The known universe seemed, briefly, muonstruck. But it took only 12 days for another Italian physicist to throw cold water on the bliss. Carlo Rovelli, a founder of loop quantum gravity theory, which seeks to combine quantum mechanics and general relativity, and the author of Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution, which was published in English in May, wrote in The Guardian, “Physicists love to think of themselves as radical.”
This self-conception, Rovelli went on, is understandable, especially among physicists, who make their names in the outer reaches of human understanding. But it also leads labs to overhype their findings. He cited examples of would-be “discoveries” in supersymmetry that initially seemed groundbreaking but didn’t live up to the hype. Rovelli especially zeroed in on the word “hint,” which appeared in that Fermilab press release. “I do not remember a time without some colleague talking about ‘hints’ that new supersymmetric particles had been ‘nearly discovered.’” The nearlys and hints, presumably, are often at a value that, unlike Fermilab’s 0.0000002 percent, may not be statistically significant.
In 1807, William Wordsworth published an ode that was to Romantic poetry as the discovery of quarks was to particle physics in 1964: a breakthrough. “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” chronicles the poet’s emotional detachment from nature; his blissful rediscovery of it in memories of childhood; and his bittersweet resolution that, though the Earth will die, the suggestions of deathlessness in the present moment will sustain him in his grief.
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering; In the faith that looks through death …
An intriguing approach to literature called ecocriticism, pioneered in the 1990s by the English philosopher Jonathan Bate, argues that Romantic poetry like this ode can suggest ways to conceive of our dying planet as one that we must save—or perhaps, in sorrow, and maybe love, allow to die. But Wordsworth’s poem doesn’t just concern the fate of humans and the blue planet. Its subject is also intimations—what the physicists on the Muon g-2 project call “hints.”
As it happens, they are hints of the same thing: immortality.
The central contention of physics has it that the building blocks of the universe will endure even if, or even when, the humans who tally them, and the planet we live on, all die. To see into the deathless universe is to try to see nothing so flamboyant as Wordsworth’s favorite daffodils and walnut groves, but to peer into the coldest spaces, the black holes and the fractional electric charge of theoretical subatomic particles. These entities have no blood flow, of course, but also no DNA; they’re not susceptible to pandemics, however virulent, or the dividends and ravages of carbon. They don’t live, so they don’t die. To model the universe as precisely as possible is to try to see the one thing that even the strictest atheist agrees is everlasting—to try to achieve, in a lab, an intimation of immortality.