We all love origin tales. And this summer has given us a few big ones. The July 4th festivities kicked off with The Amazing Spider-Man, the second of the season's superhero origins stories. (Back in May, The Avengers soared; it was a sort of origins story that gave us the beginnings of that motley superhero crew.)
The new Spider-Man looks to be a hit of Avengers proportions (that movie raked in some $600 million domestically), and it's remarkable coming only a few years after the last Spider-Man franchise wound down. This one goes back to Spider-Man's origins (all over again).
But the Spider-Man story plays to the nerd, the loner, the disenfranchised in all of us who, if we're cursed or blessed with an extraordinary gift, must decide whether to use it to serve others or profit from it for ourselves. Mix that with the self-doubt that nags at everyone but the megalomaniac, and you've created a modern heroic myth that, like the myths of old, can be retold many times and retain their power.
What Stan Lee did when he first imagined Spider-Man was to make him a product of our atomic age: A radioactive spider transformed a loser into a leaper. Like most heroes of Greek legend, Peter Parker became endowed with superhuman gifts. He was turned into a demigod, rather like a Hercules with inferiority issues who accepts his lot and even rises above inner dread, finding courage out of confusion. Stan Lee deified the nerd and found how those who are considered fearful of life learn -- and even embrace -- fearlessness.
The anxious nerd in me, despite my longtime love for most iterations of Spider-Man, was thrilled beyond any 3D spectacular by the announcement the very day that the Spider-Man movie opened that scientists have found a particle that could unlock the key to the universe. The origin story to end all (or the one that began everything)!
Although I couldn't possibly comprehend anything that describes in mathematical terms the work that scientists conducted at the Large Hadron Collider, I know that this particle is one whose discovery helps physicists prove the existence of a force that seems to hold everything together. They've been working for years on this, tirelessly, even fearlessly -- in the face of almost impossible odds -- to discover something almost indiscoverable.
The particle is, of course, the Higgs boson (or the "elusive" Higgs boson, since journalists everywhere have attached that adjective to this particle, it being so difficult to find and assess).
And why should I care? I'm not a scientist, I'm just a guy who tries to sell books. Well, like anyone else going back to the dawn of civilization, I'm interested in where we come from. And while I may not understand the concept of the quantum universe or the actions of subatomic particles, I understand that this knowledge will have a profound effect on how we look at ourselves, and these actions will give us a sense of ourselves despite our worries about everyday things. (I may not understand Einstein's theory of relativity either, but I rely on the scientists and engineers who've used it to guarantee the accuracy of the GPS I rely on.)
The more we learn about the strange complexities of our universe and the philosophical implications of ever really knowing anything without inferring its existence through mathematical and scientific means, the more I'm convinced that those who have dedicated their careers to opening up unseen worlds so that we might try to comprehend who we are, where we are and what we're made of, are probably the closest any of us will ever have to real, live superheroes. Researchers who live with rejection, frustration, the limitability of human technology in the face of the infinitude of nature, are truly fearless.
And when the science gets too complicated to understand at even the most basic level, there's always Spider-Man.
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