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I wonder what it will be like to fall

What explains the attraction of so many physicists to mountain climbing?

By George Johnson
Dr. Stephen Gubser (right) and his brother on the summit of the Grand Teton mountain in Wyoming. When he's not climbing he researches "calibration functions for young universes in two-dimensional quantum gravity"

The great physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg used to have their debates about quantum theory, the theory that explains the behavior of particles in the subatomic world, while hiking in nature near Copenhagen.
Over the years, the physical theories, which were already very difficult to understand in the days of Bohr and Heisenberg, became extremely abstract. The landscapes in which they were developed were also extreme: to ponder new ideas about multidimensional universes and tiny vibrating superstrings, there are theorists who will settle for nothing less than climbing up a vertical wall of rock or ice.

"More than a century ago, a mathematician named Arthur Cayley said that climbing a mountain and proving a theorem in mathematics gave him the same kind of satisfaction," notes Dr. Steven Gubser, a superstring theorist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). "I think this explains one of the motivations of physicists

Climbing today." On Dr. Gubser's website, next to links to recent articles (including "calibration functions for young universes in two-dimensional quantum gravity") there is a photo of him and his brother on the summit of the Grand Teton in Wyoming.

Almost every conference of physicists has a nucleus of alpine adventurers, whose passion for exploring the wild landscapes of scientific abstractions sends them climbing granite cliffs or barely qualifying up rocky fields at 4,000 meters. "Both the type and the physics create an intimacy with nature," said Dr. Steven Giddings, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies the special properties of black holes. "In physics, intimacy comes from discovering the deepest secrets about the workings of nature; In climbing, it comes from facing unfamiliar challenges." Last year, Dr. Giddings was photographed for a mountaineering magazine, climbing, ice ax in each hand, up a frozen waterfall in Ouray Gorge in southern Colorado. He later appeared on the cover of "Utah Outdoors" magazine

Some physicists, like Dr. Giddings, specialize in rock and ice climbing; Others are just serious hikers. Either way, they can be found in abundance on the peaks towering over meeting places such as the "Aspen Physics Center" in the Elk Mountains in Colorado or the Chamonix Valley Physics Center in the French Alps. They also gather regularly for meetings and climbs in the Lake Louise region of Canada and for an annual high-energy physics workshop in Boulder, Colorado.

"When I was a student at Cambridge, about half the members of the university's mountaineering club were mathematicians or physicists," said Dr. John Cardy, a theoretical physicist at Oxford who recently joined a trek in the Himalayas. "In the local club where I am now a member there is still a quantitative superiority for people trained in physics."

The secret of the charm, said Dr. Cardi, is "the simple beauty of the mountains, reminiscent of that of good physics; The combination of individual effort and teamwork required to achieve the goal in both areas; the feeling of discovery associated with qualifying for the top and deciphering physical secrets; And the competitive aspect: who will be the first to climb a certain mountain or write an article about a certain theory."

Just as they put thought into understanding nature's exquisite symmetries, some physicists hypothesize why they are drawn to mountains. "Climbing is a physical challenge, but also to a large extent a mental challenge," said Dr. Giddings. "You have to be completely focused, and solve complex problems."

Recently, Giddings and another climber-theoretician, Dr. Lisa Randall of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a paper called "Backgrounds Linearized,"Gravity in Brane which supports part of a terrifying theory according to which the universe is a four-dimensional bubble ("4-brane"). A five-dimensional megaverse (another important contributor to this amazing new view is Dr. Giorgi Devali, a theorist from New York University who overcame the first three dimensions while climbing some of the most difficult routes in the Caucasus Mountains in Central Asia).

"One of the difficulties in theoretical physics is the intangibility of the subject," said Dr. Giddings. "In climbing, the challenges are tangible to such an extent that small decisions will determine whether you survive or not."

Not that physicists necessarily discuss the details of their latest theories while dangling from a rope over an abyss that is as threatening as a black hole. However, many of them find that both navigating the intricacies is a difficult problem and climbing up a menacing granite wall requires a thorough examination of a precise series of steps. And another thing: the mathematical nuances of gravity become much less abstract on the way to the top of a cliff.

"Both pursuits place importance on abstraction," said Dr. Brett Oberot, a theorist and climber who studies supersymmetry and other physical theories at the University of Pennsylvania. "In one you learn something abstract about nature and the way it works, and in the other you follow spectacular fracture lines in the rock. Both things are beautiful and elegant, and both need to be understood and deciphered."

As in physics, there is a constant tension in climbing between the desire to "do it alone" and the need to rely on friends. "One of the best things that mountain climbing and scientific research have in common is that you do most of it in collaboration with other people who share your goals, who you trust and who you depend on," said Caltech superstring theorist Dr. Gubser. Over the years, physicists gave their names not only to physics phenomena but also to routes up rock obstacles. Theorists at CERN, the leading European particle physics laboratory, refer to the "Sacherer Frequency" (Frequency Sacherer) and the "Sacherer Method" to calculate something known as the "instability of bound rays" in a particle accelerator. And climbers in Yosemite Park are faced with Zacharar Canyon, part of a route up the mountain known as "El Capitan". All these milestones, in physics and in type, were named after Dr. Frank Zacher, a theoretical physicist at CERN who was a world-renowned expert on the behavior of particle accelerators.

Climbers in the Schwangau Mountains north of New York City may find themselves trying to overcome the "Shockley Ceiling", named after Dr. William Shockley, the Bell Labs researcher who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 for the development of the transistor. Another avid climber of the Schwangau mountains was Dr. Lester Grammer, who collaborated with Dr. Clinton Davison in 1927 to show that electrons could behave as waves, as predicted by quantum theory.

In his memoirs, "Passages Mountain", Dr. Jeremy Bernstein, a physicist, recalled how he luckily escaped from a dangerous situation at a place called "The Cosmic Bulge", a challenging route up the southern flank of the Agy-de-Midi (Midi's Needle ) in the French Alps. The site is named after the laboratory where, at the beginning of the century, the nature of cosmic radiation was studied.

Dr. Bernstein managed, with the help of his guide, to avoid falling. But there are physicists who lost their lives in the mountains. Dr. Zacherer and Dr. Joseph Weiss, a young theoretician, were killed in 1978 in a storm that broke out while descending the Grand Juras mountain near Chamonix.

In 1988, Dr. Heinz Feigels, a theorist from Rockefeller University, fell to his death while hiking down Pyramid Peak near Aspen, which is about 4,300 meters high. Before he was killed, Dr. Feigels, in his book "The Cosmic Code", pondered the question "What would it be like to fall". The passage is often quoted by physicists and mountaineers. "Recently I dreamed that I was holding on to a rock, but it doesn't hold," he wrote. "The pebbles have been released. I sent my hand to grab the bush, but it came loose, in freezing terror I fell into the abyss."

Dr. David Schram, a cosmologist and physicist whose daring climbing exploits earned him the nickname "Schrambo", did not die on a mountain; He was killed when a plane he was flying to Aspen in 1997 crashed in a wheat field in Colorado. Before that, Schram was rescued several times during climbing missions on four continents.

As Dr. Shockley and Dr. Grammer demonstrate, not only theorists but also physicists from the experimental field apply their analytical skills to the giant blocks of subatomic particles known as rock. Sometimes members of these two "subcultures" collaborate in the laboratory and on the summits.

In the late 60s Dr. James Bjorken, a theorist at SLAC ("Stanford University Linear Accelerator Center" in California), worked with a team of researchers led by Dr. Henry Kendall to show that protons and neutrons are made of tiny sub-particles more called quarks. They and a third physicist, Dr. Herbert Destabler, lived together in the same house and liked to hike together in Yosemite Park. During the long trips to and from the park, Dr. Bjorken explained why he thought an experiment should be conducted to confirm the theory. According to most physicists at the time, the chances of success of such an experiment were slim.

"During all these trips we talked about physics," recalled Dr. Bjorken. "This social interaction, in which the type played an essential part, was of great importance." The experiment, one of the greatest achievements of physics in the 20th century, earned Dr. Kendall and his two colleagues the Nobel Prize. Kendall died in 1999, but photos of him climbing the Cordillera Blanca mountain in Peru still hang in the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Both physics and type seem to attract people who are comfortable living on the fringes of society. "While I wouldn't describe any of the mountaineer physicists I know as socially 'unsuccessful' or outcasts, physics is not something you can chat about with just anyone, and you have to be able to accept the fact that most people you meet on the street won't be able to deeply appreciate Every aspect of it," said Dr. Lance Dixon, a physicist and climber working at the Stanford Center.

Dr. Oberot said that almost no one seems to understand any of his obsessions: "A million people have asked me over the years: Do you do physics? What is the importance of this? What could that even mean to any of us?' I hear it from my family, from well-meaning friends. I never understood this question. I've heard the exact same questions about mountain climbing. I don't understand them in this matter either."

(Originally published on 20.2)
New York Times
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