Friday, May 1, 2015

gleeby's ideas: a heavy matter

Here's another graduate from my 'ideas' blog (gleeby's ideas). This story is the result of my last entry (Apples, Moons, Black Holes). Back in November 2014, I told it at Tellabration! in Olympia WA and got most of it recorded. It's wobbly and missing the first paragraph below, but still, here's what I got recorded:

A Heavy Matter
Mom and I walked into a restaurant one day and my mom said, "What if we'd rather they use a scoop like everyone else?" Years of living with and knowing my mom had me both smiling already and also frantically looking around. What had she noticed? Whatever it was would be hilarious. That was her sense of humor. Around her, you always have to pay attention. Listen. Look. Be aware. Finally, I found it. On every table was a sign proudly advertising "Hand Dipped Ice Cream!"

Through this and countless other experiences, my mom built paying attention and really, being curious, into all of her children. I can't speak for my brothers or sisters, but these are traits I look for in others and find in my most favorite people. It's what drew me strongly to this story about a young man we have all likely heard of. The way I first heard the story, an apple fell and hit him in the head.

In 1666, the Great Plague was in full swing. Isaac Newton fled the big city, heading to his mother's house in the country. Suddenly, he had a lot of time on his hands. As he was in the orchard one day, in what he called a "contemplative mood," he really did see an apple fall from a tree.

Isaac paid attention. In one of those great moments when a million thoughts suddenly all come together, Isaac became incredibly curious. Why did apples in Europe and England and everywhere all fall straight down every time? Thinking about this crazy idea from Copernicus and Galileo that the world was round, Isaac realized they were all falling toward the center of a round earth.

But what started the apples' downward motion? Nothing moves on its own. To move a rock across a field, something has to push it. Isaac realized the earth had a force of some kind pulling everything towards its center. He started talking to his friends about "gravity." He was onto something. People caught his infectious curiosity.

Over the years, Isaac and others began watching and measuring things. Isaac wondered how far this gravity extended. What if the earth was pulling something towards it, while at the same time, rotating away from it? Like the moon? A friend noticed this gravity was weaker when objects were further apart. Isaac noticed larger objects pulled more strongly than smaller ones. Putting the two together, Isaac came up with equations that could reliably predict where planets and moons would be in the future. The planet Uranus didn't follow the model, so people began looking for something that was pulling it off course. That's how they discovered Neptune.

Newton's ideas and equations were so accurate, no one had any better ideas on gravity for nearly 300 years! By then, scientists had found his model so reliable it was considered a law. They were also getting incredibly precise at measuring things. They found that everything pulls everything towards itself, not just the earth. They also realized Isaac's model wasn't always working in some cases. Mercury, for example, wasn't exactly where they calculated it should be. How curious!

In the 1940's, in his own contemplative moments, Albert wondered why that was so. He talked to his friends about it and pulled together some ideas we're still trying to wrap our heads around. The short answer was that the sun is so incredibly massive it has bent space and slowed time around it. With those adjustments, Mercury once again behaved as expected.

The question still remains, however: What is pulling everything towards everything else?

The only problem with science stories? They're all cliffhangers!

How would you finish the story?

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