It’s been a while since my last writing over here. Unlike blogs which require to be kept alive because of a business model of any sorts, by keeping the readership (or in case of vlogs, the viewership) being supplied with a constant stream of interesting pieces, this blog is for when I feel I have something I want to say. Whether it is interesting for the reader, well, you decide that. I also felt I had written a lot in a short period of time, recently.
This one is about a blip. This blip:
If you have had the patience to wait some 13 seconds until the blip finally becomes audible, you had the patience to witness a cosmic event, with gravitational waves from the merger of two Black Holes, recorded by some of the most amazing technology on Earth, LIGO, and transformed into a sound wave. Two monsters of the universe. At the center of them physics as we know it is breaking down, so we can’t explain the innermost workings. They were circling around each other, in ever closer orbit, until they merged. That blip, representing gravitational waves which have traveled for billions of years before reaching our finest detectors, it is testimony to some of the most massive energy bursts we know about in the observable universe. Many say correctly that it also gives testimony to the precision of modern day applied physics. True. But read about Black Holes, or Neutron Stars, or else, and the size of what is out there may perhaps rightsize the perception of our big achievements.
Am I becoming a physicist now?
Well, as on uncounted occasions before, these days I am trying to wrap my mind around the cutting-edge findings in quantum mechanics and general relativity. Moving forward and backward through what we explore on smallest and on largest scales of the universe as we believe to understand its “workings”.
Each time I do this, I end up somewhat exhausted, blown away, baffled about the complexity of mathematics which I don’t understand, but also feeling a fundamental sense of appreciation on a, perhaps, more intuitive level. I still am the child who, five or six decades ago, looked at the sky, wondered what was there, and walking into the public library after Sunday’s mass and coming home with a selection of science books, and science fiction books. Ever since I have been wondering what this is all about, limited in my understanding, and equipped with never ending curiosity asking known questions again and again, and discovering new questions which drive me further. Sometimes mad and crazy, but mostly further.
So, today’s recommended read: A Universe from Nothing — Lawrence M. Krauss.
The extent to which everything we learn about the fundamental forces and conditions of nature is governing literally everything in our daily life is extraordinary, and mostly not understood by many people. Whether we believe in a flat earth or in real science; Whether we manipulate truth or seek to find it; Whether we adhere to universal values of humanity or not; Whether we live a life in entire denial of global warming, or are concerned about the future of our children, nature on Earth, or the planet at large: We all live with and use technology which fundamentally exists only because of an understanding of physics which is almost incomprehensible for most of us. Just look at your smartphone. You will be able to explain most things related to how you are using it. Explaining how it works may be a much bigger challenge, often enough an impossibility.
Some may say “Why bother about what these eggheads say? I care only about what is useful for me.” Some say “Let them work away, writing up these crazy formulae, but God forbid if they are in my way.”
For the universe at large, the relevance of this denial and selfishness is smaller than minuscule. If we blow it up, the blip of that event will transverse the universe at the speed of light, and some distant future observer on Kepler-B 1423a will write a scientific paper in some language and logic unbeknownst to us, attempting to conclude what caused the blip. That alien scientist will note that the energy transferred through “that blip” indicates the explosion of a little planet, very unlike the billion times stronger energy released through a Black Hole merging event.
Another piece of extraordinary technology has made it into the main news stream: Like the Hubble Telescope before, the James Webb Space Telescope JWST is making the headlines. On the eve of the first public release of JWST’s first images, U.S. President Joe Biden was presented with one of them:
If you take a grain of rice and hold it up between two fingers, extending your arm towards the sky, the area which will be covered by this little grain of rice contains all the information similar to the picture above. Meaning, if you cover your entire perspective of the sky with such grains of rice at arms length, and you would be able to look through the Earth and do the same for the entire three-dimensional sphere that is the sky, the number of pictures like this one would equal the number of rice corns you have to use for this exercise. And with the exception of a few foreground stars, what you see in pictures like these are galaxies. Each of them containing billions of stars. According to our now ever firmer knowledge about the prevalence of planet forming around suns, there will be more planets circling around suns than there are suns in galaxies. And we talk about hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe, at least.
I grew up with the hubris thinking that we may be alone in the universe. I can’t even emphasize how ridiculous such a thought is, in my view. But the period during which our observable universe has presented conditions which allow life to form as we know it, this may be the case since a few billion years. On a scale of the universe, civilisations like ours are a speck of dust, and I believe there are many of them.
If we blow ours up, oh well, will the universe notice?
Well, I am leaving the field of science here, and I will say the universe will cry because of our failure to do what we are supposed to do. Contributing to the beauty of this universe, rather than to our own selfishness.