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Category: Big Picture

Lost and Unfounded
I accidentally knocked my pen off the nightstand the other night. I had thought of something important, and I needed to write it down to make sure I didn’t forget it. Since it was 3 a.m., it seemed to me that it was absolutely urgent that the future me receive my message. Although I can’t remember now exactly why it was so urgent, it was enough at the time to galvanize me into action.

I reached around for it on the floor in the dark, twisting every way possible from my prone position. Nothing. Grumbling, I got out of bed and down on my hands and knees. More failure. Finally, I turned on the light and squinted into the shadows. There it was, deep under the bed.

How was that even possible? How could a plastic ballpoint pen fall two feet onto a carpeted floor and bounce that far? Why didn’t it just hit and stop?

Later that same day, I was sitting in the living room, eating pistachios and watching sports on TV. One of the nuts escaped my grasp, hit my pantleg, and fell to the floor. It totally broke my rhythm. I don’t have to tell you how important a sustained rhythm is when you’re eating pistachios. You just want to keep it going and going until they’re gone.

Besides keeping a steady tempo, it is also critical (as you know) that you eat every single nut. So naturally I stopped everything to look for the errant pistachio. I couldn’t see it or find it by groping. I got down on my knees — again — and looked for it. Yep, there it was, deep under my chair, in a place it could not possibly have ended up.

That evening, I was repairing our minivac on the kitchen table, and I dropped a small (but absolutely vital) part on the floor. This time, I immediately went to the hands-and-knees posture. I shuffled like a horseshoe crab everywhere around the table, peering under it, under the chairs, under the plant stand. I got out a flashlight and tried in vain to make the thing cast its tiny shadow.

I still haven’t found the part. I have not as yet searched adjacent rooms, in part because I am afraid I might find it there. For it to be in the hall or the living room, it would have had to bounce twenty feet. Either that or roll the same distance. Neither of those scenarios would be feasible under the Laws of Physics as I presently understand them. Those laws are the bedrock upon which my entire belief system is built. If I did find it, I might have to re-examine my whole life.

The fact that these three events occurred in the same twenty-four hour period also stretches the usually trustworthy Laws of Probability. A part of me was tempted to look again at my ideas about the supernatural, but I resisted. If I were to find myself searching the realms of the occult for explanations of my own experience, I don’t think I could handle it.

I like to think of myself as a rational person. I don’t believe in gremlins or devils or divine beings because I don’t see any good evidence for their existence. Sometimes, however — like today — I am challenged to find an explanation in reason for real-life events.

I found the ballpoint and made the note I had to make. I found the pistachio nut and ate it. I still haven’t found the missing part, but I bet that I will…eventually. When I do, I trust that the explanation for my inability to find it will be obvious and reassuringly rational.

If not, it is I who will be lost.
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.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon