So there are dictionaries that will tell you stolidly that a rabbit hole is a hole in the ground, dug by a rabbit.
But the edgiest ones take the Lewis Carroll view that rabbit holes are much more than that.
I’m always more than a little unsettled by the image of the little girl who follows a white rabbit and ends up losing control completely. And that feeling of strange estrangement, of the total detachment from reality, it dogs the term now. When we go down a rabbit hole, we chase the known into the utterly uncharted, the bizarre, the impossibly odd.
Which is why scientists so often find themselves using it.
“Like Alice in Wonderland,” writes expert in human molecular genetics, Chris Gunter, “researchers in the molecular genetics of cancer may feel that each discovery leads to a ‘curiouser and curiouser’ set of questions.”
There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Things that happen on another plane, without us even thinking about them. Unless, that is, we are physicists in Siberia. Physicists in Siberia think about the unknown a lot, because, let’s face it, what else is there to do out in Siberia?
Atoms change all the time. And when they change type, they give out energy, but we don’t see it because our personal world is small,when all is said and done.
But a Jesuit priest was of the persuasion to ask questions about them. In 1909, Theodor Wolf stood at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, Paris, with a little gadget he had made. It was called an electrometer. And he measured the energy coming from changing atoms, all the way up to the top.
And at the top, the energy was far higher than at the bottom. And after some hefty mathematical calculations, the priest concluded that the energy was coming, not from below, but from the sky scape above.
So what was the source of this energy?
Could it be the sun? Only a crazy scientist would think of taking a balloon to 5300 metres during an eclipse to rule this out. But in 1912 that’s just what Austrian-American physicist Victor Hess did. The energy, even without the sun, increased fourfold at that height.
Curiouser and curiouser.
“The results of my observation,” Hess announced in his presentation speech for the Nobel Prize- “are best explained by the assumption that a radiation of very great penetrating power enters our atmosphere from above.”
Unseen energy from above. Cosmic rays. We surf dangerously close to pseudoscience, do we not?
No, we do not. Thanks to the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which has spotted the origin of these incredible bursts of energy. The ‘rays’ are actually just really high-energy particles which plummet into our atmosphere, colliding with the natives to produce great showers of energy. They’re called air showers.
And Fermi confirms the particles come from the supernovae of massive stars.
We have toured Paris and ballooned through an eclipse: best to head to Siberia for the conclusion of today’s rabbit hole. in Tunka, the middle of nowhere, a seeming wasteland, are a lot of very happy physicists. Because they have set up 133 sensitive light detectors. Their job: to detect the light created by air showers on dark, clear nights in the wastes of Russia. And in this way, to work out what direction the rays are coming from, and what type and energy they are.
I think, judging from the pictures on their website, that there is nothing happier than a scientist down a rabbit hole.
Written in response to Side View’s weekend challenge, ‘Down a rabbit hole’ which you can find here