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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Entry 23: The Last Light from Vega

September 2, 2014

Dear Friends

RE:  Entry 23

When I was younger, there was a song, by the Alan Parsons Project named “Some Other Time”.  It was during that period when it was fashionable to write and promote what were called “Rock Operas” or songs in the Pink-Floyd style of thematic concept music.  It was a time when LP albums rotated into infinity across America, the one cent weight of copper pushing the diamond tip into the vinyl at 33 rounds per minute.  This particular song had a line in it that I think about almost every time I look up in the night sky, a very poetic line for a rock song (before I tell you the line, I think the most poetic line in a rock song is in “America” by Simon and Garfunkel—“…and the moon rose over an open field.”  We can debate later).  The line from the APP song is “now the starlight, which has found me lost for million years, tries to linger, as it fills my eyes ‘til it disappears.”

The other night to a clear sky I was looking up, nearly at 90 degrees at the apex of the night sky is the star Vega, one of the brightest stars in the northern hemisphere night.  I looked it up; Vega is about 25 light years away, meaning that light travels over 150 trillion miles to my eyes.  Another way of looking at this is that the light from Vega emerged as a photon 25 years ago, so the surface light that I see (if say, I could see the surface of Vega like the sun) is 25 years old.  I am seeing that star as it looked 25 years ago.  It could have exploded 24 years, 11 months and 29 days ago.  I won’t know until tomorrow.  Another thing to remember, is that because Vega is larger than the sun (2.1 times larger, according to Wikipedia), that light photon was created at least tens of thousands of years earlier in the heart of the star, taking that long to get to the surface before it began its interstellar journey to  deposit its last ghostly remnant on me.  The thing about light, it creates pressure.  We don’t think of it in the sense of pressure pushing light as, say, a water hose, but the pressure of light is very substantial (look up “solar sail” if you don’t believe me).  That photon of light, that infinitesimally small amount of energy, traveled across the emptiness of space and spent itself in my retina, converting itself to a small amount of heat (so small as to be impossible to measure with our technology).  That it survived the journey to me is a miracle.  That it exists at all is a wonder.

I heard a documentary last month; I was listening but not watching.  It is very hard to watch television today, even the historical documentaries have taken it upon themselves to create false drama in everything (the fact that the History Channel is more pop-culture and trivia about pawn shop items tells you all you need to know).  Anyway, I was listening, not watching and realized that the speaker—a famous astronomer—was saying something that was utterly astounding.  He said, and I’ve heard it before, for years now, that 80% of the universe is “unaccounted for” as “dark matter and dark energy”.  Don’t know what it is, can’t see it, can’t measure it, can’t tell you what it could be, but we know it is there because we can see the effects of it.  In any other context this would be called faith.  I was once told by a friend that religion—faith—was worthless, because there were no real unknowns in the world.  Oh really? I asked.  And what of gravity?  You can point out the mechanics of it but you can’t say why it exits.  Or quantum mechanics?  Below the subatomic level, things get really, well, weird, inexplicable in normal terms.  When you get small below the particle level the theories are that the structure of everything is like…foam.  Wrap your mind around that.  And dimensions, we know four (well, there was a Fifth Dimension, but that age of music is gone); but there are theoretically more, maybe more than a dozen.  The whole concept of “Horton Hears a Who” may be more realistic that we think, only in dimensions and not size. And time—our “fourth” dimension--well that is constant isn’t it?  Time is a concept, and a manmade one.  Does time even exist, or is just a relative comparison between two things which are not really constant at all (which is basically what Einstein was saying)?  And time travel?—theoretically possible according to modern physics—at least backwards.  There is a theory, very difficult to prove, and somewhat of a paradox called “quantum entanglement”, or in the vernacular, and pejorative, “spooky action at a distance”.  Let me give you the Grant Town version:  two related particles, regardless of the separation of space or time between them, act in similar fashion so that when one is changed, the other exhibits related changes with no apparent connection between them.  This would mean that if I hit a bell on Earth last night it would instantaneously ring on Vega, 25 light years away, without delay (please, no physicists letters…again…I know I don’t have the description exactly right).  If two things act that way, that theoretically makes instantaneous communication across vast distances possible.  So what is it that we think we know?  We’re but blind, groping our way through the world.  And what is it about science that is constant? 

We look into a glass, and darkly.  That line was written about another type of faith.

I remain,


Fessler