Performativizing Papyrocentricity #21

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Poems and ParachutesA Hell for Heroes: An SAS Hero’s Journey into the Heart of Darkness, Theo Knell (Coronet 2012)

I Am A KameraMezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe., David Kerekes (TransVisceral Books 2014)

Where’s the Beef?Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler (1925)

No Plaice Like OlmEuropean Reptile and Amphibian Guide, Axel Kwet (New Holland 2009) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Ghosts in the Cathedral

Front cover of The Neutrino Hunters by Ray JayawardhanaThe Neutrino Hunters: The Chase for the Ghost Particle and the Secrets of the Universe, Ray Jayawardhana (Oneworld 2013)

An easy read on a difficult topic: Ray Jayawardhana takes some complicated ideas and makes them a pleasure to absorb. Humans have only recently discovered neutrinos, but neutrinos have always known us from the inside:

…about a hundred trillion neutrinos produced in the nuclear furnace at the Sun’s core pass through your body every second of the day and night, yet they do no harm and leave no trace. During your entire lifetime, perhaps one neutrino will interact with an atom in your body. Neutrinos travel right through the Earth unhindered, like bullets cutting through a fog. (ch. 1, “The Hunt Heats Up”, pg. 9)

In a way, “ghost particle” is a misnomer: to neutrinos, we are the ghosts, because they pass through all solid matter almost as though it’s not there:

Neutrinos are elementary particles, just like electrons that buzz around atomic nuclei or quarks that combine to make protons and neutrons. They are fundamental building blocks of matter, but they don’t remain trapped inside atoms. Also unlike their subatomic cousins, neutrinos carry no electric charge, have a tiny mass and hardly ever interact with other particles. A typical neutrino can travel through a light-year’s worth of lead without interacting with any atoms. (ch. 1, pg. 7)

That’s a lot of lead, but a little of neutrino. With a different ratio – a lot less matter and a lot more neutrino – it’s possible to detect them on earth. Because so many are passing through the earth at any moment, a large piece of matter watched for long enough will eventually catch a ghost. So neutrino-hunters sink optical sensors into the transparent ice of the Antarctic and fill huge tanks with carbon tetrachloride or water. Then they wait:

Every once in a while, a solar neutrino would collide with an electron in the water and propel it forward, like a billiard ball that’s hit head-on. The fast-moving electron would create an electromagnetic “wake”, or cone of light, along its path. The resulting pale blue radiation is called “Cherenkov radiation”, after the Russian physicist Pavel Cherenkov, who investigated the phenomenon. Phototubes lining the inside walls of the tank would register each light flash and reveal an electron’s interaction with a neutrino. The Kamiokande provided two extra bits of information to researchers: from the direction of the light cone scientists would infer the direction of the incoming neutrino and from its intensity they could determine the neutrino’s energy. (ch. 4, “Sun Underground”, pg. 95)

That’s a description of a neutrino-hunt in “3,000 tons of pure water” in a mine “150 miles west of Tokyo”: big brains around the world are obsessed with the “little neutral one”. That’s what “neutrino” means in Italian, because the particle was named by the physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-54) after the original proposal, “neutron”, was taken over by another, and much bigger, particle with no electric charge. Fermi was one of the greatest physicists of all time and oversaw the first “controlled nuclear chain reaction” at the University of Chicago in 1942. That is, he helped build the first nuclear reactor. Like the sun, reactors are rich sources of neutrinos and because neutrinos pass easily through any form of shielding, a reactor can’t be hidden from a neutrino-detector. Nor can a supernova: one of the most interesting sections of the book discusses the way exploding stars flood the universe with a lot of light and a lot more neutrinos:

Alex Friedland of the Los Alamos National Laboratory explained that a supernova is in essence a “neutrino bomb”, since the explosion releases a truly staggering number – some 10^58, or ten billion trillion trillion trillion trillion – of these particles. … In fact, the energy emitted in the form of neutrinos within a few seconds is several hundred times what the Sun emits in the form of photons over its entire lifetime of nearly 10 billion years. What’s more, during the supernova explosion, 99 percent of the precursor star’s gravitational binding energy goes into the neutrinos of all flavors, while barely half a percent appears as visible light. (ch. 6, “Exploding Star”, pg. 125)

That light is remarkably bright, but it can be blocked by interstellar dust. The neutrinos can’t, so they’re a way to detect supernovae that are otherwise invisible. However, Supernova 1987A was highly visible: a lot of photons were captured by a lot of telescopes when it flared in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Nearly four hours before that, a few neutrino-detectors had captured far fewer neutrinos:

Detecting a grand total of two dozen particles may not sound like much to crow about. But the significance of these two dozen neutrino events is underlined by the fact that they have been the subject of hundreds of scientific papers over the years. Supernova 1987A was the first time that we had observed neutrinos coming from an astronomical source other than the Sun. (ch. 6, pg. 124)

The timing of the two dozen was very important: it came before the visible explosion and “meant that astrophysicists like Bahcall and his colleagues were right about what happened during a supernova explosion” (pg. 123). That’s John Bahcall (1931-2005), an American who wanted to be a rabbi but ended up a physicist after taking a science course during his philosophy degree at Berkeley. He had predicted how many solar neutrinos his colleague Raymond Davis (1914-2006) should detect interacting with atoms in a giant tank of “dry-cleaning fluid”, as carbon tetrachloride is also known. But Davis found “only a third as many as Bahcall’s model calculation predicted” (ch. 4, pg. 90). Was Davis missing some? Was Bahcall’s model wrong? The answer would take decades to arrive, as Davis refined his apparatus and Bahcall re-checked his calculations. This book is about several kinds of interaction: between neutrinos and atoms, between theory and experiment, between mathematics and matter. Neutrinos were predicted with maths before they were detected in matter. The Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-58) produced the prediction; Davis and others did the detecting.

The Super-Kamiokande neutrino-cathedral

The Super-Kamiokande neutrino-cathedral (click for larger image)

Pauli was famously witty; another big brain in the book, the Englishman Paul Dirac (1902-84), was famously taciturn. Big brains are often strange ones too. That’s part of why they’re attracted to the very strange world of atomic physics. Jayawardhana also discusses the Italian physicist Ettore Majorana (1906-?1938), who disappeared at the age of thirty-two, and his colleague Bruno Pontecorvo (1913-93), who defected to the Soviet Union. Neutrinos are fascinating and so are the humans who have hunted for them. So is the history that surrounded them. Quantum physics was convulsing science at the same time as communism and Nazism were convulsing Europe. As the Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) said: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” Modern physicists have been called a new priesthood, devoted to lofty and remote ideas incomprehensible and irrelevant to ordinary people. But ordinary people fund the devices the priests build to pursue their ideas with. And some of the neutrino-detectors pictured here are as huge and awe-inspiring as cathedrals. Some might say they’re as futile as cathedrals too. But if understanding the universe isn’t enough in itself, there may be practical uses for neutrinos on the way. At present, we have to communicate over the earth’s surface; a beam of neutrinos can travel right through the earth.

The universe is also a dangerous place: some scientists theorized that the neutrino deficit in Ray Davis’s experiments meant the sun was about to go nova. It wasn’t, but neutrinos may help the human race spot other dangers and exploit new opportunities. We still know only a fraction of what’s out there and the ghost particle is a messenger from the heart not only of supernovae and the sun, but also of the earth itself. There’s radioactivity deep in the earth, so there are neutrinos streaming upward. As methods of detecting them get better, we’ll understand the interior of the earth better. But Jayawardhana doesn’t discuss another possibility: that we might even discover advanced life down there, living under huge pressures at very high temperatures, as Arthur C. Clarke suggested in his short-story “The Fires Within” (1949).

Clarke also suggested that life could exist inside the sun. There’s presently no way of testing his ideas, but neutrinos may carry even more secrets than standard science has guessed. Either way, I think Clarke would have enjoyed this book and perhaps Jayawardhana, who’s of Sri Lankan origin, was influenced by him. Jayawardhana’s writing certainly reminds me of Clarke’s writing. It’s clear, enthusiastic and a pleasure to read, wearing its learning lightly and carrying you easily over vast stretches of space and time. The Neutrino Hunters is an excellent introduction to the hunters, the hunted and the history, with a good glossary and index too.


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Think Ink – Review of 50 Quantum Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know

He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #13

“In the early thirties Trotsky also spoke of ‘Bonapartism’ in the Stalinist regime. In 1935, however, he observed that in the French Revolution Thermidor had come first and Napoleon afterwards; the order should be the same in Russia, and, as there was already a Bonaparte, Thermidor must have come and gone.” — Leszek Kołakowski in Main Currents of Marxism: Vol. III, The Breakdown (1978).

’Ville to Power

The SWP's red fist (lefthanded)

As a life-long socialist, it’s impossible to deny that, yes, there are a few self-righteous windbags on the left. And in terms of issues around self-important halfwits, again, yes, as a life-long socialist, it’s far from not unimpossible to disrefute the notion that, yes, they aren’t unknown on the left either. But they are, I must insist, the exceptions that prove the rule. And to me, personally, the rule, i.e. the non-exceptions, is/are best represented by the award-winning author’n’academic China Miéville (b. 1972), who has done for science fiction and fantasy what Karl Marx (b. 1818) did for politics and economics. Okay, I have heard it suggested that Miéville’s writing is as exciting and unpredictable as his hair. In reply to that, all I’d have say is this: “Read one of his award-winning books, monkey-funker!” I’ve also witnessed it adumbrated that he has a torturer’s face. In reply to that, I would simply say this:

1) No he hasn’t.
2) And even if he has it’s woefully misleading because
3) He is (at the time of writing) a member of the Socialist Workers Party.

And can you imagine a potential torturer belonging to a Trotskyist party like the S.W.P.? Well, there you go, then. Anyway, as a keyly committed comrade in the Mythopoetic Miéville Massiv, it’s been very difficult to process my emotion at an angst-y article recently written by my heresiarchic hero about his beloved revolutionary corps d’élite (i.g., the S.W.P.). Yes, super-intellect China Miéville, award-winning author’n’academic, has discovered that a Trotskyist party – a Trotskyist party – can be not just a wee bit authoritarian, but also a wee bit dishonest, too. And also a wee bit anti-democratic, in addition! And is he pleased? You’re monkey-funkin’ right he isn’t! You may, like me, find it difficult to credit what you’re reading when you engage issues around his curt’n’concise cri du cœur. Yes, check out his non-self-righteous non-windbaggery for yourselves, comrade-skis: The Stakes.

The S.W.P. Central Committee? “Catastrophic errors of principle and process”? “Belief-beggaringly inadequate and arrogant”? By the Goat with a Thousand Young, whatever next?!? Speaking personally, for myself, I’ve not been so gobsmacked since I heard that Andy Coulson, former Downing Street Press Secretary, had been involved in something a teensy bit dodgy while editing The News of the World (prop. R. Murdoch).

P.S. Don’t neglect to engage the other engagements around the topic of Trotsko-toxicity in terms of that shining ornament of the Far Left, the ever-readable Lenin’s Tomb (prop. R. Seymour). Here are some tantalizing titbits:

I first became aware of the very serious nature of the allegations against Comrade Delta in late Autumn 2012 (not long after they had been made); as a result of a number of comrades, most of whom I have known for several years, contacting me to express their understandable grave concern. It immediately became clear to me that the information comrades had been given at the 2011 SWP Conference – that Comrade Delta had had an affair which had ended but that he had continued to hassle the woman (now referred to as Comrade W) afterwards – was quite seriously inaccurate. It adds insult to injury to recall that the session in which we were given this misleading information at the 2011 conference was turned into a kind of Delta love-in, culminating in a standing ovation for him (even at this stage it was effectively a standing ovation for having an affair) – but this demonstrates the effect that stage-managing a conference can have. Some party members resigned in protest at this time.

SWP in Crisis: What Do Socialists Say?


I recently started a degree, and was stunned to discover a whole new world of intersectionality, gender politics, and critical studies of which I had been unaware. I felt unequipped by what I had learnt so far during 8 years of membership to meet these new analyses head on. Now I feel like I exist in two discourses; a classical Marxist tradition – and the language and ideas I have had to develop to be able to continue to apply Marxist ideas in my studies, in talking and activity with other students, and in making sense of new understandings of oppression. I do not believe the latter conflicts with the former, but there is no space to discover how they interrelate within the party at the moment.

SWP and women’s liberation


We do reject the bourgeois system of justice but in this case aspects of the bourgeois process were used, and having read the available documents relating to this case it is not convincing that there was a there a clear analysis and understanding of what aspects of an investigatory and quasi-judicial process were accepted and which were rejected. Clear decisions around process needed to be made and then fully explained to the complainant so that she was aware of what exactly she was getting into, its limitations and how effective it could possibly be in terms of her need for a resolution and could make her own choice on that basis.

Letter to the Central Committee


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Reds under the Thread

Ex-term-in-ate!