24, Shel Silverstein, Muons, and God’s Toe

Shel Silverstein

Monday was the final episode of 24.

But Shel Silverstein’s 25 Minutes to Go went 24 one better by counting down the final minutes of a Death Row inmate’s life, ending with his execution.

The late, great Silverstein is best known today for his children’s books, his Playboy cartoons, and for penning such novelty songs as Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue, The Irish Rovers’ Unicorn and Dr. Hook’s The Cover of the Rolling Stone.

Songwriters are often the best interpreters of their own material, and to me Silverstein’s finest work is his own version of the chilling 25. Memorizing the song got me through eighth-grade chemistry.

I’d aced all of Mr. White’s chemistry tests, and yet he sent my parents a ” warning letter” predicting a failing grade. I freaked — did I need to get 100s on the tests instead of 90s just to pass? Did Mr. White — who was almost as scary as his namesake on another darkly riveting TV series, Breaking Bad — have it in for me because he’d correctly intuited my hatred of science, especially chemistry?

The next morning, longing for oblivion and fearing that, by age 13, I’d already blown my college prospects, I got to class early and begged to speak to Mr. White. In retrospect, Mr. White would have fit right into the cast of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. The man who put the “phlegm” in “phlegmatic” shrugged, pointed to the clock and agreed to see me after class. The next 50 minutes were pure torture, but I held on by singing 25 to myself — eyes pinned to the clock and leaving exactly one minute for each verse — and imagining the warm bath of relief once (twice, actually) I was mercifully morphed from the material world into nothingness.

Turned out the warning letter was meant for another Michael, but my fear and loathing of science teachers — and science — was, as the psychologists say, imprinted.

Philosophy became my thing, and I’ve spent countless hours ruminating on why there’s something rather than nothing, without any discernable results. Now it seems that scientists — also preoccupied with that fundamental question — may have opened the door to an answer.

Last week, physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois claimed to have overcome the basic precepts of Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics, which hold, as the New York Times put it in a Page One story, “that equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created in the Big Bang and then immediately annihilated each other in a blaze of lethal energy, leaving a big fat goose egg with which to make stars, galaxies and us.”

The Fermi group conducted particle accelerator experiments that apparently show that pairs of insanely tiny particles called muons are produced ever-so-slightly more often than pairs of anti-muons. This fortuitous circumstance would explain what they call, euphemistically, “matter dominance in the universe.” And what might antimatter dominance look like had things gone the other way? Nihilism could be the world religion, and “whatever” the correct response to any question.

Just as it was perversely gratifying to find out that no one — including the experts — understood the complex financial derivatives that undermined the global economy, it’s nice to know that even the top physicists don’t really understand the mind-bending contradictions of quantum theory. Maria Spiropulu of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena called the Fermi results — which you can be utterly confused by here — “inexplicable,” while Fermilab’s Joe Lykken went for a modest metaphysical hope: “I would not say that this announcement is the equivalent of seeing the face of God, but it might turn out to be the toe of God.”

No matter what physicists say, no one knows why the Big Bang happened in the first place — why there’s something rather than nothing — or what went on “before” that. Their answer — that by definition there was no “before” — is not helpful.

Shel Silverstein wasn’t a religious Jew, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have studied the Jewish mystical text the Zohar, which posits a time without time when God studied the Torah with as-yet unborn rabbis. Take that, quantum theory. Pre-carnation, anyone?

HarperCollins has announced they’ll release a collection of never-before published Silverstein poems and illustrations next year. I can’t wait to see it, but wouldn’t it be nice if Shel were still around to write a song sending up our metaphysical mess? He could call it Antimatter, Muons and God’s Toe. But what rhymes with “A toe the size of Babel’s tower”?……..Jack Bauer.

Michael Sigman

Michael Sigman is a writer/ editor, media consultant and the president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.

Crossposted from Huffington Post with the author’s permission.

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Comments

  1. says

    Michael, you say that “even the top physicists don’t really understand the mind-bending contradictions of quantum theory”.

    You claim to be a philosopher – and so up to a point do I (At times I have a philosophical bent; anyway I have a math-logic Ph.D.).

    So we both know that strictly speaking your quoted statement is misleading and rather empty. Namely: a contradiction is any statement which inherently (given one’s language and assumptions) must be false. So it’s not an especially clever or useful thing at all for anyone (let alone a ‘top physicist’) to be able to (or be trying to) ‘understand’ a given contradiction.

    Your quote however does (indirectly) make an interesting claim: that quantum theory (QT) in fact is known to lead to a contradiction.

    If in fact a theory T – in this case QT – DOES imply at least one contradiction, then it yields all zillions of possible contradictions (as many as one’s language allows one to concoct) and then T is useless as a basis for making predictions and describing reality. So, if your statement is correct, QT is simply invalid as a scientific theory, and must as a whole be discarded.

    So your claim is interesting big news to me, and maybe to many others.

    Of course, QT might in PART be retained, because quite possibly (indeed likely) a SUBset of its multiple postulates is consistent (does NOT yield a contradiction). Presumably, each single postulate in itself is consistent.

    For the sake of getting a theory useful for scientific prediction, what is then needed first is not expensive and tedious high-energy particle collision experiments but just some quiet logical analysis to attempt to learn and describe which subsets of the QT postulates are still consistent even though the entire set of QT postulates is not. Any such consistent subset will describe a partial quantum theory (PQT) – and there will be more than one such PQT.

    Only then would expensive experiments help: they could help clue us to which one or more of the consistent PQTs can best explain reality.

    In other words, maybe the latest experiment says something about which of the alternative PQTS – images of conceivable divine toes – most likely looks like a real Toe.

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