The Mysterious Particles of Physics and Twenty Thousand Hertz


Philip Larkin’s centenary sparked mixed reactions. While the OCR review board (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA) saw fit to remove his work from the GSCE programme, Radio 3 happily devoted a week of The test to the poet’s attitude to faith, inviting five writers to reflect on a well-curated selection of poems (and avoiding some of the old commentary favorites).

In “Absences”, Larkin imagines a seascape: nature in its pure state and without ego. “Such attics rid of me!” It was a curious choice for a series in which the poems were not so much objects of commentary as vehicles for the presenters to talk about themselves. Thus “Absences” caused Sinéad Morrissey to reflect on his communist upbringing in Northern Ireland, and Helen Mort was inspired by “Going” to tell the story of her father’s last days. The latter was particularly poignant, but one wonders what the grumpy old librarian from Hull would have thought of such indulgences.

Larkin is not himself opposed to the first person; but such a poem as “The Grim Reaper” is, as Raymond Antrobus shrewdly observed, a kind of sermon, the last lines of which turn outward: “We should be nice while it’s time.” And the best sermons are rarely about the preacher.

For an invigorating dose of objectivity, we could turn to the world of subatomic physics. There is a kind of surrealist poetry in the world explored by Roland Pease in Discovery: The Mysterious Particles of Physics (World Service, Monday of last week), with its Higgs fields and its super-symmetrical wimps. It also takes a lot of faith, especially on the part of scientists who, for 30 years now, have been observing signs of dark matter at the bottom of a deep mine.

Beyond the hype – a necessary strategy, given the billions of euros spent on an institution like CERN – there are signs of fatigue. The search for dark matter has become, in the words of one interviewee, “frustrating”; and, at the Large Hadron Collider, we heard from another nervous prominent physicist that the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 was all they were going to handle with this facility.

As a critic, one sometimes yearns for the literary equivalent of the audio “sting”: a short burst of music that serves to emphasize a specific emotional state. Last week’s episode of twenty thousand hertz (published every Wednesday on explored the audio emoticon library and, in particular, the history of the “Dun duun duun!” which is used as comic shorthand for shock horror. (For music readers, we’re talking three notes, arranged as a descending minor third followed by a rising tritone.) We even got to meet the composer whose orchestration of “Dun duun duun!” has become the go-to version for filmmakers. Who cares how many serious sonatas he composed? That’s where the money is.


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