Particles and Putters

On September 23, a team of scientists led by Dr. Dario Autiero of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Lyon changed the world. Probably.

I say probably because nobody's quite sure.

The scientists conducted an experiment which proved something impossible. That is impossible according to another scientist, Albert Einstein, and his most famous theory about the speed of light.

They sent a beam of neutrinos from CERN, Europe's biggest particle accelerator through the earth's crust to another lab 450 miles away, faster than the speed of light.

To be precise, 60 nanoseconds faster than it would take a beam of light to cover the same distance.

If the researchers are right, this moves physics to a higher plane than Albert Einstein's theory.

Or so I'm informed.

I have long been interested in neutrinos.

For years, I thought they were the small Brazilian rodents accidentally released into the wetlands of Louisiana, that caused all kinds of wreckage.

But no, they were nutria, not neutrinos.

I was interested in neutrinos because of my ongoing fascination with Sudbury, Ontario. Canada is a world leader in things neutrinoesque because of the deep mines under Sudbury.

There is a huge neutrino facility, one of the largest in the world, underneath the city where they do amazing neutrino things. Science things.

I'd be willing to bet that without Sudbury, Dr. Autiero would be driving a cab in Rome.

But I have to be very very careful talking about Sudbury.

In a national newspaper, I once referred to Sudbury as the dark side of the moon.

The city's mayor, a jovial rogue named Joe Fabbro threatened to sue me. And to remove certain crucial body parts.

It is not true, as the mayor took pains to point out, that the astronauts rehearsed their moon landings in Sudbury and environs.

When I read about the European neutrinos beating Einstein's light particles, I thought of how ground-breaking the experiment could turn out to be.

But then I read the obituary of a man who died just a week before the European experiment.

Ralph Lomma died in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was 87.

I had never heard of Ralph Lomma but I should have. Ralph Lomma was the giant behind miniature golf.

Now he didn't invent the game. It began in Britain sometime in the mid-19th Century.

What Ralph Lomma did was popularize the game.

He introduced those crazy windmills and Ferris wheels, the dark tunnels and the castles with toy moats and the clown where you had to drive the ball into his mouth.

Miniature golf is no big deal now. But it used to be.

It belongs to more innocent days; the era of drive-in movies, real milk shakes, desert boots and necking in the balcony.

Miniature golf was where you often took your girl on the second date, the first being a movie and a burger.

Unlike grown-up golf, miniature golf was fun. No one took it seriously. You could laugh out loud or even talk as your opponent was trying to sink a putt.

It was tremendously popular for a very long time. When I lived in Quebec in the 70s, some TV stations broadcast miniature golf contests on Sunday afternoons. They called it Mini-Putt.

Ralph Lomma and his brother and their company sold more than 5,000 miniature golf courses, indoor and out, all over the world, from Kenya to China.

Now perhaps Ralph's accomplishment pales beside that of Dario Autiero.

But for some reason it seems more human, warmer somehow.

There is something cold and methodical about neutrinos roaring through mountains.

Knocking a golf ball through the blades of a tiny windmill with your girl looking on has more going for it to my mind.

Dr. Autiero will probably win the Nobel Prize for physics this time next year. You prove Einstein wrong, you will be remembered for a long time.

Ralph Lomma will remembered, if he is in fact remembered by anyone beyond his family, for his crazy windmills and his Ferris wheels.

And maybe something more. I'll bet, for example, nobody takes their date to the CERN particle accelerator in Europe.

People can fall in love on the putting green of a miniature golf course.

Maybe it happens when a young man looks into the eyes of a young woman and says "Nice shot."

Thanks Ralph.

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