New seminar series delves into the Higgs boson and Mozart's Requiem

As the rain poured and wind swirled outside, the Episcopal Parish Hall was silent as Michael Riordan turned his back to the audience.

A moment later he spun around, his shirt unbuttoned and revealing – superman style – another shirt beneath with the words: Super Collider. To those unfamiliar with the subject, it’s a machine with tremendous data proving the existence of the Higgs boson, a new sub-atomic particle.

The audience laughed – the move was an unexpected twist in what could have been a dry science lecture. But with material like a major scientific discovery and Riordan’s background as a particle physicist, one could only expect a night of illuminations. Laughter was an extra bonus. His talk led the audience through the discovery, the definition of mass, Newton’s law of gravity and gave visuals to grasp these ideas, while engaging the audience in a lively discussion.

“I wanted to warm up the audience by asking questions ... and get them comfortable with a give and take conversation,” he said.

Riordan’s talk was the first of a new series called CrossCurrents, an addition to the Orcas Crossroads Lecture Series. The core purpose of it is to promote intellectual discussion with smaller numbers of participants.

The second seminar, entitled “Who Completed Mozart’s Requiem?” will be led by Roger Sherman on Thursday, Nov. 15, 5 p.m. at Rosario, followed by dinner.

Sherman is the director of the Orcas Choral Society, as well as a local music publisher and host of Seattle’s “Organ Loft” radio program.

“I think this is the beginnings of an important new event for the Orcas intellectual scene,” said Riordan, who hopes Crosscurrents will be like a college classroom.

Riordan, who is also on the Crossroads board,  has a rich background in science. He was an adjunct professor at University of California, Santa Cruz and lecturer at Stanford. He earned his doctorate in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was part of a collaborative effort credited with the discovery of quarks – the building blocks for subatomic particles.

The Higgs boson, also known as the God’s particle, has been – to Riordan’s pleasant surprise – front page news.

After 40 years of searching, scientists announced on July 4 that they had discovered a new sub-atomic particle consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson, thought to be the source of mass in the universe. Here is how Riordan describes it, in collaboration with two other authors in the Scientific American: “The Higgs boson is the physical manifestation of an ethereal fluid (called the Higgs field) that permeates every corner of the cosmos and imbues elementary particles and their distinctive masses.”

He said at the lecture that finding the Higgs boson was as complex as identifying smoke from a cigarette inside a burning building by carefully studying the patterns of all the smoke.

Riordan hopes to see not only science and technology as a topic in the future, but to engage speakers from the arts and humanities sector like the second seminar, which delves into the questions of who completed the requiem and what help Mozart might have provided from his deathbed. These are questions that have intrigued musicians and historians for centuries. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the work was later modified by additional “completions” whose composers claim to have made it more consistent with similar Mozart works.

“People with only a passing interest in music, like me, can enjoy it because it’s also about the process that goes into a performance,” said Riordan, who, for his lecture, also used the idea of focusing on the process rather than only presenting scientific facts and terminology.

“So far it’s been kind of an experiment,” he said about Crosscurrents. “We will learn from each experience.”

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