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November 20, 2023

(Caveat: I don’t pretend to be any kind if expert on physics, theoretical or otherwise. The ideas in this blog arise from my own feelings and not from any research on the subject.)

My younger sister was a firm believer in “sprites” – small entities that lived in one’s house and delighted in moving things around, hiding things one couldn’t find, and generally causing trouble in the three-dimensional everyday world. Who knows whether such things exist? The physical world is already so complicated that we will never fully understand why things behave the way they do.

Everything around us is firmly set into a “lattice” of molecular structure, which causes those things to obey certain rules. Look at the different materials surrounding you right now. Wood, ceramic, metal. And at the shapes they take on – table, pencil holder, lamp. These are objects we have named, and we expect them to be in their usual places the next time we sit in this room. We think of them as tools that are there to further our work, and separate from each other, but they are just collections of molecules, that, physicists tell us, actually have a lot of empty space between and among them. They fit seamlessly into the bunch or group of molecules that we engage with each day, and of course that we ourselves are a part of.

These molecular groups are always changing, not only when we decide to get a new table or lamp, but in their natural breakdown, fast or slow, and other things as well. A table will eventually become a heap of wood scraps, and then be burned or rot away. Recently I created a picture that had a lot of gold and silver paint in it. Some of that paint, inevitably, found its way onto my table. Now it is a molecular group that might be termed “table plus a few gold and silver paint stains”. I don’t really mind this; it’s a reminder that perfection is a fictitious state. A few years ago, I got a new car and after a couple of weeks, it had some scratches on it, acquired inadvertently in the normal course of driving. My mother-in-law was devastated, but I was actually relieved – I didn’t have to worry about the possibility of scratches any more.

The breakdown into chaos – entropy – is one of the unavoidable rules of this material world we live in. Two others, I would like to submit, are gravity and time. All these are interconnected, and travel in only one direction; it’s not possible to go backward in any of them (except under certain lab-created unnatural conditions – probably – I don’t know). If a glass falls off a countertop and breaks, it will never be whole again – it’s not possible to “reverse the film” in real life and have the glass leap back up onto the countertop unharmed. (This example is from Stephen Hawking’s explanation of time.) In this example, gravity and time work seamlessly to create a whole different reality, that of a glass in pieces rather than a whole glass.

Why are these things occurring to me now? Because gravity is one of the aspects of reality that I have come to find rather difficult at this time of my life. I won’t even go into the various balance issues etc. that plague my mature body. I also have trouble with dropping and spilling things. I can drop a simple pen top upwards of a dozen times while doing a job of work, with all the attendant cursing and bending toward the floor to retrieve it. At such times, I echo Sheldon in TBBT, “Gravity, thou art a heartless bitch.”

Perhaps I should remember more often the words of my first music teacher, who when he dropped a pencil or something in the course of a lesson, would say, “Well, it’s can’t go any further, let’s just leave it where it is.”

The Earth is so big that wherever we are, we just think of the direction of gravity as “down”, but I imagine that every dropped pen top, to say nothing of larger objects like shooting stars, form in falling a precise angle (always the same angle?) with Earth’s core. If they don’t, it is certainly because another source of gravity, such as the Moon, exerted another influence. If objects could just keep going in that same direction, without being influenced by any other force, would they eventually come out at an opposite place on the face of the globe? That’s an interesting idea. What is the precise opposite place on the globe from where my dropped pen top landed? Since so much of the Earth is covered by water, the pen top would shoot out and then bob on the waves, probably, miles from anywhere. But thank goodness, all the objects around us are held in place by a combination of gravity and inertia, and are kept from falling to the ground (or even deeper) by other objects, such as the pencil holder, which is kept from tumbling to the ground by the table, which is in turn held in abeyance by the floor, etc. If it weren’t for these inhibiting forces, and the impossibility that gravity would reverse itself once the object passed the Earth’s core, innumerable dropped objects would clog up the planet, to say nothing of the anguish of seeing something beloved that was accidentally dropped, disappear forever. Probably complicated online services would come into being for retrieving these articles. Okay, enough fantasy.

I also have trouble as I never had before, with carrying a bunch of things back and forth in our house. Our house is very spacious, so that if I am going to the other end of it, it’s become second nature to look around and see if there are other things that need to be put away there as well. But now I may look at all the little things I am carrying, which often disrupt a task I have decided to do, with a certain amount of bewilderment and irritation – “why do I have YOU in my hand?” – and put it down while I finish the task. Is it simple forgetfulness, or a heightened awareness of the material world? Whatever it is, it has resulted in extra exercise, as I now make a lot more trips back and forth in my big house, fearing that I will forget things – so I move them right away, without waiting for a whole armful to accumulate.

Such are the irresistible forces that move us in a forward direction, toward change, toward entropy, away from our puny attempts at control. A heightened awareness of the material, of the rules that keep this dense collection of molecules together, seems to be a corollary of getting older.

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