Office of the Dean: St Andrew's College, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 3TD
IN A FAMOUS lecture half a century ago at Cambridge, C.P Snow advocated that the two sides of the Quad; i.e. the Sciences and the Humanities, should not just be just dimly aware of each other’s existence and subject matter, they should actually talk to each other.
This can be difficult... I was trained in the sciences and now research in the literature and philosophy of the 18th century. I thus have a foot in both camps – but it’s not easy. Oh for the days of the original Oyster Club founded in Edinburgh by David Hume, Adam Smith, James Hutton and other superstars of the Enlightenment, when the limits of human knowledge were within the grasp of polymaths such as these. In the 21st century we’re all so super-specialised with our own vocabularies and terms of reference that for a philosopher to get a handle, let alone a grip on what a physiologist is talking about – and vice versa, is a serious trial.
One should, however, make the effort. With that in mind, this week I attended a meeting of the staff of the AGL (Antigravity Lab) to try, yet again, to understand what gravity actually is. This is not easy; I remember hearing that Einstein, lecturing at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, was wandering about as usual and waving his pipe while saying to the class in his classical German accent:
“Und zo, – I pose zis kvestion vonce mohr - vot iss zis force, zis enigma. Vot iss Gravity?”
Now he meant the question to be rhetorical, no answer then being possible. But to his amazement a student put his hand up.
“Yes?” said the great man quizzically to the student who now began to look most uncomfortable and distressed,
“I’m so sorry, Professor Einstein” he said. “It was there, but now, I’m afraid…. No, it’s gone…”
“Oh NO!”cried the sage, “The only man in the history of the Universe who knew vot voss Gravity – und he’s forgotten!”
It seems that now we do know. Gravity is a bending of the Higgs field. He of the famously elusive boson, also gave his name to an invisible field which exists, well, everywhere. We can’t see it, touch it or even visualise it, but it’s right here, and there, and everywhere. And it can be bent. All objects with mass, defined as a body’s ability to have inertia, bend it. My keyboard here bends it, you yourself bend it, the Earth bends it. The bigger the mass, the tighter the bend and the stronger the pull towards the centre of that mass. Another extraordinary aspect of gravity is how weak it actually is. It may seem strong enough to us, but consider this. The gravitational pull of the entire earth is insufficient to stop you or me jumping, i.e. leaving the ground! Indeed Olympic athletes can jump nearly three metres off the planet, before falling back to earth.
We’re also designed for it and evolved in it. The human body has 1 Gravity architecture. Take away that gravity and we do badly. I was once in Houston at the Johnson Spaceflight Center discuss to osteoporosis, normally a malady of the elderly, but a major problem for Astronauts. If you’re weightless for any length of time, your muscles get flabby and stop doing their job which is essentially to act as levers pulling on your bones. The bones themselves sense this lack of muscle pull – and react by shedding calcium and ultimately, strength.
Thus the NASA Mars Mission, which my colleagues and I were briefed on, was in trouble. It’s nine months to Mars and nine months back. It the astronaut trips on the ladder leaving the Lander and falls to earth - correction, Mars - and breaks a leg, well there’s orthopaedic help around the corner. The answer is to simulate gravity by spinning the crew quarters on the Marsliner en route to the red planet, at a speed of rotation whose centrifugal force will mimic Earth gravity. I think they did this in 2001 a Space Odyssey - to music by Strauss.
So, mass is conferred on everything by the Higgs boson. Its work done, it vanishes in a trillionth of a second, decaying into a stream of baryons, whatever they are. Gravity is conferred by the Higgs Field and a lot of my College’s money is poured into our AGL here, the famous Antigravity Lab, in the hope of reversing it – or ‘ploughing up the Higgsfield’ as the inmates call it.
They are a remarkable and dangerous bunch. They were experimenting with antimatter – and I should point out that the collision of matter with antimatter is to be avoided . Each annihilates the other with a violence, as the said Einstein predicted, of E=mc2 When one reflects that ‘c’ is the speed of light and measures 300,00 Km/sec you can see why I appealed to them to be careful.
They were trying to figure out what gravitation pull is exerted by a lump of matter, known for some reason as a sausage - on a lump of anti-matter known, predictably, as an antisausage. They found that the pull of one on the other was increasing exponentially as the sausage approached its anti-, so the two were further approximated until they were only a few femtometres (10-15 metres) apart. At that precise moment someone pulled the chain in the Staff Toilet next door. The slunge from the cistern shook the lab just a few picometres but it was enough; sausage and antisausage united… The resulting explosion brought down the roof, blew out every window in the street outside and measured 3.9 on the Richter Scale downstairs in the geophysics lab.
On the College President’s own richter scale it measured fully 10.0 when he saw the bill for the repairs - especially as he was still grumping about the AGL’s last debacle. This was when their huge magnetic field escaped into King George IV Bridge, magnetising several vehicle which then swept into the atrium, followed by the ATM machine from the Bank across the street.
In short, I had a tough time explaining to him that the latest blast was, yet again, for the greater good of science.
He’ll get over it, I trust…