Oaxaca, Mexico Forging New Universes…in Long Island

So I’m in Mexico. Kind of a spontaneous thing.

I spent two months at my mom’s house in Westport, shuttling back and forth from the city a couple times each week. I enjoyed seeing people. I loved spending time in New York. But I wasn’t holding together very well.

There’s a clock in my mom’s house that chimes off the hour. I don’t wear a watch and never think about it otherwise. My only reminder that it’s passing is that hourly clanging. It strikes once, twice, three times, and that sounds about right. Then it strikes again and I’m thinking, "Four o’clock? How did that happen?" A fifth strike, a sixth, a seventh. I realize it’s seven o’clock. The day is over. I’ve done little more than roll out of bed.

This is what I looked like most of the time.


That was most of the last two months for me. And every day I’d get flashes of swimming through the holds of the Fujikawa Maru — exploring hallways teeming with coral and fish, watching beams of sunlight dance across the stairwells, finding that octopus on the bow — it’s like the desktop wallpaper in my brain. I had to get moving again. I’m not done traveling.

I did do a few interesting things while I was home. Right after the blackout, I went along with my dad to the Brookhaven Laboratories in Long Island. See, my dad’s a big physics nut, and they’ve got this particle accellerator there that is currently the most powerful in the world. It’s not the largest, but it’s the first to use superconducting magnets to pull particles around the loop and that puts it in a whole new league.

…hmm, okay. The basics. A particle accellerator is a big, huge, giganormous loop with tons of powerful magnets all around it. They stick protons in the loop and pull them around and around by turning on the magnets then turning them off one at a time. It’s sort of like how those fake rabbits work at dog tracks, except it’s magnets instead of rabbits, and they don’t move, and there’s lots of them instead of just one…nevermind. Point is, they get the protons going really really fast — I mean like speed of light fast. As one of the Brookhaven physicists explained it, "It’s pretty much the speed of light. It’s incredibly close. It’s 99.999% of the speed of light. Of course, getting it up to the actual speed of light would be impossible, cause the particles would then have an infinite weight, but it’s as close to the speed of light as you can possibly get. That’s basically what it is. For all intents and purposes, you can think of it as the speed of light. There wouldn’t be any point in getting any closer…"

They’re physicists, not public speakers. You get the idea.

They have two separate tracks in the loop and they get two batches going in opposite directions. Then, once they get these protons going at what is pretty much basically the speed of light, they make the tracks cross and smash the protons into each other. Here’s a better analogy than the dog track: it’s like one of those Hot Wheels smash-up race sets. It’s what every eight-year-old boy does with his toys, except it costs billions of dollars and you could probably argue that what the eight year old is doing has more useful applications to the outside world.

Why do they smash protons into each other at the speed of light? To see what happens. They take all sorts of measurements and it somehow tells physicists what the universe is made of.

So what’s so special about the Brookhaven? Well, because it’s so damn powerful, they’re able to use stuff a lot heavier than itty bitty protons. A few months ago they started spinning ionized gold atoms that weigh two hundred times more. This means much bigger explosions, and it means that last year they viewed for the first time something called quark-gluon plasma. Don’t ask me to explain what quark-gluon plasma is. I’m told it’s as important as it sounds.

Getting back to the story, the Brookhaven announced they were opening their lab up to the general public for one day only. My dad was giddy with excitement, and it was an infectious kind of giddiness that makes you want to tag along.

Another reason for the trip was that the facility is only minutes away from the Hamptons. For those who don’t know, the Hamptons are where the richest and most famous people in the world go to play. It’s a modest little suburb packed with the sprawling estates of Hiltons, Vanderbilts, Spielberg, Seinfeld, and everyone else with disposable income in the ten digit realm. So that was interesting.

We didn’t end up seeing much in the Hamptons, because the favorite competition of all its residents is growing the tallest possible hedges around their property. The coastal roads are like giant paved hedge mazes. They’re generally about twenty feet high.

I did see more Ferraris in one day than I’ve ever seen in my life, and other instances of conspiciuous wealth were all around. That was even more of a brainsmack to me — still only weeks removed from some of the poorest places in the world — than I imagine it’d be to the average gawker. To compare the main street of Southhampton with the slums of Calcutta, it’s hard to fathom that they’re on the same planet. Clearly something is broken in the machine. Clearly it’s not functioning properly.

We checked into a hotel and the next morning headed over to Brookhaven. The rest of the crowd was a lot of amateur physics geeks like my father, and a few moms who read about it in the paper and thought it might be interesting for their kids. We put on nametags, got split up into groups, then led onto buses. They showed us the underground tunnel that houses the loop.


Next they carted us over to the stations along the loop where the collisions occur.


I was entirely satisfied with the volume of tubes, wires, and doo-dads that go into the process.

One of the physicists explained that what they are doing with this accellerator is recreating the conditions of the big bang and spawning miniature universes. This prompted me to raise my hand. I asked what the actual difference was between the real big bang that made life, the universe, and everything, and the fake big bangs they were throwing together for shits and giggles. He answered that they both yielded this quark-gluon plasma, and except for the number of particles involved, there really wasn’t much difference at all. I found that answer extremely alarming. I asked what happens to the universes after they’re born, hoping he would say that they fold back up and disappear instantly. He said the particles decay, but I didn’t get a clear answer on what ultimately happens to them.

I know I’m a long way from grasping the concepts, and mine is but a simple caveman brain, but it seems awfully irresponsible to just keep on bringing baby universes into the world like that. For one thing, where do these universes go if ours is already here? And for another…no wait, I’m stuck on that first one. Where are all these baby universes?

The observation equipment had been temporarily pulled out for maintenance, but here is the space where earlier this year, new universes were made for probably the first time since time started happening.


It was later explained to me that they can only recreate the events of the big bang from 10 to the -23 seconds after it occured and onward. Anywhere closer to the actual moment — meaning anywhere between 0 and 0.00000000000000000000001 on the clock — and the laws of the natural world break down such that time itself can’t really be measured. I want you to stick corks in both ears, plug your nostrils, and let that thought rattle around in your brain for a while.

Here is the other collision point on a different part of the track. That narrow cylinder right in the center — that’s where it happens.


By my calculations, a precise hit from a proton torpedo will start a chain reaction that should destroy the entire station.

I went to the gym a lot while I was home. That was one nice thing. I stayed pretty healthy and managed to fend off any serious weight gain for the time being.

Toward the end of my stay, I got an opportunity to see Chuck Paluhniak speak. He’s the guy who wrote Fight Club and a string of other interesting books in recent years. He was at Barnes and Nobles in the city reading a short story he’d written called ‘Guts’. I went with my sister, and the funny thing is that until I got there, I completely forgot that I’d read all about this book tour he’s on and the story he reads. The rumor circulating on the net was that it’s really really gross — so gross, in fact, that audience members were passing out from shock. When I read that a few nights earlier, it sounded like ridiculous hype. I imagined puritanical soccer moms who’d stumbled into the wrong section, fanning themselves theatrically as if their plantations were burning down. I dismissed the whole thing.

So I show up and I find a place to stand and he comes out and I start listening. Ten minutes later I’m in a cold sweat. I’m staring at the floor, breathing deeply, feeling weak and queasy. The story has me struggling to stay conscious.

I’d separated from Kristin, but I later found out she’d taken the escalator downstairs and was covering her ears, waiting for the story to end.

I’m not going to explain what the story was about except to say it was way grosser than you’re imagining right now and there are indeed things you can hear that will make your brain try to shut down. I don’t care if you’re a surgeon, an embalmer, a coroner, whatever. This story was in a whole different league of awful.

I had a small birthday party at Kristin’s apartment in the city. I forgot to take pictures. It was a few of my friends from high school sitting around talking. Fun but subdued.

I really like my friends from high school. Part of me wishes I could’ve stayed there and put a life together. But I knew it wasn’t going to happen and I had to get moving again. I wasn’t done traveling.

My friend Naomi from Australia just spent a month in Mexico City on a litigation case and when she finished, she took a week off. I booked a ticket and flew down two days later.

I spent the weekend with her at the Four Seasons while she finished up, basking in pampered, fully expensed luxury. It’s one of the finest hotels in Mexico and a personal record in my own freeloadsmanship.

I’ll spare the details so Nae doesn’t yell at me.

She was living and working in the hotel non-stop since she’d arrived. The hotel was like a walled compound, and she could count the number of times she’d left on one hand. Last night, she took me up to the off-limits rooftop. We climbed a ladder to a small platform at the very top where we could look out in all directions at the sprawling city — the largest in the world. The lights went off into the horizon in all directions, and I’m sure well beyond. It was beautiful and awful at the same time.

This morning, we went to the city square and looked around. We saw Diego Rivera’s huge mural depicting the history of Mexico. We didn’t have time to look at the Aztec ruins from when Montezuma ruled and Cortez sacked the place. We had to get going.

The car rental was a bit scary. We got a Nissan Tsuru with bare bones insurance. The scary part was when he had me sign a blank credit card slip with no amount filled in — "because we don’t know what the charge will be yet." I generally try to avoid signing credit card charges when I don’t know how much I’m paying, but there was no way he’d let me take the car otherwise. If it hadn’t been a big name car rental company, I’d have walked away. Hopefully I made the right decision.

The road out of Mexico City was a nightmare. They’ve stopped paying attention to things like streetlights here and people just go whenever they want. We got lucky and found an attendant at the rental place who needed a ride home and was going our way, so he rode shotgun and gave directions in Spanish — which was a little tricky, but we used the guidebook glossary and managed to translate the essentials. We beat the odds and got out of there in one piece, but I dread having to drive back in there to drop the car off.

After that it was open road to Oaxaca. We took the cuartos, which is their word for toll highways. See, the government roads in Mexico aren’t so good, so corporations have come in and built their own modern ones, but they charge outrageous tolls to let people use them. The five hour drive from Mexico City cost us around $40. The alternative is libres, which are free but much much slower, and after dark, I’m told, you run the serious risk of getting forcibly pulled over and robbed by banditos. We’d like to avoid that.

I’m practicing Spanish numbers in my head while I type this. Veintiuno, veintidos, veintitres…

I’ll cover Oaxaca in my next entry. Right now I’m going to bed. Veinticuatro, veinticinco, veintiseis…

And I must be transmitting my thoughts too loud. Veintisiete, veintiocho, veintinueve, trienta…

Cause as I count in my head, Nae is right next to me and she shouts out in her sleep: