Monday, April 28, 2014

Dark Matter

I wrote this a few weeks ago right after it occurred to me that I hadn't made a blog post in a month, and that's usually a wakeup call of sorts for me. As I'm in my seventh year of doing this, I tend to be pretty regular, so when I'm not, it gets my attention. I held off on posting this immediately thereafter, as there were bigger fish to fry, but I believe the words are still relevant. And besides, if this subject weren't relevant beyond the moment of realization, then it wouldn't really be worth talking about, anyway.


There's a parable that floats around the interwebs every so often, and it does so with vague attribution. You probably know it, but if you don't, I'll summarize it quickly.

It's about a philosophy professor who stands in front of his class silently, produces a large mayonnaise jar, then fills it with golf balls. He asks his class if the jar is full (yup).

Then he produces some pebbles and pours them into the jar, and they obviously rattle down and fill in around the golf balls. Same question to the class about the jar being full, same answer (yup).

Then he produces some sand, pours it into the jar, and it again fills in around the other stuff. Same question to the class, same answer (yup). Like with most good stories told by good storytellers, the students gradually catch on at each step along the way that Something is Happening, thus gradually enticing the listener to prepare for a punchline or a lesson.

As his coup de grĂ¢ce, as the jar really appears full this time, he produces a couple of beers and easily pours them in. Lesson time.

Golf balls = big life stuff: health, family, friends, passions

Pebbles = medium life stuff: job, house, car

Sand = small life stuff: unspecified, but man, it's the small stuff. It's picking up your dry cleaning and going for coffee.

"You see," says the professor, "if you put the sand into the jar first, there's no room for the other stuff. If you spend your time on the little details in life, there's no time for what's truly important."

Class is stunned. Finally someone asks about the beer, and the story gets its lighthearted conclusion: "no matter what, there's always time for a couple beers with a friend."

Memorable, yes. Good lesson for today's doe-eyed youth, yes. Only problem is that's it's complete and utter horseshit.

For starters, it's written too poetically to have actually happened as it's told. Next, it follows the formula of every good joke or story. Finally, there are no identifying details with which to actually verify a single word of it.

But those aren't the reasons it's horseshit. Those are mere technicalities that skirt the real issue, and they're common to most every parable or fable out there.


Time for a physics break.

So...there's this thing called spacetime, and it's our three familiar dimensions (x, y, and z) woven in with our less-obvious fourth dimension, time. Spacetime is awesome, and it's frequently described as a thin sheet of rubber stretched across a frame. This analogy works pretty well, as it's easy for most of us to visualize a big ball making a smooth indentation in this rubber sheet, and then to visualize smaller marbles and such having their paths altered as they roll near these big indentations.

This is cosmology on a grand level: the effect of gravity on the scale of galaxies and stars and planets. It's a good introduction to the concepts of space and time being both intertwined and also flexible, as we're used to rigid three-dimensional things like concrete and steel buildings. It's also a convenient lesson about how to make abstract concepts that are difficult to grasp (fourth dimension?!) more approachable, which is a useful skill as one cavorts down the path towards string theory and its extra six or so tightly-curled dimensions. That's a whole different level of mindfuck, but we'll save that for another day.

Anyhow, this rubber sheet of spacetime is pretty easy to grasp, and it's easy to imagine a whole bunch of indentations of various sizes from all the stuff that's out there. It's also pretty easy to imagine that the astrophysicists could calculate how all this stuff moves, and how the observable universe bends and stretches, because hey, we can see all these galaxies and stars and planets and understand the indentations they all make in the rubber.

There's just one little problem. Stuff doesn't move quite like it should. Stuff moves as though there's other stuff, Invisible Stuff, making its own indentations in the rubber sheet. And it turns out that there's a lot of it. Like, OMG, it's over a quarter of the stuff in the entire universe. It's been conveniently named Dark Matter, and yeah, there's also Dark Energy and whatnot, but Dark Matter is good enough for today's rant. We're still working to understand it, to "find" it (whatever it means to find something that's invisible), and to figure out where it came from.

Physics break over, or [/physics] for you geeks.


The astute among you Seven Faithful Readers may notice that I already sneakily worked in balls of different sizes in the physics lesson, setting you up for some rad connection between the stupid mayonnaise jar story and the amazingness of physics. That's actually just a clever coincidence, as this is really about the Dark Matter.

I've spent the last few years prioritizing the pursuit of time over the pursuit of money, as it didn't take me too long to realize that accumulating vast amounts of cash wouldn't be much good if there was no time to use it (and I should probably point out that I didn't have the piles of cash anyway).

Time is a curious one, as it could be interpreted lots of different ways. For some, it's daily time: time to walk the dog, time to cook dinner, time to read to the kids. For others, it's weekly or monthly time: time to go to the beach, time to make art, time to fiddle with the car. For others yet, it's a different level of time: time to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, time to really explore Thailand, time to build a house.

For me, it's a blend of those three flavors of time. And I've learned a bevy of time-management techniques that unlock this hidden world of being able to do lots of things that don't seem possible if you think you're busy. None of it is rocket science. But still, for me, something ain't right. What it really boils down to isn't time, I guess, but freedom. And freedom is more than time. It's more than even time and money. It's time and money and what we'll just call bandwidth. And therein lies the rub. Bandwidth is my Dark Matter.

You see, most of the time, my mayonnaise jar looks pretty approachable. There'll be a golf ball or two, some pebbles, and some sand (and on a good day, it's all soaked in beer). Plenty of room, right? But I'll be damned if that jar isn't full of Dark Matter, invisible yet undeniable in its pull. Time for more golf balls, like spending time with friends? Sure, but for some reason, those balls won't go in the jar. Time for more pebbles, like making our rental house more livable or doing some interesting side work? Sure, but for some reason, those pebbles won't go in the jar. Time for more sand, like getting a haircut or researching interesting races or catching up on semi-important emails? Sure, but for some reason, that sand won't go in the jar.

Jar looks empty, isn't.

Uh oh.


I've got (and have fought for) a fair amount of time in my life, and I've at least got enough cash to keep things moving along, but I find myself so bloody bandwidth-limited that I'm not sure what to do. There are times when I feel like a drooling imbecile, and for a guy whose livelihood relies upon being smart from time to time, that's a touch on the scary side. It is a state of mind that could be mistaken for having an unobstructed soul, or being calm as a Hindu cow (which is one of my favorite lines in Fight Club), but I don't think either of those is quite the case. It's the Dark Matter in my gray matter, interwoven and invisibly overwhelming, and I've yet to identify it. The astrophysicists are on the hunt for their Dark Matter, and I'm on the hunt for mine.

I've got some hypotheses, and I won't use this as a venue to discuss them, as even with all this context and lead-in, there's a good chance that what I write will be taken out of context. And I also run the risk of coming off like the walking talking embodiment of a grand coalescence of first-world problems, and the necessary disclaimers to avoid that seem like too much work. So long story short, this is little more than a longwinded kvetch with no resolution, except that I'll promise to keep hunting for the Dark Matter, or more simply, to find out what the fuck is wrong with my jar.

Gratuitous and multi-quasi-symbolic photo



WALKSFAR said...

I have a question thats been rolling around my head for years and every thing I've tried to read about it gives me no definitive answers. How come if Black holes are so gravitationally powerful(heavy weight on a rubber sheet analogy) do accretion discs form. Wouldn't matter from all directions fall straight in? In the case of accretion discs forming would that not mean there is something almost but not quite as powerful as the singularity slowing matter down from a direct decent? Maybe I'm missing something.

Coffees of Hawaii said...

It doesn't matter if the horse is blind, just load the wagon!


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