Momentous Monday: Questions that plague us

It can easily be argued that Europe conquered the Americas not through armed assault, but via unintended biological warfare. While Christopher Columbus and those who came after arrived in the New World with plants, animals, and diseases, it’s the latter category that had the most profound effect.

This transfer of things between the Old World and New has been dubbed The Columbian Exchange, Thanks to the European habit starting the next century of stealing Africans to enslave, diseases from that continent were also imported to the Americas.

Of course, in Europe and Africa, everyone had had time to be exposed to all of these things: measles, smallpox, mumps, typhus, whooping cough, malaria, and yellow fever. As a result, they either killed off a large number of children before six, or left survivors with natural immunity.

Influenza, aka flu, was the one exception that no one became immune to because that virus kept mutating and evolving as well.

Depending upon the area, the death rates of Native Americans were anywhere from 50 to 99 percent of the population. And they didn’t really send as many diseases back as they were “gifted with” by us, although Columbus’ men did bring syphilis home to Europe thanks to their habit of fucking sheep,

Of course, conquest through infection and violence is nothing new, as the 1997 book Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jared Diamond posits.

Nothing will freak out a human population faster than a deadly disease, especially one that just won’t go away, and the plague, aka The Black Death, regularly decimated Europe for three hundred years. It had a profound effect on art during its reign, which stretched all the way through the Renaissance and on into the Age of Reason.

But one of the positive side effects of that last visit of the plague to London in 1665 is that it lead to the Annus Mirabilis, or “year of wonders” for one Isaac Newton, a 23-year-old (when it started) mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.

Just like many students are experiencing right now, his university shut down in the summer of 1865 to protect everyone from the plague, and so Newton self-isolated in his home in Woolsthorpe for a year and a half, where he came up with his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.

He basically kick-started modern physics. His ideas on optics would lead directly to quantum physics, and his ideas on gravitation would inspire Einstein to come up with his general and special theories of relativity.

Meanwhile, calculus gave everyone the tool they would need to deal with all of the very complicated equations that would lead to and be born from the above mentioned subjects.

And if Isaac Newton hadn’t been forced to shelter in place and stay at home for eighteen months, this might have never happened, or only happened much later, and in that case, you might not even have the internet on which to read this article.

In case you didn’t realize it, communicating with satellites — which relay a lot of internet traffic — and using GPS to find you both rely on quantum physics because these systems are based on such precise timing that relativistic effects do come into play. Clocks on satellites in orbit run at a different rate than clocks down here, and we need to do the math to account for it.

Plus we never would have been able to stick those satellites into the right orbits at the right velocities in the first place without knowing how gravity works, and without the formulae to do all the necessary calculations.

There’s a modern example of a terrible pandemic ultimately leading to a greater good, though, and it’s this. America and a lot of the western world would not have same-sex marriages or such great advances in LGBTQ+ rights without the AIDS crisis that emerged in 1981.

AIDS and the thing that causes it, HIV, are actually a perfect match for the terms you’ve been hearing lately. “Novel coronavirus” is the thing that causes it, or HIV. But neither one becomes a serious problem until a person develops the condition because of it, either COVID-19 or AIDS.

But getting back to how the AIDS crisis advanced gay rights, it began because the federal government ignored the problem for too long and people died. Hm. Sound familiar? And, as I mentioned above, nothing will make people flip their shit like a life-threatening disease, especially one that seems to be an incurable pandemic.

And so the gay community got down to business and organized, and groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation took to the streets and got loud and proud. In 1987 in San Francisco (one of the places hardest hit by AIDS), the NAMES Project began creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, commemorating all of the people who died of the disease.

And a funny thing happened going into the 90s. All of a sudden, gay characters started to be represented in a positive light in mainstream media. And then gay performers started to come out — Scott Thompson of The Kids in the Hall fame being one of the early notable examples, long before Ellen did.

Around the time Thompson came out, of course, a famous straight person, Magic Johnson, announced in 1991 that he was HIV positive, and that’s when people who were not part of the LGBTQ+ community freaked the fuck out.

Note, though, that Magic is still alive today. Why? Because when he made his announcement, straight people got all up on that shit and figured out ways to reduce viral loads and extend lifespans and turn AIDS into a not death sentence, like it used to be almost 30 years ago.

And almost 40 years after the crisis started, we seem to have finally created a generation of young people (whatever we’re calling the ones born from about 1995 to now) who are not homo- or transphobic, really aren’t into labels, and don’t try to define their sexualities or genders in binary terms in the first place.

On the one hand, it’s terrible that it took the deaths of millions of people to finally get to this point. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, this current pandemic will inspire a similar kind of activism that might just lead to all kinds of positives we cannot even predict right now, but by 2040 or 2050 will be blatantly obvious.

Stay safe, stay at home, wash your hands a lot, and figure out your own “Woolsthorpe Thing.” Who knows. In 2320, your name could be enshrined in all of human culture for so many things.

Forces of nature

If you want to truly be amazed by the wonders of the universe, the quickest way to do so is to learn about the science behind it.

And pardon the split infinitive in that paragraph, but it’s really not wrong in English, since it became a “rule” only after a very pedantic 19th century grammarian, John Comly, declared that it was wrong to do so — although neither he nor his contemporaries ever called it that. Unfortunately, he based this on the grammar and structure of Latin, to which that of English bears little resemblance.

That may seem like a digression, but it brings us back to one of the most famous modern split infinitives that still resonates throughout pop culture today: “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” and this brings us gracefully back to science and space.

That’s where we find the answer to the question “Where did we come from?” But what would you say exactly is the ultimate force that wound up directly creating each one of us?

One quick and easy answer is the Big Bang. This is the idea, derived from the observation that everything in the universe seems to be moving away from everything else, so that at one time everything must have been in the same place. That is, what became the entire universe was concentrated into a single point that then somehow exploded outward into, well, everything.

But the Big Bang itself did not instantly create stars and planets and galaxies. It was way too energetic for that. So energetic, in fact, that matter couldn’t even form in the immediate aftermath. Instead, everything that existed was an incredibly hot quantum foam of unbound quarks. Don’t let the words daunt you. The simple version is that elements are made up of atoms, and an atom is the smallest unit of any particular element — an atom of hydrogen, helium, carbon, iron, etc. Once you move to the subatomic particles that make up the atom, you lose any of the properties that make the element unique, most of which have to do with its atomic weight and the number of free electrons wrapped around it.

Those atoms in turn are made up of electrons that are sort of smeared out in a statistical cloud around a nucleus made up of at least one proton (hydrogen), and then working their way up through larger collections of protons (positively charged), an often but not always equal number of neutrons (no charge), and a number of electrons (negatively charged) that may or may not equal the number of protons.

Note that despite what you might have learned in school, an atom does not resemble a mini solar system in any particular way at all, with the electron “planets” neatly orbiting the “star” that is the nucleus. Instead, the electrons live in what are called orbitals and shells, but they have a lot more to do with energy levels and probable locations than they do with literal placement of discrete dots of energy.

Things get weird on this level, but they get weirder if you go one step down and look inside of the protons and neutrons. These particles themselves are made up of smaller particles that were named quarks by Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Man as a direct homage to James Joyce. The word comes from a line from Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake, which itself is about as weird and wonderful as the world of subatomic science. “Three quarks for muster mark…”

The only difference between a proton and a neutron is the configuration of quarks inside. I won’t get into it here except to say that if we call the quarks arbitrarily U and D, a proton has two U’s and one D, while a neutron has two D’s and one U.

And for the first few milliseconds after the Big Bang, the universe was an incredibly hot soup of all these U’s and D’s flying around, unable to connect to each other because the other theoretical particles that could have tied them together, gluons, couldn’t get a grip. The universe was also incredibly dark because photons couldn’t move through it.

Eventually, as things started to cool down, the quarks and gluons started to come together, creating protons and neutrons. The protons, in turn, started to hook up with free electrons to create hydrogen. (The neutrons, not so much at first, since when unbound they tend to not last a long time.) Eventually, the protons and neutrons did start to hook up and lure in electrons, creating helium. This is also when the universe became transparent, because now the photons could move through it freely.

But we still haven’t quite gotten to the force that created all of us just yet. It’s not the attractive force that pulled quarks and gluons together, nor is it the forces that bound electrons and protons. That’s because, given just those forces, the subatomic particles and atoms really wouldn’t have done much else. But once they reached the stage of matter — once there were elements with some appreciable (though tiny) mass to toss around, things changed.

Vast clouds of gas slowly started to fall into an inexorable dance as atoms of hydrogen found themselves pulled together, closer and closer, and tighter and tighter. The bigger the cloud became, the stronger the attraction until, eventually, a big enough cloud of hydrogen would suddenly collapse into itself so rapidly that the hydrogen atoms in the middle would slam together with such force that it would overcome the natural repulsion of the like-charged electron shells and push hard enough to force the nuclei together. And then you’d get… more helium, along with a gigantic release of energy.

And so, a star is born. A bunch of stars. A ton of stars, everywhere, and in great abundance, and with great energy. This is the first generation of stars in the universe and, to quote Bladerunner, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” These early stars were so energetic that they didn’t make it long, anf they managed to really squish things together. You see, after you turn hydrogen into helium, the same process turns helium into heavier elements, like lithium, carbon, neon, oxygen, and silicon. And then, once it starts to fuse atoms into iron, a funny thing happens. Suddenly, the process stops producing energy, the star collapses into itself, and then it goes boom, scattering those elements aback out into the universe.

This process will happen to stars that don’t burn as brightly, either. It will just take longer. The first stars lasted a few hundred million years. A star like our sun is probably good for about ten billion, and we’re only half way along.

But… have you figured out yet which force made these stars create elements and then explode and then create us, because that was the question: “What would you say exactly is the ultimate force that wound up directly creating each one of us?”

It’s the same force that pulled those hydrogen atoms together in order to create heavier elements and then make stars explode in order to blast those elements back out into the universe to create new stars and planets and us. It’s the same reason that we have not yet mastered doing nuclear fusion because we cannot control this force and don’t really know yet what creates it. It’s the same force that is keeping your butt in your chair this very moment.

It’s called gravity. Once the universe cooled down enough for matter to form — and hence mass — this most basic of laws took over, and anything that did have mass started to attract everything else with mass. That’s just how it works. And once enough mass got pulled together, it came together tightly enough to overcome any other forces in the universe.  Remember: atoms fused because the repulsive force of the negative charge of electrons was nowhere near strong enough to resist gravity, and neither was the nuclear force between protons and neutrons.

Let gravity grow strong enough, in fact, and it can mash matter so hard that it turns every proton in a star into a neutron which is surrounded by a surface cloud of every electron sort of in the same place, and this is called a neutron star. Squash it even harder, and you get a black hole, a very misunderstood (by lay people) object that nonetheless seems to actually be the anchor (or one of many) that holds most galaxies together.

Fun fact, though. If our sun suddenly turned into a black hole (unlikely because it’s not massive enough) the only effect on the Earth would be… nothing for about eight minutes, and then it would get very dark and cold, although we might also be fried to death by a burst of gamma radiation. But the one thing that would not happen is any of the planets suddenly getting sucked into it.

Funny thing about black holes. When they collapse like that and become one, their radius may change drastically, like from sun-sized to New York-sized, but their gravity doesn’t change at all.

But I do digress. Or maybe not. Circle back to the point of this story: The universal force that we still understand the least also happens to be the same damn force that created every single atom in every one of our bodies. Whether it has its own particle or vector, or whether it’s just an emergent property of space and time, is still anybody’s guess. But whichever turns out to be true, if you know some science, then the power of gravity is actually quite impressive.