Truth can be stranger than fiction, and no more so than in science. In the last week, scientists at the CERN laboratory announced that they had used the Large Hadron Collider to discover evidence of the until-now hypothetical Higgs boson, a particle so tiny you will never be able to understand how tiny it is. The Higgs field, we’re told, is the thing that gives everything mass. It’s the glue that holds the universe together. And its discovery means we’re a lot closer to understanding how the universe works than we were a few weeks ago.
In a discovery perhaps as important as the Higgs boson, but overshadowed by the media fervor around the invisible particle, scientists now claim to have observed dark matter for the first time. For years, they have known there should be a lot more stuff in the universe, but until recently, no one knew where any of it was. But according to an article published last week in Nature, scientists have now discovered filaments of dark matter connecting two galaxies 2.7 billion light years away. Dark matter does not reflect or emit light the way other stuff does, so it’s kind of hard to see. However, it does bend light with its gravitational pull — an effect galaxies and black holes also have, known as gravitational lensing. As a result, scientists can now see it, even if they can’t see it.
We’ve now reached a stage where the human race has pushed its knowledge beyond what our minds were ever meant to handle. Until recently, relatively speaking, our brains focused on a few things: Can I eat it? Will it eat me? Can I have sex with it?
But with the theory of relativity and the discovery of quantum mechanics, our minds are as adept at thinking about these things as a fish is capable of riding a bicycle. Time flies when you’re having fun, but relativity says it slows down when you’re flying. Quantum mechanics says that an electron must be considered to exist in different places at the same time. For many, it’s much too much to handle.
“Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it,” physicist Niels Bohr said. And Albert Einstein, who couldn’t bring himself to swallow it all, seemed to agree. “As I have said so many times, God doesn’t play dice with the world,” he said.
And few theories are as hard to stomach as multiple universes — the possibility that, as big as all this stuff is, there’s even more of it beyond our reach, that our universe is just one bubble among infinite bubbles in a great big bubble bath. And among those bubbles, every possibility possible possibly plays itself out.
In some universe, Birmingham did build an international airport before Atlanta and everything from Adger to Pell City has been paved over with asphalt. In another, Larry Langford sung like a bird, rolled up on the investment bankers who duped Jefferson County, triggered a collapse at JPMorgan and brought the world economy to its knees. In another, I’m a snappier dresser than William Bell.
And in yet another, voters approved the Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy, a one-cent sales tax which local politicians used to build a city to be proud of, never lining their pockets with taxpayer cash or going to jail for embarrassing public corruption.
That last universe is not impossible to imagine. It exists within our own time and space. To understand what Birmingham might be like today with MAPS, you don’t need to read a Marvel comic book or take an upper-level physics class.
Instead, you just have to look to Oklahoma City.
Almost 25 years ago, the residents of Oklahoma City found the courage to take the leap Birmingham couldn’t. They approved a MAPS plan, which was led by the same consultant as the Birmingham plan and included many similar projects paid for by a one-cent sales tax. In a column at the Huffington Post, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett details what’s happened since then.
“In 1993, the first MAPS vote proposed the construction of a 20,000-seat, indoor sports arena; construction of a 15,000-seat downtown ballpark; construction of a new downtown library; construction of the Bricktown Canal; development of a trolley transit system; development along the North Canadian River; and renovations to the Civic Center Music Hall, Cox Convention Center and Oklahoma State Fairgrounds,” he writes.
And that was just the first MAPS plan. In 2002, voters approved a second MAPS initiative there, called MAPS for Kids, which paid for a $777 million top-to-bottom overhaul of the region’s education system and childhood wellness opportunities.
In 2009, voters approved yet another MAPS plan, which Oklahoma City is now using to build “a 70-acre central park linking the core of downtown with the Oklahoma River; a modern streetcar system; a new convention center; miles of new sidewalks and hike-and-bike trails; river improvements, including a public whitewater kayaking facility; senior health and wellness centers throughout the city; and improvements to the State Fair Park public buildings, meeting halls and exhibit spaces.”
Are you jealous yet?
It gets worse (or better if you live in Oklahoma City).
There, a metro area only slightly larger than Birmingham has its own NBA team, which this year reached the NBA finals. The exodus of the smartest and brightest, known as brain drain, has stopped, and businesses have relocated there. The city is now home to the tallest building in the state. Its major pedestrian bridge is not an eyesore, but a work of art. And a place that, like Birmingham, lacked a central water feature has built its own river.
“The bottom line is that we have entered an age when local communities need to invest in themselves,” Cornett writes. “Federal and state dollars are becoming more and more scarce for American cities. Political and civic leaders in local communities need to make a compelling case for this investment.”
The biggest difference between that universe and this one is that the people there believed in themselves enough to invest in themselves. It took imagination and trust, but they accomplished what to many in Birmingham seemed too impossible to imagine.
If you believe Einstein, time travel might be possible, but it isn’t practical. The energy required would likely destroy anything in the vicinity, and when physicists are talking, “in the vicinity” can mean the solar system . And even if there is a safe way to step backwards in time, as far as anyone can tell, it hasn’t happened, even in the future. (But if you are interested, Stephen Hawking is throwing a party for time travelers in 2009.)
That has not kept Birmingham from trying, though. Even now we’re still a city desperately trying to live in the past.
Dark matter, dark energy, quantum mechanics, relativity — the future of science might be made of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, and it all might be too hard to imagine. It might be a lot easier to take a nap and accept a simpler world view.
But for the future of Birmingham, it doesn’t have to be that way. You just have to have the power to imagine.