Jon de Vos: What color is a black hole?
June 21, 2012
Stephen Hawking, the British physicist, did a cameo interlude on the 1994 Pink Floyd album “Division Bell.”
He’s the synthesized voice in the song “Keep Talking.” I kid you not, go dig through your vinyl and tell me I’m wrong. It wasn’t a bad gig for the former Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge. I have no idea what that title means, but it sounds much bigger than my bachelor’s degree from Arizona State.
Hawking is widely considered the most brilliant physicist since Einstein. He turned 70 this year, defying big odds, being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1963 and given two years to live.
I’ve read his books over and over before finally figuring out that the fields of physics and science are better off without me. Hawking’s individual words are English, but when I try to understand them in groups, it comes out like Swahili. On the other hand, the hardcovers have big type and nice illustrations.
Stephen Hawking is great at slicing through the incomprehensible and leaving us only to deal with the inexplicable wrapped in the impenetrable. Relativity, to me, is trying to figure out what that “cousin once removed” business is all about.
Steve (once you get to know him) discusses relativity using the illustration of a man, riding in a fast train bouncing a ping-pong ball on a table. To the man in the train, the ball is going up and down with no apparent forward motion. To a man standing outside the train, however, (I threw in that “however” to let you know that we’re coming to the good part) the ping-pong ball appears to be moving forward by leaps and bounds.
That’s pretty straightforward. But as the train approaches the speed of light, a phenomenon occurs that scientists refer to as “pretty weird.” As the train approaches the speed of light, it also starts to approach infinite mass, which is science-speak for “really, really heavy.” Time on the speeding train slows down compared to time for the guy watching the ping-pong ball. That’s hard to imagine let alone comprehend, but I figure it’s sort of like “church time” versus “fishing time.”
Science brings us comfort and convenience unimaginable by popes and kings alike, just a few hundred years ago. Henry the VIII didn’t have Twitter or have MP3 downloads billed to his debit card. On the other hand, he died from complications of an infected jousting wound, easily cured with today’s science.
Science is so advanced, we can watch Gilligan Island reruns at 3 a.m., if we’re so inclined and unemployed. VoIP, voice-over-internet-protocol, allows us to have bad phone connections over the internet just as we started to rely on bad connections from our cell phones.
Steve tells us that black holes drag sunlight back into them and new technology might someday allow us to go back and forth in time. Time travel may just be an app that you download to your phone.
Roaming through time would bring an abrupt end to professional sports. Who would bet on a game if everyone already knew who won? What athlete could work up enthusiasm for a game he’d already lost? It would also make for interesting presidential elections.
Until they develop that app, maybe Steve will put out a coloring book.
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