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Category: Big Picture

Not With a Bang But a Chirp
Normally, I hesitate to expound on the subject of theoretical astrophysics. I don’t want to give the impression that I am presenting myself as some kind of expert in these matters. I really prefer the term “gifted amateur.”

But let’s not waste time on such distinctions. I’ll let you be the judge. In case you didn’t hear the recent news from deep space, here’s the skinny: 1.3 billion years ago, two black holes in a galaxy far, far away were spinning around each other at the rate of 250 rotations per second. As they spun, gravity waves spiraled out into the universe in every direction at (what else?) the speed of light. The two behemoths’ frantic dance of courtship finally ended in a cataclysmic climax, releasing one last pulse that was equal in its power output to 50 times that of the entire visible universe.

The sex was so good, in fact, that both lovers died. But a new black hole, almost twice the size of both together, was born. Ordinarily, nobody on Earth would have noticed. The usual means of observing the universe — optical, radio, and x-ray telescopes — could not have detected this event. By the time that last wave reached Earth, however, it so happens that scientists had just created a whole different kind of observational device. Instead of looking for stuff, they were ready to listen for it — specifically, for the kind of gravity waves produced over a billion years ago by those two black holes in heat.

Those scientists and engineers weren’t even sure such a thing existed, even though Einstein had predicted that it did. They built LIGO, this 2.5-mile-by-2.5-mile right angle filled with precision gizmos, to see (or rather, hear) if Albert was right. Maybe, just maybe, these ripples in space/time could be discovered at last.

Bingo! Or rather, chirp! No Booms or Ka-blooies or thunderous roars to match the event itself…just this one little musical note. In the key of middle C, they said.

Big deal, you say? Nice goin’ fellas, but what’s a chirp when we can already see the universe bellowing at us? What’s so freakin’ special about this new thing? The answer: it’s special because it is new…a new and unique kind of information available in no other way than this. Furthermore, black holes aren’t the only things that produce gravitational waves. Any mass that moves will do it, and that includes everything in the universe. We are swimming in such waves.

A new kind of data means a whole different take on then universe. Have you ever stood on the roof of your house? It’s different up there, isn’t it? Gives you a different perspective, doesn’t it? You see things you’ve never seen before, you notice relationships you never knew existed, you’re above, beyond, and outside your previous understanding of the world.

So, yeah…it’s a big deal. What the experts can’t tell you, however, is what we will discover from observing these new data. They can’t, of course, because we haven’t discovered it yet. It’s been several months now since that first chirp. So where are the other chirps?

UPDATE: Hi, it’s me, interrupting myself. I wrote the above in February 2016, but never posted it. I was writing right after the LIGO team published its paper about their first big detection from the previous year. There have been (to answer my own question) several noteworthy chirps since then. The first four were also the results of colliding black holes. In October of 2017, however, LIGO and its Italian counterpart Virgo detected something new — the merger of two neutron stars.

Meanwhile, the LIGO team has copped several awards, including a Nobel Prize in Physics. LIGO-India, or INDIGO, is now under construction. Improvements to the original system continue to be made, increasing the sensitivity and scope of future observations. That means more people standing on the roof and enjoying that unique perspective on the universe.

So far, observations have confirmed what scientists had predicted. Einstein’s theory of general relativity got a boost because it had imagined gravity waves in the first place. The data from the black hole collisions proved that those mysterious objects do, in fact, exist. Observations of the neutron merger proved (when taken with data from regular, old-fashioned observations) that gamma rays ands heavy metals are indeed products of such collisions.

I do like that we’re getting confirmations of previous scientific insights. It goes a long way toward chumping out the science deniers, and that’s a good thing in this era of “alternative facts.” When it comes to what I look for as a gifted amateur astrophysicist, however, this is not the ideal outcome. For me to do my best work, there must be new, inexplicable data to contend with — something that utterly dumbfounds the scientific community.

So I’m fine with the chirps, but I want more. A trill, perhaps, or a cheep. A distant hoot would be great, or even a full-on gobble. That might be too much to hope for, but I will take anything that calls for the kind of analysis that requires no data to speak of — much less an understanding of the laws of physics. That’s where I will come in.
What It Is
I had to cancel the presentation of my paper to the annual conference of the IAAA. It was a difficult decision, especially since I am on the board of the Intergalactic Association of Armchair Astrophysicists.

I had planned to detail my most recent work establishing the Pulsating Nodes Theory (PNT) as the appropriate visual metaphor for everything-that-there-is. My research, however, has uncovered some new findings that have led me to abandon that formulation. My apologies to my brothers and sisters in the Association. I promise you that my search for imaginary truth will not end here.

Still, I do not make this change of mind without some regrets. The PNT remains, in many ways, an apt analogy to the concepts that mere science has brought to the table of lay understanding. It imagines all existence as a 4-dimensional “mist” of pulsating nodes, each of which “blinks” (pulsates) at its own unpredictable rhythm, offering us a vision of a shimmering, layered cloud of multiverses existing beyond even meta-time.

A beautiful image, yes (especially if we had eyes to see beyond our three pathetic little dimensions), but I cannot sustain my support for this visualization. My communications with members of the other IAAA (International Alliance of Actual Astrophysicists) have opened my eyes to some inconvenient truths that undermine my theory. One concerns the Red Shift discovered by the astronomer Edwin Hubble over 90 years ago. The logical extrapolation from this phenomenon is that our immediate universe will continue to expand — with the rate of expansion actually speeding up — until it runs of of “gas,” leaving an unimaginably huge dead thing where once there was life and energy and light.

Not only is that a depressing prospect, it runs counter to the fundamental premise of the Pulsating Nodes Theory. The PNT posits a universe that expands, then contracts on itself, over and over again. Ours, along with an infinite number of other universes, would go on like this forever, thereby producing the light show of an infinite number of Big Bangs illuminating the cosmic fog of Is/Is not.

I have struggled (just as brother Einstein did) to explain away the Red Shift. Some of my friends in IAAA #2 were with me in this effort, including Christof Wetterich, a theoretical physicist at the University of Heidelberg. Chris proposed that the apparent shift was caused, not by an expansion of the universe, but by a change in mass in the observed phenomena. Such a change could mimic the symptoms of an expanding universe, thereby allowing the PNT conception to remain viable. I am sorry, Chris, but I cannot continue this charade any longer.

I had also clung to the hope that the hypothetical existence of white holes might somehow save the PNT from the junk pile. But no. The whole white hole idea felt like a desperate conspiracy theory aimed at denying the obvious: this universe (like all multiverses) will end up becoming nothing more than a vast headstone on its own grave, cold and dark and dead forever. The PNT might as well be buried there too.

There are some new hypotheses coming out of IAAA #2, however, that give me hope for a new meta-metaphor. I am calling it, for now, the Bubbling Multiverse Stew Theory. Indiana University physicist Nikodem Poplawski has cranked out some mathematical models suggesting that black holes represent other, newer universes a-birthing right here in our own. Those universes would not be included in our dead zone, but rather would live separate lives of their own. Those fledgling multiverses would end by producing their own self-made cemeteries, but on a different clock than ours. And, like this one, they would be creating new universes through their black holes.

It is as if each multiverse is a morsel of food in the Big Stew of eternal is-ness, and each bit is fully cooked in its own good time. Some bits are hunks of meat, others are celery or carrot or a pinch of spice. (I like to think of our universe, incidentally, as nice piece of lamb shank.) New morsels are being added all the time to this Eternal Crockpot, but eventually every ingredient becomes part of the broth.

Or whatever. As you can see, I’m still working on the Bubbling Multiverse Stew Theory (including the name). But I think it has promise as something-we-can-grasp as an explanation for everything-that-there-is. Watch this space/time.
Gettin' Old
No, I am not going to talk about my aches and pains (although, to be honest, those stories are brimming with fast-paced adventure and compelling personal drama). Instead, I want to talk about cosmic aging.

Usually, when you hear someone utter the phrase “gettin’ old,” it is used in connection with an inability to remember, or a difficulty in getting up off the couch, or in coping with the latest technology. It is a reluctant admission that Father Time has finally caught up with the geezer in question. That is silly, of course. Father Time has been neck and neck with us from the beginning.

We all get stronger and bigger and smarter as we grow old, of course. It might even be said that we reach our peak in the late 20s or early 30s or (if you stay in shape) your 40s. But when it comes to gettin’ old, we’re doing that from day one. Some would put that day as the date of birth; others would point to the moment of conception. Both of those are certainly significant events on the timelines of our lives, but if we step back and take a wider view, aren’t they merely points along a much longer continuum?

Think of it. The particular sperm and egg that joined at our conception represent, between them, the totality of our being. There is only one way they could have joined, and the result could only have been us. Both of them were living things before that moment, so why can’t we add the spans of their individual existences to ours? The sperm might have come into being the very morning of conception, but the egg had been around (in the sense we are talking about) since our mothers’ conception. Using the same kind of analysis, our identity can be tracked back to her mother. And so on.

That’s what I mean by cosmic aging. We have been “alive” all the way back to the beginning of life on Earth. Which means we have all been gettin’ old for roughly 3.5 billion years. And if you believe, as some think, that our original amino acids were splashed here when an asteroid hit Mars, we are even older. In fact, once we get going on this line of thinking, we can reasonably trace our “births” back to the Big Bang itself — 13.8 billion years ago.

If you buy into the latest thinking among theoretical physicists, time will come to an end in just 5 billion years. At the heart of that projection, however, is the idea that our universe is constantly creating other universes through its black holes (adding more multiverses to an already infinite number of such entities), and that those cosmoses will have lives of their own that are billions of years long. Our universe, in turn, was created by an “earlier” universe where time has since stopped. That linkage extends both forward and backward without end.

My conclusion: we are immortal. We have always been around, and we always will be. Ergo, we are not gettin’ old. Never have, never will. That said, I can report that (from where I sit on the continuum) we’re not gettin’ any younger, either.
Low and Slow
It is certainly an animal to be reckoned with. It is among the largest of its kind. It boasts a prodigious libido and glorious coloration. Yes, truly a magnificent beast. For a slug. And even if you don’t particularly like slugs, you have to give it up for Ariolimax californicus, the one and only banana slug.

That said, it’s a hard animal to cozy up to. I’m used to my furry friends being furry. And warm. A lump of slimy, room-temperature squrmishness is not my idea of man’s best friend. It looks like an internal organ that has somehow escaped the body of a larger animal, a raccoon gizzard that decided to strike out on its own. How could such a creature even manage to exist so naked and exposed to the world?

I saw one on my front porch today, and he/she (they can switch) did nothing to calm my concern for these gastropods. (Yes, concern. I am not heartless, you know.) It seemed to be making a beeline (a very, very slow beeline) for the doorknob side of my front door. I passed the slug several times during the morning, each time noting that the trail of slime had lengthened slightly, all the while remaining true to its course.

I’m not sure what mission the creature was on. The two main categories, I am told, are food and sex. There is food in my house, but not too much of the dead organic matter slugs are so fond of. I suppose my entire home might represent a possible meal to the slug, once the nails, resins, and plastics were removed, but it didn’t seem as appetizing as the leaves, moss, and animal droppings that were so abundant on the nearby forest floor. And if this slug had notions of a possible mating opportunity within my walls, I could have assured it that I do not run that kind of establishment.

It is possible, I suppose, that it harbored some other motivation. Perhaps it longed for a life with more meaning, or it had set itself to discover the purpose of its own existence, or it simply had a wild hair up its tentacle. Still, there was nothing inside my house (even if it did manage to open the door) that would be of much help with any of these goals.

No, it was on a fool’s errand. At these speeds, the whole project seemed like a huge waste of the slug’s time. It was taking forever, it seemed, to slide across my porch on a mission clearly doomed to fail. That was the root of my concern — the sadness of time and opportunities lost. That, and a return trip across the porch filled with regret and self-recrimination. I could have intervened and spared it all of that heartache. I could have picked it up (perhaps rolling it onto my handy copy of Field and Stream) and transported it to a more promising environment. But that seemed wrong. The slug had taken great pains to climb the stairs of my porch, and it clearly had a vision of where it wanted to go. Who was I to second guess its sluggish heart?

So I let it be. I had to leave eventually, so I never witnessed the outcome of the drama. If it reached my front door, it either turned back or continued its quest by climbing the wall of my house. Perhaps, finding its dream thwarted, it returned to the raccoon it had left behind and resumed its life as a gizzard. I will never know.

I am comforted by the knowledge, however, that whatever its destiny was, the banana slug had fulfilled it. With patience and determination. And very, very slowly.
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