How the Higgs Streams in the Firmament
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
Doctor Faustus, Act V
Two MCs can’t occupy the same space and the same time. It’s against the laws of physics.
“Zealots”, Lauryn Hill
As Stephen Greenblatt writes in Will in the World, Christopher Marlowe’s first play, Tamburlaine the Great, written in two parts circa 1587, is a defining moment in the history of English theatre. Tamburlaine was the first Elizabethan blockbuster, redefining how playwrights approached the stage. As Greenblatt says, “Had Marlowe not existed, Shakespeare would no doubt have written plays, but those plays would have been decisively different… The fingerprints of Tamburlaine… are all over the plays that are among Shakespeare’s earliest known ventures as a playwright… the neophyte Shakespeare and his collaborators seem to have been looking over their shoulders at Marlowe’s achievement.”
With the confirmation this year of a particle “very Higgs-like,” physics and cosmology now stand in a similarly dawned epoch for their subject. Echoing Marlowe’s line, the detection of the hoped-for streaming through the firmament physics takes us toward a figurative event horizon. The recent announcement from CERN has made me think not only of Marlowe’s line, but thinking about Marlowe’s impact on poetics and theatre. Events like the Higgs-Boson streaming through a particle accelerator are to modern physics as Marlowe’s work are to poetry and prose. The ATLAS experiment at CERN should be a cause for, as Marlowe might have described it, melodious birds singing madrigals.
The journey to the meeting with the Higgs at the French / Swiss border begins 107 years before and roughly 160 kilometers north-east in Bern. In his annus mirabilis, 1905, Albert Einstein published several revolutionary papers, including the introduction of his special theory of relativity. His first 1905 paper won him the Nobel Prize in 1921, and investigates the photoelectric effect, a phenomenon of electron emission that occurs under certain wavelengths of light. In this paper Einstein proposed the idea of energy being emitted as quanta – that is, in small, concentrated packets. Since Isaac Newton’s time, light had been understood as a wave. Einstein suggested that light can also be understood as being composed of quanta. The quanta that compose light are indivisible particles called photons. Scientific papers may not be theatrical scripts, but in his paper Einstein unwittingly suggested settings and directions for the laboratory and theory. In the next few decades physicists began to investigate the smallest level of the universe, the quantum level, at which quanta exist, finding that events at the quantum level defy the classical physics of the everyday. Quanta obey the mathematical law of probabilities. Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, published in 1927, shows how deeply probability steers the universe. The uncertainty principle is that both the momentum and position of a particle cannot be determined with infinite precision. The more one property is determined, the less the other property can be determined. The quantum level pulled the curtain for classical physics, that of Newton’s and Einstein’s worlds, where, theoretically, everything is predictable. The players in the quantum theatre learn their lines, but from our point of view, they also improvise.
The Higgs-Boson, named after the physicists Peter Higgs and Satyendranath Bose, is important because according to the Standard Model of physics, the Higgs-Boson provides the force of mass to quantum particles as a result of interaction between particles and the Higgs field, a quantum field that gives particles their mass. As quantum particles are fundamental building blocks of the universe, the Higgs, if theorizing is correct, is essential in understanding mass across the cosmos. “As are the elements, such are the heavens.” Be it in the snows of the Swiss Alps, the methane lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan, a Sarah Bernhardt performance, or in front of you now, invisible to our eye, the Higgs is there, providing mass to the universe. There are four fundamental forces in the universe, and physics has two different frameworks that describe the large and the quantum scales of the universe. Each accommodates one and three of the fundamental forces respectively.
Like reading lines by Marlowe, Khayyam or Xuân Hương, unless one understands the language in which the lexical magic is written, one may detect the signs of poetry, but the poetic brilliance is not felt, and even with a translation, one cannot truly grasp the artwork without understanding the original language. Einstein’s relativity describes the fundamental force of gravity and the physics of the vast: galaxies, planets and rocket travel. Relativity describes gravity by explaining it as the warping of spacetime. In other words, the force felt as gravity is the curvature of space and time, and like how one travels down a hill when the topography changes, one moves towards objects with large gravitational pull because they cause a curving of spacetime that one must follow if one enters that vicinity of spacetime.
Quantum physics describes the physics of the small, at the atomic level and smaller, and it describes the other three fundamental forces: the electromagnetic force, which acts upon electrically charged particles, the weak nuclear force, which causes radioactive decay, and strong nuclear force, which acts at the atomic level, connecting protons and neutrons together in the nuclei of atoms. For example, two adjacent electrons will repel because both have negative charge and particles with the same charge repel. Electron repel is the effect of the electromagnetic force, the force which acts on electrons. Quantum electrodynamics describes the repulsion of the electrons by saying the electrons repel because a photon is transferred between the electrons. In other words, the photon is the particle which carries the electromagnetic force. The electromagnetic force can thus be pictured as photons streaming through spacetime and interacting between electrons. “Action is eloquence.”
The Higgs field and its boson are essential for some of the most popular proposed methods for uniting these four forces under the same theoretical framework. Quantum electrodynamics was a gigantic step forward in understanding the fundamental aspects of nature because it could explain the electromagnetic force in terms of particles. In the aftermath of quantum electrodynamics’ success, the Standard Model of physics has been theorized slowly over decades, with the hope of deriving explanations for quantum physics in terms of particles. Gauge bosons are the particles which carry the fundamental physical forces. Gravity has been the troublesome force, but gluons were theorized as the particles that carry the strong nuclear force, and the W and Z bosons those that carry the weak nuclear force. These elementary bosons for the nuclear forces were discovered in the late 1970s and 1980s through experiments with particle accelerators. To make his namesake bargain, Faustus must contact Lucifer, but in Marlowe’s world devised, this occurs through the emissary Mephistopheles. In the cosmic dance of myriad quantum footsteps, the Higgs-Boson is a necessary choreographer for these gauge bosons. The main difference between the gauge bosons is that photons and gluons are massless, whereas the W and Z particles are very heavy. By providing mass to particles, the Higgs-Boson explains the difference. The difficulty with finding the Higgs is that it is very heavy, and for physicists to find it, high amounts of energy are required in order to potentially discover it through high-speed particle collisions.
Tamburlaine’s and Faustus’s soliloquies are dazzling, but they radiate more awe when understood in the settings of their plays. Bosons, tau leptons and particles interacting, decaying, and colliding like an atomic Times Square spread across the whole universe, spark captivating images. But they are potentially telling how the universe began and what occurred during its first moments. Producing a theory that can unify the fundamental forces might be the Babel-fish that can translate the story to us. The Unified Field Theory, UFT, or the Theory of Everything, is the hypothetical framework that unifies all four fundamental physical forces. A potential theory that unifies the three forces explained by quantum physics is called the Grand Unified Theory, GUT. Physicists generally believe that the four fundamental forces were unified in a state of “perfect symmetry” at the beginning of the universe. Like a circle is left the same, invariant, under any rotation, an equation has symmetry if it remains the same when its components are interchanged amongst themselves. In a similar manner, physicists think the four fundamental forces were symmetrical at the beginning of the universe, after which the symmetry broke, resulting in the universe we see now with the forces split from each other.
As a result of this disparity between symmetry retained and symmetry broken, a confirmed UFT could reveal breathtaking ideas about how the universe began and where it came from, confirming or rejecting variations of string theory, loop quantum gravity and other possibilities you can find on a physicist’s wall at your local university. A GUT would suggest a UFT is possible. “Come Mephistophilis, let us dispute again… Speak, are there many spheres above the moon? Are all celestial bodies but one globe, As is the substance of this centric earth?” With present physics measures beyond these questions, a Marlowe today might be a scientific journalist.
Finding the Higgs-Boson is like discovering script-notes and a director’s chair amidst a stage under the billing GUT. After the publication in September of peer-reviewed papers in the journal Physics Letters B, the probability that the particle that has been discovered is not the Higgs has been calculated as one-in-300-million. It is the strongest evidence yet that the standard model will be the basis on which future physics will stand, and suggests that the UFT, the lion, as Einstein described it, is lurking in the grass very near to us. It is camouflaged well, but our infra-red is beginning to work. Despite what Marlowe’s Faustus says, physics is not for petty wits.
Nor Marlowe himself. During his lifetime, circumstances allowed for a flourishing of literature that pushed poetic and dramatic brilliance. First, a theatre-going population became established. Second, the population liked poetry. And third, the theatre lacked props, requiring energy from other areas in order to help boost the imagery. Poetasters graduated quickly – they had tough gigs. The theatre scene emerged in London from a former scene of travelling shows, and key names emerged as playwrights and poets: Thomas Kyd, Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene, Henry Chettle. Under these circumstances, these writers created a kind of literary standard model for the new theatre. They played with verse and metre, finding great versatility in pentameter and blank verse. Blank verse is unrhymed verse most often applied to pentameter. Although not essential, these became preferred tools of the English poet for the Elizabethan stage because the lack of rhyming in blank verse written for characters can produce lines that more sound realistic than characters who rhyme frequently, and the pentameter is a Goldilocks length for lines in verse written for the stage. The “great joint of beef,” as Stephen Fry calls it in The Ode Less Travelled. Marlowe’s importance to the Elizabethan stage was that he mastered blank verse, and with his seven plays and collected poetry written completed before his death at age 29, he changed the Elizabethan stage completely by providing themes which his contemporaries and followers would utilize as standards.
Blank verse in English written in iambic pentameter was only decades old when Marlowe began experimenting with it, but Marlowe managed to reach the potentials blank verse possesses by mastering the employment of images, and particularly the metrical elements, the iambus, a pair of syllables with rising accentuation, iá-mb; the trochee, a backwards iambus, where the accentuation falls, tro-chee; the spondee, a pair of equally stressed syllables, spon-dee; the pyrrhic, a pair of syllables where neither syllable is stressed, and trios of syllables, a ternary, such as the anapaest, ti-ty tum, and the dactyl, tit-ty tum. With the varying accentuation they create along lines, iambs, trochees and their siblings, produce an effect of rising and falling. Metaphorically, a warping of audial topography. In Einstein’s universe, the warping of spacetime can create sensational images, such as when we can see two juxtaposed images of the same galaxy here on Earth because light from the galaxy is bent around intermediary star clusters on its journey to Earth. Similarly, careful consideration of the rising and falling in poetic metre can produce audial allures, as Marlowe managed to compose.
Blank verse was first used in English at the beginning of the 16th Century in sonnets, and the first play written in with blank verse in English was Thomas Norton’s and Thomas Sackville’s Gorboduc, written in 1561, whose verses include the following:
The wreakful Gods pour on my cursed head,
Eternal plagues and never dying woes,
The Hellish Prince, adjudge my damned ghost
To Tantalus’ thirst or proud Ixion’s wheel
Or cruel Gripe to gnaw my growing heart
To during torments and unquenched flames
If ever I concerned so foul a thought,
To wish his end of life, or yet of reign.
O what a ruthful steadfast eye me thought
He fixed upon my face, which to my death
Will never part from me, when with a braid
A deep felt sigh he gave and therewithal
Clasping his hands, to heaven he cast his sight.
Marlowe managed to create smoother lines than these because his choice of iambs and his way of breaking the lines cause a rhythm more pleasing to the ear. The lines “The Hellish Prince… unquenched flames” last five sentences without punctuation. There is a slight pause, a caesura, after “The hellish prince,” but all the other lines are enjambments, run-ons, where the end of one line runs into the next without a break. With “Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend / The wondrous architecture of the world”, Marlowe writes a line that runs onto the next after an initial pause, but his pause at the end of the second line emphases the meter and provides a break that emphases the iambic flow in the lines following.
Oh, thou art fairer than the evening’s air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter,
When he appeared to hapless Semele:
More lovely than the monarch of the sky,
In wanton Arethusa’s azure arms,
And none but thou shalt be my paramour…
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves, and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.
As the literary scholar J. B. Steane says in his edited collection of Marlowe’s work, in these lines from Faustus and Tamburlaine “[t]here is a terrible irony of context that places the brightness of the words against a somber and menacing background. But what is in the foreground is poetry of exceptional radiance and beauty: moreover, a fervour of spirit and responsiveness to the presence of beauty that are powerful and infectious.” Marlowe is discussing images that are wonderful and picturesque, and Steane’s point is that the brilliance of Marlowe’s verse is in part because he makes it easier to picture what he is describing. “Hellish Prince” presents a vague picture of a prince who is in some way diabolical. “Wanton Arethusa’s azure arms” provides a more vivid image by employing only two more words, with each of the four words describes a separate property and describes them with exactness. “To Tantalus’ thirst or proud Ixion’s wheel” is harsh, with its three words beginning with the letter ‘t’, followed by “or proud Ixion’s wheel”, which sounds compressed as a result of an iamb followed by a dactyl and a trochee. With simpler choices of words, “More lovely than the monarch of the sky”, Marlowe produces iambic lines that emphasize the metre and show a clearer image, which he bolsters with word selections like “hapless Semele,” which sounds smooth with the flow from the ess at the end of hapless into the beginning of Semele.
In some ways similar to the reason why the ideas behind the Higgs and solutions to the UFT, like super-symmetry, are popular, in Tamburlaine, Marlowe managed to conjure images and utilize the power of blank verse by producing lines that are as simple as required, but that have the products to tackle the more difficult, advanced aspects of the investigation. Following from the success in discovering other bosons predicted by the Standard Model, the Higgs keeps theorizing relatively simple because it concurs with general thought on particles and fields from the past 50 years.
Symmetry is employed by string theorists because, as string theorist Michio Kaku writes in Parallel Worlds, “in string theory… symmetries cancel the remaining divergences and anomalies of the theory [specifically here, a GUT with five types of quarks and leptons arranged to the symmetry SU(5), a symmetry which can interchange these five types amongst themselves].” Expositions in blank verse before Marlowe try to use the form to aid in the creation of images, but in Tamburlaine Marlowe produced lines that sound smoother on the ear by simplifying ways he uses the line, particularly using less words when he can, and trying to increase the visibility of the images he projects by choosing simple, but very effective, metaphors. The following are from Henry Howard, who introduced blank verse and the sonnet to English.
The sweet season, that bud and bloom forth brings,
With green hath clad the hill and eke the vale;
The nightingale with feathers new she sings;
The turtle to her mate hath told her tale.
With only one word longer than two syllables, Howard produces a nice iambic pace like lines such as “To be or not to be, that is the question,” one of the charms of his style. Nevertheless, the full potential of blank verse is not realized like Marlowe achieves. The best line in these four from Howard is the second. It has the best iambic flow of the four, and its references produce a wide landscape, utilizing the previous line: a hill, vale, green with spring and buds. The next two lines only mention that a nightingale is singing with new feathers, and a turtledove is also singing to her mate about spring’s arrival. Some of the other most famous early blank verse appears in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, written around the same time Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine.
In time the savage bull sustains the yoke,
In time all haggard hawks will stoop to lure,
In time small wedges cleave the hardest oak,
In time the flint is pierc’d with softest shower.
The blust’ring winds, conspiring with my words,
At my lament have mov’d the leafless trees,
Dis’robed the meadows of their flower’d green,
Made mountains marsh with spring-tides of my tears,
And broken through the brazen gates of hell.
However, the lines in Tamburlaine of which Marlowe showed blank verse is capable are more like these lines from The Spanish Tragedy.
I’ll down to hell, and in this passion
Knock at the dismal gates of Pluto’s court.
Marlowe’s poetry makes reference to a wide number of images from geography, classics, general phenomena and a wide vocabulary. The following are arguably the best lines from The Spanish Tragedy, but they occur at the climax of the play.
Had I as many lives as there be stars,
As many heav’ns to go to, as those lives,
I’d give them all, ay, and my soul to boot,
But I would see thee ride in this red pool.
In specific references, themes conjured and metaphors used to transport the images, Marlowe creates lines just as powerful as Kyd, although Marlowe’s can be found in every act of his play.
Stay, Sigismund: forgett’st thou I am he
That with the cannon shook Vienna walls,
And made it dance upon the continent,
As when the massy substance of the earth
Quiver about the axle-tree of heaven?
A pearl more worth than all the world is plac’d,
Wherein by curious sovereignty of art
Are fix’d his piercing instruments of sight…
And, like to Flora in her morning’s pride,
Shaking her silver tresses in the air,
Rain’st on the earth resolved pearl in showers,
And sprinklest sapphires on thy shining face…
“Flora in her morning’s pride… the axle-tree of heaven” is simpler than Kyd’s “Had I as many lives… as this red pool” because Marlowe uses less caesuras and more significant descriptive words, and the lines show how Marlowe can say more than Howard’s lines by economizing his words to employ more description. Marlowe’s invoking of the Roman goddess of flowers, classical mythology and jewels in describing rain produces an image with a number of different aspects, making the poetry more detailed and advanced than the images created by Howard’s and Kyd’s lines. Take out the references to jewels and replace them with “water” and “droplets” and a part of the imagery vital to its richness is lost. Kyd writes an enticing theme with “as many lives as there be stars, As many heav’ns to go to, as those lives”, but in two lines Kyd has three themes: lives, stars and empyrean places in the same number. Kyd discusses giving his soul “to boot”, but “to boot” is tautological and adds little to the poetic picture. With just one line, “Rain’st on the earth resolved pearl in showers”, Marlowe suggests an image of four parts, five if “resolved” is included. Marlowe’s better economizing with words frees him to add extra descriptive words, increasing the poetic force of his blank verse can perceive to a poetic five-sigma, rather than Kyd’s four-sigma. Marlowe is more dimensional, and his succinctness with the line allows the illustration sketched to be crafted quickly by the reader or listener.
No “standard model” exists for writing literature, but Marlowe’s use of blank verse became a standard for the Elizabethan stage, along with his approach to themes and drama. In “To the memory of my beloved master William Shakespeare, and what he hath left us”, Ben Jonson mentions Chaucer, Spenser, Kyd, Francis Beaumont and John Lyly as contemporary authors, but Marlowe is mentioned last and is the only one whose achievement is described specifically. “Marlowe’s might line” is understood as deserving reference, not just the playwright. Tamburlaine was widely popular, enjoying some of the first reruns by popular demand in the Elizabethan theatre. At the end of the first of the two Tamburlaine plays, after material obsession throughout the play, Tamburlaine simply strides away.
There it ends. English drama had been based on “morality plays” that were part of travelling shows, and “good morals” were believed to be the main point of the works. Characters were named after emotions and deeds, such as “Envy” and “Kindness”. This influenced the early Elizabethan stage, with Kyd including “Revenge” as a narrator in The Spanish Tragedy. As Greenblatt writes, Marlowe jettisoned this last element of the morality plays, and in the process strengthened dramatic elements by making his work appear more realistic. This became the approach Shakespeare used in his great tragedies, Jonson in his comedies and Webster in his tragedies. Tamburlaine was successful with crowds because of its emphasis on materialism, but as Marlowe scholar Michael J. Kelly has written, the play mocks “the material pretentiousness of people.”
“Nature, that fram’d us of four elements / Warring within our breasts for regiment, Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.” Whether the standard model of physics remains the same, becomes tweaked, or discarded in favour of something akin with future developments, the findings from CERN will likely be akin to Einstein’s achievements from the beginning of the last century. Einstein could not predict the rise of quantum mechanics when he proposed light as quanta in his 1905 paper because quantum mechanics overturned elemental ideas in physics about determinism.
Yet, with the standard model and the concept of a UFT, the Large Hadron Collider’s experiments are providing hints of where physics may be leading. But there are multiple paths theoretical physics proposes from here, and with so many theories, some will be mirages. As string theorist Lisa Randall has said, extra-dimensional theories often predict outcomes requiring very high energies, and to get a better idea about where physics beyond the Standard Model will be found, it is likely that we will need to wait until scientists can produce even higher-energies than at present. Climbing after knowledge infinite is a steady process. A theory here, a boson there. But with each step, quantum or galactic, the ascent reveals the wondrous architecture of the world.
Anthony Lock is a writer based in Sydney and New Zealand. His writing can be found at http://www.anthonylock.com/.