Sunday, March 4, 2012

Is Earth Circling the Drain?

Figure 1
Figure 2
Do you know what frame dragging is? That depends upon your frame of reference, doesn’t it? Take the late French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson. His idea of frame dragging (or at least frame toting) might be seen in a 1964 photograph he shot in Mexico (Fig. 1). For a (too) lowrider, frame dragging might send off sparks (Fig. 2). To a computer programmer working with Flash, it might be a software matter.

Figure 3

Frame dragging – or the KitchenAid effect to the likes of you and me – is also a concept of quantum physics. According to Einstein’s relativity, large masses like the earth warp space-time much the way a golf ball dimples a stretched sheet of elastic.  If the mass happens to be spinning, then the deformation includes frame dragging – a bunching or twisting of space-time that resembles a cosmic vortex or drain (Fig. 3).

But a drain leading where? Don’t all drains go someplace? If you rotate the perspective in Figure 3 through 180 degrees (along earth’s axis of spin), the perturbances of frame dragging resemble, not just a simple dimple, but a crenelated rhombus, a wrinkled hole in the dark matter – a drain flowing two opposite directions at once, as though earth were guggling through the scuppers from both ends! (Indeed, our very literacy may  be seeping out at the poles, leaving only cable TV and this blog.) 

But getting back down to earth... Compared to the cosmic meringue whipped up by frame dragging, earth-bound vortexes like tornadoes or whirlpools seem rather mundane. They have a top and a bottom, a beginning and an end. If you were sucked up by one, sooner or later you’d spin out the side with the cowshed. And if perchance you sluiced into some earth-bound drain, you’d land in the sewer, just as Samuel Beckett’s earth-bound character, Murphy, imagines it.

As a child, I was kind of afraid of drains. But since I knew so little about them, the idea of being sucked into the sewer by one never occurred to me. My dread, I think, came from having no idea at all where drains led. To me, they sort of adumbrated the void. I was pretty sure those little eddies that form in the bathtub could whirl you down to nothingness. 

A more intrepid kid might have rebelled against this nothingness like a young existentialist, or embraced it like a Young Republican, or perhaps even explored it aboard, say, the tardis of Dr. Who?, the imaginary time machine that looks like a cobalt blue London phone booth and sounds like an old-fashioned steam locomotive on lozenges. But alas, I did none of these. Instead, I impulsively whooshed away the bathtub whirlpools with my hands – like sweeping water under the rug, though at the time, this wouldn’t have been my idea of aqueous humor.

A friend of mine, with his patented brand of back-handed optimism, once quipped, “Now don’t worry, Steve. Nothing ever turns out right, anyway.” He was joking, but he was also serious.  As with drains, you never know where the quantum vortexes we travel might take you, and in the end, it might not be anyplace good. Just in case, be sure you make the most of the trip.  And if you have the space and time, do wave as you whiz by.

Well, time for me to drag my frame outside and go jogging. At my age, exercise is still the best way to stay out of the drain. 

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