I am re-reading Brian Greene’s excellent The Fabric of the Cosmos. A NOVA special on public PBS is also airing, but I haven’t been able to watch it. I first read this book in that amazing period of my life in 2010 after accepting the job offer from Georgia Perimeter College but before we actually started packing. My boss at the time was extremely happy about the results I had already produced in the lab and was realistic in his expectations about what I *could* get done in the little time remaining. My chief function was to think about future experiments. Aside from getting to serve on a jury (a really cool and interesting experience that also fit magically into this little time window) I was able to read several books end to end (rare that I have this kind of free time) and Brian Greene’s was one of them. This was one of those books that I would read even while walking somewhere (I apologize to the many people who were inconvienced by this as I walked from the UCSD shuttle to Scripps during that Spring).
My father died in 2003. There are of course lots of different emotions and stories wrapped up in that, but one thread comes from the fact that he died before our kids were born. There are lots of reasons I miss my Dad, but the ones that can make me the saddest are related to becoming and being a father without being able to ask him questions that I *never* thought to ask him before we had kids. This isn’t a huge problem – I’m not going to buy stock in Kimberly-Clark to re-coop my tissue expenses or anything – but its something I think about at least once a week.
Dad thought ahead (pun warning): on camping trips he would tell me about how stars are SO far away that the light takes years to thousands of years to millions of years to reach us. I remember sitting on a cold granite rock next to Sandpiper Lake, looking at the Milky Way and him saying “we are seeing the past”. This has been a little jewel in my head ever since, converting the night sky into a fascinating movie of amazing proportions. Since his death, I use this jewel to occasionally locate stars that are just far enough away that the light would have left it during a year that I might have a particular memory of Dad. For instance: when the light we currently see from Wolf 359 (in the constellation Leo) left, it was right around the last year of his life – sad, but also a year when I got to go “babysit” him for a week so my mom could get a break and he and I had some amazing conversations. I don’t spend a whole lot of time on this, but it gives me great pleasure to look up into the night sky and see into a time when he was still here.
Brian Greene ruined all of this. It turns out that its pretty easy (relatively speaking (pun warning)) to show that time slows down as you move through space. That’s cool, I vaguely remember a conversation with Dad where he introduced me to the relativity of time (in the San Jose house, so I was 9 or younger). The problem is that the speed limit in our universe (Universe? is this a proper noun? It is a place, right? Or is this a collective noun) is the speed of light, so this means that light should experience no time, which means that the light that leaves any star arrives instantaneously (from the photon’s perspective), which really messes with my simplistic “night sky as a time machine” serotonin generator. I really wish Dad were here to talk about this.
Interestingly, when I first wrote this I linked to Ross 248 in Andromeda as a site I used listed its distance as 8 light years. The wikipedia page I linked to had it at 10 years (which I only ust now noticed). I have noticed this before: a range of distances listed for any given star. Kind of irritating – am I tuning into that year we road tripped to the Grand Tetons or the year when I rolled Dad’s Jeep?