A Black Hole’s Gravity is Like a Spirograph

Space and time are not fixed–or more accurately, seemingly fixed or regular movement across spacetime is actually “warped.” That warping causes the trajectory of motion to manifest as dynamic rather than nondynamic. A straight line is never really a straight line, and a regular orbit is never really a regular orbit. Before Albert Einstein developed the theory of general relativity, we could not explain, for example, the small anomalies in planetary orbits that should have been “regular” and unvarying according to Newtonian physics. 

The antecedents of general relativity and black holes (the real testing grounds of general relativity) were laid down long before Einstein’s articulation—around 1783 to be exact, by a clergyman named John Mitchell, and then again in 1796 by the scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace. They called them “dark stars” and later “frozen stars.” The idea was that in a star’s “last phase” of existence, under gravitational collapse, nothing would be able to escape that massive object’s gravitational pull, not even light. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that John Wheeler coined the phrase “black hole,” although even after two centuries, the term “dark star” connoted the same meaning.

In very simple terms, Einstein’s theory of general relativity provides several ways in which objects in orbit, and two objects exerting gravitational force on each other, will move dynamically rather than rotely or statically. Orbits “precess forwards in the plane of motion,” as one astrophysicist puts it.

So although it wasn’t a great surprise to scientists that a star circling a black hole would exhibit a dynamic orbit, there was still a profound elegance to the flower-like shape we can trace in its orbit. Astronomers at the Max Planck Institute in Munich monitored the star, called 52, for 27 years via the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. They determined that it traces a “rosette.” This pattern occurs because the gravitational pairing remains dynamic even in the regularity of the orbit it facilitates. Ashley Strickland, writing for CNN, points out that this is the first time astronomers have ever studied a star “orbiting the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.”

In an instance of mathematical art imitating gravitational life, the rosetta orbit traces an oscillating pattern called a hypotochoid, and that is the mathematical basis for a toy known as the spirograph. The spirograph had already been a drawing device used to produce uniform curves when in the 1960s and 1970s it became a favorite toy and Hasbro trademarked the name. A mathematician named Bruno Abakanowicz invented the spirograph between 1881 and 1900, and others had different versions of it decades before. There are even instructions in a boys’ magazine in 1913 on how to make a “wondergraph”—essentially a much more solid version of a spirigraph—based in the principles of hypotochoids. That’s interesting because Einstein developed the theory of general relativity sometime between 1907 and 1915. 

Once a journalist asked Einstein to explain the theories of relativity in simple terms.Einstein responded: “If you don’t take my words too seriously, I would say this: If we assume that all matter would disappear from the world, then, before relativity, one believed that space and time would continue existing in an empty world. But, according to the theory of relativity, if matter and its motion disappeared there would no longer be any space or time.” One wonders if he also could have said that relativity is what causes you to draw a flower pattern when you might otherwise think you are only tracing a circle.

Truly Toxic Speech: When It Comes to Pandemics, We Really Talk Too Much

This was already in the news last December, and not in the context of the global Covid-19 pandemic. A UC-Davis study had found that “the louder people talk, the more airborne particles they emit, making loudness a potential factor in spreading airborne diseases.” Particle emission during talking had other factors, but loudness was a consistent indicator of emissions. In fact, and this is the part that may shock people the most, talking loud emits particles in a fashion similar to sneezing or coughing. The authors of the study did mention the role of loud talking in transmitting influenza generally, but that makes sense because various strains of influenza are among the most contagious and serious of illnesses across populations.

Skip ahead to a White House briefing in April 2020, when, Victor Tangermann reports, a “prestigious scientific panel” told officials that Covid-19 could be spread by talking. Again, this was one piece of a range of observed transmission methods that included just normal breathing, “bioaerosols generated directly by patients’ exhalation,” and a much greater risk indoors than outdoors. For those who had wondered about the utility of wearing masks for potential transmitters and not receivers, the muffled talking that occurs behind the mask must have seemed to be a pretty benign force compared to people loudly jawing off and possibly infecting someone.

But all this might raise concern that when we get back to whatever near-to-normal we might get, the workplace will no longer be protectable merely by making sure nobody comes in with a cough or fever. Talking itself will transmit the disease. Social distancing will have to continue, unless technology enters the picture to somehow give us either distance without loss of exchange, or exchange that resembles distance.

Let’s start with that artificial distancing, or exchange that resembles distance. How do you create artificial distance, or the safety of distance while still being just a foot or so away from someone? Someone has already designed glass (plexiglass or clear plastic) dividers beween seats on airplanes in a post-pandemic world. Perhaps airplanes are not the only application. Dividers could be placed in between seats at a conference table, or on a panel discussion. This would substantially decrease the risk of transmission in everyday conversations.

Of course, the real alternative is a lot more teleconferencing. And this alternative doesn’t just apply to distance learning. Even if all participants are in the same building or on the same campus, a Zoom meeting can happen in place of a face-to-face, or larger group meeting. The good thing about this solution (besides the fact that loud-talkers can still talk loudly) is that it’s also really good for the environment. This isn’t just because of the decreased carbon footprint that comes from eliminating travel. There’s also the reduction in paper, printer cartridges, ink and toner. And there’s the reduction of plastic and food waste in not having to feed conference attendees.

There is a particularly sad angle on this story about transmission through talking, and it bears on the  evidence that the virus lingers in or travels through the air in some contexts. A group of choir singers in Mount Vernon, Washington met to rehearse. They stayed far apart, and all reported being healthy when they attended practice. Two are now dead of Covid-19. Conferencing technology has its aesthetic limitations, as musicians trying to use it to record or rehearse will quickly learn. In a list of ten forms of pandemic-appropriate collaborative platforms for musicians, one that sticks out is JamKazam, good for both collaborative recording and music teaching. If, as theorists have long told us, technology is merely the extension of body parts, we’ll have to see how much technology can simulate natural exchange while decreasing transmission risks.