Quarks and Trails

I am a research professor at Dartmouth College, first in the Physics Department, and more recently in the Environmental Studies Program. I am passionately interested in many aspects of nature and have spent the last two decades doing experiments to tease out the structure of the neutron. My research may be limited to quarks and neutrons, but my interest are far more expansive. To me nature includes the giant tortoise of the Galapagos, the black holes in the center of the galaxy and the way quarks orbits each other inside of a neutron.

I have found myself standing on a mountain peak during a cold still winter night staring at the stars and thinking about their beauty and nucleosynthesis, at the same time. Nucleosynthesis is the creation of heavy elements in the stellar furnace. I've watched sun-dogs and ice crystals and find their charm enhanced by understanding how light and matter interact. The world is not static. It is not a collection of objects in a curio cabinet. It is dynamic. It is motion and energy which makes it exciting; the conversion of birch bark into flame and wind into electricity.

I enjoy hiking, canoeing and climbing mountains on snowshoes. And every time I go out into nature I come back with questions I want to answer. How warm is an igloo? Are the alpine gardens in the Adirondacks recovering? How do we identify birds? Can the Galapagos survive eco-tourist? What is it like to climb an arctic mountain when the sun kisses the northern horizon?

So I write about physics, outdoor life and how people relate to energy. I write about what I find extraordinary and interesting. I found the uproar over wind power curious and so set out to try and understand it for myself, and to bring readers with me. I talked with lumber men, engineers and farmers who lived near wind turbines. I wondered if the Adirondacks had really changed in the last three decades, or if it was only me. So I asked the head forester, I talked with one of the organizers of the trail crews and someone who studies the bears.

The answers are as interesting as the questions -- and so I write about them.

It seems to me that Keats was wrong when he asked, rhetorically, "Do not all charms fly ... at the mere touch of cold philosophy?" The word "philosophy" standing, in his day, for what we now call "physical science". But Keats was wrong, I say, because there is more charm in one "mere" fact, confirmed by test and observation, linked to other facts through coherent theory into a rational system, than in a whole brainful of fancy and fantasy. I see more poetry in a chunk of quartzite that in a make-believe wood nymph, more beauty in the revelation of a verifiable intellectual construction that in whole misty empires of obsolete mythology.
Edward Abbey, The Journey Home