Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Between heaven and the deep dark hole

Recently I picked up an old copy of National Geographic (May, 2005) from the school where I work.  In that May 2005 edition is a fascinating article by Marcia Bartusiak about  Albert Einstein, antimatter, and our expanding universe.

The groundbreaking physicist figured out quite few things about our universe. He posited that time is relative, that matter and energy are interchangeable, and, get this, space can stretch and warp. 

Even though he revealed his general theory of relativity in 1915 which would later revolutionize the way we think of the cosmos, he held on, for a while, to an old concept that the universe is static.  He had a feeling, however, that maybe that immutability was not the case.  There was this notion floating around the scientific world that maybe the galaxies were  in some kind of motion, just like everything else—the planets and their moons, the beings that populate those planets, and the molecules and atoms within them. And, although he had postulated, by mathematics, some amazing things that were later proven by Arthur Eddington, he could not get his mind around this motion idea enough to accept and prove it.  So he just agreed with the prevailing opinion among his colleagues and predecessors that the galaxies, whatever they are, were just there, pretty much in their respective same places all the time.


About a decade later, Edwin Hubble did some more quantitative studies and was able to prove that other galaxies are racing away from ours. As Bartusiak reported in her National Geographic article, Einstein said in 1931: “The red shift of distant nebulae has smashed my old construction like a hammer blow.”  He accepted proof that the universe is in a mode of  continuous expansion. His “mistake” about immutability also showed that, well,  not even the brightest star of the physics universe has the whole thing figured out. 


There is no one who really has the whole big picture figured out.  Einstein broke theoretical ground with his proof of relativity and the interchangeability of energy and matter.  But it took others to bring his far-reaching concepts into the realm of proof.  About a decade after Einstein announced his general theory of relativity, Edwin Hubble  grasped the implications of these newly discovered principles  and  took them to the next level by providing measurable evidence. A few years after that a Belgian, Georges Lemaitre, figured out the big bang that we hear so much about today.


Science is like that, you know.  It’s collaborative.  People—even the best and the brightest—veer somewhat from the paths of actuality.  Others come along contemporarily or later and analyze their results, run new experiments, and then form better hypotheses that produce  better conclusions, while themselves making mistakes that still others will later improve or correct.


In the early 20th century, there was this Einstein/Hubble work  plodding along in the world of physics; it lead to, among other things (like nuclear power), our discovery that the universe is expanding. The history of science is full of  similarly productive exchanges that produce revelatory results: Watson-Crick/Pauling and the structure of DNA, Darwin/Wallace in evolution, Lavoisier/Priestley in chemistry. Newton/Leibniz in calculus. There are many others.


People working in physics these days have more and more data all the time by which to form new hypotheses and concepts about what’s going on out there in the expanse of space. A big part of that information we have today is gathered through the Hubble telescope, which is named after the scientist mentioned above who proved universal expansion.


The guys and gals who are working on these problems have been taking a long, hard look in recent years at “black holes” and “dark matter.” According to National Geographic, “Something out there holds swarms of galaxies together and keeps their stars from flying apart, but scientists still haven’t learned what this invisible substance is.” They call it "dark matter." As near as we can figure, this stuff keeps the gravity in the universe from sucking everything back into the original pre-big-bang primordial atom.


An odd characteristic of this mysteriously dark entity is that it bends light rays.  Black holes attract light in a way similar to earth attracting a ball that you might throw.  You can throw the thing as hard as you want to, but eventually the earth will pull it, in a curving arc, all the way down until its hits the ground.  Light in space follows a similarly curved path. It leaves earth; we might think that  its wave configuration travels forever in a straight path. But it appears now that eventually it will be sucked into a black hole somewhere in deep space. The cosmos is not a big flat plane, but a huge ever-expanding lumpy collection of matter, energy and dark matter. It’s complicated, I know, so I’ll wind this thing down. 


I was ruminating on some these phenomena—the big bang, which is thought to have begun with an incredibly dense presence of dark matter, and the black holes that we now detect and/or hypothesize in space, and how they suck stuff (light and matter) into themselves.


I thought about myself, too.  I have a body, which is composed of matter and energy. Someday my body  will die and decay.  The matter will deteriorate and become part of the earth from which it originated, and be recycled; the energy will be recycled too. And according to Einstein, there will be a little back-and-forth action going on between the matter and energy.

But there’s another thing.  Have you heard of it?  We call it the soul. It was discovered before we had the benefit of scientific explanation. Moses was one pioneer of soul research.  What is a soul?

Here’s my hypothesis: (And I cannot prove this but I believe it and so it becomes my faith.) Soul is essence of  me, who I am, probably has a lot to do with that energy that becomes a part of the cosmos.  When my body is no longer useful, the soul  will jettison it.  At that moment, my soul—my essence, what I have become in this life--will be sucked out of this eartlhly configuration.


I’ll lighten up in a major way, and begin my journey to antimatter.  One of those black holes out there will draw my little soul essence right into itself as fast as the speed of light.  Goodbye cruel world.  One of those dark matter warps in the universe is one hell of a place. Another is heavenly; I’m sure of it.  I’ll choose the latter, thank you. Beam me up, Jesus.

But, please, not until it’s my time to go.


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