This weekend I toured Fermilab with a bunch of elected officials from around the country, here for the National School Board conference. Being on the school board, I sometimes get to do cool stuff like that.
One of the school board members asked the scientist, who was leading a Q&A, what happens when anti-matter and matter collide – which is what happens in the large particle accelerators at Fermilab.
It so happens that my novel Byrne Risk has anti-matter engines and the answer is explained thusly in the Science Files at the end:
In real science, anti-matter exists and has been produced by physicists in large particle-accelerator chambers, like CERN and HaDRON. Anti-matter is the opposite of matter, just like negative numbers are the opposite of positive numbers. When anti-matter collides with regular matter, a tremendous amount of energy is released, along with meson particles (particles smaller than an atom) and dangerous gamma radiation. Today, only tiny amounts of anti-matter can be made at a time, not enough to fuel a spaceship. Scientists suspend the anti-matter in an electrostatic device called a Penning Trap, so that it doesn’t touch any regular matter and explode!
Cool, right? I think so.
The physicist proceeded to answer the school board member’s question in a way that was … well … less exciting. I am sure that the man does wonderful science and important research. But where was the excitement? The drama? The story?
I was left believing that anti-matter/matter collisions were about as exciting as dust bunnies.
I see stories as the main way that we explain the world to ourselves. We can also use formulas and theories and great rambling scientific papers – but the way that we make it have sense or meaning for our lives is to construct stories around it. They are interpretations of the world, and not just for the non-technically-minded. Stories are especially important for children, to put an understanding of the world into their native language.
When Enrico Fermi was applying for college, he wrote such a rockin’ essay solving wave equations on a string that the examiner thought he was a Ph.D. student. Naturally, he took first place. While in college he teamed up with a rascal named Franco Rasetti, with whom he conspired to pull all kinds of college pranks. These two later went on to discover the key processes in nuclear fusion. Not to mention win the Nobel Prize in physics.
Now there’s a story. Perhaps my next middle grade novel will need to be a historical fiction … whatever it is, I’m certain that the science will sneak in and play a role in shaping a story that sparks young imaginations.