I blame British novels for my love of physics. Philip Pullman introduced me to elementary particles; Jasper Fforde, to the possibility that multiple worlds exist; Diana Wynne Jones, to questions about space and time.
So began the personal statement in my application to Caltech’s PhD program. I didn’t mention Sir Terry Pratchett, but he belongs in the list. Pratchett wrote over 70 books, blending science fiction with fantasy, humor, and truths about humankind. Pratchett passed away last week, having completed several novels after doctors diagnosed him with early-onset Alzheimer’s. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Pratchett “parodie[d] everything in sight.” Everything in sight included physics.
Pratchett set many novels on the Discworld, a pancake of a land perched atop four elephants, which balance on the shell of a turtle that swims through space. Discworld wizards quantify magic in units called thaums. Units impressed their importance upon me in week one of my first high-school physics class. We define one meter as “the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second.” Wizards define one thaum as “the amount of magic needed to create one small white pigeon or three normal-sized billiard balls.”
Wizards study the thaum in a High-Energy Magic Building reminiscent of Caltech’s Lauritsen-Downs Building. To split the thaum, the wizards built a Thaumatic Resonator. Particle physicists in our world have split atoms into constituent particles called mesons and baryons. Discworld wizards discovered that the thaum consists of resons. Mesons and baryons consist of quarks, seemingly elementary particles that we believe cannot be split. Quarks fall into six types, called flavors: up, down, charmed, strange, top (or truth), and bottom (or beauty). Resons, too, consist of quarks. The Discworld’s quarks have the flavors up, down, sideways, sex appeal, and peppermint.
Reading about the Discworld since high school, I’ve wanted to grasp Pratchett’s allusions. I’ve wanted to do more than laugh at them. In Pyramids, Pratchett describes “ideas that would make even a quantum mechanic give in and hand back his toolbox.” Pratchett’s ideas have given me a hankering for that toolbox. Pratchett nudged me toward training as a quantum mechanic.
Pratchett hasn’t only piqued my curiosity about his allusions. He’s piqued my desire to create as he did, to do physics as he wrote. While reading or writing, we build worlds in our imaginations. We visualize settings; we grow acquainted with characters; we sense a plot’s consistency or the consistency of a system of magic. We build worlds in our imaginations also when doing and studying physics and math. The Standard Model is a system that encapsulates the consistency of our knowledge about particles. We tell stories about electrons’ behaviors in magnetic fields. Theorems’ proofs have logical structures like plots’. Pratchett and other authors trained me to build worlds in my imagination. Little wonder I’m training to build worlds as a physicist.
Around the time I graduated from college, Diana Wynne Jones passed away. So did Brian Jacques (another British novelist) and Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle wasn’t British, but I forgave her because her Time Quartet introduced me to dimensions beyond three. As I completed one stage of intellectual growth, creators who’d led me there left.
Terry Pratchett has joined Jones, Jacques, and L’Engle. I will probably create nothing as valuable as his Discworld, let alone a character in the Standard Model toward which the Discworld steered me.
But, because of Terry Pratchett, I have to try.