Stargazing Before the Apocalypse

5 days ago
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Illustration by Julia YH

The coronavirus is claiming many casualties: lives and livelihoods, habits and customs. What is the purpose of studying the universe when it feels like the world is ending? Facing this once-in-a-generation challenge, will the global community descend by our worst instincts, or break for higher ground?

cosmos

I sit at my favorite brunch spot with a friend, and wonder if I’m making a terrible mistake.

It is the first Sunday in March. The arrival of spring is always a cause for celebration. Even after a particularly mild winter like this year’s, the skin craves fresh air and a touch of sun.

I had checked my purse before heading out, making sure it held a bottle of hand sanitizer. One of the cafes I frequent had placed a two-liter tank of the clear gel on its counter earlier in the week, the monstrous size a sign of both assurance and concern. I hesitated before pressing the button on the elevator, and reached for the plastic bottle in my bag immediately after. A person hurried past me in the hallway, his face covered by a light blue surgical mask. Workers wiped down the front doors more diligently than usual. The air smelt of disinfectants.

The restaurant is packed. I had fretted for a second about the seating: Does being next to the kitchen mean more foot traffic, hence a higher degree of exposure? Six weeks after the Chinese government shut down the country in a desperate attempt to contain the novel coronavirus, what started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan is becoming a global pandemic. The official case count in the U.S. has barely broken triple-digits at this point, but the low figure is almost certainly a result of insufficient testing, and the math of exponential growth is unforgiving. Nevertheless, one may still read the number, divide it by three hundred million, and find illusory comfort.

Disturbing headlines stream in from the west coast, but Chicago is a long way from Seattle. Local officials say they have been monitoring the development and making necessary preparations, but the immediate risk is still low: Wash your hands, and activities may continue as usual. People go out and about because they have not realized the gravity of the situation, realized it but refuse to accept it, or, like myself, are trying to stretch the sense of normalcy, a delicate mental yoga.

My friend and I order another drink. We take our time.

“Should I be more worried?” he asks me.

“I think it will get very bad very quickly,” I say. Then I regret dampening the mood.

“But it is so nice out there.” He gestures toward the window. Everything is basked in a warm, welcoming glow. One can almost smell the sunshine from inside. For a brief moment, I imagine the light as knights in golden armor, wielding their swords at invisible pathogens in the air.

My friend does not have any hand sanitizer, so we hit Target after our boozy meal. The store shelves are full, the customers sparse. We find the aisle for cleaning products. In the middle of colorful bottles in all shapes and sizes is a glaring emptiness. The lonely sticker reads, “Purell.”

We burst into laughter.

“I guess this is it. This is how I will die.” My friend shakes his head.

“That is almost too profound,” I say, pausing to catch my breath from laughing too hard. “I’m sure that’s what Socrates said before he drank the hemlock.”

We find some hand sanitizer at a pharmacy, stacked front and center by the entrance. We stash the precious bounty in our bags and hug each other goodbye, noting how the gesture is now suspect.

“Stay alive! I want to see you again!”

“Likewise!”

cosmos

For people who have followed COVID-19 since the beginning, including many overseas Chinese like myself, the past few weeks feels like the replay of a horror movie, its setting shifting from Wuhan and greater China to just about anywhere in the world. Seemingly overnight, we have become unwitting actors in the film, with the script constantly rewritten, and an ending no one can predict.

I was born and raised in China, and came to the U.S. in 2009 for graduate school. For the past 11 years, I have been working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The world’s largest particle physics experiment is hosted by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Located on the Swiss-French border, the laboratory traverses both territories; thousands of scientists from dozens of countries are part of its collaboration; most of them work from their home institutions.

With family in China and colleagues on six continents, for months I have found myself one degree of separation from death as the disease makes its way across the globe: I know someone who knows someone who has died, either from the virus itself or another malady neglected due to an overburdened medical system. I do not know how long I can keep following the news, nor am I capable of looking away. Does a tragedy become less devastating after a certain number of repetitions? I am afraid when it does, a part of me will have died as well.

During odd hours of the day, my mind flies into a panic when it recalls a person whose place of residence corresponds to a location on the latest frontline of the virus’s path. For the ones I do not know well, or have lost touch with over the years, it feels too awkward to reach out. If they are fine, they do not need to hear from me. If they are not, I am of no help. A message from me would only be a bother in their already hectic lives, so I tell myself.

Instead, I inquire through a mutual friend I’m closer to, or check their social media page: They have just posted on Facebook, and it is about food, or their dog, so they must be doing okay. A friend from college, who lives in Wuhan, shared his latest publication. I press “Like,” amazed by his productivity and resilience.

I read about the calamity in Italy and decide to check in on a former colleague there. If I were to list the people I hold most dear, his name would come close to the top. But the chat log reminds me how long it’s been since we last talked.

The response is swift, almost instant. He and his family are safe. Thanks for asking. The situation in his hometown is not as dire as it is in the north.

China and Italy coronavirus cartoonMy friend sends me a cartoon, depicting a Chinese medical worker and her Italian counterpart lifting his country on their backs. The drawing is very popular over there, he says; what do I think of it?

I have seen the image shared on Chinese social media. My birth country has been sending medical supplies and personnel to the embattled European nation. I tell my Italian friend that the doctors and nurses are undisputed heroes, that medical aid is an objectively good thing, and that I’m heartened to see the people of China stepping up.

But I also worry, I add, how the Chinese government is appropriating this humanitarian crisis to exert its influence overseas and tout the superiority of its authoritarian system; how countries on the receiving end of its largesse may become less willing to hold Beijing accountable for its human rights abuses.

I agree, my friend says. I feel embarrassed for my obsessive intellectualization, turning a life-and-death scenario into a geopolitical analysis.

Folks are singing the national anthem from their balconies, my friend says.

I smile. The people of Wuhan did the same. I’m sure treatises can be written about nationalism, propaganda, and mass mobilization in a disaster, but not everything is or should be an academic exercise.

My friend and I talk about the people we know, physicists who shuffled in and out of academia. Many left for the private sector. One has a new position helping resettle refugees. As scientists we endeavor out of curiosity and are proud of the fact, as if a cerebral pursuit is more noble than a material one. Depending on who we compare ourselves against, occasionally our pride transforms into guilt: We indulge in hobbies while some are trying to save the world.

It’s getting late in Italy. My friend and I conclude our chat with a word on quarantine cooking. Both he and his wife are wizards in the kitchen. “Eat more,” I say. “Your body is your fortress.”

“If fat is my protection, I would be immortal,” my friend quips. Many years ago when we were at the same institute, a bunch of us would go for ice cream every afternoon in the summer months. My friend would make a fuss about whether or not to have the extra scoop, and if he did, I must not tell his wife.

I think about the bakery and its workers, who nourished me, who remembered my face long after I graduated. In the months when I was completing my degree, their scrambled eggs and sweet potato pancakes gave me something to look forward to after another all-nighter at work. How is the pandemic impacting their business, their lives, their loved ones? I miss their chocolate milkshake and almond croissants. I hope I may visit them again soon.

cosmos

I create a new folder in my inbox, marked “COVID-19.” Emails flood in every day, from the university, the laboratories, various professional organizations, media outlets, concerned friends and family. As case numbers explode, and hospitals are overwhelmed, the official policies in the U.S. are changing by the minute. What felt impossible a few days ago is quickly becoming reality. Large gatherings are banned. All gatherings are banned. Museums suspend visits. Theaters stop performances. Sports are cancelled. Schools and libraries close. Universities clear out the dorms and shift classes online. People are told to work from home. Restaurants can no longer accept dine-in customers. Only essential businesses are allowed to stay open.

Being part of an international collaboration across many time zones, my colleagues and I are used to teleconferencing and working remotely. Outside of meetings and teaching duties, our schedules can be quite flexible. I remember returning to campus the week after election day in 2016, having taken some time off but still overcome by grief. I wandered through the building, watching the janitors and dining hall staff perform their tasks. They clean our offices. They keep me caffeinated and fed. Their labor is instrumental to my profession, yet they do not have the privileges I do, to set aside hours, even days, when it is too sad to work.

Inequality is the disease of a society, its symptoms more acute in an epidemic. Not every person has a home to return to, and home is not a safe place for many. Only the ones with a shelter can “shelter in place.” Only the ones with finances to spare can stock up on supplies. Only the ones with the luxury of space can practice “social distancing.”

Telework is not an option for the people who fulfill vital functions others take for granted: water, electricity, sanitation, food, medicine, mail, delivery, and repairs. The professionals who hold up the human infrastructure of a society are often the least well-compensated, their work deemed “low skill.” Growing up, I was always told that only the ones who fail to excel with their mind resort to living by their hand.

“I feel so useless!” a co-worker said as we commiserated over our afflicted conscience. We can stay at home with the security of a salary and health insurance while people without such benefits are braving the streets to keep our city running.

Inequality is the disease of a society, its symptoms more acute in an epidemic.

What can a particle physicist do in a pandemic? Several online campaigns have sprouted up, inviting scientists who are not working on COVID-19 to join the fight. Quite a few of my colleagues expressed interest. I admire their enthusiasm and respect the effort, though I do not think our ability to code or sift through large quantities of data is unique, let alone lacking among virologists and public health experts. There is always a risk when technical skills are transferred from the fundamental sciences to a more social discipline without proper training: The context is missing. Underlying factors are ignored. Patterns observed exacerbate biases.

A willingness to help is beyond reproach, but the impulse to utilize the most “advanced” of one’s skill set is a curious reflection of how we are conditioned to assess labor. The world won’t be saved by an app. Deliver groceries for the elderly, petition the release of prisoners, donate to a food bank, support local businesses: Such simple acts can be more helpful than fitting data to a curve without the ability to interpret it.

Maybe I’m being overly judgmental, casting doubt on good intentions to excuse my own ineptitude. I did not volunteer to analyze COVID-19 data. I cannot drive or sew. I have no money or supplies to give. I am sitting in my apartment, trying to compose words. And words are always inadequate.

Isaac Newton wrote his most important papers when Cambridge was quarantined during the Plague. I learned of this fact as it made its way around the internet, first as lighthearted encouragement, then — as many pointed out that Newton had no children or other dependents — as another inflection point for a culture obsessed with productivity while striving to be fairer and more humane.

As we stay behind closed doors, meeting only in virtual space, there are colleagues who are doing physics because they enjoy it, because they are compelled by a deadline, because questions about the universe offer a calming escape in uncertain times. There are also colleagues who are not doing physics because they have children to school, families to feed, a house to tend to, international students stranded between a closed campus and a closed border in urgent need of their help. Or they are sad, furious, anxious, scared, feeling a mixture of emotions, unable to concentrate.

Caring for the people in science, including their loved ones, is a contribution to science. History is filled with survivor bias, warping the lessons we draw. As the pandemic suspends life and disrupts norms, bringing to light the hidden injustices and invisible labor, it is also a teaching moment: to unlearn what is wrong, cruel, or outdated; to acquire a new understanding about the world and ourselves.

cosmos

CERN holds a video meeting on the coronavirus situation. The camera zooms over a scantily occupied conference room. Each attendee sits in a separate row, at least three seats apart.

The laboratory has entered Stage 3 in its Epidemic Preparedness protocol: “The virus circulates widely in the area in which CERN is located, including CERN itself.” Most of its facilities have been shut down or kept at minimum operations for safety. Access is restricted to personnel considered “essential for critical on-site activities,” and forbidden for people over the age of 65 or with underlying health conditions.

The meeting begins with remarks by the Director-General and the deputy head of the Health, Safety, and Environmental Protection (HSE) unit, followed by an extensive question-and-answer session. The queries were solicited in advance, with over 300 submissions. A good fraction of them concern the border: How may CERN personnel travel from France to Switzerland, or vice versa? If stuck in a third country, can one get back to Switzerland or France with CERN’s help?

CERN’s location on a border, with gates and facilities in both countries, has, since the laboratory’s founding in 1954, stood as a symbol of science’s ability to transcend nationalism. As Swiss and French authorities enact strict border control in response to COVID-19, such idealism meets its limit against state power.

“According to the principles generally accepted by international law,” the head of HSE reads from an official document, “the state exercises sovereignty over all persons on its territory, including those of foreign nationality, and those who enjoy immunity and privileges.” He goes on to acknowledge that for individual hardships, “we will do everything to find a solution.”

The meeting concludes on a reassuring note, that “CERN stays OPEN in virtual mode.” There is a prevailing sense that the challenges may be daunting, but the setback is temporary: It is a delay, not a detour; the overall course remains unchanged.

There is no going back to normal. Even when the disease is brought to heel, it would only be the end of the beginning.

Sometimes I cling to such hope, that after a few weeks of “social distancing,” businesses will reopen, life as we knew it will resume, all of us will wake up from this collective nightmare, walk out of our front doors, and find the world where we left it. But my brain keeps flipping to another plotline, where everything crumbles, chaos and darkness ensue.

The coronavirus is claiming many casualties: lives and livelihoods, habits and customs. There is no going back to normal. Even when the disease is brought to heel, likely through a vaccine in another year’s time, it would only be the end of the beginning.

Global events reshape history and rewrite the rules. The world had been tumbling toward a more authoritarian, ethnonationalist future before COVID-19 appeared, and the controls put in place to stem the pandemic will only hasten the trajectory. Borders, once closed, will be much more difficult to reopen. Anyone who’s been trapped on the wrong side will think twice before crossing. A state expands its powers in an emergency; it does not give them up voluntarily. Two decades after 9-11, the civil liberties culled in the name of combating terrorism are yet to be regained. Can anyone keep track of what they have lost, let alone imagine what they deserve, when survival itself is an all-consuming task?

Particle physics probes some of the oldest questions in civilization: the most basic components of nature and their interactions, the origin and evolution of the universe. The discipline emerged from the tumultuous first half of the 20th century. Its most ambitious projects, like the LHC, are accomplished over the past few decades, made possible by a unique period in human history with unprecedented stability, prosperity, and interconnectivity. COVID-19 and its ripple effects present a once-in-a-generation challenge. We are sailing on uncharted waters: Wishful thinking is not a solution. Cynicism is just another form of denial. Whether the global community descends by our worst instincts, or breaks for higher ground, depends on how much we are willing to confront reality, and how much we care.

cosmos

“We are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.”

— Gwendolyn Brooks

The mayor of Chicago quotes the poet laureate to conclude her televised address. There were rumors that a citywide lockdown was on the way, but we were only told to stay at home if sick. School closures are extended through April 20. Evictions are put on hold. Water and other utilities won’t be shut off due to late payments. The city is partnering with private philanthropy to create loans and relief programs for small businesses.

The mayor’s speech, live streamed on Twitter, began with a reference to the Great Chicago Fire, and how the city and its people have always risen from the ashes. The analogy is overused, but it fits the occasion.

I once resorted to the same cliche. Eleven years ago, in the acknowledgement for my undergraduate thesis, I wrote these pompous words on how I was looking forward to a new life in the U.S., in “the city that redeemed itself from the fire, and endured long, hard winters.”

“With particle physics I have found my own redemption,” I went on in cringe-worthy prose. As a college senior, I was still fumbling at the gate of what was to become my vocation. I marveled at the scale of the experiments, the geographical spread of the collaborators, and the time it takes: a decade to plan, a decade to build, another decade or more to take data and study them.

My teenage mind could not grasp such magnitude. I did not know how to commit to a future that exceeded the number of years I had been alive. But I remembered one evening the summer before, when I was working on my first research project. For weeks there was only noise, on the page, on the screen, in my head. Then one night, like a blurry image shifting back to focus, the language cleared, the code made sense, the noise disappeared. I felt a calmness that I had never known, as if I had journeyed across a desert, where every inch of sand screamed, and arrived at an oasis, where there was only me in conversation with the cosmos.

I have returned to that oasis many times since. Sometimes the path takes longer than usual. Occasionally I get lost. But I always know that as long as the place exists, I will eventually find my way there, my sanctuary, my refuge.

If there is no one left to look up at the stars and ask the ancient questions, our species will have experienced a different type of extinction: the loss of connections to the past, the cessation of dreams about the future.

With the precarity of academia, my colleagues and I understand that for our generation of particle physicists, who came of age with the LHC, most of us will eventually leave the profession. Our work will outlast us; our fulfillment is in the moment. “It is like a big party,” a colleague says. We dive time and again into a bottomless ocean, ostensibly in search of treasure, but mostly because we enjoy the waves.

“Live every day like it is the last,” a million self-help books proclaim. But surviving an epidemic is about doing the exact opposite: Today is put on hold to give tomorrow a chance.

The LHC is scheduled to go through major upgrades at the end of this decade. My colleagues and I have been working toward that goal, and envisioning the physics potential with a newer, better machine. With all the horrific headlines, the increasingly troubling news, I sometimes wonder if we will make it that far. I do not think the world is ending in a few years’ time, but conditions of the economy and geopolitics could deteriorate to a point that renders fundamental science impossible to continue as a peaceful, transnational enterprise. Even today, exploring the nature of dark matter, the mysterious substance that makes up a quarter of our universe, a subject I have devoted the majority of my career to, feels like fiddling while Rome burns.

But if every person is consumed only with earthly affairs, and there is no one left to look up at the stars and ask the ancient questions, our species will have experienced a different type of extinction: the loss of connections to the past, the cessation of dreams about the future.

The governor has issued a shelter-in-place order for the entire state. It goes into effect at 5 p.m. on a Saturday, two days after the mayoral address. I make a mental note of the time, and look out the window at 4:25. I am hoping to observe the last minutes of “freedom,” if freedom still has meaning. Maybe I will notice something that fits into a narrative. Maybe there will be a sign that gives away the plot.

The streets are eerily quiet. A bus goes by, followed by a dark sedan, then a white one. A couple walk their dog. Lights are on from the building on the other side. The week has been cold, with a flurry of snow just the other day. The city sprawls beneath an overcast sky.

Suddenly the sun appears. My mouth falls open. My mood lifts like the clouds. I scribble in my notebook: “Sun coming out half an hour before shelter in place.”

A few years ago at a workshop on new ways to search for dark matter, the group photo outside was a mess: The sun was so bright we had trouble keeping our eyes open. “It is the dark matter at the center of our galaxy sacrificing themselves to give us the extra light!” I said. My colleagues chuckled politely at my obtuse joke.

In certain theories of dark matter, the invisible particles may annihilate in pairs and create photons, particles of light. Several years ago, an excess of photons were observed at the center of the Milky Way. The tantalizing signal could be from dark matter, or a variety of other sources. None of this has anything to do with the sun, of course, though if one thinks about it, the universe at its infancy contained a lot more dark matter particles than what remain today. Their interactions created the abundance of matter as we know it: stars in the galaxies, planets and their moons, mountains and creeks, birds and flowers, our forefathers and eventually ourselves. Every being, living or dead, is connected by this common ancestry. We carry within us the cosmic code. Our existence is its latest manifestation.

I savor this train of thought. I put my face in the direction of the sun. I breathe in its warmth.

cosmos

Illustration by Julia YH


Yangyang Cheng and the Science and China Column will return on the final Wednesday of every month. Last month:

Fault Lines in Humanity

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