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Sunday, July 28, 2013

One Ring To Rule Them All: A Visit To The Large Hadron Collider (Part 2)

If you want to you can read Part 1 first.  I thought this was going to be shorter but the tale grows in the telling.  The best part is that it's all true.

To get to the LHC, we had to go to France --well, strictly speaking, the Collider was already practically under our feet even in Meyrin.  You can see a part of it --one of the factory-sized surface points --from the Geneva airport, as a matter of fact; if you're landing or taking off, and you happen to be in a window seat looking north, you can see a cluster of buildings with what look like miniature nuclear power plant cooling towers on the roof, just past a parking area for small planes.  Our visit was to one of the main research facilities located on the LHC ring --the CMS Detector, which is in Cessy, France, just across the border.  (Crossing from Switzerland to France is, for an American used to hours-long waits and exhausted, suspicious immigration agents to get back into the US at JFK, almost comically low-key --no passports asked for or shown, and I don't particularly remember even stopping.  We may have slowed down a bit.)

The 27 kilometers-in-circumference main accelerator ring of the LHC straddles the border between Switzerland and France, just to the north of the city of Geneva itself.  The giant ring is buried under the earth at depths which vary depending on the surface geography; the collider tunnel is anywhere from 50 to 175 meters underground (greatest depths are under the Jura mountains, shallowest are near Lac Leman/Lake Geneva.)  There are several reasons for its subterranean location; cost of surface real estate is one, and shielding from cosmic radiation is another.  The tunnel containing the main ring once housed another particle accelerator: LEP, or the Large Electron Positron Collider, which was decommissioned in the year 2000 to make way for the LHC.

Getting packets of protons up to as close to the speed of light as possible isn't easy and while the largest ring is the most attention-getting part of the entire complex, it's actually the final stage in a four-step process involving a complex of equipment, some parts of which are more than half a century old.  The ladies and gentlemen at CERN get their protons by stripping off the electrons from hydrogen atoms --the excellent animated film showing the process on CERN's website depicts a rather banal bottle of hydrogen gas.  (Hydrogen, the simplest chemical element, consists of exactly one proton with one lonely electron orbiting it.)  This happens in the injection chamber of LINAC 2, the linear accelerator that's the first stage in getting fast-moving particles into the LHC itself.  With the electrons gone, all that's left are single protons --these have a positive charge, and so, can be accelerated by electrical fields and contained by electromagnets.

Protons leave LINAC 2 are already moving fast --about 1/3 the speed of light (c.)  From LINAC 2 the protons go into the PSB (Proton Synchrotron Booster) where they're divided into four packets and pumped up to even higher speeds --91.6% c.  Powerful electromagnets keep the protons on a circular path while they gain speed.  The third stage is the even larger Proton Synchrotron.

The circular Proton Synchrotron is old --it was first used in November of 1959, and was briefly the world's most powerful particle accelerator.  Today its main purpose is to help feed high speed particles into the main ring of the LHC --and it's been upgraded over the decades so that its beam is now a thousand times more powerful than its original design.  At 628 meters, it's a massive piece of equipment.  The protons injected into the PS only stay there for about 1.2 seconds, but during that time, they go to 99.9% c.  

This close to the speed of light, Einstein's theory of relativity starts to make itself felt in a big way.  One of the main insights from relativity theory is that things look different depending on your frame of reference, or where you're looking at things from (hence the name --it's all relative.)  To us, stationary observers with respect to the protons, the increase in speed means an increase in energy --as the protons go faster, they gain mass.  (This is a weird effect to someone who has never heard of relativistic effects before, but I don't make the news, I just report it.)  The speed limit for the universe is the speed of light itself --nothing can go faster; particles with mass can get close but never reach this velocity. At c, a particle would have infinite mass, which is Not Allowed.  (Photons, which have no mass, do travel at the speed of light --well, they are light, so they would, wouldn't they.)

As they leave PS, the protons have about 25 times their rest mass, and this close to the speed of light, any further addition of energy results in a lot of increase in mass and very little in velocity.

There's one more stage before the protons can enter the main ring, though.  From the Proton Synchrotron, they go into the Super Proton Synchrotron (CERN is running out of superlatives, obviously.  May I suggest as the next obvious bit of nomenclature the I Can't Believe It's A Synchrotron synchrotron.)  SPS is stage four, the last before the LHC proper.  SPS has been flinging particles around since 1976 (in 1983, it was used for the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the W and Z bosons, which are the gauge bosons for the weak force --one of the four fundamental forces.)  Yet more energy is added to the protons here --and while there is not much gain in velocity, there is a lot of mass added (remember, mass-energy equivalence: E=MC^2.)  The unit used for mass-energy is the electron volt, and while protons leaving LINAC 2 --stage one --have an energy of 50 MeV (fifty million electron volts) by the time the protons are fired from SPS into the main ring, they've reached a mass of 450 GeV (giga --billion --electron volts.)

Finally, the protons are ready for prime time: the Large Hadron Collider itself.  When the Collider is in operation, it takes about a half hour for SPS to fill it with 2,808 individual "packets" of protons.  The packets are pumped with yet more energy in the LHC.  The LHC actually consists of two tunnels, --in one, protons go around clockwise, and in the other, counterclockwise.  The beams cross at four points spaced around the ring --these are the giant detector caverns, and when particles collide at high energy and produce a burst of energy and fundamental particles, it's these detectors that gather information about the event --evidence that the scientists at CERN, and around the world, sift through in hopes of finding, among other things, traces of the Higgs boson.

The protons in the LHC main ring are brought up to 99.9999991% c --they're moving so quickly that they're only traveling about three meters per second slower than light.  At these speeds they go around the ring 11,000 times in one second and the energy necessary to accelerate and contain them is greater than that used by the entire neighboring state of Geneva.  To generate the immense magnetic fields necessary to contain the proton beams, massive superconducting magnets are used --some as heavy as 27 tons.

If you like electromagnets (and hey, who doesn't) you'll love these.  Electromagnets work by generating a magnetic field when current flows through them, and it takes a lot of current to make magnetic fields strong enough to contain the proton beams, which are powerful enough melt a half a ton of copper.  The proton beam wouldn't make a bad weapon, if you could aim it --it's so powerful a special "beam dump" chamber had to be constructed to give the proton beam someplace safe to go.  The beam, in case of a superconductor failure, has to be dissipated in about 90 milliseconds, which is equal to about 4 TW (terawatts, or trillions of watts.)  The beam dump cavern contains a target of graphite composite eight meters long and a meter in diameter, and it's surrounded by a thousand tons of concrete radiation shielding.

So much current is used that it would melt the magnets if they weren't cooled to near absolute zero by liquid helium, which makes them superconductors --in a superconductor, current flows without resistance, but most known superconductors only become superconductors at very low temperatures.  The LHC's superconducting magnets are kept at a temperature colder than interstellar space --1.9 K, or about -271.25 degrees Celsius (absolute zero, the coldest possible temperature, is 273.15 degrees Celsius.)  It takes 96 tons of liquid helium to maintain the magnets at the right temperature --which means the LHC is both the largest particle accelerator in the world and the world's biggest refrigerator.

It may now be occurring to the reader that this much energy comes with some inherent dangers, and indeed, something going wrong with the LHC would be bad.  In September of 2008, something did go wrong. The LHC was being powered up for the first time, but an electrical short occurred between two superconducting magnets.  The result was one of the worst things that can happen to a superconductor: a so-called "quench," or accidental loss of superconductivity.  Temperatures almost instantly skyrocketed as the sudden electrical resistance produced a tremendous heat spike, this caused vaporization of liquid helium along a considerable stretch of the ring tunnel.  Automated emergency shutdown occurred but the damage was horrendous, even at far lower than maximum power --the liquid helium had vented with enough force to rupture the proton tunnels, contaminating them with soot, and rip multi-ton magnets off their concrete bases.  The amount of liquid helium released was so large --several tons --that it was two weeks before repair teams could enter the affected section of the ring to evaluate the damage (it was, one scientist commented drily, "not a pretty sight.")

The LHC had its share of teething problems, some of them almost comical --in one instance, in November of 2009, another quench incident almost occurred when power was lost due to a short in an electrical substation on the surface.  The reason was about as French as causes of superconductor failure come --a passing bird bearing a chunk of baguette in its beak had apparently dropped a piece of the world's most famous bread into a transformer.  This somewhat risible incident fortunately didn't cause any damage --a controlled shutdown prevented another quench incident --but the number of setbacks led to some interesting speculation about the nature of the Higgs boson.

 In particular, several scientists speculated that there is a form of cosmic censorship preventing the Higgs boson from being observed.  Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, suggested that "reverse chronological causation" was behind the accidents at the LHC --in essence, the Large Hadron Collider was traveling backwards in time from the future to prevent itself from working.  Said Nielsen, in an email to the New York Times, "It is our prediction that all Higgs-creating machines will have bad luck."

If correct, the hypothesis would have gone a long way towards explaining why the US cut funding for its own home-grown mega-atom-smasher, the Superconducting Supercollider, which would have been 87 kilometers in circumference and had three times the power of the LHC (naturally, it would have been located in Texas.)  The SSC was canceled in 1993.  The apparent success of the LHC in finding evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson has pretty much put this somewhat bizarre theory to rest, but as the Times pointed out in its coverage, subatomic physics is not exactly a field where intuitively sensible behavior of physical systems is expected --Niels Bohr once famously said, to a colleague, "We are all agreed that your theory is crazy.  What divides us is whether your theory is crazy enough to be correct."

Speaking of crazy, there were some somewhat fringe worries that the LHC would do something at least as spectacular as commit temporal suicide --some people were worried that it would cause the end of the world.  The two favorite apocalyptic scenarios involved the accidental creation of a miniature black hole or the accidental creation of a type of exotic matter particle known as a strangelet.  Without going too much into technical details (OK, if you must, it's a mixture of up, down, and strange quarks) the problem with strange matter is that it may be more stable than normal matter --the concern is that strange matter may thus be contagious; any ordinary matter it comes into contact with would be turned into strange matter, like ice turning into ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle.  This has obviously not happened.

Black holes are what you get when an especially massive star burns out its fuel and can no longer prevent itself from collapsing under its own weight.  It collapses so powerfully that it becomes a singularity --a point object of infinite density, with a gravitational field so enormous that nothing can escape (well, nothing that gets closer than the black hole's event horizon.)  The possibility that such a thing could form in one of the collision caverns at LHC, and devour the Earth by sucking you and all you know and love into the maw of a singularity, naturally drew a lot of attention (the Daily Mail produced a representative headline of the tabloid press coverage: "Are We All Going To Die Next Wednesday?")

As it turns out this is not a problem either, for various reasons --one of them is that black holes do lose mass and eventually evaporate through a rather complicated process known as Hawking radiation, and any microscopic black hole would simply evaporate before it has a chance to do any damage.  A working group set up examine the problem pointed out that cosmic ray collisions in the Earth's upper atmosphere are more energetic than anything the LHC could produce and that if such events could cause the apocalypse it would have happened by now.  Probably the most trenchant rebuttal to those who insisted that firing up the LHC would lead to the end of the world came from physicist Brian Greene, who said to The New York Times, "If a black hole is produced under Geneva, might it swallow Switzerland and continue on a ravenous rampage until the Earth is devoured?  It's a reasonable question with a definite answer: no."

All this was running through my head earlier this month on the car ride to the CMS detector --our car left the industrial environs of Meyrin and the Geneva airport behind, crossed into France, and then we found ourselves winding through the French countryside.  Then, we turned up an unprepossessing driveway and found ourselves outside a tall hurricane fence topped with barbed wire.  An affable security guard waved us through, and we saw an enormous complex of buildings --surface evidence that deep below, humanity was going through Nature's pockets for loose bosons.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

One Ring To Rule Them All: A Visit To The Large Hadron Collider (Part 1.)

I noticed in telling people about visiting the Large Hadron Collider that a surprising number of folks have never heard of it.  In brief, it's the world's largest and most powerful "atom smasher" --a giant ring 27 kilometers in circumference, buried under hundreds of feet of rock, straddling the Swiss-French border.  It was built to probe the fine structure of matter and space-time, by accelerating tiny bits of matter up to very close to the speed of light and then smashing them together (some people say it's rather like throwing a watch against a wall and watching the bits fly out to see how it works, which is not an exact analogy but it gives you the basic idea.)

 If you know that all the matter you see around you is made of atoms, which are in turn made of smaller particles --protons, neutrons, and electrons --and that these particles interact with each other and with fields like the electromagnetic field, you know enough to go on with.

"You don't have anything on your calendar for the first day you're in Geneva," the PR rmanager's email said. "Anything you'd like to do?" "Well," I wrote back, "I've always wanted to visit the Large Hadron Collider."  I meant it as a joke but apparently, she took me seriously.  The visit to the LHC and CERN took place not on my first day there, which was just as well --I had for some reason (and I don't know why, JFK--GVA is a flight I've made more times than I can count, in the line of duty) absolutely crippling jet lag and my first day I couldn't do much more than lie on the bed in my room at La Reserve, feeling bone-crushingly tired and wishing I could sleep, which I couldn't.  It was no fault of the hotel's --La Reserve is located in the Swiss countryside on the shore of Lac Leman, just outside Geneva; it's one of the most relaxing hotels in Europe but I couldn't nod off for the life of me.  Two glasses of wine with dinner didn't do anything but wake me up, and though I'd brought some melatonin with me I decided --rather foolishly --to white-knuckle it through the night.  Melatonin works as far as sedation goes but it also has been increasingly giving me very, very unpleasant dreams and I've been trying to avoid it, though in retrospect I probably should have just knocked myself out.

The next day started early --my hosts on this trip to Geneva were from a small-batch watch company called Roger Dubuis, which makes a few thousand watches per year for the luxury market in a state-of-the-art facility in Meyrin, which is a suburb of Geneva.  Geneva is both a city and a Canton; Meyrin is located in the Canton of Geneva, which makes the watches made by the company eligible for the prestigious Geneva Hallmark.  This is a quality standard granted by the Canton for watches made to a certain level of quality specified by the Geneva Seal criteria.  It's expensive to adhere to the requirements --the cost over making a standard movement is around thirty to forty per cent --but it's one of the company's main selling points; they remain the only company whose production is one hundred per cent Geneva Seal approved.  

I'd long since forgotten that I'd mentioned the LHC to the company's PR manager in New York as I didn't honestly think that touring the LHC was possible, and I hadn't noticed that on my schedule for the day there were 2 hours set aside for "transport to a surprise destination," which I assumed was an off-site facility of some sort --an engraver, an enamelist's studio, a dial factory.  As it turned out, the surprise destination was indeed the Large Hadron Collider.

The LHC is located at the headquarters of the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire,or CERN, which was established in 1957 with 12 member states and now has 20. CERN's purpose was and is to conduct high energy particle physics experiments, and the Large Hadron Collider is the latest and most powerful particle accelerator --an atom smasher, in popular parlance --in CERN's arsenal.  Basically, particle accelerators like the LHC accelerate subatomic particles up to very high speeds --the LHC takes packets of protons up to very close to the speed of light --and smashes them together in order to explore how matter and the structure of space-time as we observe them today, came into existence.

If you observe the Universe today, you can see that it's expanding (this was an unpleasant surprise for Einstein, who favored a static model) and if you run the clock backwards, the Universe gets progressively smaller and denser and hotter.  At time=zero, theory predicts that the very early universe experienced a phenomenon known as the Big Bang, which began as a moment in time when all the matter and energy in the Universe was concentrated in an extremely tiny area --a dimensionless point of infinite energy and density, or singularity.  

The earliest period of the history of the Universe is known as the Planck epoch, after the physicist Max Planck, and lasted for a very short period of time, known as the Planck Time --this is the amount of time it takes for light to travel the Planck Length, which is an extremely short distance; about 1.616 x 10 to the minus 35th power meters. It's impossible to have an intuitive sense for how tiny such a distance is (the Scale of the Universe animation is pretty good though) but it helps to note that it is about 10 to the minus 20th power smaller than the diameter of a proton.  Evidence for the Big Bang is robust --the left-over radiation from the Big Bang has been detected and mapped by deep space microwave radiation telescopes on satellites like the WMAP probe --and though the Big Bang theory is widely accepted, it raises, to put it mildly, a lot of questions.

Most people would like to know where all the matter and energy (we should just say mass-energy, as by Einstein's equation, E=MC^2, we know they are equivalent) came from, which is a highly speculative subject in cosmology.  Part of the problem is that we do not, at present, have the theoretical tools necessary to make mathematically reliable predictions about the earliest stage of the Big Bang, much less answer questions about where all the stuff that became all the stuff we see now came from.  We can reliably date the age of the Universe to a little over thirteen billion years, but the problem with understanding the very early universe is that during the Planck Epoch, the energy density of the universe was so high that the fundamental forces --the electromagnetic force, weak force, strong force, and gravity --are thought to have been unified into a single force.  

Gravity is the odd man out; we have an excellent theory for gravitation --general relativity --and an excellent theory for subatomic particle behavior --quantum mechanics.  However, when you try to make relativity and quantum mechanics play nice together, terrible things happen --the equations begin to generate ridiculous infinities, which scientists take as evidence that neither relativity nor quantum mechanics are complete theories.  What we want is sometimes given the rather Promethean name of a Theory of Everything --a TOE --which would allow us to make sensible predictions about how gravity works at the quantum scale, but so far a good theory of quantum gravity has proven very elusive.  String theory, which postulates that fundamental particles are not point objects, but instead minute strings of mass-energy whose frequency modes correspond to different fundamental particles, is an attempt to cope with the disconnect between relativity and quantum mechanics; quantum loop-gravity theory is another.

The Large Hadron Collider was constructed to help answer questions about conditions in the early universe.  In particular, one of the major unanswered questions it was designed to look into is the mechanism by which particles acquire mass.  The Standard Model of particle physics, which describes the fundamental particles and their interactions (via quantum mechanics) has successfully described all known subatomic particles, as well as the forces through which they interact, and although it is not complete, it's proven pretty solid ever since it got its name in the 1970s.  The Standard Model also predicted the existence of particles which, at the time it was first being formulated, had not yet been observed.  

One reason certain particles --like the so-called "top quark" --had not yet been observed in existing particle accelerators was that such particles are very massive, and thanks to E=MC^2 we know it takes a lot of energy --a very high energy density --to create such particles in the lab.  Such particles also tend to rapidly decay, as they shed energy, into other, more stable particles.  The top quark was finally detected, after a long search, with a machine called the Tevatron --an enormous particle accelerator located at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Illinois, USA.  The Tevatron was a colossus --the main accelerator ring was 6.86 kilometers in circumference, and it collided protons and antiprotons together at TeV --trillion electron volt --energies.  Decommissioned in 2011, it was during its operating lifetime the only machine powerful enough to create and observe the top quark.

Despite its success, the Standard Model has some gaps, one of which is a mechanism for describing why particles that have mass, have mass (why a particle should need to "have" something as basic as mass is another question, but suffice to say there are reasons, which is why things like protons and neutrons have mass, and things like photons don't.)  The Higgs boson is the particle --first hypothesized in 1964 --thought to be responsible for giving mass to certain fundamental particles.  

Bosons are one of two classes of elementary particles (the other is the group known as fermions) and for certain reasons they are often force-carrying particles  in the Standard Model --for instance, photons are the force-carriers for the electromagnetic force.  When particles interact electromagnetically, they exchange photons.  The bosons that mediate such interactions are called gauge bosons, and the Standard Model predicted a field --known as the Higgs field --with which elementary particles would interact in order to gain mass (a massless particle like the photon, by contrast, would not interact with the Higgs field.)  The Higgs boson is the gauge particle of the Higgs field, just as the photon is the gauge particle of the electromagnetic field.  The Higgs field, if it exists, would have a non-zero minimum energy in empty space.

Finding the Higgs boson became, after the discover of the top quark, one of the most important remaining goals in confirming the predictive ability of the Standard Model.

The problem, though, is energy.  Nobody really knew exactly how much energy would be necessary to observe the Higgs boson, and theory predicted that the Higgs field emerged about 10 to the minus tenth power seconds after the big bang --many orders of magnitude after the Planck Epoch (whose duration is the Planck Time, remember --about 10 to the minus 44th power seconds) but still so close to time=zero that the energy density of the universe was extremely high.  It was thought possible that Higgs bosons might have been created in very small numbers in accelerators like the Tevatron, but to make them in large enough numbers to be observed with a high enough confidence to confirm the Higgs field's existence --bear in mind that Higgs bosons exist for too short a time to be observed; what scientists would look for are decay products specific to the decay of the Higgs boson --a bigger machine was needed.  And that's where the Large Hadron Collider came in.

Go to part 2

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Cooked And The Raw

Making sushi at home is one of those things that is, like learning tai chi or getting along with your family, neither as difficult as you fear nor as easy as you could hope. I(If you watch JIro Dreams Of Sushi, you'll never even bother to try) If you've heard that the hardest thing to get right is the rice, you heard right -sushi is not just about the rice of course, but ideally, there's a balance between warm rice and cooler fish, between the clean protein savor of the seafood and the sour-sweet-salty lushness of the rice, that's easy to hope for but hard to achieve. I'm going to commit heresy and compare it to a really good burger --I don't know of any burger that compares to a really masterful piece of sushi (OK, the Black Label Burger at Minetta Lane Tavern's pretty damned good) but the idea's the same --protein plus the cushioning of a starch radiant with the promise of rapidly absorbable glucose. If the rice isn't still warm, there is no qi, to put it in Chinese medicine terms --quite literally; the old character for "qi" is an ideogram for steam rising from a pot of cooked rice.

You need really fresh fish, obviously, although that gets complicated too; real sushi chefs sometimes age tuna, for instance, for several days. Still, as a rule of thumb, the best possible fish and the best possible fishmonger aren't good enough; sushi calls for intolerance (polite intolerance, but intolerance) and communication --let whoever's behind the counter know you're going to be eating this stuff raw.

Eating sushi nowadays is a political statement too --crashing bluefin tuna stocks, wild sea eel, and other fish populations make it impossible to choose certain types of fish, at least if you have a conscience (as Jiminy Cricket said, that little voice inside you no one listens to.) Farm raised is tricky because so many fish farms practice atrociously bad management and wreak havoc on the surrounding environment, and unless you're really determined to be blindly, gluttonously selfish, you can't hoover up a plate of o-toro and unagi with the same relish as in bygone days (besides, do you know how much mercury is in that stuff?) Fortunately there are still good choices --wild Alaskan salmon is still ok for now (avoid farmed, in general, and avoid wild Atlantic completely, at least according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.)

There are some great books and videos on cutting fish for sushi --the only thing I'll mention for now is that a long, thin, extremely sharp knife is best; you cut by drawing the knife toward you and ideally, make one cut per piece; the last thing you want to do is saw at the fish. Everything should be even cleaner than you think it should be. The rice should still be warm when you start assembling the sushi --you season it with a warm mixture of rice vinegar, salt, and sugar, and the most important thing to remember is to not compact the rice too much. It needs to breathe --think of the qi of the rice circulating through it; if you crush it, it dies. With the fish married to perfectly warm, fluffy rice with just a tiny dab of wasabi (or none at all; real wasabi's hard to come by in the USA and the fake stuff is just green-dyed horseradish) you have something very delicate and fragilely delicious, like a sugar cookie fresh out of the oven --it needs to be eaten right away; after a few minutes it's already fading, like a cut flower.

The other thing you can do, of course, is not eat sushi at all. The fish are going, going, and though the idea that we're entitled to whatever we want whenever we want it is a hard one to break, there is something to be said for the pleasure of avoiding pleasure. The tuna, certainly, will thank you. And if you would rather have one perfect piece of o-toro than ten of mediocre, stringy utility sushi on gluey cold rice, maybe the next and even best step is to have none at all. Fish gotta swim.

Kung Fu Fighting II

Since starting to practice at least semi-seriously again I've been remembering instructions I was given many years ago --not in any particular order; some things just pop into my head, usually when I'm walking back from the park in the morning. One of the most interesting memories I have has to do with what it means --or anyone, what it can be interpreted to mean --to think of practices like tai chi and xingyi (I know I'm not being terribly consistent with the romanization --should be taijiquan and xingyquan. Maybe I'll just stick with them and let the chips fall where they may.) as Taoist martial arts.

Taoism is a funny thing; there isn't really a monolithic entity with a canon of beliefs and practices that everyone who calls themselves a Taoist adheres to, anymore than Pure Land, Vajrayana, Zen/Ch'an, or Theraveda buddhist practitioners believe and practice the same thing. The best you could probably do as far as Taoism is concerned is that most Taoists would agree that Lao Tzu's Tao Teh Ching is pretty darned interesting. Taoism has an impressive plethora of gods, demons, spirits, and what have you but my exposure to it has largely been limited to what the Tao Teh Ching can be interpreted to mean with respect to martial arts practice --and as a non-native speaker who's unable to read one of the most elastically interpretable of the Chinese classics in the original, I certainly can't claim to have anything definitive or authoritative to offer, but that's never stopped me before.

Anyway, the whole idea behind the Tao Teh Ching is that the mind and body (see? we're already in trouble) have a natural state which if allowed to express itself, will be in harmony with what's poetically called Heaven and Earth --that Yin and Yang, the two fundamental aspects of nature, can be made to harmonize internally and externally. Now, as in Zen/Ch'an buddhism, the idea is not so much that you can _try_ to be natural --in fact, by definition you can't, you must, so to speak, get out of your own way and let the natural tendency of the mind and body to exist in a state of harmony and equanimity exert itself.

This is obviously easier said than done, and one of the enduring paradoxes of both Zen practice and Taoist practice (the two informed each other extensively when Zen came to China from India --according to legend, Buddhism was brought from India to China by a very hardcore cat named Bodhidharma, but that's another story) is that while Buddha-nature is inherent in all sentient beings, and the Tao emerges naturally from the ground of existence, you actually can't just, you know, sit around and say, well, that's that. For some reason we find ourselves far from expressing Buddha-nature, and far from behaving in the natural way expressed by the Tao Teh Ching when it says, "doing nothing, the sage leaves nothing undone."

So, we need a method. That we need a method, and need to make an effort, to express our inherent nature is a head-scratcher, but there's no use crying over spilt milk; that's just the way it is. (One of my teachers, when discussing this point, said, "Look, I don't make the news, I just report it.") This is neatly expressed in a Zen parable --the idea of "selling water by the river." The river is there, and it's full of water and yet we somehow still need to sell water by the river. As my teacher said, I don't make the news, I just report it.

So what does all this have to do with martial arts? Well, as with Zen meditation, the basic idea is that the method --the taijiquan form, sword form, or the xingyi five elements techniques, standing meditation practice, and so on) is a "frame," so to speak; it's as if you are constructing a lab in which certain experiments and reactions can happen. The challenge is not so much that you have to make an effort to achieve anything; the real challenge is that you have to stay with the practice. Chogyam Trungpa Rincpoche, the famous and very controversial Tibetan Buddhist teacher (he wasn't exactly the stereotype of the abstemious, austere anchorite but he was also a brilliant observer of the human condition --an infuriating, paradoxical man) used to say that practice was like a train. There is an element of faith involved in practice --that's the faith that you've gotten on the right train and that when your teacher says it's headed for a certain destination, he or she's not jerking you around. Your job, then, is to stay on the train long enough to get somewhere. You don't have to worry about _making_anything happen, you have to stay on the train. That's where the effort is.

This is not so easy. Standing meditation --an indispensable part of taijiquan and xingyiquan --is actually extremely painful and boring a lot of the time. (Trungpa Rinpoche used to talk about the importance of boredom. He was fond of remarking that at a certain point in meditation practice, it's important to get extremely, powerfully, transcendentally bored.) The problem is that once you take away all the millions of little blips of stimulation --the constant oscillating between attraction and aversion, to put it in Buddhist terms --you are left with the experience of your own inner landscape, which is often not so easy to tolerate. My taijiquan teacher used to say that the single most interesting aspect of taijiquan was that it taught you to better tolerate your own experiences.

This is, again, often agonizingly difficult. I remember on more than one occasion seeing someone learning standing meditation practice burst into tears --not from physical pain, but simply from the need to release the stress of actually feeling what they were feeling for the first time. You have to stay with the method but you have to be patient, too --freaking yourself out so badly you can't practice isn't such a hot idea either. If you do stick with it though, some interesting things start to happen. And, for better or worse (or neither; this is just how it is) that's the point where talking about it just starts to get in the way.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Kung Fu Fighting

I first got interested in martial arts, like many do, as a result of bullying in grade school, which far from being the cause célèbre it is today was, in the early 1970s, more or less just an accepted part of the academic landscape.  A brief exposure to judo (and I mean brief --one class) led to a lucky victory against another kid on the playground, but beyond that, my exposure to martial arts as a kid was virtually non-existent.

I didn't get interested in martial arts again until much later, during my late 20s, while working with a choreographer --an American --who was married to a Japanese man who held dan rank in aikido.  She told me she thought I ought to study a martial art --I'm not sure why --and I found myself in the aikido dojo, which led to studying taijiquan (tai chi) xingyiquan (shing yi) various styles of qigong (chi kung, or "exercises to build the ch'i") and eventually a license to practice acupuncture (and a crippling amount of student loan debt, but I'll save the rant on education costs for another time.)

I turned 50 not too long ago and took, as I imagine a lot of us do when we hit that milestone, a long look at where I was mentally and physically and decided I didn't care for what I saw.  Since then I 've been struggling to re-establish my practice, and have had some interesting ups and downs, but the most important thing I think I've realized so far is that there actually is something to all the things I was taught --they work, for lack of a better word.

The whole business of qi ("ch'i" or as it's usually infelicitously translated, "energy") is one that I've been thinking about quite a lot as the cultivation of this substance, or energy, or whatever it is, is supposed to be essential to the martial arts I've spent the most time practicing --mostly taijiquan, but also some aikido and some xingyiquan as well.  As a description of an objective physical phenomenon, I've more or less decided it's ludicrous, but at the same time there's no doubt that you can correlate the term with certain experiences in practice, and that these practices as a whole have a powerful effect on the degree to which you can move the body in a more organized, more integrated, and more mindful way.  The other thing that seems important to me now is to have a sense of the value of having a teacher and having people to practice with.

At one point, the school where I practiced taijiquan had over a hundred members and I must have had the opportunity --there and elsewhere --to teach taijiquan to dozens, if not hundreds, of people; I also had access, thanks to my taiji teacher's connections in the New York martial arts community, to some incredibly talented martial artists across an amazing spectrum of disciplines, ranging from Indonesian to Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and other martial arts.  The unfortunate tendency when surrounded by such an embarrassment of riches is to take them for granted, and although I was lucky enough to learn some extremely interesting and useful practices, I don't think I, nor many of the people with whom I trained, really appreciated the rarity of having a community of like-minded people to practice with.  As I've gotten older, I've seen people move away, stop practicing, lose interest for a variety of reasons, die, or simply find that other things in life take priority over making time for practicing.  A number of people with whom I used to practice have succumbed to training injuries, in a few cases brought on simply by emphasizing one aspect of their practice at the expense of another.

Still, it's good to have started again. One interesting effect has been that I need less sleep --I've been waking up, spontaneously, at around five o'clock in the morning, which is a perfect time to walk to the park and practice.  The practices haven't changed much over the last 20 years --I'm still doing the same taijiquan form, still doing the same xingyiquan exercises, still doing the same standing meditation practices; but of course, that's the whole point.  The purpose of the practices isn't to reach some goal, or maybe it would be better to say that after all these years I've finally realized, concretely, experientially, that they don't have an endpoint.  Shunryu Suzuki Roshi wrote, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, that there's no need in meditation to have any special state of mind --that to assume the zazen meditation posture is to be in the right state of mind in itself.  I think the same is true of the practices I've been taught --they're a form of existential self-sufficiency, an assumption of personal responsibility for the state of one's mind and body, and they're also an excellent antidote to the disease of constantly evaluating the state of one's body and mind by borrowed and not necessarily healthy criteria.  The worst thing about the profession I've been in for the last seven years --consumer journalism, which has by and large treated me pretty well, if I'm honest --is that it tends to encourage certain specific bad habits.  Aside from the fact that it's a largely sedentary occupation, it tends to encourage a certain kind of strident, insecure narcissism --which is perhaps not just a problem with journalism per se, but a character flaw natural to writers; we all have a tendency to be too fond of the sound of our own voices and to react with dismay and frustration when the world doesn't find us as interesting as we think it should.  Sitting, standing, or moving practices help discourage this particular form of insanity, and it's satisfying in a way that I don't think I can adequately describe to find that even at middle age, after all these years, the practices are not only still valuable but more valuable than ever, and that far from having faded into an ungraspable memory, they're as present as ever.  It's interesting to find that doing the same thing for 20 years can be interesting --as a matter of fact, that you find out things from doing the same thing for 20 years that you can't find out any other way.

PS --Some of this is a repeat performance of observations made in an earlier post, in the context of going back to studying aikido; but that's OK.  Some of it isn't.