I tend to read a lot of books about science, because the universe is a mysterious place. In fact, it’s the most mysterious place I’ve ever been to — not including the motor vehicle department — and I’d like to understand it as much as I can.
Part of the problem is that most of what we see, and what we can’t see, exists on a scale that’s either too tiny or too enormous for our minds to comprehend. That’s why we measure things according to how many of them will fit on the head of a pin, or how many football fields would stretch from here to there. That approach usually doesn’t help, but we keep trying.
First, there was the Theory of Relativity, which I used to think might explain why my family was so weird. And then, sometime in high school, I heard about Quantum Mechanics, and I thought they were guys who fixed foreign cars. Not a promising sign, I know, but I had to start somewhere.
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In 1905, Albert Einstein was working in a quiet patent office in Switzerland when he began publishing his ideas about energy, matter, light, gravity, time, and space. Again, this was at the dawn of the twentieth century, when there were twelve cars on the road and not one of them had heated seats or cruise control. The radio hadn’t even been invented yet. Fortunately for Einstein, neither had online solitaire. The theories he produced represented a major leap forward, and left many other scientists wobbling in their boots.
Over the next two decades, physicists developed quantum mechanics, which sought to identify the nature of atoms, as well as subatomic particles. It also tried to describe what things were like down there, a bizarre and tricky endeavor.
According to one aspect of the theory, electrons can pop in and out of existence – disappearing from their original location and appearing somewhere else at the very same instant. It makes my brain hurt to think about. So does the hypothetical case of the astronaut traveling at near the speed of light, who, according to relativity, returns to Earth to discover that he’s now younger than his grandchildren.
I could probably figure some of this out, eventually, but it would require a lot of work, including some obscure math symbols and one of those big blackboards on wheels, which I don’t really have room for. Instead, I’ve attempted to reduce all of it to a generic rule that seems to make sense on this middle level we all occupy between atoms and galaxies:
The universe is in balance.
Equilibrium is the official term. It has five syllables and sounds Latin, which makes it seem impressive, but it just means that if something happens over here, something else will happen over there to compensate. That’s the important thing to remember, because it covers almost everything we need to worry about.
When you lose your watch, somewhere in the world a single shoe appears spontaneously in the middle of a busy street. When you drop a quarter and it rolls under the stove, someone thousands of miles away discovers an extra twenty-five cents in their checking account, or in the pocket of last year’s winter coat. When you find a pair of socks in your house and they belong to no one who lives there, somebody on another continent is walking around barefoot and scratching his head. This is why I don’t buy lottery tickets. I’m afraid if I ever won, I’d get run over by a steam shovel on my way to collect.
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One of the basic tenets of physics is that, in a closed system, matter can never be created or destroyed. If you look around in our house – or any house — you’ll find old toothbrushes, pencils that are two inches long, and a receipt from pants someone bought in 1995. You’ll also find plastic containers with no lids and plastic lids with no containers. And six unmatched gloves. I have printer cables and power cords from computers that have already turned to dust in a landfill.
Once, when I was pushing a wheelbarrow filled with rocks, my son hit me in the back of the neck with a Frisbee, which I then picked up and flung into a field of potato plants about four hundred feet away. When we went to get it, the thing was gone. It was bright orange and fifteen inches in diameter. We’d watched it land, then went right to the spot, but it had vanished. We looked all around the area and even went back the next morning, and we never found it. I’m sure that a little boy and his father in South America have that Frisbee, and still talk about the sunny spring day when the strange object popped into existence out of thin air, like one of those electrons. Probably while they were picking potatoes.
But it isn’t just matter and energy that must be in balance. Everything wants to be in equilibrium, and I do what I can to help it along.
When I shop for groceries, I buy foods that say “Restaurant Style” on the package. This is to make up for the “home-style” meals I always order in restaurants.
I try never to use coupons for free pizza, because if I do, the price of gas is guaranteed to jump just as I’m leaving the house.
For every doctor who excelled in medical school, there’s another who barely made it through, which means that almost half of them got below-average grades. Before I make an appointment for a check-up, I ask for official copies of their transcripts.
When things don’t add up, we become uneasy. A famous singer died last year, and when the announcement was made, it included the fact that she had recorded “more than twenty-four albums.” I immediately stopped thinking about the woman and started wondering why they were so unsure about the number. A few days later, I read that some tourist destination has “more than thirty-two golf courses.” Apparently, golf courses are just as hard to count as record albums are.
It’s all about balance. I’m pretty sure that at this very moment, there’s a man applying for a job at the patent office in Switzerland. But he’s mistakenly gone to the motor vehicle department, more than three hundred football fields away. Maybe I’ll go buy that lottery ticket after all, even though my chances of winning could fit on the head of a pin.