Friday, February 23rd, 2018

Black holes and time warps


I have been reading Black Holes & Time Warps: Einsteins Outrageous Legacy by Kip S. Thorne. He wrote it in late 1993, and it was published in 1994. A cover blurb states, “Deeply satisfying…[An] engrossing blend of theory, history, and anecdote” –Wall Street Journal. In his Preface, Thorne explains his goal for the book.

For thirty years I have been participating in a great quest: a quest to understand a legacy bequeathed by Albert Einstein to future generations–his relativity theory and its predictions about the Universe–and to discover where and how relativity fails and what replaces it.

…Our quest, with its hundreds of participants scattered over the globe, has helped me appreciate the international character of science, the different ways the scientific enterprise is organized in different societies, and the intertwining of science with political currents, especially Soviet/American rivalry.

This book is an attempt to share these insights with nonscientists, and with scientists who work in fields other than my own. It is a book of interlocking themes held together by a thread of history: the history of our struggle to decipher Einstein’s legacy, to discover its seemingly outrageous predictions about black holes, singularities, gravitational waves, wormholes, and time warps.

This theme is interesting to me because a lot of the post-Einstein discoveries, especially during the golden age of the black hole in the 1960s and 1970s occurred during my engineering career when I was blissfully unaware that all this stuff was going on.

What prompted this post is that it appears to me that a distinct pecking order developed among physicists of that era. There apparently were several levels. At the top were a handful of “high priests” who built their own research teams in Russia, Britain, and America. Their teams were made up of bright “postdocs” (PhDs pursuing research after their degree), graduate and undergraduate physics students. The latter were numerous and in many ways were like very bright peons who did most of the nitty-gritty calculating, which was still drudgery at the dawn of the computer’s present role as a powerful number cruncher. Some of them rose to get mentioned in Thorpe’s history, but I’m sure countless others had their day in the sun and then faded into obscurity. Let’s hear it for the peons!

Unwrapping the secrets of the Cosmos is manifestly a task far beyond the capabilities of a handful of brilliant physicists. It has taken many hundreds of the world’s brightest young scientists to progress to where we are today, probing the first seconds of the big bang. Many of the top scientists were originally brought together in America and in Russia to design the hydrogen bomb, and now they are all on the same team, trying to unlock the secrets of the Universe’s birth.

While much progress is still being made, it occurs to me that mankind’s ability to figure all this out is, in the first place, a gift from God. I wonder if perhaps He has also placed bounds on this ability. As science seems to creep closer to understanding how the Universe developed in it’s first seconds of life, it will creep only as close as God allows. There are already signs that they are up against some sort of natural barrier beyond which further knowledge is impossible. Science, with the hubris created by its recent great progress, may have found its “bridge too far.”

Dave, wondering from a safe distance (I hope).


2 Responses to “Black holes and time warps”
  1. Leslie says:

    So, do you think a little recreational time travel with the help of black holes is pushing that boundary? On a more serious note, I wonder where that contraption in Bern, Switzerland fits in – the atom smasher?

  2. Dad says:

    I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what Bern comes up with. As for recreational time travel is concerned, I’ll let you worry about that, because I’m sure I won’t be around, when and if.

    Fun to think about, isn’t it?

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