COMMENTARY: The inside of the pearl: Thoughts on the big picture

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Katie Mack’s article in The Washington Post on July 9 focused on her reaction to the news that gravitational waves have been found to constantly writhe and contort their way through the universe. That put me in mind of an article I originally wrote for the Mensa Bulletin and later made its way into the MIT physics newsletter. The music of the spheres is, indeed, a joyful noise.

Has your eye ever been captured by the beauty of a pearl, the milky sheen with just a hint — almost imagined — of blush? That blush makes pearls seem to be living things.

When I first learned what a pearl was and how it was made, I thought it was a grand mystery. The thought of something so pure and perfect starting with an irritating grain of sand, growing with the sticky mucus of an ugly bivalve, seemed to be miraculous to the point of supernatural. Pearls became my fairyland of choice.

On rainy days, when Minnesota skies filled with gray and drear, I would steal away to my parent’s bedroom. There I would silently remove my mother’s pearls from the drawer where they were kept, carefully wrapped in tissue and velvet. I never touched them; instead, I would stare intently at the strand’s large center pearl. I imagined myself growing small and smaller, diving through the layers of nacre to the center of that pearl. There I would live in my own tiny world. In my mind, when I sat on the center grain of sand that was my pearly home and looked at the curved sky of solid, transparent white, to that curved shell of pearly heaven, my world always seemed very large to me, even though I was a spec and my universe only a pearl.

When I study physics, I feel like I am back inside that pearl. Physicists understand what it is like to be very small and very large all at the same time. The works of Robert Jastrow, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking have always been part of my library.

That is why I have been following, with constant wonder, the gradual challenge and acceptance and confirmation of the concept of dark energy. It also affirms what I have always felt about Albert Einstein — he had the ability to be right without being able to prove that he was, perhaps without knowing he was, or why such rightness had to be. My hunches might live in my gut (not an unknowledgeable place), but Einstein’s were an electric spark connecting the axion of one neuron with the dendrites of another and bringing a glow of surety to one minuscule synapse. Yes, he knew.

On the matter of dark energy, Einstein was right in two ways: First, his cosmological constant (which he later repudiated, like any good scientist, for lack of confirming empirical data) does work to explain the presence of dark energy. Second, and most important, he was right in his belief that the unifying aspect of all theories would be in gravity. The child in me knows this truth, but I must count on the theoreticians to give me the hard, cold facts. Thankfully, they are working at that with technology Einstein would have loved.

On Feb. 11, 2016, the scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory called a news conference to announce their discovery of gravitational waves. These waves are what bend space and time. The ripples that LIGO detected are probably the result of two black holes running into each other.

This is science for the sake of science, knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It will change how we see the universe. It may or may not be helpful in an (as yet unknown) way, but it opens a large and clear window on cosmology. It also plays another counterpoint to the music of the spheres.

Cosmic Microwave Background has provided both answers and questions to cosmologists. Microwave energy, measured through an alphabet soup of new devices, is a remnant of the Big Bang. The fluctuation of the CMB shows the kind of hot and cold spots scientists expect from the results of the Big Bang. An explosion in the relative vacuum of space will expand in a sphere, but debris — even primordial atomic debris — will scatter in clumps, braids and strands. CMB reflects this dispersal as we believe it may have looked from about 400,000 years after the Big Bang.

There also is ample evidence to confirm that what you and I would call mass makes up only about 5% of the universe. Another 30 % has been identified as dark matter — physically there, but unseen. That leaves a whooping 65% currently supposed to be dark energy. Dark energy (oh, would Einstein love this!) apparently is antigravity.

The awesome combination of matter, dark matter and dark energy form a delicate equation that turns scientists into philosophers. It is a pearl of perfection.

Taking the big picture helps me keep the faith.

Louise Butler

Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in Edinburg. She writes for our Board of Contributors.