Hot Air: Falling


Gravity is a habit that is hard to shake off.

Terry Pratchett

The Nobel Prize in Physics has been announced and the winners this year are three guys who are black hole mavens, black holes being the universe’s ultimate expression of gravity.

(L-R) Thorne, Barish, Weiss

The truth of the matter is, despite all our advances in knowledge since the time of Newton’s Principia, in which he told us how gravity worked mathematically, we really don’t yet know exactly what gravity is. That is, how does it work? What is the mechanism by which the Earth keeps you from floating off into space? Which would be awfully inconvenient, especially if you have a date tonight.

To us, it’s still a sort of magic.

We do know about the inverse-square law, of course. If the moon were twice as far from the Earth, the pull of our planet’s gravity on it would be four times weaker. We also know that every single object in existence — a baseball, an oak tree, a proton, my homemade meatloaf — exerts a gravitational pull on every single other object in the universe. So, say you had nothing to do this afternoon and decided to place an electron at one end of the observable universe and another one at the very opposite end. The two electrons would begin yanking each other’s chain. That’s action at a distance of some 13 billion light years, quite a jog indeed. Put in terms equally incomprehensible, that’s 7.642 x 1022 or 76,420,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles. Yeesh.

[Update: The original version of this post stated that gravity acts instantaneously across all distances. Einstein’s Relativity showed that gravity moves at the speed of light. h/t to Marc Haggerty for pointing out my error.]

Marc’s right and I’m the one who missed something. I wrote the original post as if I were a Newtonian, pedanting before Relativity came on the scene.

Acc’d’g to that old mop-haired geek Einstein, gravity is actually a ripple in the fabric of the cosmos. So, imagine the universe being a big blanket you and three friends are holding, spread out, and a fourth friend then places a bowling ball in the center of it. The depression caused by the bowling ball replicates, as closely as we lay people can grasp, what an object in space does to…, well, space.

Like I said, it’s still magic to us.

And here we are, stuck on Earth by that very fundamental force, still trying to figure out how not to slaughter each other for the hell of it or foul our air, water, and soil for the sake of stockholder value.


Dope Tech

When all is said and done, in a  few decades we’ll be laughing our heads off at those old fogies who texted back in the ‘teens. Texting, to our progeny, will be as quaint as telegrams are to us now. Tech advances will make thumbing individual letters on a little electronic keyboard anachronistic within our very lifetimes.

But, we’re addicted to it now, just as, at one time, people couldn’t get through their days without watching the ten o’clock news on TV. I caught two instances of the weirdness of texting yesterday afternoon.

  1. I was behind a minivan on SR 46 at about 4:20pm. It had one of those annoying Baby on Board decals on its back window, you know, the ones that imply I don’t give a shit how many people you mow down on your own time, you’d better drive carefully around me because I have a vehicle full of trophy children here. The driver of this minivan seemed to be impaired, weaving in his own lane and coming to stops as if he’d just awakened from a nap. I pulled up next to him at a red and realized he’d been busy texting which, we all know now to be the definition of driving like a dick.
  2. I had to text an address to somebody earlier in the afternoon. The address I wanted to send was 108 W. 4th St. Only my phone’s spellchecker, of its own accord, changed to W. to E. Now there’s no good reason in the world for spellchecker to do that other than it simply wanted to fuck with me.

I can’t wait for texting to go the way of the car CB radio.

Amanda Clerkin Barge will join me in the studio today to record this week’s edition of Big Talk. She’s the first-term Monroe County Commissioner who, against all odds, copped her seat as the rest of the Democratic Party suffered ignominious defeat last November.

Tune in Thursday on WFHB, 91.3, at 5pm on your radio receiving device or come back here Friday for podcast links.


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