Here is a true story. Saturday, after the symposium at Fermilab, I was driving back into the city. To be honest, I was completely exhausted; it had been a long day of talks, and I had been up quite late the previous night throwing mine together, resulting in very little sleep. So I was pretty much ready to crash, certainly uninterested in any sort of activity involving serious brain function.
And then I remembered that the big football game was about to start — my beloved Penn State Nittany Lions vs. the Ohio State Buckeyes in a titanic battle for Big Ten supremacy. Sadly, however, I don’t have cable TV at my place (long story). But I knew how to circumvent this obstacle: a visit to ESPN SportsZone, the modern sports-bar/video arcade that features comfy leather recliners in which you can grab a bite while you watch the game on their huge-screen TV. A perfect brain-free activity to cap off the evening. Very un-physics-professor-like behavior, but I’ve done worse. And if all went well, Penn State would even win, preserving their unbeaten record and vaulting them into the national-championship picture.
(Aside: they did win, outlasting 6th-ranked OSU for a rain-soaked 17-10 victory in front of 100,000 screaming Penn State partisans. An incredibly important victory for the program and for legendary coach Joe Paterno, who had inexplicably suffered through four losing seasons in the last five years. Paterno has been head coach for 40 years, including 20 bowl victories (best ever), 349 total victories (second-best), five undefeated seasons, and two national championships. He’s also donated millions of dollars to the university — to build a library. When Penn State joined the Big Ten a dozen years ago, Paterno was 66 and widely expected to soon retire. When Barry Alvarez steps down from the head job at Wisconsin at the end of this year, every school in the conference will have experienced a head-coaching change — except Penn State. Due to the travesty by which college football chooses its national champion, it will be difficult for PSU to get a legitimate shot at the title this year even if they win all their games. But if things break just right, the Lions could be headed to the Rose Bowl on January 4th to duke it out with USC for the big enchilada. Watch out, Clifford, we’re coming for you!)
So there I am, enjoying my buffalo wings and Guinness and cringing as Ohio State scores the first field goal. At the table next to me was a group of women who were visiting the big city for the weekend, celebrating the birthday of Caroline, one of their number. They were also Ohio State fans — no accounting for taste. It’s perfectly clear within the restaurant who is rooting for which team, just from the timing of shouts of delight or groans of dismay, so we were soon trading good-natured barbs about the relative merits of our respective squads.
By halftime Penn State was up 14-10, so I was feeling especially magnanimous. We chatted about what we all did for a living and so forth, and I ended up explaining something about dark energy and particle physics and the big bang. Caroline, after making a good-faith effort to understand the distinction between quarks and leptons, pleasantly but firmly demanded to know “What is the practical use of all this? What can we actually do with it? Why is it worth spending time on it?”
My line on these questions is that there isn’t necessarily any practical application (although there may be spinoffs); we do it as part of a quest to understand how the world works. I was trying to explain this, with less than complete success. But then Caroline’s younger sister (whose name I unfortunately forget, as I would love to give her credit), who was a secondary-school science teacher before she had kids of her own, leaned across the table and said “Because the world is not magic. This is what I always taught my kids, and it’s what everyone should understand.”
The world is not magic. The world follows patterns, obeys unbreakable rules. We never reach a point, in exploring our universe, where we reach an ineffable mystery and must give up on rational explanation; our world is comprehensible, it makes sense. I can’t imagine saying it better. There is no way of proving once and for all that the world is not magic; all we can do is point to an extraordinarily long and impressive list of formerly-mysterious things that we were ultimately able to make sense of. There’s every reason to believe that this streak of successes will continue, and no reason to believe it will end. If everyone understood this, the world would be a better place.
Of course, there are different connotations to the word “magical.” One refers to inscrutable mystery, but another refers simply to a feeling of wonder or delight. And our world is full of that kind of magic. I get to listen to some fascinating talks on neutrinos and particle accelerators during the day, enjoy a statement-making victory over our conference rivals in the evening, and be handed a nugget of marvelously distilled wisdom from a woman in a sports bar who I had never met and will unlikely ever see again (a Buckeye fan, no less) — these are all magical. We shouldn’t feel disappointed that the march of understanding removes an element of mystery from the world; we should be appreciative of how much there is to know and the endless variety of ways in which our sensible universe continues to surprise us. The very fact that our world is comprehensible should fill us with wonder and delight. The world is not magic — and that’s the most magical thing about it.