Janna Levin and a matter of some gravity – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Janna Levin
Janna Levin, (Image supplied)

I am concerned, as I enter the main auditorium at the Aotea Centre, on the last day of the Auckland Writers Festival, that I may not have the brain power left to fully appreciate a session on Gravitational Waves. It’s been a long festival and I think I may have already overstuffed my brain with Big Ideas and Deep Thoughts.

As a yawn escapes, I’m expecting the worst.

Fortunately Janna Levin is a brilliant and engaging communicator. I needn’t have worried. I’m able to follow the concept of waves in gravity, caused by the distant collision of black holes… quite well, actually. She throws a couple of oranges around, as a way of demonstrating how gravity curves spacetime (without gravity, the trajectory of a thrown orange would be a straight line), and this unexpected kineticism helps cement the idea.

Basically she’s explaining the science and significance of the big scientific announcement we all remember from February of this year but which most of us are a bit unclear about, in terms of what it all means. Thanks to Professor Levin, I understand a lot more about this.

The actual working behind all these ideas requires the kind of maths that most of us find bewildering – fortunately we have people like Janna Levin to do all that complicated numbers stuff and happily almost none of that makes it into her presentation. Instead she peppers her talk with a range of pop culture references (Third Rock from the Sun, Alien, Doctor Who).

In particular, This OK GO music video, filmed in a single take on a gravity defying “vomit comet” as she calls it, shows us what gravity actually is – namely falling. Falling towards a mass, in our case, the Earth (which is itself falling through space in an orbit around the sun). Most of us think about gravity in the wrong way, as the landing.

Though the music video above could make you believe otherwise, gravity is actually quite a weak phenomenon (compared to light, for instance) and therefore difficult to detect. We feel its effects here on Earth, of course, but if a gravitational wave originating in a far off galaxy were to pass through you now, would you even notice?

The answer is it has and you didn’t. But luckily scientists have been trying to record such an event for a while now and on September 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (09:51 UTC) two installations called Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO), one in Louisiana, the other in Washington State, recorded gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes that happened 1.3 billion years ago.

How? Well, they do it with mirrors…and a laser inside a 4km long concrete vacuum.

Imagine two ships bobbing on a calm ocean with a taut rope between them. Should a wave come along you’d be able to detect a change in the relative positions of the boats because of the movement of the rope. In this case, the boats are mirrors and the rope is a laser, and there’s two of these pairs stationed 3000km apart in America. And I’m sure it’s a lot more technical than that (and involves a lot of maths) but that’s the basic idea of how you detect gravitational waves. The sound of these gravitational waves is within an audible range. If they weren’t so very weak and quiet, you’d be able to hear them.

After months of checking and re-checking the maths, they made their announcement on what they’d found earlier this year.

Janna Levin explains gravitational waves
Janna Levin explains gravitational waves, Auckland Writers Festival, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-15-IMG_1940

Questions at the end of the session wondered about the possibility of multiple universes – most scientists working in this area seem to think this is likely – and one older gentleman went well out of scientific realms and into spurious sociology remarking that Levin was “a very attractive woman” and was therefore surprised that she’d be interested in science and maths since, in his opinion, those two things didn’t go together very often.

At this point you could actually feel the rest of the audience cringing and trying to collapse in on itself, like so many black holes.

Fortunately Levin had a fantastic answer for this which she communicated in a straightforward manner – if society tells women that their purpose is to be attractive, and you’ve already achieved that then why would you do anything else? But that’s not what it was like at her house.

A complex idea, communicated simply. Just like the rest of her lecture.

Find out more

 

 

Abandoned places & Bio art: Cool picks from the selectors

Abandoned Places: 60 Stories of Places Where Time Stood Still.Cover

Illustrated liberally and with short articles this is a great book for the armchair traveller. Chernobyl is of course featured, but there are a surprisingly large amount of places that have been abandoned because of environmental disasters as well as urban migration.  Interestingly Waiuta in New Zealand is included, one of the small towns abandoned after the gold rush. With haunting photographs this is an ideal book for flicking through and choosing places that are of interest, and perhaps you might even get some ideas for your next trip overseas!

CoverBio Art: Altered Realities

Featuring artists work from all over the world,  this is also an easy book to pick up and flick through to find a piece of work that takes your fancy.  The amount of art representing the biological sciences is about as broad and never ending as nature itself.  Some are environmental protest pieces, others are representations of science itself. Well illustrated with informative articles on each artist.

CoverBeyond Belief: Racist, Sexist, Rude, Crude and Dishonest. The Golden Age of Madison Avenue

The titles says it all!  Examples from the 1950s advertising world featuring some nasty advertising for soap (suggesting that a black child needs to wash more),  how smoking Camel cigarettes can cure throat irritation, and Valium can restore cheerfulness and optimism alongside plenty of examples of how women can catch a man….

Beautiful but dumb.  She has never learnt the first rule of lasting charm. A long lasting deodorant.  People on the go use ODO.RO.NO

CoverSeven Brief Lessons on Physics

Physics is not usually considered an easy read, but this title is promoted as “playful, entertaining and mindbending”.

In under 100 pages all those questions about modern physics that have been keeping you awake at night are answered!

 

 

Got a minute?

Do you ever find yourself running out of time to get the things done that need to be done? Wish you could travel into the future or back into the past for that matter? No worries! What if I told you I could make time slow down so you had more of it or could send you back into the annals of history or forward into the unknown future? I could, you know, at least theoretically.

To quote the English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington:

Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.

Book coverAnd such is the nature of the universe that it is possible to slow time, so much so that you could age merely days in the a normal human life time. It is all to do with physics and equations like e=mc², which we all know of but know little if anything about. In a nutshell, what it tells us is that energy (e) and mass (m) i.e. things or stuff, are the basically the same, just in different forms and can be converted into one another using the speed of light squared (c²).

Albert Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity tells us that the speed of light (c) is the same for every person or observer no matter how fast they are moving but that they will witness the same events in different ways i.e. space and time become altered hence they are relative, not absolute i.e. like energy and mass, they are variations of the same thing. This means that the faster one moves relative to someone who is not moving (and by faster, I mean towards the speed of light (about 300,000 km per second – yes, per second, not per hour!), the person moving will appear to be moving very slowly and the person not moving will appear to be going faster. So, if you could move at close to the speed of light you would age more slowly than someone who was not moving at all and when you stopped moving you would find you were in the future relative to where in the future you would have been if you had stayed still.

Book coverHmmm, make sense? To go back in time it is theoretically possible by using black holes or going at the speed of light but you’ll have to read about that from Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking or build your own time machine. Of course the one thing I didn’t mention was the consequence of accelerating towards the speed of light and that is your mass increasing to the size of the universe (so, pretty big then) but of course you already knew that would happen from the description I gave you for the e=mc² equation, right?

Want to learn more? You should. Science and especially this aspect of it called cosmology, is more interesting than anything a science fiction novel could come up with and it is all real (at least theoretically).

Get ya geek on: Really useful resources for NCEA Physics

Cover image of "Year 11 physics study guide"Having trouble getting your head around all the complicated phenomena in NCEA Physics? These resources will help simplify things!

So where did we find these great resources? On The Pulse, the library’s website for teens.