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Category: Big Picture

Hey! A Little Help?
I had thought that we had a deal. A deal between me and nature shows, that is. The deal, as I understood it, went something like this: predators would pursue their prey. The tense music would swell, there would be long, protracted scenes of cold-eyed menace from the predator and flop-sweat terror from the prey. The suspense would build to a climax…and the lucky herbivore would finally escape. Barely.

The narrator would always make clear that the prey was lucky…this time. If I wanted to dwell on the horror of that hypothetical killing and eating, I could, but they would not permit the slaughter to happen on screen. They agreed (or so I had thought) that no animals would die in agony while I was still digesting my own dinner.

Well, it appears I was mistaken about that deal. Last night, on Planet Earth, a pack of African wild dogs, after a long chase across the Zambian grasslands, pulled down a wildebeest while I was watching and put some serious hurt on the poor bugger. I assume they went on to devour it on the spot, but at least I was spared that unpleasantness.

I suppose there must be a clause in our agreement that allows David Attenborough to do this if the predator in question is the focus of the show. If the stars are a family of kinkajous, say, or marmosets or meerkats or manatees, they will not die during the show. In a show about a predator, however, we know that its main job is to kill and eat other animals. I suppose you have to cover that part of the story no matter how bloody.

For some reason, though, I found this one depiction of the cycle of life to be particularly objectionable. I have seen nature shows, for instance, in which lions are the lead characters. As with the wild dogs, their line of work involves chowing down on adorable plant-eaters, but the king of beasts has the good grace to simply glom onto the victim’s neck until it suffocates. Still gruesome, to be sure, but I appreciate the exercise of noblesse oblige in allowing it to die before starting to eat it.

The wild pooches are not so polite, but I suppose that I can’t really blame them. They’re just doing their job. I am even willing to let Attenborough off the hook…this time. What really sticks in my craw, however, is the wildebeest itself. That’s right, I’m blaming the victim.

And no, not because it’s ugly, although that is hard to deny. It’s certainly no zebra or impala or dikdik, much less a meerkat or big juicy bunny. But let’s not dwell on appearances. Rather, I am down on the wildebeest because of the crowd it hangs out with. Specifically, the wildebeest tends to pal around with other wildebeests.

Whole herds, in fact, and that is where the problem lies. The wildebeest who was being pursued in this instance was desperate to get back to his herd. There, we were told, he would find safety in the numbers of his kinfolk, and the dogs would give up the chase.

There was suspense, of course, or I wouldn’t have been watching. The victim gets closer and closer to safety. Will he make it? Or will the bloodthirsty pack pull him down? He’s almost there! We can see some of the herd raise their heads and take notice. “Oh look,” you can imagine them thinking. “It’s Bob, and he’s about to be devoured by wild dogs. Bummer.” But do any of the herd lift a hoof to help? No sirree, Bob.

Now, a wildebeest herd can claim more than a million — yes, a million — of these brutes. And they’re big, too, with some of the bulls weighing as much as 400 pounds, complete with big hooves and horns. Couldn’t a few of them take a moment from chewing their cuds to go on a rescue mission? Maybe some young males looking to make a reputation? All it would take would be numbers, after all. No dog is going to hold his ground against a gang of gnus looking to rumble.

That doomed wildebeest might even be forgiven for thinking, as I had, that he had a deal. His deal would go something like this: if any one of us is threatened by a pack of dogs — or any predator — a pick-up squad of my fellow ‘beests will be dispatched to save me. In other words, the kind of herd immunity you can count on in a pinch. Maybe Bob should have gotten it in writing.
Semi Glossary
atheist n. An agnostic overcome by hubris.
Lost and Unfounded
I accidentally knocked my pen off the nightstand the other night. I had thought of something important, and I needed to write it down to make sure I didn’t forget it. Since it was 3 a.m., it seemed to me that it was absolutely urgent that the future me receive my message. Although I can’t remember now exactly why it was so urgent, it was enough at the time to galvanize me into action.

I reached around for it on the floor in the dark, twisting every way possible from my prone position. Nothing. Grumbling, I got out of bed and down on my hands and knees. More failure. Finally, I turned on the light and squinted into the shadows. There it was, deep under the bed.

How was that even possible? How could a plastic ballpoint pen fall two feet onto a carpeted floor and bounce that far? Why didn’t it just hit and stop?

Later that same day, I was sitting in the living room, eating pistachios and watching sports on TV. One of the nuts escaped my grasp, hit my pantleg, and fell to the floor. It totally broke my rhythm. I don’t have to tell you how important a sustained rhythm is when you’re eating pistachios. You just want to keep it going and going until they’re gone.

Besides keeping a steady tempo, it is also critical (as you know) that you eat every single nut. So naturally I stopped everything to look for the errant pistachio. I couldn’t see it or find it by groping. I got down on my knees — again — and looked for it. Yep, there it was, deep under my chair, in a place it could not possibly have ended up.

That evening, I was repairing our minivac on the kitchen table, and I dropped a small (but absolutely vital) part on the floor. This time, I immediately went to the hands-and-knees posture. I shuffled like a horseshoe crab everywhere around the table, peering under it, under the chairs, under the plant stand. I got out a flashlight and tried in vain to make the thing cast its tiny shadow.

I still haven’t found the part. I have not as yet searched adjacent rooms, in part because I am afraid I might find it there. For it to be in the hall or the living room, it would have had to bounce twenty feet. Either that or roll the same distance. Neither of those scenarios would be feasible under the Laws of Physics as I presently understand them. Those laws are the bedrock upon which my entire belief system is built. If I did find it, I might have to re-examine my whole life.

The fact that these three events occurred in the same twenty-four hour period also stretches the usually trustworthy Laws of Probability. A part of me was tempted to look again at my ideas about the supernatural, but I resisted. If I were to find myself searching the realms of the occult for explanations of my own experience, I don’t think I could handle it.

I like to think of myself as a rational person. I don’t believe in gremlins or devils or divine beings because I don’t see any good evidence for their existence. Sometimes, however — like today — I am challenged to find an explanation in reason for real-life events.

I found the ballpoint and made the note I had to make. I found the pistachio nut and ate it. I still haven’t found the missing part, but I bet that I will…eventually. When I do, I trust that the explanation for my inability to find it will be obvious and reassuringly rational.

If not, it is I who will be lost.
Not With a Bang But a Chirp
Normally, I hesitate to expound on the subject of theoretical astrophysics. I don’t want to give the impression that I am presenting myself as some kind of expert in these matters. I really prefer the term “gifted amateur.”

But let’s not waste time on such distinctions. I’ll let you be the judge. In case you didn’t hear the recent news from deep space, here’s the skinny: 1.3 billion years ago, two black holes in a galaxy far, far away were spinning around each other at the rate of 250 rotations per second. As they spun, gravity waves spiraled out into the universe in every direction at (what else?) the speed of light. The two behemoths’ frantic dance of courtship finally ended in a cataclysmic climax, releasing one last pulse that was equal in its power output to 50 times that of the entire visible universe.

The sex was so good, in fact, that both lovers died. But a new black hole, almost twice the size of both together, was born. Ordinarily, nobody on Earth would have noticed. The usual means of observing the universe — optical, radio, and x-ray telescopes — could not have detected this event. By the time that last wave reached Earth, however, it so happens that scientists had just created a whole different kind of observational device. Instead of looking for stuff, they were ready to listen for it — specifically, for the kind of gravity waves produced over a billion years ago by those two black holes in heat.

Those scientists and engineers weren’t even sure such a thing existed, even though Einstein had predicted that it did. They built LIGO, this 2.5-mile-by-2.5-mile right angle filled with precision gizmos, to see (or rather, hear) if Albert was right. Maybe, just maybe, these ripples in space/time could be discovered at last.

Bingo! Or rather, chirp! No Booms or Ka-blooies or thunderous roars to match the event itself…just this one little musical note. In the key of middle C, they said.

Big deal, you say? Nice goin’ fellas, but what’s a chirp when we can already see the universe bellowing at us? What’s so freakin’ special about this new thing? The answer: it’s special because it is new…a new and unique kind of information available in no other way than this. Furthermore, black holes aren’t the only things that produce gravitational waves. Any mass that moves will do it, and that includes everything in the universe. We are swimming in such waves.

A new kind of data means a whole different take on then universe. Have you ever stood on the roof of your house? It’s different up there, isn’t it? Gives you a different perspective, doesn’t it? You see things you’ve never seen before, you notice relationships you never knew existed, you’re above, beyond, and outside your previous understanding of the world.

So, yeah…it’s a big deal. What the experts can’t tell you, however, is what we will discover from observing these new data. They can’t, of course, because we haven’t discovered it yet. It’s been several months now since that first chirp. So where are the other chirps?

UPDATE: Hi, it’s me, interrupting myself. I wrote the above in February 2016, but never posted it. I was writing right after the LIGO team published its paper about their first big detection from the previous year. There have been (to answer my own question) several noteworthy chirps since then. The first four were also the results of colliding black holes. In October of 2017, however, LIGO and its Italian counterpart Virgo detected something new — the merger of two neutron stars.

Meanwhile, the LIGO team has copped several awards, including a Nobel Prize in Physics. LIGO-India, or INDIGO, is now under construction. Improvements to the original system continue to be made, increasing the sensitivity and scope of future observations. That means more people standing on the roof and enjoying that unique perspective on the universe.

So far, observations have confirmed what scientists had predicted. Einstein’s theory of general relativity got a boost because it had imagined gravity waves in the first place. The data from the black hole collisions proved that those mysterious objects do, in fact, exist. Observations of the neutron merger proved (when taken with data from regular, old-fashioned observations) that gamma rays ands heavy metals are indeed products of such collisions.

I do like that we’re getting confirmations of previous scientific insights. It goes a long way toward chumping out the science deniers, and that’s a good thing in this era of “alternative facts.” When it comes to what I look for as a gifted amateur astrophysicist, however, this is not the ideal outcome. For me to do my best work, there must be new, inexplicable data to contend with — something that utterly dumbfounds the scientific community.

So I’m fine with the chirps, but I want more. A trill, perhaps, or a cheep. A distant hoot would be great, or even a full-on gobble. That might be too much to hope for, but I will take anything that calls for the kind of analysis that requires no data to speak of — much less an understanding of the laws of physics. That’s where I will come in.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon