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Mont Babel

Mont Babel

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Blame Leeuwenhoek. Or maybe Huygens. Of course, there were lenses before 1670 - and not just Dutch. But never so fine, so accurate. Antonie van L., the first to see "animaculae," as he christened them, the organisms of the unseen, "so cute," he said, his microscope man's tool for delving into the microcosm, ever smaller, ever more divided. We know where that led. My engineering son informed me, rather instructed me, as he often took pleasure in doing. I'd educated myself (and him) in the humanities, and I've concluded this was his way of paying back. Sons do that to their fathers, no? Re-educate them. Pay them back. I'm told it's normal.
I took Tom's arguments seriously. How not, backed as they were by the whole weird, atonal orchestra of modern science: the drive for smaller and smaller, not just germs or "animaculae" - atoms, protons, electrons, in turn, sliced, diced, chopped into quarks, neutrinos, positrons, bosons, the entire fairyland of physics.
Tom worked in nuclear energy, so he knew the subject. He once toured me through the
Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, a giant nickel-mine filled with 300 million dollars-worth of Canadian government heavy water, deuterium, the substance of choice for detecting elusive neutrino oscillation. Success, some years back. Even a Nobel prize, though not for him. His job had been to supervise the flooding.
Did I know that at the speed of light, the middle of the sun's nuclear inferno ejected neutrinos? Did I know billions passed through our bodies by the second - passed right through the spaces between, "like bullets through a swarm of bees," he said, since all matter was latticed and holed like Swiss cheese. Life was not what it seemed. The strangeness of the infinitesimally small, infinitely estranging, too, I remarked at the time, since that world had nothing to do with how I lived or perceived the things around me. I said as much, that his
particle physics was like asking me to live inside a Van Gogh painting. Maybe it was "Starry Night" I was thinking of, though I realize those lovely, violet interstices are vast, not tiny. Tom replied that if I preferred living in a world of anthropomorphic sentimentality, that was my choice, but that Van Gogh's madness was actually closer to the truth than I was.
Truth. For Tom, that was a big word, not one he much liked, especially when it came from me. "Truth is relative," he argued, "not absolute the way you think. There's nothing absolute."
"Not even absolute zero?"
"That's different, and you know it." "OK. OK...."
Tom reversed Pascal's wager. He put his money entirely on reason. He didn't know if it could ultimately comprehend the universe, but it was the best we had, and its highest expression was math. Pure, incontrovertible math: numerical observation, numerical prediction. Everything properly empirical corroborated the disciplined mathematical imagination. Isaac Newton, Einstein, Niels Bohr, Edwin Hubble, Carl Sagan, these were his postmodern disciples, the apostles who'd plotted the outer reaches of truth, insofar as Tom would admit to truth. "Forget God," he'd tell me. "You've been poking around that corpse for years. Let it go." In the final analysis, my son's final analysis, God was unnecessary.

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