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Curious ever more

  • Without our curiosity, we are no different from the proverbial farmer who expresses no need to venture beyond his field
- Anjila Wosti

Aug 8, 2018-

Now, my suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”        

—JBS Haldane (Possible Worlds)

In a universe of more than a hundred billion galaxies (yes, that is a one with eleven zeroes) and still counting, one would have to zoom in 40 times to see the Milky Way, 4000 times more to see our nearby stars, an astounding 20000 zooms to see the solar system and 10000 more to find the Earth along with our Moon. This small sphere comprises everything we have ever known, everyone we have ever loved and all the places we can call “home”.

On a 1 to 10 billion scale, we would be slightly smaller than a water molecule (which is a million times smaller than a grain of sand) and travelling to the nearest star, the Alpha Centauri, would be equivalent of a water molecule travelling from Nepal to Indonesia. The queerest thing which Haldane forgot to mention in his quote is that the universe is designed as to not let anyone comprehend it. The fact we know where exactly we are in time and space is both a success story and an apparition.

Common sense is something one acquires after dealing with conditions, and because we can only conceptualise but not actually realise and grasp things such as speeds close to the speed of light, or gravitational fields far stronger than that of Earth. To understand the little what is known of the universe requires us to revise our common sense and re-revise it constantly—you could call this  process science or you could call it life—it is a process of trial and error. Fortunately, we have done this before.

As a child, we thought everything we let go of falls down, and one day we were handed a (helium) balloon. We let go of it only to find it float away. So, we revised our common sense to accept that things can be lighter than air and if so, they rise up. One fine day, we learnt that the Earth is round, and when we looked at a Globe with the northern hemisphere on top, we were confronted with this paradox—our common sense told us that Australians (in the southern hemisphere) should fall off the surface of the Earth, but that does not happen. So we revised our common sense to accept that up and down are relative to the centre of the Earth and that its sheer vastness and the gravitational forces around it keep its inmates in place--for the most part. This journey of trying to comprehend the universe begins by revising and adding to our common sense.

Back in 1916, Schwarzschild predicted the existence of black holes, and then in 1958 Finkelstein interpreted it as a region of space from which nothing, not even light, can escape. In modern times, we know that black holes do not suck everything which comes its way, in contrary to the popular belief. The universe is bizarre--it shows us mirages. Imagine you holding an orange only to later realise that it is an apple—it does not matter what you call it but it is important to know their taste and their feel and therefore know that they and by the same virtue, you, are real. We know a lot more of the world today than what we used to but the universe remains a mystery and so much of its truth is steeped in uncertainty.

The first models of the black hole were very much thought to be like vacuum cleaners, sucking in dark matter, nebulas, gases, and unfortunate stars and planets. This misconception still remains, but if black holes did behave like vacuum cleaners then we, along with the whole universe, would have long since been sucked in. In fact, falling in to a black hole by mistake is hard. If suddenly one day, we woke up to find that our Sun had become a black hole, we would still orbit it as we do now--we would just miss out on the heat and light.

Now, black holes are weird enough but their reverse counterparts are quite another story. White holes are (hypothetical) regions of space-time which cannot be entered from outside, although matter and light can escape from it. There have been arguments that Big Bang itself was a white hole. Unlike black holes, white holes cannot be continuously observed rather their effect can be only seen through the event itself.

Yet another hypothesis, consistent with Einstein’s general relativity, posits that an eternal black hole might be connected to a white hole through a wormhole. A wormhole can be visualised as a tunnel with two ends, each at separate points in space-time. This is just one of the many infinite possibilities suggested by recent discoveries. When confronted with such great knowledge all people must take account and these things are bound to change what we today call ‘common sense’.

People often say that acquiring a cosmic perspective brings the most dramatic feeling of personal insignificance they have ever experienced, but somehow I do not feel small. I feel free, and yet connected. Neil deGrasse Tyson urges us to ponder at least once a week, if not once a day, all those cosmic truths which lie undiscovered before us perhaps awaiting the arrival of a clever thinker or an innovative space mission to reveal them because without our curiosity, we are no different from the proverbial farmer who expresses no need to venture beyond his field. If all our predecessors had felt that way, we might instead have been cave dwellers, chasing our dinners with sticks and rocks even today. So, remain curious and be humble about what you think you know!

Wosti is a 2 student at Delhi Public School, Dharan

Published: 08-08-2018 08:16

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