Book Column: What’s the deal with working so hard?

07/13/2012 12:55 PM |

Imagine that there is a science fiction book by someone like Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke that posits a distant planet where thousands of scientists from a hundred countries spend 10 billion dollars to build a 17-mile underground, circular tunnel that might help them find a tiny particle, the “God particle,” whose existence had been proposed 60 years before, but never proven. Without this particle, there is no mass, so nothing could actually exist. A thousand people line up to get into the auditorium and the scene has a rock concert vibe when two teams of scientists make the announcement that the elusive “God particle” had been found at last.

Oh, wait, that isn’t science fiction. It’s what really, truly happened in Geneva on July 4 here on our own Earth. There will soon be a book about it, ‘The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World’ by Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist who is good at explaining science to lay readers. I’m looking forward to finding out why and how this unseen force field interacts so that mass, gravity, the universe and all of us can exist. I’d like to know more about this than the joke: This particle walks into a church while the service is already in session. The priest asks, “What are you doing here?” and the Higgs Boson replies, “You can’t have mass without me.” Ba-da-boom.

Speaking of Arthur C. Clarke, he was quoted recently in a New York Times essay by Tim Kreider. The article, “The Busy Trap,” has been making the rounds by email, Facebook and Twitter among people I know, most of them extremely busy but able to spare a few minutes to read the piece and then forward it to all the other busy people they know. It’s definitely worth reading (http://mobile.nytimes.com/article?a=941881&f=28&sub=Sunday). The Clarke quote — “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” — perfectly sums up our current zeitgeist. Not that Clarke was an anarchist or a slacker. He wrote prodigiously — “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Childhood’s End,” among other titles — both fiction and nonfiction, invented satellite communication systems, discovered underwater archeological sites in Sri Lanka and was knighted. He was not a lazy person. He was a creative person, and doing creative work is a way of playing.

In Genesis, God had a lot of fun working on creation, but when He got mad at Adam He sentenced him to work as a punishment. Work in and of itself is not a virtue and there are different kinds of work and different attitudes about it. Another thing I love about Clarke is that when asked if he was gay he said no, just mildly cheerful.

Another piece of the zeitgeist was the July/August cover story in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-can-t-have-it-all/9020/). It’s the same, but different from the Krieder piece. Ms. Slaughter says that the few women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, very rich or self-employed and that if we really want equal opportunity for all women, even ordinary ones, we need fundamental changes. She left a high-level government job to spend more time with her family, which is usually Washington-speak for being fired but, in her case, was really true and really her decision.

I’m not sure how all this rejection of work fits in with the current state of unemployment and the economic crises looming in Europe and America, but I’m convinced that if multinational teams of scientists can organize divinely playful experiments all about colliding tiny cosmic bumper cars in the dark, then multinational groups of thinkers can organize some divinely playful ways of making things work for people as human beings without total economic collapse. It may take 60 years, and much trial and error, but it’s happening already with people reading and sharing these essays about how to rethink our personal equations of time and money, family and ambition.

Much of the reading and sharing is taking place in cyberspace, which leads to the book on my bedside table, ‘This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information’ by Andy Greenberg. This is a fascinating look at the new forces aiming to obliterate the institutional secrecy of governments, banks, corporations and militaries. It took Daniel Ellsberg almost a year and thousands of his own dollars to photocopy the Pentagon Papers. It took Bradley Manning a few minutes of clicking to leak a trove of secret military and State Department documents to WikiLeaks.

The title is based on the boast written on Woody Guthrie’s guitar in 1943, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” That phrase, in turn, was painted on bomber airplanes during the Spanish Civil War. From actual weapons to the metaphorical weapon of protest songs to a subversive machine that is neither a photocopier nor even the Internet itself: the living idea in the minds of many people all over the globe that secrets equal tyranny and that the safety and survival of the world depends on transparency and the sharing of information. It is a powerful idea that now has a powerful tool to propel it forward.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

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