Friday, June 19, 2009


That was the title of the second show I went to. The trip through space took a bit longer than I expected, add to that the cab ride through Manhattan and I nearly missed "Nothing"-- which was a nice after-journey.

There were several astrophysicists on stage, including John Hockenberry as moderator, Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, cosmologist John Barrow, and physicists Paul Davies and George Ellis. Going back to the beginning, or the middle, which is where I came in, Frank was saying "before the big bang, there was no before, but there was some physics before space time. There had to be rules in order for the big bang to occur."

The moderator rummaged around for possible energy sources for the big bang, and pointed out that gravity and electromagnetism work in a vacuum. As they discussed the nature of the nothing between planets, Frank said that at some point, we'd had to stop thinking of space as nothing: we found out we'd have better laws of physics if we ascribed properties to space. He then drew the analogy between space and water. Fish physicists might not understand the properties of water until you took it away. And then they'd realize all the things it does. Imagine space as nothing, do the math, and then you realize when it doesn't work, that there has to be something there.

The moderator said, so "nothing" is an active space.

Frank then launched into a description of everything you can find in nothing. Quarks and antiquarks, condensate wiggles that produce pions. Electrons and positrons pairing up and then disappearing. Higgs condensate by the way, is what he means, and he's pretty sure it can be detected with the large hadron collider. Everyone onstage loved the large hadron collider.

Everything in the universe jitters, he told us. Higgs bosuns, pions, quark interactions. Particles and antiparticles come together briefly, then annihilate. It happens constantly [this is why the guy earned a Nobel prize btw]. The thing is, when an electron and a positron meet and annihilate, we're talking about an event that takes place in 10 to the -21 seconds, in a space that's 10 to the minus -10 cm. Hard to measure, except indirectly.

But as Paul Davies reminded us, "finding nothing is not the same as not finding anything."

He related the quantum vacuum to some of the properties of that antique concept, ether. Quantum ether, he said, is mostly frictionless, except in the case of black holes. A black hole vacates the region it occupies. That is, it scrubs a big hole in space.

In 1975 Stephen Hawking told a conference full of physicists that black holes glow; they steadily evaporate heat until they disappear. In the quantum vacuum, that space has negative energy compared to the rest of space, so energy flows into the black hole, causing it to shrink. The spin of the black hole radiates energy in a nonuniform way, creating a kind of vacuum friction.

John Barrow added that virtual pairs of particles/antiparticles on the boundary of a black hole, rather than annihilating, hang half in and half out of a black hole, so that the half that stays out is observedly real. (Which another speaker scoffed at and said, you can't localize those particles!)

Barrow responded that you can apply force to a vacuum, stop the particles from annihilating and becoming nothing, so that positive charges pop out of the vacuum: you're looking for electrons shrouded by positrons; the effect is like a pool ball wrapped in felt: you'll see less deflection of another electron. The strength of the effect is dependent on the energy in the environment.

George Ellis points out that the vacuum has both size and shape, and has properties that determine how big things are, and how time curves. The vacuum, he says, is the rule book of all the properties of space.

The moderator guides us back to the big bang. If there had to be rules for it, how were they different?

Paul Davies says, It'd be strange if the rules that operated before the big bang only operated before it. The big bang is the origin of time, space, matter and energy; if it was natural, it had to have rules; there are laws that governed it.

Moderator: So the big bang was nothing? Or a door?

Paul: it wasn't a space/time singularity, there are many other "doors."

John Barrow: It's a pure assumption that the big bang was the beginning of the universe at all. The universe may not have a beginning in time.

Paul: Even if there's no beginning, you have to explain it. It can't be turtles all the way down.

Moderator: Leibnitz' question, "why is there something, rather than nothing" is the wrong question. We should be asking, what is nothing? Why did something come about?"

Paul: Nothing is an only child.

Frank: Laws aren't adequate to extrapolate past the big bang. Space is a medium; it's not empty, which opens up new possibilities. Materials propagated through space have very different properties. "Nothing" is so unstable that something spontaneously forms.

Moderator: doesn't that contradict entropy? If the natural state moves from nothing to something?

Frank: if you thing of nothing as something that possesses energy, or carries attractive forces between particles, that moves them-- that creates energy. You put them back together, and things happen. That's not the same as reversing the second law.

John: what was once merely philosophy has entered a harder environment where you can test it and list it more exquisitely.

We don't know if vacuum energy defines precisely the relationship between density and pressure; is the universe being accelerated by this? or something almost like it?

Paul: Now we're talking about dark energy, the energy of empty space, of quantum effects. Is it speeding up or slowing down? You can't know how the universe is moving, if it's on the borderline -- only if the relationship between density and pressure is large enough, that you will go on expanding.

George: --and we don't know if it's likely to reverse or not. That's what we're looking at with the LHC and the ion collider on Long Island. [he makes an aside about people who worry about them destroying the universe with those things] You could nucleate a bubble of black hole material. If a black hole expands at the speed of light and engulfs the universe...well, you won't know it. Or you'll see it but you won't have time to realize what happened.

Frank: Nature has been doing more violent, extreme things in space than we can do here.

Then after a pause for effect, he adds: Space is filled with bond pairs, quarks and antiquarks, sigma mesons, all these interactions derive consequences you can check. Pressure changes, how particles move, oscillations, vibrations we can see as pi mesons [if you're lost, a pion and a pi meson are the same thing; he's trying to say they're not making all this stuff up, and that they're going to find all this stuff one way or another].

George: Space has size, it expands and vibrates. The vibrations are associated with the way structure is formed; expansion determines the shape of matter.

Even the audience questions were interesting. Well, not the questions so much as the answers: one dreamer asked if there were fluctuations in time, if it ever moved backwards or changed speed. Frank answered: we've done well so far by assuming that if it does happen, we can ignore it. John added that the universe is blind to the direction of time, expansion is constant, and doesn't distinguish future from past.

Another scifi reader asked if consciousness affects physics [I think she thought that had something to do with the uncertainty principle, or maybe the laws of attraction? but I can't be sure]. Frank's response?

"There's no evidence consciousness affects physics...Well, only in the sense that if your standards are low enough you can never be wrong."

The next question had to do with (gulp)external reality [I'm sure you can imagine], and the answer was this: it would be shocking if our senses, designed to give us a way of functioning in the world, had exhausted reality. They only sense a very small sample of reality. Where we see nothing, there's actually lots of stuff. Even with technology we can't see all of it, but we can see what Nature didn't expect us to see.

Observations are not recorded only on our consciousness, but on photographic plates, etc, and then we interpret that. Are we biased, distorting? Yes, there's interpretational bias, but there is a reality beyond that. Reality is impressed upon us by the existence of our own senses, by the evolution of our organs to sense it. They had to be evolving in response to something real. We have ears and eyes that evolved to adapt to an outside reality that has to exist separate of our ability to sense it.

The last question of the night was about string theory. Frank couldn't help taking a dig: string theorists are important, he said, but they "haven't made serious contact with empirical reality yet."

Oooh, Nobel slamdowns are sweet.

So, I guess the message of Nothing is this: you can't think of space as just the empty, three D background of stellar matter. It's (as Einstein would say) more like a three dimensional fabric that can twist and flex, that is affected by the mass of the objects in it, and that affects those objects in profound and measurable ways. And if you can't figure out a way to measure it, Frank will probably make fun of you.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Across the Universe

Thursday was the first day of the World Science Festival, and I was lucky enough to score tickets to what I consider the best event they've sponsored in two years of their existence, Navigating the Cosmos. Neil deGrasse Tyson, champion of Pluto's planetude and director of the Natural History Museum's Hayden Planetarium, arranged the spectacle: a digital compendium of images of the universe so detailed and vast that you can literally bring binoculars to see more of the sights. As Tyson told us, "No frontier of cosmic discovery is beyond our reach. .. They put pieces of this [digital universe] in space ships, but we'll see the whole thing .. a hand-guided journey through the universe." The dome of the planetarium will become the night sky, and then something else altogether.

I admit I got a little tired of hearing about it at this point, but once the introductions (Brian Abbot, the joystick operating Manager of the Digital Universe, Jim Gates, Lawrence Krauss, and Evalyn Gates, Queen of Dark Matter) were done and the lights went down, we were set free to roam the vast depths of space. Brain sent us rolling around the night sky, first hovering weightless over Manhattan so Neil could show us Broadway (inexplicable).Then up to the moon's orbit we fly; Larry tells us the energy we see from the sun took a billion years to travel to its surface from its center.

We drift backward away from home, past ring after ring of planetary orbit. Yellow jagged trajectories marked where Voyagers 1 and 2 looped their separate, gravity-warped ways out of the solar system, where, Neil said, they will later be discovered by an alien culture and repurposed before finding humans again...past Pluto, which makes Neil sigh sadly. Such a fate, but be fair, its orbit is so akilter, and it's so small...and then we're in our familiar arm of the Milky Way so that Larry can blow smoke up our asses: we are all star children, connected to the cosmos, he told us. Every atom was once a star.

When the universe began, he says, hydrogen, helium and lithium (which some of you may be more familiar with), were the only atoms in existence. The rest of the elements were created in the stars. 200 million stars have blown up, he told us. you are only here because of them. Every atom in your body has been through a supernova. Eery hundred years, he says, per galaxy, there's a supernova.

Brian drags us unceremoniously out of reach of our galaxy and into the vast reaches, etc. so we can get a look at Alpha and Beta Centauri. Crap. It's dizzying. I can't imagine how much faster than light we'd have to travel. we're surrounded by tiny, blurry, glowing dots. Those dots, Larry tells us, are not stars. They're galaxies. Images of galaxies that we've taken with one instrument or another, right where they belong. Larry tells Brian to show us the patches of completed star maps, and suddenly entire strips of the universe go white. Those, he tells us, are not just bald patches those are the areas of space where we've mapped everything we can detect. Behind each galaxy, another galaxy, and another, so that the whole strip is blotted to white.

The ratios of distance to speed, so you know how fast this is all moving, is this: galaxies that are twice as far away are moving twice as fast. Galaxies that are three times as far away are moving 3x as fast. That's what makes physicists postulate dark energy, a repulsive force driving the universe apart, the opposite, in a sense, of gravity. And since the movement of everything away from each other is speeding up, not slowing down, it's possible all the objects in the universe will at some point exceed the speed of light, which means we'll no longer be able to see them. The rest of the galaxies will disappear from the night.

Why is the universe like this, he asks us. Because we are here to observe it. And there is a structure to all these galaxies. They develop from a general haze to form filaments. Within the filaments, Evalyn tells us, are groups of galaxies bound together by gravity, tumbling along in space all tethered by dark matter. There is, she tells us 50 times as much mass in the universe as what we can see, but it doesn't shine.

The big bang, she says, is an opaque wall. When the big bang occurred she says, it ws so hot that no atom could exist, only protons, neutrons, plasma. You can't see past that old charged plasma. What you can see is the cosmic microwave background radiation. Discovered, Jim adds ruefully by a couple of guys in New Jersey who weren't even looking at it. Relax, Neil tells him, you'll get your Nobel.

Jim says, you know that static on an old tv, 19% of that static is microwave radiation from the big bang. He shows us our options about the shape of the universe, based on the form of the CMB. Only in a flat universe are the bumps of the CMB the same pattern and size as what we see out at the end of our ability to see. But if this is the correct form of the universe, then 70% of it is missing. Empty space, he tells us, weighs something. Larry and Jim want you to know that they're interested in the shape of the universe because this is how they're going to figure out how the Universe will end. If it's curved, that means light goes around and back to its source (if you look far enough, you'll see the back of your own head). If it's open, and infinite, matter will expand forever. If it's closed, matter will collapse again into a lump. If it's too big, gravity won't be able to travel across it. Gravity is restricted to the speed of light, like everything else. But the size of the universe affects the speed of light.Only in a flat universe is gravity and light speed at the right balance.

Then Evalyn shows us how to look at the universe through Einstein's telescope. 349 exoplanets (that is, they're outside our system) have been discovered so far, using the light bending properties of gravity predicted by Einstein. She brings up an image of the planets we've found, pointers like daisy petals around them, centered around Earth because that's where we were when we found them through gravitational microlensing. It's simple. You look at a star and you can tell by the way its light bends that something is disrupting it. By observing this over time you can tell that this something orbits around the star. And you can use this lensing phenomenon to find dark matter, too.

She tells Brian to drag us cursor like over to Ursa Major, and there we float, while she shows us a bundle of galaxies, all traveling and interacting together gravitationally. They're bound together by a huge mass of dark matter, and those identical looking quasars are actually reflections of one quasar among the many galaxies embedded in this sea of dark matter. You can tell by watching them over time. An event in one is echoed in all of them. And dark matter affects time. The light varies in quasars so you can see the patterns of variation and how long it takes to be reflected -- longer than it takes for light to travel. Then she shows us a series of galaxies, each surrounded by a blue halo. Each blue ring, she says, is another galaxy. a few billion light years behind. The closer galaxy and lumps of dark matter bend the light from behind it. lensing it so that it forms a halo, called an Einstein ring. The first one was seen in 1987. The lens is made out of space time.

Dark matter forms a web she tells us, 4-5 million light years across. Galaxies travel in knots in this cosmic web, in those filaments I mentioned that have gathered out of the earlier cosmic fog of matter. You can see it through gravitational lensing: when light travels through dark matter, it's altered, so you can trace out the shape of the dark matter, and figure out what it looks like. You can measure its effect, plot it out in charts. In other words, you can "see" it because its gravity warps spacetime, warps light, warps the very form of all the cosmos.

And if you ever wanted to visit the empty space between the known cosmos and the cosmic microwave background radiation, here's your ticket.

Jai guru dev om.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Men Yelling.

It was pouring, thunder, lightning, and dark as night this morning. I waited for the worst to pass and stepped outside with a golf umbrella and knee high galoshes. Not three doors down from mine I could hear a man screaming in fury. "Move it! You fucking assholes! You morons! Move it now you stupid idiots!" and on in that vein as I got closer to the corner store. I looked in the crowd-sized windows and saw an older man standing in front of a line of workers, all, including him holding a long granite countertop, and in front of them, a couple of guys scrambling to move some bakery racks out of the way. The depth of the man's voice was the only thing that kept it from qualifying as a scream, but when I saw him, he seemed almost serene, except for the contortions of his mouth required to make that volume of noise. I didn't stop, but there was plenty of opportunity to hear him continue his berating, enough so that as I turned the corner, another worker entering the store saw my reaction, half-grimaced and rolled his eyes almost imperceptibly, acknowledging my reaction to the abuse.

There was something almost transcendent about the scene. I flashed on a simultaneous history of crappy bosses, cruel teachers, my angry father, my ex, strangers in a rage anywhere, all these angry voices and their contorted faces.

A few blocks up the next street, as I was maneuvering my gigantic umbrella under a leaky scaffolding, a man coming the other way began yelling as he stepped up onto the curb. Not really looking at anyone, just yelling to the rest of us passersby: get the sidewalk clear! Clear the goddamn sidewalk so people can walk!

I have no idea how many of us he was yelling at, holding his elbows up almost to his shoulders and threshing at everyone around him as he walked.

And I thought of an exercise I'd participated in a few weeks ago, something meant to help teachers learn how to speak to children. In it we arranged a set of 8 chairs in a ring, facing outward. 8 adults stood on the chairs. Three other adult participants were told to walk up to each adult "teacher," now several feet taller than us, and say "I'm a child, and I just want to belong."

Those of you who know Rudolf Dreikur's work will be familiar with that idea: kids who are misbehaving are sending you a quite different message than the actual behaviors themselves might indicate. The behaviors and the typical adult reaction are so ingrained that Dreikurs made a chart. If you have x reaction to the child, he's probably doing y for reason z. They pull on your shirt, they throw a tantrum, they sit in a corner dull eyed, they demand attention, all because what they really want is to matter, to be part of what's going on.You may wonder how Dreikurs could categorize children in these neat little boxes; people often asked him that very thing. His response was, "I don't keep putting them there, I keep finding them there."

This exercise was meant to cut away the extraneous distraction of the behavior itself, to get to the deeper meaning: include me. The "teachers" were told to give various dismissive or negative responses, the kind you and I might normally give an annoying or misbehaving child.

You may be able to imagine the effect of seeing a small woman standing before a now 8 foot tall man, her face scared and pleading, "I'm a child, and I just want to belong." You may be able to imagine the effect of this giant yelling back at her, "GET BACK TO YOUR SEAT! I DON'T HAVE TIME FOR YOUR CRAP! I TOLD YOU ALREADY YOU CAN'T COME UP HERE!" over and over as she cringes before him. But it's not the same as being there, seeing her fear and his fury. Knowing the two of them have been in these roles in life before. Remembering times we'd been in the shoes of either of them. Several of us burst into tears. But we could also see what had happened to this man. That he had lost everything by blowing up at her: his dignity, her trust. Our faith that he was only acting a role. Of all the "teachers" he was the one that stuck in all our minds, troubled us.

We later found out that the two of them were in-laws. He was her sister's husband. She told us that she'd been terrified to go up and say her line to him, because she knew what she was in for.

I thought of the men in that store, and how I felt when bosses treated me like that. How many people I knew who had become saboteurs of their own employers in the face of that, why Office Space had touched a nerve. What the tradeoffs were, for a pleasant boss or parent, for spouses who give up power struggles and the need to win. And I thought of the yelling boss in the store. What he was really saying, and how ignoring his words was the only way his employees could stand to work for him. How frustrated he must be to realize they tune him out. The cycle of ever escalating abuse, trying to get a reaction. Trying to matter. To belong.

How many ways do we undermine ourselves and our relationships because instead of listening to the message, we only hear the words?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

International Noodles

One of the things I love about New York is that you never have to eat alone, or with anyone else. Tonight, I had a girls' night out dinner at a restaurant known for its Pan-Asian noodle dishes. Of the four of us I was the only native born American, but because of my upbringing, I'm pretty sure I don't represent America the way my friends see it. Peachy, the bike racer who won silver twice in Jesse's name, is from Romania. She's leaving tomorrow for a few weeks in eastern Africa, and was in recovery from her malaria pills. GG, close to my old lady status, is Moroccan, and Mariana is from Ukraine. Somehow we got on the subject of Americans and geography. Gg had recently been asked if the pyramids were in Morocco. Then she told us about a coworker who wanted to honeymoon in Paris, without having any idea where it was. Honestly, if you didn't know Americans, would you think she was making it up? I told her, no wonder Parisians don't like Americans, coming to town not knowing where they are, not able to speak the language, and angry that Parisians don't act like Americans. Then when people come here, I said, Americans get mad because they don't know English, can't read signs, and don't act like Americans. Peach talked about how hard it was to go back to Romania and speak Romanian again, found herself translating directly from English, and scaring the locals: Can you break this 20? She asked a shopkeeper, who looked at her in horror. You want me to tear it in half???!

When I first got here, GG said, the only English I spoke was British English and I couldn't understand a word of American English. I

had to laugh. When I first got here from Ohio, I told her, I couldn't understand anyone here either. They talk too fast, they mumble...I kept telling people, could you please repeat that, slowly?

Now, GG sighed, when I go home they say I speak Arabic with an accent. My French has an accent, my English has an accent. Every language I speak, people look at me a little funny, trying to figure out where I'm from. Same with Mariana in Ukraine. People can tell right away she's not from there any more.

I didn't respond, but it brought me back to the week in New Orleans. I used to talk like that. If I stay there long enough, I will again. I listen to the voices around me and I can pick out who lives in the bayous of Louisiana-Mississippi, who lives in inland Mississippi, who lives in Metairie, who lives in the city--and sometimes what social group they belong to: working class Irish Catholic? Cajun? Creole? Lakeshore Protestant? Post-WWII southerners? you can tell. As we were passing Memere's old neighborhood one day, I could hear her voice reading the name of a nearby street: Neyrey, and I realized, right then, that you could hear in the way she said it, the vestige of her French accent, in how she pronounced the r. For a moment, she was there with us in the car. Neywwrhey. I told my son and imitated how she'd have said it, and he could hear it too.

When she was in the Chateau de Notre Dame rest home, I'd visit her, and speak to her in French. The first time, she cried to hear it. Later, she kept mistaking me for a childhood friend. I didn't see the point in correcting her all the time. What did she need of reality, at 99? She was much happier if we were both 12 and talking about the summer to come.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A little closer

I've had a migraine since I got back. It started in the taxi line & I tried to pretend it would go away. By last night I was nearly gagging in pain. Nothing I threw in its way stopped the momentum of the pain. Working from home today. The doctor was a disappointment (not as dire as that last cup of gumbo), but really, how much can anyone do? I started crying about Jesse in her office, and she started crying too. It made me feel better for some reason, not that she cried, but my crying. That is, it's kind of a relief when the other person cries, because it makes me feel like they get it, but at the same time, it's upsetting to hurt another person with the painful facts of my existence. But yeah, the migraine got a little better. Better enough that when I stepped out of her office I realized I was pretty close to Fordham, where Jesse had just started law school the fall before he died. I'd left a pair of sunglasses there in October, when I first talked to the development dept about Jesse's Fund. She's saved them for me this whole time. I pushed myself the few blocks, prisoner of my own will to move forward. feeling what he must have felt there: this wasn't what he had in mind, but it had its well-tended beauty. A row of white birches on an emerald lawn, broken by a gate. It felt safe, and clean and serious, like college campuses do. By the gate above a grating set in the grass stood a thin column of steam, about five feet high, writhing in place like a tethered spirit.

What happened to him? How could this have happened? How do you get some rare blood disease nobody gets and what did I do wrong? How could I have thrown myself in front of that trackless and invisible, that soundless speeding train? When will it take something else from me that I can't bear to lose?

I ran into one of his classmates on my way out. Amanda. Just barely recognized her, and she me. "Do you know Jesse... did you know Jesse Smith?" and the light went on in her eyes and we talked. She told me the dean's speech at commencement had been mostly about Jesse. I wish I'd been there, but it's probably best for me that I wasn't. How much, exactly do I allow me to torture myself. Listen: that's a bigger part of life than you think.

New Orleans

I remember that I took a notebook, but only wrote one page, in the car, on the way somewhere. Apparently you can't live your life and blog it too. Very disappointed at the crappy result of my foray to R&0 over in Bucktown. Who dumped the Worcestshire bottle into the gumbo pot? What was that fetid thing I bit into? It couldn't have been a shrimp. Shrimp must be bigger than a finger. And red. Mandina's has made it through the post-Katrina era with a reliable seafood gumbo. What gives, R&O?