Prairie Lights: Scientific leap reminds us what’s important


Let’s face it: Some things are fundamentally more important than, say, the New Hampshire primary.

Thanks to Albert Einstein, I think I finally understand what it is that I so much hate about presidential elections.

It came to me last week when I was reading an op-ed piece in the New York Times, written by Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist. His piece began like this:

Ole Ed

Ed Kemmick

“With presidential primaries in full steam, with the country wrapped up in concern about the economy, immigration and terrorism, one might wonder why we should care about the news of a minuscule jiggle produced by an event in a far corner of the universe.

“The answer is simple. While the political displays we have been treated to over the past weeks may reflect some of the worst about what it means to be human, this jiggle, discovered in an exotic physics experiment, reflects the best.”

He was writing, of course, about the announcement that scientists had finally detected a signal from gravitational waves, the existence of which had been postulated by Einstein 100 years ago.

I suspect Krauss was referring mostly to Donald Trump when he mentioned “the worst about what it means to be human,” but my disgust with the political circus goes beyond one clown and beyond this year’s primaries. What I really hate is how an election reduces a whole world of interesting subjects—or a whole universe of them, in keeping with our theme—to a handful of phony choices that supposedly define who we are.

It was bad enough before the advent of social media. Now you can live and breathe politics for 15 to 18 months every four years and have all your beliefs ratified and all your inclinations confirmed 24 hours a day. Facebook will serve up a string of headlines, stories, photographs and quotes, each one proving that people you disagree with are morally depraved imbeciles.

Even subjects that truly are important, like immigration, terrorism and climate change, are not actually debated. They just give us another excuse to raise flags around which like-minded people can rally.

At the end of those 15 or 18 months, after we have all spent hundreds or thousands of hours reading about, viewing and listening to cartoon-like trivialities dressed up to resemble matters of the first importance, what actually happens? We elect a new president or give the sitting president another term.

Then we go back to what we call our lives without acknowledging to ourselves that things really aren’t much different than they were when we got drawn into this sordid preoccupation 15 or 18 months earlier.

That’s why the news of those gravitational waves hit me like a slap in the face. Consider a few facts that Krauss brought to our attention in his New York Times piece.

The signal that the scientists detected was generated by a collision of two black holes more than a billion light years away—and one light-year is about 5.88 trillion miles. And because the “jiggle” in the fabric of space was so infinitesimally small, those scientists were basically measuring something less than one ten-thousandth the size of a proton.

Or how about this? Krauss said that when those two black holes collided, “three times the entire mass of our sun disappeared in less than a second, transformed into pure energy.” In that tiny fraction of a moment, more energy was being generated “than was being generated by all the rest of the stars in the observable universe combined.”

I don’t pretend to fully understand all this, but as I read and re-read Krauss’ words, I felt curiously ennobled by what some other members of our species have accomplished. I venture to say that “ennobled” would be the last word I would use in relation to the presidential primaries.

I wish I could believe that we were being manipulated by master propagandists, by Wall Street or Madison Avenue. But I’m afraid it’s even worse: we are manipulating ourselves. We allow ourselves to get sucked into the election-year swamp because it allows us to feel superior to those we disagree with, and makes us believe that people who share our views are going to save the world.

If you had watched every televised debate this primary season, how much would you have learned? If you had spent the same amount of time trying to understand gravitational waves, how much better for your brain, for your outlook on life, for your peace of mind?

Krauss said the real value of science is akin to the value of great art: “such pinnacles of human creativity change our perspective of our place in the universe.”

Einstein had more going on in a tiny corner of his cranium than all the presidential candidates in both parties combined. So did Beethoven, Dickens and Picasso. If we spent more time in their company and less time listening to this year’s crop of politicians, we would be better people.

We’d probably be better voters, too.

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