The gravity waves that rolled through our area last September finally — finally! — bulled their way up through the primary season fizz-over and into the news this week. These waves were generated a long time ago when two black holes collided. They turned up on CNN because they comprise the first direct evidence of rippling space/time as predicted by Albert Einstein over a century ago. These waves are Big News. Big news, but not local news:
The collision that caused them happened about a billion light-years away from us. To put this distance in perspective, consider that it’s about 31 miles round trip from my house in Craftsbury to the Hannaford’s in Morrisville. To cover the same distance traversed by these gravity waves, I would have to shop at Hannaford’s once a week every week for roughly 3.6 quintillion years. I don’t care how good their produce is; that’s not gonna happen on what I pay myself. We don’t call it “Can’t-affords” for nothing.
After such a trek, of course, the gravity waves had kind of petered out by last Fall and didn’t make much of a rumble passing through our area. I’ll bet you barely felt them. But the scientists who detected the waves are so intrepid and so good at math that they were able to translate the wave energy into a sound that plays on any common device with a volume control.
I heard it on the radio. Here: you can too.
Truth to tell, though, I was a little disappointed. It rather sounds like two drips from a leaky faucet in a room filled with static, don’t you think? As if someone watching the Late Show from a soaker tub had gone to bed and left the tv on in the bathroom.
I really was expecting something more … majestic. I mean, the event that gave rise to these ripples was nothing less than the collision of two black holes. A black hole is possibly the densest, most massive object (for its size) in the universe. A black hole is what’s left when a great big star-sized object burns itself out and collapses. The parts of the dead busted-up star, like everything else in Newton’s universe, exert a gravitational pull on each other. The difference here is that there is so much star trash in such a small area that the amount of gravity the bits all generate just bothering each other is truly colossal. Mighty enough to suck up most of the bits of dead star, thereby forming an even more massive item, which pulls in even more floating galactic detritus, and so on. Talk about your “quicker picker-upper.” Over time this whole wadded up cluster of star-scraps becomes so massive, so gravitationally powerful that not even light can escape.
This makes black holes really hard to see. But they can still find each other. In fact they often do. When one black hole meets another black hole, at first they just pass each other by — maybe she nods, but nothing more. Still, she’s thinking: There’s something about that one… And in no time she’s back on the same patch of sidewalk where she first ran into him. And you know what? He’s had the same instinct. He’s back too. So they pass each other again. And maybe this time both of them nod. And then it happens a third time. This whole little dance repeats itself at shorter and shorter intervals, until finally they commence to partner up, and start to polka or reel on a galactic scale.Tethered by gravity they swing each other around and around, all the time falling closer and closer together. Until finally — finally! — after a flirtation that has gone on for (literally) eons, when their friends are just completely sick of hearing them talk about each other, they collide at last.
They had to. It was inevitable. Gravity is not just a good idea, you know. It’s the Law.
And you know how that feels, right? When your crush crushes on you? The freakin’ earth moves! Maybe it’s been a while, but try to remember. Now consider that it’s taken this pair how long? Think of it.
Is it any wonder they can make the universe ripple when they finally hook up?
Back when I worked in the local school district, I had a stint as a tech director for a drama club. I remember a particularly sensitive student assistant tech director telling me while I was giving her a ride home about her first encounter with black holes. She’d been 10 or so and saw the Disney movie creatively entitled The Black Hole. She found it so terrifying that it made her cry.
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