes (or at least references) emerge. I find myself betwixt and between, too aware or completely clueless. Sometimes, paradoxically, both at the same time.

Thanks to all who teach me, reflecting back the many parts of myself.
It isn’t all – or only – narcissim! ๐Ÿ™‚
toilet paper graffiti.jpg

Science Tourism: CERN


First, we ate at Restaurant 1; quality defeating PR at least for a day. “R1 definitely has the best food, but R2 has better publicity.” Dustin is an extraordinary tour guide, beginning our education immediately. “I don’t know how up you are on particle physics?” he half-inquired, scanning our eager (and no doubt blank) faces. “There are six kinds of quarks…” His service project is updating some software for analyzing the top quark. “The detector,” he continued, “gives two types of information: voltages and times.” The software takes these data, reconstructs it, then reconstructs it again. I’m vague on the reconstruction process but understand the necessity because quarks are inherently unstable.

Over ristretto, topics temporarily wander. Doris comments on a physical family resemblance, then mimics Colin as he gestures his way through a description of his current project on combinatorial optimalization. Colin asks about demographics: are the hundreds of people around us all scientists who work here? Mostly yes, and visitors too. Both physicists and engineers work at the facility, which has its own hostel for visiting researchers. Currently there are more experimental physicists around than theoretical physicists, since “the detector” (formally, ATLAS) is undergoing maintenance. The theoretical guys will show up once ATLAS resumes generating data. Repairs, by the way, are complete, but the supercooling process requires significant time. If you take the temperature down too fast then elements will break.

I am intrigued by the protocols for generating knowledge. There are several layers of internal scrutiny before information (usually, it seems, in the form of a model) is made public. The raw data from ATLAS is not being widely-shared. The main reason is a combination of quantity and complexity. There’s the instability problem (my term): since quarks only exist for periods of time much shorter than an instant, and because it is impossible to isolate individual quarks, the original data is itself already a step or two removed from physical reality, being an aggregation of patterns captured from the impacts of quarks in space and time over 27 kilometers of the detector. The so-called raw data is basically a stable representation of the inherent instability of quarks. To make sense of the original data, then, requires not only reconstruction but also intimate knowledge of the precise conditions of the detector at every moment and each location where data was gathered.

If you recall high school science when you had to measure height, weight, temperature and duration (for instance) for some kind of reaction in order to identify a particular chemical result, then you’ve got the general idea. But let me share an illustration from the predecessor project, OPAL, in order to impress the scope of detail here. Before ATLAS, which is colliding protons against protons, there was a project colliding electrons and positrons (anti-electrons). Using the same twenty-seven kilometer ring, buried 100 meters underground, the LEP energy measurements detected changes in the overall length of the entire detector of one millimeter. Think on this: the detector (more-or-less a hollow tube) is 27 kilometers long (more than 16 miles), the fluctuation in energy generated from the collisions was fine-tuned to the point of being able to monitor the tube getting shorter, then longer, then shorter, then longer again by one millimeter, twice every day. Literally, the rocks move, rhythmically, this infinitesimal amount daily. Why, you might ask? Because of the orbit of the moon! Alex, a colleague of Dustin’s who escorted us to the Microcosm, CERN’s onsite museum, described this effect as “the tidal flow of rock.”

Moon effect, therefore, is only one of the conditions that must be known in order to read the raw data and come up with reliable observations. Hence, the usefulness of simply pouring the data into the public sphere (as was so successful with the Human Genome Project) is not transparent. Rather, if an individual working on their own analysis comes up with an observation or finding with meaning potential, they must first present it to their Working Group, which – if satisfied with the rigor of the analysis, recommends it to be published in an internal publication for review by the specific scientific community associated with CERN. If the model passes this review, then it will be presented for publication to the general public. I wondered if this procedure is an inhibitory mode of control on the generation of knowledge, but Dustin’s explanation presents it as a basic system of checks-and-balances.

Later, on the bus ride back into Geneva, I make a parallel with Kevin’s idea about economics and capitalism that markets cannot all be completely open, but neither does each type need to be regulated in the same way. Just as we need to distinguish which kinds of markets require varying extents of relative regulation, perhaps there is legitimacy in determining which types of scientific knowledge deserve more or less safeguarding in order to avoid – or at least minimize – counterproductive tangents. CERN is, after all, a nuclear research laboratory. I was surprised to learn that CERN was conceived in 1952 as a post-World War II initiative to generate peaceful cooperation among countries in Europe, particularly in relation to nuclear research. This is nearly the same time as the European Union was getting underway.

Speaking of tangents (!), let’s get back to CERN, and the Microcosm.
The body, one of the first exhibits explains, starting with cells, moving down to atoms, and finally to quarks, is 99.9% empty space. This is a more shocking statistic than the fact that our bodies are mostly water: we are less ourselves than we think we are! Three basic elements make us up: the electron, the top quark, and the down quark. In addition to the cognitive challenge of wrapping one’s mind around this fact, is the additional fact that the combined mass of all the electrons, top quarks, and down quarks in your body do not add up to your total weight. The remaining mass – subtracting the total mass of actual particles in your body from what you weigh on the scale – is “binding energy.” I did not see a percentage breakdown of energy/mass for the human body, but I think it’s pretty cool that once those quarks and atoms are built up into molecules (water, fat, protein, bone), the rest of you (e.g., gluons, hadrons) is . . .

. . . the binding of these masses interacting with the strong force? (I’m not clear, here.) :-/

The terminology is complicated because the words don’t make sense by themselves, it is only by learning the conceptual relationships between the words that the meanings begin to come clear. A “proton” (positive charge) and an “electron” (negatively-charged) for instance, make sense because they are in opposition to each other. Just like “empty” (as a concept) is only sensible as the opposite of “full.” When we “know” something (anything!) we never know “it” by itself, we know “it” by what it isn’t, by how it compares and contrasts with other related (and un-related) things. (Philosophers, however, speak of bracketing out and reduction as processes of exclusion to get down to the essence of a thing-by-itself, and the scientific method obviously still relies on this logic.) Anyway, to become familiar with a new subject, one has to learn its categories. The categories of particle physics involve the different types of particles that compose atoms. The standard model (which refers to the interactions of the four fundamental forces) begins with the parts of an atom: protons, nucleus, and electrons.

For most of my life, this kind of information failed to materialize into coherent consciousness for me. The three-dimensional world floated vaguely on a two-dimensional grid. I (more-or-less) grasped the flat plane of an x and y grid but the z axis was elusive. These three dimensions are described in CERN’s Microcosm as “latitude, longitude, and altitude.” Concepts I thought I understood discretely but not well in terms of being able to transfer their relationships to other realms. Now I understand better, for instance, that electrons orbiting a nucleus are not all on a flat plane, but crisscross each other in spherically diagonal manners. But why should anyone care, going down so much smaller, to the tiniest of the small, to the ways that quarks compose protons?

Because figuring out what’s happening at that lowest, smallest level of reality might explain how time happens. The standard model, you see, which has had amazing (virtually perfect) accuracy of prediction for nearly thirty years, cannot explain where mass comes from. In other words, even though scientists continue to rely on it, they know that it isn’t quite right! (In addition to being unable to explain mass, the standard model also doesn’t adequately explain gravity.)

I’m going to skip a lot of details here, because I’m not capable, yet, of explaining the relationships all that well. Basically, the six types of quarks combine in a variety of ways to make the familiar atoms. Something quite fascinating happens with these combinations, because the basic rule seems to be that “things can only exist in neutral,” meaning: the types of charges have to add up to zero. Each quark has a charge, or, as the physicists call it, a color. Enter the bosons, which carry the charges – these charges, by the way, are of weak force (which is not the same as “strong force” – the energy that holds the physical body together). There are different types of bosons, meaning different ways of carrying charge: the z boson, the w+ and the w-. In theory, the Higgs boson might explain where mass actually comes from: the theory suggests that Higgs causes things to move through time rather than at the speed of light. If you’re moving at the speed of light, the reference frame of time stops.

Once we find Higgs (if it does exist as predicted), I imagine some interesting shifts in the possibilities for human consciousness.
Why not?!

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