Stars Around Our Fingers


By Monish Chhabra ǀ 25th May 2018

On August 17th last year, scientists detected the pulse of a gravitational wave. They named it GW170817. These waves literally distort our space and time, stretching and squeezing the fabric of the universe.

Gravitational waves were first discovered in September 2015, which were generated by two black holes crashing into one another. However, this latest detection in August was very different.

This collision created an intense bright spot in the sky that lasted for weeks and slowly dimmed down. Earlier, when the gravitational waves were detected from the black hole collision, there was nothing to see in the sky, it was just dark.

This new discovery was not from the collision of black holes, but from two neutron stars. Such a collision is called ‘kilonova’. This is the first time that gravitational waves are detected from a neutron star collision.

A neutron star is an extremely dense object. The material inside a neutron star is so dense that just a cup of it is equivalent to the entire Mount Everest packed in it.

When a star that is at least eight times more massive than the sun, collapses on itself and explodes as supernova, it leaves behind only its core. That leftover centre is a neutron star.

What we saw in August last year, actually happened 130 million years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. It took that long for the light to travel to us from the site of the scene; a galaxy called NGC 4993 in the constellation called Hydra.

In that far off place and that long ago, two neutron stars were orbiting each other. Due to the massive gravity they exerted on each other, their orbits were disrupted. The stars slowly spiraled inwards, towards each other. They kept inching closer and eventually collided.

That collision produced a burst of gamma-rays, which was one of the most powerful explosions in the universe, ever. The energy from that explosion was so immense that it sent a wave across the universe, which shook both space and time.

Star dust

All of us, and everything around us, is made from stars.

The big bang at the beginning of time created the very light elements — hydrogen and helium. Those elements came together and formed stars.

The nuclear fires within the first stars forced the lighter elements together, through nuclear fusion, to make slightly heavier elements. Thus, came about carbon, nitrogen and oxygen.

Later on, those fires in the stars started burning the heavier elements, to create even heavier ones like aluminium and iron. Once fusion reaches iron, it is the beginning of the end for the star.

A star cannot create elements higher than iron, because the energy required to fuse iron is greater than the gravitational forces created by the star. The iron will slowly build up, and eventually the star dies with a supernova.

Thus, there was still no gold or platinum. No explosion or fire in the universe, was powerful enough to create those very heavy elements.

It was a theory until recently that perhaps something like a 'kilonova' could create the heavy elements like gold and platinum. However, this had never been observed or verified.

Now, it is confirmed. The colour and quality of the light coming from the afterglow of the explosion that was observed in August, confirmed the creation of gold, silver and platinum.

A single explosion like this can create the amount of gold equivalent to ten times the size of earth. Once created, all this gold gets scattered into space.

Our earth must have had some gold at the start of its formation, however that would have sunk to the core of our planet with other heavy elements. We would not find it near the surface.

Thus, the gold we find and use today wasn’t here from the start. It arrived when earth was bombarded by asteroids and meteorites. These rocks from space brought with them various precious metals, which we mine today from the crust of the earth.

This is no ordinary journey. A ripple in space and time is created every time a piece of gold is formed. It gets carried to earth in a random rock. And now it is on your finger!

Mind, Body & Soul

Hector Zenil and his research colleagues have found that our ability to think up random sequences steadily increases from the age of 4, peaks when we reach the age of 25, and declines thereafter.

According to them, our brains are wired to find patterns even where there are none. Generating randomness requires cognitive skills, which also follow a similar trend with age.

In their study, ‘age’ was the only factor that could reliably predict someone’s ability to create randomness, neither gender, language spoken, beliefs nor education level had any impact.

That ability to expect and accept randomness is essential to navigate the flow around us.

Mostly, we live by a ‘linear’ way to expect and react; if A happens, we feel B, and react as C.

This linearity is based on our experiences and learnings, which in total are a tiny fraction of the vast set of possibilities. We have seen so little, and yet we use it so doggedly to make sense of everything that happens.

This closes our mind to so much that can take place in the parallel strands of space and time.

For anything that we see, there are an indiscernible number of ways, for it to come to this point or go forward hereafter. There is never just one way, never just one cause, never just one effect.

Lisa Barrett, a neuroscientist, argues that our key beliefs about emotions are wrong – emotions are not some pre-set expressions that happen through us, when certain neurons in our head get triggered. Rather, ‘emotions’ are a construct of our brain.

Our body does feel pleasure or pain, in an objective physical way. However, emotions are not so.

According to Barrett, there is no single obligatory expression towards any event, nor any objective response that must happen. The expressions that we have been told are the correct ones, are just stereotypes we have learned and people express them in many different ways.

Being open to ‘parallels’ is to suspend that ‘linear’ thinking. To pause the compulsiveness of our mind to play the sequence it has learned. To not yield impulsively to our emotions, as they rise with each twist and turn.

Being open to ‘parallels’ is to allow room for randomness to happen. To allow unthought-of paths. To allow events to jump, from one parallel stream to another, or backwards and forward in time. To flow without resistance. To taste inconceivable lightness.

If we train our minds to see it, every moment has ripples in the fabric of space and time.

Give up linearity, live in parallel, see the magic.

This write-up is for informational purpose only. It may contain inputs from other sources, but represents only the author’s views and opinions. It is not an offer or solicitation for any service or product. It should not be relied upon, used or construed as recommendation or advice. This report has been prepared in good faith. No representation is made as to the accuracy of the information it contains, nor any commitment to update it.