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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.
Run It Up the Flagpole
Flags have been in the news a lot this year. I’m thinking about the American flag in particular and the taking of a knee during the national anthem. Some folks get pretty het up about that kind of thing, finding disrespect even if the protest is done in a sad and solemn way. They take flags very seriously, so much so that some are willing to lay down their lives for their flag.

So I don’t want to start any fights here. I honor the sensitivity of flag worshippers, but full disclosure: I don’t care that much about flag reverence. It seems extreme to me, and I don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to pieces of cloth versus flesh and blood humans. I am here to examine flags as a broad concept, okay? I am simply exploring my own vexillophilia, not rattling your cage.

The first thing that jumps out at me is that there are a lot of near duplications in flag design. Three simple stripes is a popular motif. The stripes might run either horizontally or vertically, and in most cases they are of equal size. The French, the Russians, and the Dutch, for example, feature different arrangements of this pattern in red, white, and blue. I can’t help wondering if these nationalities are just as willing to die for their flags as some Americans are. If one isn’t paying attention, one might end up dying for another country’s flag.

There are also some geographical themes that stand out. Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland all display simple crosses with one vertical and one horizontal element. Georgia and Switzerland are also in this group, but the Norse connection is what catches your eye. It’s unanimous up there, and even England (an unofficial member of the Norse club) uses the St. George’s Cross flag (which predates the Union Jack) as its standard in sporting events. We could call this similarity a coincidence or evidence of a some dark, menacing conspiracy. I’ll let you decide.

Africa is heavy on red, green, and gold in its color schemes, and suns are a regular feature across the tropics. Five-pointed stars are everywhere (with some accompanied by crescents), but there is only one six-pointed version. While the three-equal-stripes pattern is dominant, many of these feature the addition of crests or emblems. Mexico’s, for instance, is an Italian flag with the eagle-on-a-cactus-with-a-snake coat of arms in the middle. There are many examples of this design style, but I confess that I find it a little disappointing. It’s like the flag designers gave up on fundamental symbolism and just went with something they had lying around the studio. Again, I’m not looking to start a fight.

I must say that I like the American flag. It’s homemade, according to the story, and it has a pretty clear layer of symbology. The red, white, and blue scheme is a nice one, though perhaps I am showing a color prejudice for that combination that seems common in the northern latitudes. I also like the fact that it changes every time a state is added. We may see Puerto Rico get shuffled in any time now, bringing us to a total of 51 stars. It’s an unusual design, too, so I give it points for originality. This could be national pride speaking, but I think that it’s an unusually attractive banner.

I am not alone in my admiration. Old Glory seems to have spawned its share of, if not imitators, then derivative designs. Chile, Cuba, and Liberia all have nice flags that seem to have sprung directly from Betsy Ross’ creation. Malawi’s flag takes ours and puts an Islamic star and crescent where the field of stars sits on ours. That’s a nice touch.

That said, the Stars and Stripes is not my favorite. It’s in the top ten (which is not hard given the large number of banners that fall into the “godawful” category), but not in the top three. My preferences for that honor are strictly a matter of taste, of course, and I try not to let politics (or racism, for that matter) play a part in my choices.

I put Morocco’s flag near the top because it is simple and potent. That green-on-red color combination gives me a mainline buzz, and the Seal of Solomon pentagram at dead center is an anchor of credibility. Class all the way.

Yemen (poor Yemen) is also high on my list. It features the classic three-equal-stripes pattern I’ve mentioned (it’s a classic for a reason), but it gets that basic design absolutely perfect. For starters, the stripes run horizontally rather than vertically. To my eye, that arrangement is the more stable and pleasing of the two — the way you’d want your country to be. Most important, though, they got the very best colors and sequence for this beauty. Red, white, black. Clean, strong, gorgeous.

I’d be proud to have either of those two as the symbol of my country (although I wouldn’t die for either). My choice for number one, though, has got to be Sri Lanka. It is unique in practically every category: design, color, symbology, goofiness. It’s got a lion (somehow holding a sword!). It’s got bo leaves on it, and they represent the Buddhist principles of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The color choices are meant (I am told) to include other religions and ethnicities.

Better yet, it doesn’t really look like a flag. More like a wall-hanging designed to encourage contemplation. I can’t find any nationalism in it either, unless it’s pride in their yearning for gentle inclusiveness. I might not die for such things, but I could be talked into living for them.

Sri Lanka, I salute you!
Birdsong
I wake up to
A pretty song
A bird
I do not know

I am here!
The sun is warm!
The wind is cool!
Will you stay?
Will you stay?


Tomorrow I wake
To a song I know
But yours
Was sweet as well
Is Too Much Enough?
Layer cake palaces
Festooned with whipped cream
Twirled into fantasies
Escaped from a dream

Hapsburgs on horseback
Kaisers on seraphim
Lions with goddesses
Cherub on cherubim

All stuffed in puff pastry
Then gilded with glaze
Plopped down in the plazas
In delicious displays

Dollop on dolloping
Baroque on rococo
Piled up on each parapet
Rampart and portico

Grander on grandeur
Topped off with more fluff
It may be too filling
But it's never enough
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon