Quarks to Quasars

With all the interplanetary zipping around in the Star Wars universe, and all the talk of hyperspace, you might imagine that everyone – Jedi and Sith alike – would spend their evenings and weekends brushing up on Einstein and relativity. Well, not our Einstein of course; after all, this isn’t our galaxy, it’s a galaxy that’s “far, far away.” They’d need their own frizzy-haired genius, of whatever species. But a closer look at the Star Wars movies reveals a remarkably un-Einsteinian universe. In fact, it seems to owe more to Newton than to Einstein.

Let me explain.

From the moment Luke and Obi Wan stroll into the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine, it’s clear that the Star Wars galaxy – wherever it is – is a place of extraordinary diversity, populated by extraordinary creatures inhabiting extraordinary worlds. Tatooine is all desert; Dagobah is covered in dense jungle; Hoth is blanketed with snow. And that’s before we encounter Yavin, Endor, Naboo, Jakku, Ahch-To, and the rest. These worlds are sprinkled throughout the galaxy. They extend over space – but they share a single time. This is reflected in the opening “crawls” that precede each film. Recall the first sentence of the Episode IV (A New Hope) crawl: “It is a period of civil war.” Where is the civil war happening? Presumably, throughout the galaxy. And when is it happening? Why, “now” of course. Everywhere, all at once. Or consider the first of the prequels, The Phantom Menace (sorry). Its crawl begins, “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” When is the dispute happening? Again, the answer is “now.”

In the Star Wars universe, there’s just one now, one timeline. Of course, the various worlds have pasts and futures: Alderaan has a past, in which it’s a well-populated, peaceful world; and it has a future, as a zillion little bits of space dust. Relativity doesn’t take away the concepts of “past” and “future”; real planets in real galaxies have pasts and futures, too. But, unfortunately, relativity wreaks havoc with the concept of “now.”

It wasn’t so in Newton’s universe. In his masterwork, the Principia, Newton famously declared that “absolute, true, and mathematical time, in and of itself and of its own nature, without reference to anything external, flows uniformly.” Since nothing could affect the passage of time, it had to be the same for everyone, everywhere. It’s as though there was a great “master clock” for the universe, playing a similar role to that of a town clock in the centre of a medieval city. One clock, one shared time.

In Einstein’s universe, this becomes untenable. Of course, relativity did a lot more than just muddle up the concept of “now.” In the first part of Einstein’s theory, known as special relativity, Einstein showed how measurements of space and time depend on the relative motion of the observer and the thing being observed. That means, for example, that if two identical spaceships pass each other at high speed, each will observer the other as having a shorter length, and each will observe a clock on board the other ship as running slow (physicists call the latter effect “time dilation”). As well, as a spacecraft approaches the speed of light, it gets heavier; it will become more and more difficult to make it move faster, and in fact it will never actually reach the speed of light. The second part of Einstein’s theory, known as general relativity, adds some new complications by bringing gravity into the picture: A clock at the bottom of a valley will tick more slowly than an identical clock on the top of a mountain. Things get even wonkier near black holes. Those are all pretty heady ideas, and wildly counterintuitive. This is the “relativity of now,” or, in physics jargon, the “relativity of simultaneity.” This is how I put it in my 2008 book, In Search of Time:

What do we mean when we say a particular event is happening “now”? When we use the word “now,” we are really comparing two events: I can snap my fingers and then ask whether some other event was simultaneous with my finger-snapping or not. If it is, I say that the event is happening “now.” In the Newtonian universe, I can legitimately ask, “What events in the universe are happening right now?” The answer would be a unique set of occurrences, scattered throughout space but lying on a single “slice through time.” I can snap my fingers at, say, noon Eastern Standard Time on December 1, 2008, and every event, everywhere in the universe, is either simultaneous with my finger-snapping, or not. That was fine for Newton, but not for Einstein… In special relativity there is no universal agreement among observers as to whether two events actually are simultaneous or not – and thus there can be no universal “now.” As Einstein remarked, “There is no audible tick-tock everywhere in the world that can be considered time.”

As with relativity’s other effects, these disagreements over what-happened-when are too small to notice in everyday, terrestrial affairs. No matter how many jet flights we take, no matter how many times we zip from continent to continent, the disagreement between our clocks will be no more than a few milliseconds (a discrepancy that scientists have measured using atomic clocks). For all practical purposes, it really is as though our lives are governed by an invisible master clock. 

But try zipping across interstellar distances, and all of that goes out the window. Keeping the affairs of a galactic civilization in synch would be a hopeless task. (This means that maintaining Star Trek's Federation would be as much of a non-starter as trying to run Star Wars’ Empire (or Republic, or Senate, or council of Jedi knights). 

Now, both Star Wars and Star Trek imagine something like faster-than-light travel – a necessity for getting from one star system to another in a reasonable amount of time, right? Unfortunately, such speedy travel does nothing to get around the problem of time dilation (something that the makers of the 2014 movie Interstellar got right). A lot of problems crop up when we try to make sense of light-speed (or faster than light speed) travel, but, putting those aside, this effortless galactic leaping about shows just how committed Star Wars is to the Newtonian “now.”

Consider one of the key plot-points of The Last Jedi: On more than one occasion, Rey and Kylo are able to communicate across interstellar distances, using a kind of telepathy (humorously described by some fans as “ForceTime”). (It’s not a completely new phenomenon within the franchise; Luke and Leah displayed telepathic abilities as early as The Empire Strikes Back, and Obi Wan seems to be “instantly aware” of the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope.) Let’s say telepathy was an actual thing. What would it be like to use it to communicate with someone on the other side of the world? Well, except for the mind-reading part, it would be a lot like placing a Skype call; a few clicks and you’d instantly be able to see and hear what someone was doing on the other side of the globe. But once the distances increase from a few thousand miles to a few billion miles, we run into trouble. It’s not just that the telepathy signals would have to travel faster than the speed of light – after all, if we can suspend our disbelief for ships travelling through hyperspace, it’s not so hard to imagine telepathy working by means of a similar trick. We can imagine that Rey sees what Kylo is doing “now” (e.g., forgetting to put his shirt on), and vice-versa. The problem is, if the two characters are moving relative to one another – and presumably they are – their conversation will quickly get out of synch. Even worse, later bits of the conversation could end up taking place before earlier bits – a version of the famous “grandfather paradox.”

The easiest way to enjoy the Star Wars films, of course, is to just not worry about any of this. (I get it: they’re not documentaries. And if you didn’t worry about ET’s flying bicycle, you’re half way to accepting the Force.) The harder and rather more masochistic way to get through the films is to keep a tally of which scenes violate which laws of physics, and imagine how those laws would have to be tweaked in order for the galaxy-spanning events of Star Wars to make sense. But there’s a comfortable middle ground, which I rather like: Take everything that happens in Star Wars at face value – but instead of picturing the action as happening in a galaxy far, far away, imagine the various events happening over the surface of a single planet (maybe Earth-sized, maybe Jupiter sized – but not too much bigger). We just need to imagine a world in which some areas are covered by desert, some by snow, and so on – which in fact is a pretty good description of Earth. On such a word, clocks don’t get significantly out of synch. Telepathy (if it existed) would be a convenient alternative to Skype. A civil war – or a dispute over taxation – could be a topical news item for all inhabitants, all at once.

George Lucas was a genius of enormous imagination. But I sometimes think of his universe as a small, planet-sized affair, with a single clock keeping track of events. It’s a wondrous – but Newtonian – world.

A total solar eclipse is one of those few natural phenomena that seems to defy description.  It’s been called “awe-inspiring” and “nature’s grandest spectacle” – but the words do little to convey the actual experience of standing in the moon’s shadow.

You'll hear the phrase “once in a lifetime event" – but most people, in fact, never get to see one at all.  (Many have seen partial eclipses – but the difference between a total and a partial eclipse is literally like the difference between night and day.)

The funny thing is, in a global sense, total eclipses aren’t all that rare:  A total solar eclipse can be seen from somewhere in the world roughly once every 18 months.  But in practice, the “path of totality” – the stretch of land from which you can actually see it – is often very far from home.  (And if you stay put, and wait for a total solar eclipse to come to you, you’ll be waiting on average 375 years between each one!)  The last total eclipse visible from the contiguous 48 states of the U.S. (or from any part of Canada below the Arctic Circle) was in the winter of 1979.

And so I’ve been struggling to come up with a good analogy.  Let’s try this:  Everyone knows that sunsets at the Grand Canyon are spectacular.  And they’re pretty quick, too – it only takes the sun a couple of minutes to slip below the horizon – in the same way that the total phase of a solar eclipse lasts only a few minutes.  But now suppose that instead of happening every day, those sunsets only happened every 18 months.  And now suppose that the Grand Canyon kept moving around, so that it was only in North America a handful of times every century… are you getting the picture?  (Perhaps we can take another analogy from from the world of music -- think of the lengths that fans will go to see their favourite band -- espeically if you're worried that each tour might be the last!)

That’s why, as a teenager hooked on astronomy, I eagerly awaited my first chance to see a total solar eclipse -- an opportunity that I would finally get on July 11th, 1991.  The “path of totality” for that eclipse passed through Hawaii and Mexico (and enormous swaths of ocean).  It was also one of the longest eclipses of the century, with a duration of almost seven minutes.

I ended up joining a tour led by a group of Canadian amateur astronomers – members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.  We set up our equipment in a soccer field in the small town of Santiago, near the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula.

The weather ended up presenting a challenge:  The day had started off sunny and clear – but as we got closer to totality, clouds started to build up, overhead.  (This was probably due to condensation, triggered by the temperature drop that inevitably accompanies being in the moon’s shadow.)  In the end, we it became a kind of game of hide-and-seek:  We gawked in the direction of the eclipsed sun – and relished in every second during those gaps between the clouds, when we could actually see the eclipse! 


While conditions may not have been perfect, we had spectacular views of solar “prominences” – giant plumes of gas that shoot up from the surface of the sun. 

I’ve been privileged to have seen three more total solar eclipses since then – from the Caribbean island of Curacao in 1998; from Salzburg, Austria, in 1999; and from Easter Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in 2010.


For those eclipses, I had better luck with the weather:  In Curacao, for the first time, I got to see the corona – the sun’s tenuous, pearly-while outer atmosphere, in all its glory (see the two photos above). In Salzburg (below), my friend and I climbed a hill on the north side of the Salzach, the river that flows through the heart of the city, to view the eclipse from the grounds of the Kapuzinerkloster, a 16th-century Capuchin monastery.  From this vantage point, the eclipse unfolded above the old city of Salzburg, seen across the river.  We arrived early, but before long we were joined by dozens of enthusiastic locals. 

And then, Easter Island – my last journey into the moon's shadow, before the “Great American Eclipse” of 2017.  It’s hard to think of a more exotic location from which to observe an eclipse.  Located some 3,500 kilometers off the coast of Chile, in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish, Rapa Nui in the indigenous Polynesian language) is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world.  About 6,000 people live on the island – a figure that may have almost doubled during the week of July 11, 2010.  Though the weather on Easter Island is always unpredictable, in the end it was mainly clear on the big day – and I viewed the spectacle along with a couple of hundred eclipse enthusiasts from around the world.  We watched from a grassy field beside Ahu Tahai – an ancient ceremonial complex consisting of seven stone figures (moai), on the island’s west coast.  I can’t think of a more incredible experience than watching the sun disappear from the sky, above the moai of Easter Island.

After seeing four total solar eclipses, I can understand why people get hooked.  (In fact, I may have “caught the bug” even before totality had ended, during that first eclipse back in ’91!)  And so for years I’ve been looking forward to August 21, 2017 – a date that always seemed so far away…

I’ll be in west central Oregon, near the center-line of the “path of totality,” for the Great American Eclipse.  I hope you’ll be able to see it, too.  And if not – well, there’s always the next one.  The next time the moon’s shadow strikes North America will be on April 8, 2024.  It will be here before you know it…

As many of you know, I’ve been spending the current academic year doing a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship down here at MIT. It’s no exaggeration to call the fellowship a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and there’s no way I could talk about all the things I’ve seen and done and learned since settling down in Cambridge, MA, in late summer – but I’ll do my best to pluck out a few items that I think are worth a special mention…

First, the people: I’m thrilled to be one of 12 science journalists from around the world to have been chosen for this year’s batch of “Knights.” (You can read our bios on the Knight website.) Here are our smiling faces on this year’s Knight brochure:

Of the other 11 Knights, five are from the United States, with one each from the U.K., Norway, Poland, Nigeria, China, and Cambodia. The director, Phil Hilts, is a veteran investigative journalist and author who’s been on staff at the New York Times and Washington Post. (And he’s not a bad bowler, too.)

One of the great things about the fellowship is the privilege of taking courses at both MIT and Harvard. Here’s a picture of the MIT campus, or at least the “elegant” part of it:

The Knight offices are also at MIT, so in a sense this has been “home base,” though I ended up living in an apartment closer to Harvard. Of course, Harvard has an even more dignified-looking campus than MIT – but what do you expect, they had quite a head-start. (It’s staggering to think about just how long Harvard has been around. It dates back to 1636, a mere 16 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, and a solid 140 years before the United States became a country. At least, it’s impressive to anyone who didn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge…)

Choosing courses at the two universities, I felt like a kid in a candy store: Genetics or robotics? Relativity or quantum mechanics? Copernicus or Kuhn? For my first semester, I chose two courses at Harvard and one at MIT (though I dropped in on a few others). At Harvard, I took “Re-thinking the Scientific Revolution” and “Science and Literature.” While the former focused on the period from Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus to Newton’s Principia, the latter covered virtually the entire scope of Western literature, from Lucretius to cyberpunk – focusing, of course, on works that were inspired by, or offer a commentary on, developments in science. In that course, I was introduced to many texts that I ought to have read before, but never quite got around to: Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Stoppard’s Arcadia, to name just a few.

In choosing both of those classes, I was motivated by my passion for the “big picture”: Sure, I could have focused in on some particular branch of contemporary physics, or another branch of science – but instead I chose to step back and look at the larger issues raised by the scientific adventure. As different as these two courses were, there was a significant degree of overlap. Lucretius, for example, came up in both; so did Robert Hooke and his remarkable Micrographia

Just for fun, I also took an Shakespeare class at MIT – well, more or less for fun; Shakespeare was born in the same year as Galileo, and lived just at the same time that our view of the universe was being transformed. It’s interesting to see how Shakespeare and his contemporaries were influenced by the scientific discoveries unfolding around them.

In the Knight Fellowship program, the classes are just the beginning. We’ve had a number of field trips; the big one for our firsts semester being a visit to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, probably the world’s leading lab for marine biology.

On top of our tour of WHOI and affiliated labs, we had a “scientific cruise” on Nantucket Sound, south of Cape Cod, collecting samples and seeing just what goes on beneath he waves. (The man in the red hat was our friendly biologist / first mate.)

And we’ve had other chances to explore New England, or at least this corner of it. One of the Knight staffers had a party at her home in Rockport, MA; here we are out on the rocks by the ocean. (The scenery reminds me of Nova Scotia, where I grew up – sometimes stark, but always beautiful.)

Back at MIT, there was an incredible lineup of seminar speakers – talks held every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, just for us Knights. For me, highlights included talks by primatologist Richard Wrangham, psychologist Rebecca Saxe, and physicist David Kaiser. On the journalism side, we heard from top-tier professionals such as Carl Zimmer (Discover, The New York Times, and more), Sarah Kramer (The NYT’s multimedia guru), and Robert Krulwich (from NPR’s amazing RadioLab).

We also have a pair of first-rate multimedia instructors here, and we’re been diving head-first into the world of video and audio editing and production. (I learned many of the basics back in journalism school – but the technology keeps changing, so it’s good to keep up!)

There’s a lot to love about Cambridge, but for science enthusiasts like me, much of the appeal comes from the city’s sheer brain power: There are endless opportunities to give the ol’ gray matter a workout around here. Every week at either MIT or Harvard, there’s something amazing going on (and almost always for free). For example, a riveting panel discussion neutrinos, and why they (allegedly) were measured to be travelling faster than light…

…and Adam Riess’s mesmerizing talk on “the accelerating universe,” just two weeks after he was informed that he’d won the Nobel Prize for that very discovery:

And then there was the panel discussion on “Life in the Universe” that I caught at the MIT Museum. And the symposium on “art and science” that I popped across the river to see at Boston University. And I can hardly describe what a privilege it was to take a class in which we’d been reading Lucretius – and then to walk across campus to hear a talk by Stephen Greenblatt, who’s just written a book on, yup, Lucretius. Not to mention getting an expert guided tour of the recent exhibition, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe at Harvard’s Sackler Museum. Twice.

It’s hard to believe the Fellowship is already half over… it’s all happened much too fast!

(And just a reminder: You can follow me on Twitter and “like” my Facebook Page.)

Happy Holidays!