This image shows a region in Saturn's outer B ring. NASA's Cassini spacecraft viewed this area at a level of detail twice as high as it had ever been observed before. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Three different stories about the universe/space/solar system in the past few days have helped take my mind off the brazen chicanery and skullduggery unfolding daily on our planet.
One of the stories is about a new study showing that the universe is expanding faster than previously thought. The second one is about another finding substantially proving that the universe is a vast and complex hologram. The third story is relatively minor saying that Saturn’s rings are made of millions of moonlets.
Together the three stories show yet again that humans desperately need a cosmic perspective as a guiding principle. I have lived my life from a cosmic standpoint even though occasionally, and may I say rudely, jolted by mundane hardships like paying one’s bills.
A new study calculates that the universe is expanding at 44.7 miles (71.9 kilometers) per second per megaparsec. One megaparsec is 3.26 million light years. What it means is that if a galaxy 1 megaparsec away is moving away from us at 44.7 miles a second or 71.9 kms a second, then a galaxy 100 megaparsec away is moving away at 100 times faster. The farther away a galaxy, the faster it is moving away. hence a faster expansion of the universe. I am not quite sure what the implications of this expansion are on our daily lives. We are basically just tearing away from each other at the cosmic level, an apt metaphor perhaps for what happens here on earth.
The story about the universe being a hologram is very hard to comprehend because we seem to be living in such a tactile world. Holograms are essentially a 3 dimension projection in a 2 dimension space that should not be touchable. So if the whole universe is a hologram, then should we really care about anything? "Imagine that everything you see, feel and hear in three dimensions (and your perception of time) in fact emanates from a flat two-dimensional field, said Kostas Skenderis, Professor at the University of Southampton in Britain. Yes, imagine that!
A paper in Physical Review Letters says the “projection” is “real” from our human perspective. If that is so, what’s the difference whether it is real or holographic? I have the same question about the idea that the universe is a simulation. If the whole universe is a simulation and we are not coded to escape that simulation, what’s the point of that realization? It has no practical or philosophical value. Even our acquiring the knowledge that this is a damn simulation then has to be simulation.
That brings me to a relatively humdrum third story about Saturn’s rings being made of millions of moonlets that could be as big as a house and 1KM in diameter. Images just released by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft with a resolution of 0.3 miles (550 meters) show these moonlets. They are spectacular images. The image above reminded me of my 1978/79 encounter with the late distinguished planetary scientist and astronomer Dr. Tom Gehrels. He was the Principal Investigator for the Imaging Photoplarimeter for the Pioneer mission.
He was visiting my hometown Ahmedabad’s Physical research Laboratory (PRL) where he was a lifetime fellow. I was about 17 (or 18) and, in retrospect, a fully certifiable astronomy nerd. I fixed up an appointment with Dr. Gehrels on a whim after hearing a lecture by him. I remember telling him that I had a few questions about the Pioneer mission, which predated the Voyager mission and on which he had a key role as the Principal Investigator for the Imaging Photoplarimeter. Of course, I did not know any of this when I sought a meeting with him. For me the the trigger was a fascinating animation that he showed during his lecture about the Pioneer flybys of Saturn. The actual flyby happened only 1979.
If Dr. Gehrels was amused at the sight of a teenager dressed in a shirt tucked inside a trousers with a pair of neatly polished shoes asking for his time, he did not show it. There was not a hint of condescension in his manners. He asked my brother Manoj, another friend Paresh and I to come to the PRL the next day. Although I had Manoj and Paresh with me, I had arrogated to myself the role of the principal interlocutor with Dr. Gehrels. The journalist in me was evidently born earlier than I had the sense to recognize it.
True to his word, Dr. Gehrels was waiting in his PRL office at the appointed time when we reached looking molested by Ahmedabad’s violent summer heat. The air-conditioning in his office was a source of great comfort. Dr. Gehrels inquired about us and what we studied. You have to bear in mind that this was perhaps for the first time in our lives that all three had to converse in English. I took the lead in answering although Manoj was the only one among us who was studying in a school where the medium of instruction was English.
Conscious that I may run out of my limited knowledge of English, I gave what must have felt like a rather abrupt introduction of our lives. I wanted to get on with my questions and I did. The one that I remember the most had to do with the Saturn flyby. I asked Dr. Gehrels why the Pioneer spacecraft would not travel through Saturn’s rings. Was it because they (NASA) feared a collision with the icy particles in the rings?, I asked. He said that was indeed one of the concerns.
Now that I see those moonlets in high resolution it becomes even clearer why spacecraft would not pass through those rings without serious peril.
On a separate note, these three stories do not help resolve any of my larger questions about the universe. If the universe is a hologram on the one hand and it is expanding even faster than previously found on the other, then what do we make of it? I don’t know. I really don’t know. That, I suppose, is the thrill of the universe—not ever knowing fully unlike here on Earth where deluded men of unshakable certitudes run amuck.