Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Journey, (often of a romance) Through Space-Time

My love affair with science is regrettably recent. Just about a year ago I was introduced to Stephen Hawking, through his books. While I enjoyed the process of reading some of them, after finishing each book, I was somehow left completely clueless about the whole book all over again.

In one of his books, Hawking is boldly asserting his belief that the universe is not a mystery and that there is a mathematical explanation to everything. I love the universe; it is fascinating, all the stars, the galaxies and stuffs.

After reading a few books on science, and going through hordes of literature available online, I became more and more intrigued by science, but unfortunately, I understood only very little.  

For instance, after reading dozens of time in books, I still fail to understand the Theory of Relativity, which today, among scientists, has seemingly become the basis for understanding most aspects of cosmology.

But the more science became abstract and strange, the more it fascinated me. It tickled my curiosity. It started to become deliciously complicated. It had the beauty and romance of endless possibilities.

From Quantum Mechanics, the study of the very small, the sub-atomics, to Cosmology, the study of the very large, the measure of things became exceedingly mind-boggling. There are scientists, with theories that, our entire universe may just be a size of an atom for an altogether different cosmological order.

We are, but a tiny mote in the vast expanse of the universe. One well accepted theory among scientists is that space and time maybe finite but they don’t have an edge or a boundary, which means wherever you are right now, could be the centre of the universe.

So if you were to travel in search of the edge, you will land up back to where you started, and, in the words of a writer, -‘ would not have the heart to start it all over again’.

One of my favorite theory in the field of science has been the existence of giant monstrous beasts in our universe that take central stage in galaxies, the indomitable Black Holes. I had spent few days trying to understand these objects, where all laws of nature seem to collapse and nothing made sense. ‘Welcome to the world of extreme Physics’. Einstein, himself who proved its existence could not believe it exists.

In his own words, nature wouldn’t allow such a thing. From the little I gathered, the black hole is an area of extreme density that even light cannot escape its horizon.

The idea of a black hole can be understood if we take the example of crushing Mount Everest to the size of a marble. If you hold that marble on your hand, it will pierce a hole through your palm, dig deep into the ground and shoot out from the other end of the globe.

We can only imagine the gravitational force of such a dense object. Moreover, an average black whole would have a mass billions and billions bigger than our sun.

Any object unlucky enough to pass by would be shredded to nothingness. As you reach its event horizon, the point of no return, the gravity on your legs would be much more than on your head that it will make a spaghetti out of you and fling you to nothingness.

I had also come to understand that the universe came into being from a singularity. A singularity, scientists explain is an infinitesimally (extremely small) compact spot where there is no dimension, no space, no time, no past, no future, no nothing. More precisely, as a writer explains, ‘there is no space for it to occupy and no place for it to be.’ Its just tiny and its somewhere there.

In the flash of a second, and Bang! The entire universe is born, creating as it moves, galaxies, gravity, stars, time, space, universe and strange matters that fill the endless void of space. The universe is expanding. Scientists call it ‘inflationary universe’. In economics, inflation is the constant increase in prices.

An interesting perspective on the expanding universe is that, time moves from one point to another, thoughts precede action and we remember our past and not our future.

However, interestingly, this may not last, after a point in time, the universe could shrink, this would be known as the Big Crunch. Things weirdly start reversing, as they flow backwards, actions precede thoughts, and you remember your future and not your past.

It was a painful process to understand these concepts, so I took an altogether different interest in understanding a little bit about the concept of time and distance. In physics, time is also used to measure distance in terms of ‘light years.’- the time at which light takes one year to reach a destination.

Sunlight takes roughly eight minutes to reach earth, so if the sun dies right now, we have an average eight minutes to live. The sun is bound to die some day after it uses up all the fuel it is using right now.

There is so much violence on the sun that huge explosions happen time and again on its surface, but since our atmosphere doesn’t reach the surface of the sun, we do not hear them.

Indeed, the history of our planet, our solar system has been very violent; the earth too had a violent history. Around 4.5 billion years ago, the earth was formed by accumulation of dust particles revolving a newly born sun.

Somewhere in between, an asteroid, the size of mars crashed on to earth giving birth to the moon. For millions of years, asteroids constantly bombarded the earth. The violent asteroids brought with them, essential chemicals and elements that would later contribute to the rise of life on earth from single celled organisms to complex beings of multiple organs and shape, and ultimately to the Homo Sapiens and then to us today.

If the earth’s entire history till today were compressed to one day, civilization occupies only its last few seconds. How long would civilization last is completely uncertain. We are at constant risks, some of which we completely overlook or are unaware.

According to scientists, few asteroids, sizable enough to destroy earth passes nearby earth every week. While some are seen, many pass undetected. In fact, the earth, during its 365 days orbit around the sun, accumulates a lot of space dust left by asteroids and other matters.

There had been mass extinctions in the past of entire species. The asteroids impact on earth during the dinosaur era generated a thick layer of air filled with dust and ashes, suffocating the species to death and driving them to extinction.

Humans have been in the planet for a very short time in the geological calendar and how far it would go is vulnerable to many possibilities of either ultimate extinction or evolution to a different species adapting to a new environment.

This natural effort towards extinction is supposedly complementing our own efforts to wipe each other out by using weapons of mass destruction. Humans have developed bombs sufficient enough to destroy the earth many, many times. 

As much as we are vulnerable overhead, we are also in a great deal of threat from underneath. From the grounds where massive tectonic plates slide against each other with forces that create highest mountains and deepest trenches.

But we will survive, at least for an indefinite period of time. We will evolve. In fact some species are right now, in front of our own eyes, evolving. The melting of ice sheets in the arctic region is forcing polar bears to stay in the water. The polar bears are slowly evolving into sea creatures.

A concept more fascinating to me than any others in science or fiction has been for quite some time, extraterrestrial intelligence, because these concepts border between pure fantasy and science. This offered many possibilities.

It is fascinating to think there are other beings in the endless universe. In distant galaxies, there could be stars like the sun and a planet well positioned from it with all the necessities for making life possible.

Scientists have today sent a probe travelling through space, 20 times faster than the speed of bullet to a place where a planet was likely to harbor life. Even if the probe reaches the planet, and even if it finds life in there, it would happen 25,000 years later.

The idea of sending messages on probes across space was not to the liking of the great Stephen Hawking, who thought any encounter with an alien civilization would not end well for humans.

From the few books I read, I had thoroughly enjoyed a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. To offer any review of the book here would be a disservice. But many of the contemporary scientists were of the view that the book was ‘annoyingly free of mistakes.’

To write its review, perhaps I should read it again twice and wait until I feel comfortable enough. In the meantime, I will attempt to read more science books. But maybe I will find something else to do. Perhaps I will find another new favorite thing to do.

There is so much to read, but not the same amount of energy to do so. There are so many new concepts and ideas that I can only imagine. "I am just a little kid collecting shells besides the vast and unexplored ocean of truth," I heard Newton say that.