Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Unretrieved Rabbits, Zero-Density & The Second Oldest Profession: On Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries

So I said I was going to start using my blog as a place for talking about the books I'm reading and sharing the quotes I enjoy from them, sixteenth century "commonplace book" style. I am not a speed reader but I will say the books are piling up faster than I can get to writing about them. I think it would easier if I was just putting the quotes I like from the books, but I feel like I should be saying something about each quote, or something bigger about each book (and no, not every book has memorable quotes but that doesn't mean it wasn't a good book, like Al Jourgensen's memoir Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen, for example.) So then, the book doesn't get mentioned on my blog. But I'm not here to write book reports. If I were smarter and a better writer I would say that I would be writing book criticism, but I feel like a shitty writer writing criticism about a book is really just someone writing a book report. And I don't want to be that person. I feel like what I do is somewhere in-between book reports and book criticism, but it's not really either. (Hey! That's the internet for you. Not quite this, not quite that, somewhat memoir-based and kind of all based on opinion, TOTALLY unofficial and certainly written by someone who has been sitting in one place for too long and should have gotten up to get circulation going HOURS ago.) So I'm not blogging about every book I read, just the ones with quotes that I've liked enough to mark in the margins.

My blogging about books went on the back burner because frankly, in order to get the quotes I want to talk about, I hate having to retype it all or scan it or take a picture of it. It all takes so long and is too much work. Just now I figured out that I could just read quotes into my phone and from there e-mail myself the transcription. I can fix any mistakes the transcription made, and voila! A high maintenance task has become much easier. How did I not figure that out earlier?

All that is to say, although I finished Neil deGrasse Tyson's Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries a while ago I'm finally getting around to blogging about it now. It's a Best of (of sorts) of pieces that originally appeared (in one form or another) in Natural History magazine under the heading "Universe" between 1995-2005. It's interesting and I learned a lot, but I was also extremely entertained, as I knew I would be, based on any time I see, hear or read anything by the author, who is delightful.

I already knew the concept of gravity as Newton's idea of the force that holds objects near each other, and I also knew of gravity in regards to how Einstein moved the concept of gravity up to the next, next level, as in regards to his Theory of Relativity, with all its warps and curves in the fabric of space and time, but I really I loved this discussion of gravity, taken to a very personal level in Death by Black Hole on page 46:
In Einstein's universe, the fabric of space and time warped in the presence of mass. This warping, and the movement of objects in response to it, is what we interpret as the force of gravity. When applied to the cosmos, general relativity allows the space of the universe to expand carrying its constituent galaxies along for the ride. 
A remarkable consequence of this new reality is that the universe looks to all observers in every galaxy as though it expands around them. It's the ultimate illusion of self-importance, where nature fools not only sentient human beings on earth, but all life-forms that have ever lived in all of space and time.
So, so poetic. We all think we are the center of the universe. And we make little ripples that venture out from us, thinking we're making a huge difference in things. Sometimes we make bigger ripples than others. That's kind of a poetic take on the Theory of Relativity. If the Sun disappeared, say if it imploded, it would create a wave in space-time from its implosion, and that wave would push us out of orbit. You know how long it would take the earth to fly away from our orbit if the sun imploded? 8 minutes. It takes 8 minutes for light from the sun to reach us, which is also how long it would take the wave from the dip in space-time from when the sun imploded. Hope you packed an emergency overnight bag to be ready to leave our orbit so you can be ready in less than 8 minutes! I guess it wouldn't just be an overnight bag you'd need, because it will be all night all the time, being that there's no sun.

And why would the sun be imploding? I don't know. Ask Newton. The whole "sun disappearing" thing which throws planets out of their orbits was his idea.
I enjoyed the playful sense of humor in Death by Black Hole:

"By the way, were we to find life-forms on Venus, we would probably call them them Venutians, just as people from Mars would be Martians. But according to the rules of Latin genitives, to be "of Venus" ought to make you a Venereal. Unfortunately, medical doctors reached that word before astronomers did. Can't blame them, I suppose. Venereal disease long predates astronomy, which itself stands as only the second oldest profession." (pg 80-81)


"As a child, I knew that night, with the lights out, infrared vision would discover monsters hiding in the bedroom closet only if they were warm-blooded. But everybody knows that your average bedroom monster is reptilian and cold-blooded. Infrared vision with thus miss a bedroom monster completely because it would simply blend in with the walls and the door." (pg 157)

Yesssssssssssss. Bedroom monsters are totes reptilian and cold-blooded.

Also, I love this bit. The "unretrieved rabbits" sounds like something out of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

"Among those who dabble in metaphysics, some hypothesize that outside the universe, where there is no space, there is no nothing. We might call this hypothetical, zero-density place, nothing-nothing, except that we are certain to find multitudes of unretrieved rabbits." (143)

I have often thought about this. What is beyond where the universe ends? Whenever I think about this I work myself into a giddy lather of anxiety that is also a sort of pleasurable numinousness that I can't quite explain with words but that I can FEEL MY EYES DILATE the minute the topic comes up.

To add to this, I wonder if right outside our dimension but then not quite into the nothing-nothing zero-density place, is there a never-neverland where stuff we've mysteriously lost goes to? Tools, marbles, office supplies, the coffee punch card where I'm eligible for the free latte from filling the card up. (Yes, I looked under the fucking couch cushions, I'm not an idiot.)

I learned some other interesting stuff from this book. 
*The universe is actually "a light shade of beige, or perhaps, a cosmic latte" based on a survey of visible light from the spectrum of 200,000 galaxies.
*Jupiter's moon Io is the most geographically active place in our solar system. It has volcanoes, surface fissures, and plate tectonics!
*The colors on images from the Hubble telescope have been adjusted to show the types of light the human eye can't see, but they are the actual colors. Hubble photos are three composite images, and they generate a color picture that resembles "what you would see if the iris in your eyes ball were 94 inches in diameter" (166).  On the next page, he writes: "I maintain, however, that if your retina were tunable to narrow-band light, then you would see just what the Hubble sees. I further maintain that my 'if' in the previous sentence is no more contrived than the 'if' in 'If your eyes were the size of large telescopes." (p 167) It got me going on a hell of Hubble Google wormhole (there's a joke in there somewhere, something about wormholes obviously):

"With or without warp drives, the long-term fate of the cosmos cannot be postponed or avoided. No matter where you hide, you will be part of a universe that inexorably marches toward a peculiar of oblivion. The latest and best evidence available on the space density of matter and energy and the expansion rate of the universe suggest that we are on a one-way trip: the collective gravity of everything in the universe is insufficient to halt and reverse the cosmic expansion." (266)

For some reason this reminds me how characters in Battlestar Galactica would say things like "All of this has happened before. And all of this will happen again." I was going to say that it was mostly the Cylons that say it but I went to remind myself of the quote and found a slide from a lecture with a list of who says the quote, which reminded both humans and Cylons say variations of it:

Session slide from
Rob Jewitt's Level 3 lecture
Battlestar Galactica: Visions of Trauma and Terror in Sci-Fi Post-9/11
at the University of Sunderland
If only the humans and the Cylons could remember how much they had in common! CAN'T WE JUST GET ALONG? No? OK, well, the Singularity is here and the machines are taking over. How much worse can that be than the sun suddenly up and disappearing?

What if the universe stopped expanding and then imploded and then there was another Big Bang, and this just kept happening over and over, a totally different type of singularity, BTW? We think of the universe as having a definitive beginning and ending but what if was just constantly inflating and deflating? Better yet, what if there was some kind of force that acted as some kind of cosmic bellows that inflated it and deflated it? What if there was a god and it was bellows? Yes, god is an air bag. An air bag that blows air into a fire! Air bag made in his image. The jokes you could come up with, riffing on this.

DeGrasse Tyson additionally writes: "The short list of corpses may sound familiar: black holes neutron stars (pulsars), and white dwarfs are each a dead end on the evolutionary tree of stars. But what they each have in common is an eternal lock on the material of cosmic construction. In other words, if stars burn out and no new ones are formed to replace them, then the universe will eventually contain no living stars." (267)

Well and so there's that. That explains why all these stars have been dying. No more Bowie, no more Lemmy. Wow, the universe really is ending.

But I will keep this quote  from pg 222 in mind:

"Yes, not only humans but also every other organism in the cosmos, as well as the planets or moons on which they thrive, would not exist but for the wreckage of spent stars. So you are made of detritus. Get over it. Or better yet, celebrate it. After all, what nobler thought can one cherish than that the universe lives within us all?"

Oh the coolest!