Light travels about 10 trillion kilometers (about 6 trillion miles) in a year. That is a light year. If gravitons, the hypothesized particles that transmit gravity like photon do light, were devoid of any mass, they too would travel at the same speed.
Presuming there are indeed gravitons and they are mass-less, the gravitational waves scientists have detected would have traveled 10 trillion kilometers multiplied by about 1.3 billion years.If you can wrap you head around that number, you might begin to get the sense of how powerful those waves would be close to their source of their origin, in this particular case two colliding black holes. In a sense, gravitational waves are like a tsunami in the ocean of spacetime. Like a tsunami, they too dissipate as the distance grows.
My childhood friend Paresh Pandya, a retired physics teacher and an active physics follower, and I were discussing the importance of the discovery on Facebook. Paresh made this valid point: “Detecting gravitational waves is no doubt a great scientific feat, but to me it seems that Einstein's discovery of existence and warping of spacetime fabric due to presence of a massive body itself is a sufficient condition for propagation of gravitational disturbance.”
Continuing in the same vein Paresh also argued that the discovery is more representative of technological excellence. I know the position Paresh is coming from which is that once Einstein had shown with breathtaking theorizing that massive bodies warp spacetime it was a given that gravitational disturbance would be caused by a major event. As Paresh points out, “So to detect gravitational waves on Earth either you need a very large disturbance (such as collision of black holes) or relatively small disturbance in nearby galaxies.”
As is my wont, I do get into sideshows while discussing something this epic because they offer interesting possibilities. I started talking about how far and how long ago the source of the gravitational waves was. When the collision happened Albert Einstein was about 1.3 billion years away into the future. In fact, then Earth had just begun to see the emergence of plants. When Einstein predicted G-waves in 1916, the signal that we have now detected was just a century away from him unbeknownst to him. I wonder what he was doing on September 14, 1915, at 11.51 a.m. in Switzerland. I say this because the chirp indicating gravitational waves was recorded on September 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time in America. What if Einstein was in the midst of the very theory that predicted gravitational waves at that very time exactly 100 years ago?
I am jumping themes quite consciously today. Speaking of the unfathomable scales, the National Science Foundation, which bankrolled the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, says, “About three times the mass of the sun was converted into gravitational waves in a fraction of a second -- with a peak power output about 50 times that of the whole visible universe.” That means near the source of the collision the gravitational waves represented the energy of three of our Sun. If that is not big enough for you, consider this. We are told that for a period the power output resulting from the collision was 50 times what all stars in the universe combined.
What the discovery does is create a whole new branch of astronomy called gravitational wave astronomy. So far astronomers have depended upon what can be seen either directly or through various spectra. Gravitational wave astronomy gives us the opportunity to also hear. As Kip Thorne, one of the three founders of the LIGO, says, "With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvelous new quest: the quest to explore the warped side of the universe -- objects and phenomena that are made from warped spacetime. Colliding black holes and gravitational waves are our first beautiful examples.”
An accurate representation of two black holes colliding 1.3 billion years ago causing gravitational waves which were detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory
Gravitational waves—They are real. They are subtle. They are chirpy. They are here.
This morning as I watched the live webcast of the announcement gravitational waves I felt a sense of primal exhilaration. The realization that one person, a certain Albert Einstein, employed the sheer power of his brain a century ago and predicted the existence of gravitational waves is humbling.
The two black holes whose collision caused the gravitational waves that were detected by LIGO are 1.3 billion light years away, 150 kilometers big, 30 times the mass of the sun merging at half the speed of light. To be able to detect a chirping signal lasting 0.2 seconds that emanated so long ago and traveled such a long distance is a tribute to the persistence and imagination of the scientific community but in particular the three men at whose feet the project is placed. They are Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ronald Drever, formerly of Caltech. They founded the LIGO together. Some of you may have heard of Kip Thorne as someone who closely advised the making of Christopher Nolan’s 2014 movie “Interstellar.”
The immediate question that pops up in the minds of people who do not normally pay attention to such subjects is “What does this mean for Earth and us?” The simple answer is nothing in the immediate, everyday sense. These waves are so infinitesimal that we are unlikely to bob up and down because of their movements. They are unlikely to wobble Earth and, by implication, us. They will not cure any of our human follies and frailties. They will certainly not stop any wars or start new ones. They will not end hunger, nor will they increase compassion. They will not end zealotry, bigotry or racism.
And yet, in so much as they give us an unprecedented look inside the incomprehensibly rampant violence and frenzy that lies underneath the seemingly pristine space, they are an absolutely revolutionary discovery. The pristine universe is not calm before the storm. It is in fact calm riding the storm if you can imagine that. That’s what gravitational waves tell you.
I was not expecting my question for the LIGO team to be answered and I was not disappointed. My question to them was “Is there a clear sense whether gravity is transmitted by the long hypothesized mass-less particles gravitons which travel at the speed of light?” Some day I will have an opportunity to ask again. Until then let’s imagine we are going up and down a bit like a cosmic buoy in the splashing gravitational waves from the two black holes some 1.3 billion light years away.
There is clear anticipation that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) will announce the detection of the much speculated gravitational waves at a news conference in Washington D.C. tomorrow.
If the announcement does indeed happen, it will coincide with the 100th year of Albert Einstein’s prediction of the existence of gravitational waves. At the very least this means that Einstein was a century ahead of his time if not much more.
A media advisory by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration says, “100 years after Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, the National Science Foundation gathers scientists from Caltech, MIT and the LIGO Scientific Collaboration to update the scientific community on efforts to detect them.”
This is their way of saying that they have indeed detected gravitational waves. The news conference will take place at 10.30 a.m. at the National Press Club and will be simulcast online. I will join the simulcast with the expectation that this one question from me may get addressed. Is there a clear sense whether gravity is transmitted by the long hypothesized massless particles gravitons which travel at the speed of light?
Just to give you a measure of what the LIGO might have detected let me repeat what I wrote on January 12, this year when the first signs of the impending detection came to light. An atom’s diameter is said to be 0.1 to 0.5 nanometers (1 × 10-10 m to 5 × 10-10 m). If you cannot wrap your head around that measure, try this. It is a million times smaller than the thickest human hair. Now imagine something that is a billionth the diameter of an atom. That is the size of a gravitational wave.
I also said this: The good thing about the Advanced LIGO is that it is capable of detecting gravitational waves emanating from cosmic sources as far away as 250 million light years. If a gravitational wave began rippling through an event that long ago and that far away, the Advanced LIGO should be able to detect it. That is where the incomprehensibly tiny size of a gravitational wave (as explained at the in my introduction above) comes into play.This is an extremely delicate detection process by interferometers given that there are all kinds of terrestrial and extraterrestrial disturbances, including the perpetual seismicity on the Earth.
Despite such enormous odds, if the observatory has indeed detected gravitational waves then this is truly huge and not Donald Trump “yuge.”
On the question of whether gravity is transmitted by gravitons I have always wondered whether gravity near field, meaning here on Earth, is also so transmitted. In other words, am I feeling gravity because gravitons are all around me to make me feel it? This may be a silly question but it is worth asking. It could not be that gravity is carried by two different carriers near field and far afield. If gravitons transmit gravity, they ought to do it across the universe include here on Earth.
There is the other question of whether gravitons indeed travel as fast as photons which transmit light because like photons, gravitons too may be devoid of mass. If, on the other hand, if they have any mass at all it would mean they cannot travel at the speed of light. What this means is that we may see the cosmic event that caused gravitational ripples much before we actually detect it on our instruments.
Realities are always staggered at the scale of the universe or, to put it in the Internet term, the universe is always buffering. There is no real real time, a theme I have frequently written about.
So until tomorrow then.
दुश्मनी लाख सही ख़त्म न कीजिए रिश्ता
दिल मिले या न मिले हाथ मिलाते रहिए
(Dushmani laakh sahi khatm na kijiye rishta
Dil mile ye na mile haath milate rahiye)
Despite our enmity, let’s not end our relationship
Our hearts may not meet, let our hands do
I may yet hesitate to call myself a writer and an artist because I have not met the benchmarks and quality of productivity I have set up for myself. However, I have no hesitation in calling myself a poet because I believe my talents as one are quite manifest albeit unpublished.
This seemingly unnecessary beginning is to lend myself some weight to talk about the passing of the great poet Nida Fazli. The verse above is one of his enduring pieces that in many ways encapsulates the poet’s essential heart. The optimism of keeping up relations despite enmity even if it is by lowering the benchmark of friendship (Our hearts may not meet, let our hands do) is a striking thought.
Fazli, who died today in Mumbai at age 78, was a poet of unremitting hope and compassion. Not that I have read him extensively but whatever little I have tells me of his essential humanism. It is that essential humanism that prompted this in him.
घर से मस्जिद है बहुत दूर, चलो यूंह कर लें
किसी रोते हुए बच्चे को हँसाया जाए
(Ghar se masjid hai bahut door chalo yunh kar le
Kisi rote hue bachche ko hansaya jaye)
The mosque is too far from home, so let’s do this
Let’s make a crying child smile
In those two lines Fazli sums up his religion of humanism. It was this worldview that perhaps stopped him from migrating to Pakistan after India’s partition in 1947 when his parents chose to move. He stayed on in Delhi where he was born and rapidly soaked up the syncretic core of India’s ancient culture. His first inspiration to become a poet was said to be Surdas, the great 15th century Indian poet-philosopher and musician.
Born Muqtida Hassan, he assumed his pen name of Nida (which means voice) Fazli, the place in Kashmir where the family originated. The craft of poetry may be an acquired skill but the art of it is certainly not. One is born with it. That could be said of Fazli like many truly great poets.
He had said once this about poetry:
अकेले ग़म से शायरी नहीं होती
ज़बान-ए-मीर में ग़ालिब का इम्तज़ाज भी हो
(Akeyle gham se shayari nahi hoti
zaban-e-Meer mein Ghalib ka imtzaj bhi ho)
It is not the pain alone that creates poetry
It is the mixing of Meer’s language with Ghalib’s
Fazli’s poetry is full of compassion and a great sense of social equity as evident in this verse.
हर जीवन की वही विरासत आंसू, सपना, चाहत, मेहनत
सांसों का हर बोझ बराबर जितना तेरा उतना मेरा
(Har jeevan ki vahi virasat aansoo, sapna, chahat, mehnat
Sanson ka har bojh barabar jitna tera utna mera)
All lives have the same legacy, tears, dreams, love, work
The stress of living is equal between you and I
Quite apart from being a widely respected, recited and understood poet over the past five decades or so, Fazli was also a choosy if very successful film lyricist. I would not go into that aspect of his life because it is rather popular and people have tendency to represent his career as a poet of high merit by using some of his popular songs.
Nida Fazli embodied what is best about India’s civilization and distilled it down to some of the finest poetry of the past five decades. There are several videos of his recitation on YouTube. A common thread in all of them is his sheer sense of joy and commitment to the written and spoken word. “Lafzon ka ehtram” (Respect for words) was one of his favorite themes and his life as a poet was replete with that.
A blog like this inevitably falls short in capturing the true extent of Nida Fazli’s poetic greatness but I hope some of his verses here give a small measure of the man. Let me conclude by citing a couple more that represent the philosophical bend of his mind.
रहता नहीं है कुछ भी यहाँ एक सा सदा
दरवाज़ा घर का खोल के फिर घर तलाश कर
कोशीश भी कर उम्मीद भी रख रास्ता भी चुन
फिर उसके बाद थोडा मुक़द्दर तलाश कर
(Rehta nahi hai kuchh bhi yahan ek sa sada
Darwaza ghar ka khol ke fir ghar talash kar
Koshish bhi kar, ummeed bhi rakh rasta bhi chun
Fir uske baad thoda muqaddar talash kar)
Nothing remains as it is here forever
Open the door of your home and search for a home
Make an effort, Nurse hope too, choose a path as well
And then also search for a bit of destiny
In June last year, I embarked on a personal experiment to determine which language I wake up in. With excellent to passable proficiency in six languages this promised to be an interesting experiment. It did indeed turn out to be one.
You can read the full original post about the experiment below but let me just point out which language I had suspected I would wake up in and how that turned out to be the case. I had said, “It is equally possible that I may not wake up in a particular language at all but with just nebulous consciousness.” I do wake up in a haze of nebulous consciousness that is not so articulate as to suggest a particular language.
As a subset of the experiment I also tried to find out which specific thought I wake up with. There is a tie between two themes—one a grand, boundless wonderment about the universe and the other is about money. While my fixation with the universe is ever present and it is always tackled in English, my obsession with penury is always in Gujarati and that too with a specific observation mumbled to myself: “Sali paisa ni bahu magajmari chhe. (Damn, money is such a clusterfuck.)
A close second to both these themes would be fully formed verses in Hindi/Urdu and Gujarati. In fact, more often than not I have woken up with Hindi/Urdu verses. So there. Those are the broad conclusions. Here is the original post.
June 12, 2015
For the next few days I plan to conduct an experiment to determine which language I wake up in. I suspect it could well be English but that is not inevitable. It is equally possible that I may not wake up in a particular language at all but with just nebulous consciousness.
The experiment begins tomorrow morning and I will report the results here. I wonder whether by consciously doing this experiment I am predisposing my mind toward a particular language. Even that I shall let you know.
In the mean time, it may be useful to republish a post I wrote on March 7 last year as a prelude to this experiment because it may explain the results of this minor experiment. So here:
I often wonder whether I have a natural language; natural to the extent that anyone can have one. After all, language is acquired and is not innate.
My first acquired language was Gujarati. That was the language of all existential references but before I could graduate to its mature expression I switched to English for professional/survival reasons. I had never conversed in English till I turned 20 which was also the age when I started writing it as a means of earning.
It is my distinct memory that in those days my thought process was a sort of parallel processing in two languages—Gujarati and English. I never translated one to the other in my mind. They both blossomed on their own. All this while, a mixture of Hindi/Urdu had already become a third track from my early teens because of my natural affinity for poetry. As far as I can tell Hindi/Urdu too were getting fine-tuned in some corner of my brain simultaneously but independently. I am not going to include the other two languages that I understand very well—Marathi and Punjabi.
After living with four (actually six) languages for the better part of the last nearly four decades I could not say with any degree of certainty which is my default language. Purely in terms of the frequency of use, English wins hands down as the likeliest default language. The reasons for that are obvious because it is as much a language of survival as it is of predominant communication. However, if the ease of cursing is used as the yardstick to measure my linguistic proficiency, then I would say it is a close contest between English and Hindi/Gujarati. I would define your natural language as one in which you would curse severely under your breath.
I feel linguistically promiscuous. The brain often indulges in verbal orgies of threesomes or foursomes or even sixsomes between these languages. Marathi and Punjabi remain only reluctant participants in these acts but they are there, hovering around.
These thoughts came to me this morning for no apparent reason. It would be interesting to see which language I might die in. One cannot foreshadow the circumstances of one’s death but I am curious to find out which language I might be thinking in when the end comes in whatever form it does. It is possible that I may have a reflective death where as I am fading away I am actually reflecting on this, that and the other in a particular language as opposed to an unexpected end where I have no control on such details.
I am at a stage where it is no longer possible to say which is really the language of my thoughts, the process of thinking. One wakes up with any of these six languages and goes to sleep with any of them. My monolingual American friends freak out when I discuss this with them. Many of them are unable to process a creature with so many languages rattling about in his brain. I compound it by saying that there are hundreds of millions of people in India and elsewhere in Asia and Europe who speak/understand/write more than three languages without consciously trying.
As one friend put it so eloquently sometime ago while discussing this at a Thanksgiving dinner, “Get the fuck outta here.” Of course, he did not mean for me to really get the fuck outta there but it was his way of expressing bewilderment at the idea that people could be proficient in many languages simultaneously.
Planets by MC (From bottom left to top right—Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, Moon, Jupiter)
I gave up looking for meaning or purpose to the universe in my early teens. My conclusion then that it has no meaning or purpose the way the human mind understands either holds today.
Who knows who we are, why we are here and whether we are a result of an unprotected intercourse among elements and crazy processes that unfolded in the aftermath of the Big Bang? I quite like my idea that we all are an unplanned consequence of a giant tear in the cosmic condom. Even the Big Bang increasingly seems to have been a local event that created our universe while many others came into being. I mean who knows beyond a point?
However, all that does not make me any less captivated by what is accessible to us in our immediate planetary neighborhood. Since the onset of February five days I have thoroughly enjoyed the striking appearance virtually together of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. This morning after dropping my daughter at school I spent a few moments looking at a scythe-shaped moon and traced Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. I have this habit of acknowledging the sky and its objects by waving to a few of them. So I did.
As soon as I returned to my laptop I started wondering a bit about why it’s all there. I ask this against the backdrop of my original supposition that there is no meaning or purpose to the universe. It is just there. That assertion out of the way, the question why is not fully put to rest. For instance, what does Jupiter do all Jovian day? Or for that matter, why is the Sun forever so ferociously full of flames? And what about Saturn strutting about with its groupies in the form of all those rings?
Now we are being told that it is becoming increasingly clear that Earth is actually two planets. Some 4.5 billion years ago a planetary embryo called Theia slammed head-on into the early Earth and fused. Until recently, the scientific consensus was that Theia had merely sideswiped at an angle of 45 degrees. However, a study by University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) scientists says it was in fact a direct, head-on collision between the early Earth and Theia 100 million years after the former was formed.
"Theia was thoroughly mixed into both the Earth and the moon, and evenly dispersed between them," Edward Young, lead author of the new study and a UCLA professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry, said in a statement. "This explains why we don't see a different signature of Theia in the moon versus the Earth."
“We don’t see any difference between the Earth’s and the moon’s oxygen isotopes; they’re indistinguishable,” he said.
What this means is that we are not merely Earth but we are Eartheia. The question “Which planet do you live on?” acquires dramatic new substance in the light of this study.
The idea that we are two planets fused into one does not in anyway help my original problem about whether the universe has any purpose or meaning. It occasionally irks me that I am unable to get any handle on this very fundamental question. I doubt if I or any of us, even in the unimaginably infinitesimally minor way, could be furthering some utterly unfathomable grand cosmic purpose behind this one universe that we live in.
This is a futile quest, this search for meaning or purpose because it is whatever we imagine it to be. There is no single, identifiable point at which meaning and purpose converge. I think the best way out is to frequently look at our own slice of sky and feel an immense sense of exhilaration, finding an occasional alignment of the planets in our solar system.
Mayank Chhaya with “Orgasms in the head” (Photo: Mayank Chhaya)
Over the past three and a half decades one has done a few hundred interviews. I have not preserved clippings of most of them. However, some of them do survive. One such to survive and survive well is an interview I did 25 years ago this very month. It was done for the now defunct ‘Debonair’ magazine which was then helmed by friend and fellow journalist Amrita Shah.
Dr. June Reinisch, the well-known sexologist who was the director of the prestigious Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, was visiting Delhi to attend the First World Conference on Orgasm. The conference was organized by the sexologist Dr. Prakash Kothari. The theme of the conference in 1991 was orgasm. So it was just as well that I set up an interview with Dr. Reinisch on the subject. Amrita gave an apt headline to the interview: “Orgasms in the head.”
Purely out of curiosity, I googled Dr. Reinisch and found that she very much keeps up her India connection. Her Facebook page shows she was visiting Chhatisgarh last month.
There is no particular reason to carry some of the excerpts from that interview today other than the fact that this month marks its 25th anniversary. I began by asking Dr. Reinisch if a consensus view had emerged on the question of orgasm at conference.
“The important reason for having this meeting is to get people to think about orgasm as an important aspect of sex and an area for which some serious clinical work is needed….Historically, sex has been thought of as inseparable from reproduction and the pleasurable aspects have been ignored. In fact, pleasurable aspects are often seen negatively. I think this meeting is on the road to thinking of sexuality as positive,” she told me.
One of my questions that struck Dr. Reinisch as significant was this:
MC: Is orgasm a destination that a copulating couple must reach?
JR: That’s great a question. I think it is one of the problems that sex therapists see regularly. The answer is definitely ‘No.’ I think if orgasm is seen as the ultimate destination in sexuality, many problems arise and much pleasure is lost. So you have two negative things. It (copulation) becomes a contest. It becomes a battle or a challenge rather than an enjoyable journey that should be good from the beginning till the end. It puts demands on the man for the woman and the woman for the man. It is very clear that orgasm does not need to be the destination for every sexual journey. It is the journey itself that is important, and not reaching the end.
I remember Dr. Reinisch as someone with the anchored temperament of scientist who balanced well between the sheer clinical nature of her profession and its deeply human dimensions. I also remember having greatly enjoyed the interaction with her as someone who engaged with a journalist with such genuine interest in the questions.
We also discussed her widely acclaimed research on homosexuality because she described it as “a natural variation” I asked her, somewhat inaccurately, if she thought homosexuality was a genetic tendency. “Not genetic but there may be a biological reason,” she said and elaborated, “We have some small indication that there may be some physiological factors and environmental and pre-natal factors, while in the womb, that may affect that tendency.”