Tar Baby Cosmology

I wrote a piece in another department about contemporary Zionism, observing that for me to suggest improvements would put me in the position of Bre’r Rabbit and de Tar Baby. You know, you think you hit ‘im, but he stick to you and you can’t get loose. And Brer Fox, he lay low.

Thinkers like Hawking and Feinmann, and their intellectual heirs and progeny at Cambridge, CalTech (and many other major university centers of theoretical research) provided us with a wealth of articles in respected layperson periodicals like Scientific American, Astronomy, or Sky and Telescope. Their intention no doubt was to bring to the public some of the distilled fruits of cutting edge science, and I am certainly grateful that a market for this kind of writing exists. You certainly won’t find in in People or USA Today.

Sometimes I wonder how much of this material they think the average reader absorbs.

Magna Carta, 1215ADI was reading – or re-reading – how the cosmic microwave background radiation [CMB] of the universe got its start 500,000 years after the Big Bang. As I’d read this figure before, I was startled to realize I’d forgotten why. I felt like the junior high school kid when the teacher asks – “Quick, in what year was the signing of the Magna Carta?”

If I can’t even remember a key point in the cosmic evolutionary timeline, how am I ever going to figure out Gravity on my own?

The grand old document to the left contained precepts considered influential in the formation of constitutional democracies, but, perhaps because it did so in 1215AD), it didn’t contain any solutions to the Unified Field Theory, either.

Fortunately, in this case the CMB authors explain patiently that it took 500,000 years for the universe to cool enough to allow combination of protons and electrons for the first time, forming hot hydrogen atoms, which emit radiation at their signature wavelength. And I actually knew that – it was just a problem of making the connections.

I do find these topics tremendously exciting. I find myself musing on all sorts of imponderables – well, Hawking may ponder, but I only muse. If we can explain electromagnetic radiation, and field polarity, and Fleming’s right-hand rule, and name and measure all the axes of the electromagnetic vector – why can’t we do the same for gravity?

We have yet to generate (or even detect) the weakest gravity wave. Will we ever discover a right-hand rule of gravity? Right now, I don’t think we even know how the respective axis are labeled. One of them might be spatial direction. One of them should be mass. What is the other?

When we accelerate a copper wire through an electric field, we know we are generating electricity by cutting across a “force field” – lines of electrical potential. When we step onto the bathroom scale, what are we measuring? There is no difference between the homely bathroom scale and the modern accelerometer. Both seem to measure the acceleration of a mass. When we step onto the scale, are we measuring our acceleration through time?

Mind you, all these questions have been asked before, and by scientists who actually know what they’re talking about.

Our own thinking exerciseis all junior high school intellectual antics. It’s voodoo physics. I don’t have the tools of the trade. We won’t find subsistence farmers carving interplanetary space capsules out of teak with nothing more than a spokeshave, either.

But when, at some point, some pioneering thinker finally comes up with the elusive Unified Field Theory, explaining once and for all the deep and abiding relationship governing electromagnetic radiation and gravity, I’m very confident that, on that historic day, that thinker isn’t going to happen to be me.

I keep getting stuck in de Tar Baby. And, Professor Hawking, he lay low.

But that won’t stop me from learning, and thinking, and wondering. Have a wonderful and relaxing Sunday – and stay away from those bathroom scales!

Alex

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