In the Blink of an Einstein

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TEN… By the time I was ten, I was madly in love with Albert Einstein. I have no idea how I even learned about him in the first place, but the source of my love was obvious. He was mischievous yet deeply profound, musical, passionate, curious, kind, odd looking, and more than a little alien; that is a vibe I could dig. My taste in men hasn’t changed much since.

NINE… In 9th grade, I decided to finally understand the Theory of Relativity. (Enough to do a report for school, at least.) My favorite illustration of how time is relative involves a flashlight and a train:

Imagine a light shining up from the floor of a moving boxcar, to a mirror on the ceiling. Turn the light on and it hits the mirror, bounces, and returns to the source. To an observer on the train with the light, the beam travels a distance equal to twice the height of the boxcar (up, then down).

But to an observer on a hill watching the train go by, the light travels further. Its journey isn’t just up and down, but also the horizontal distance the train travels in that time. To the observer on the hill, the light’s path is two diagonals of a triangle whose base is the distance traveled by the train and height is the height of the boxcar.

Since Rate (speed) is equal to distance divided by time, and since the speed of light is always the same, the fact that the light travels different distances means it also does so over different times. To the observer on the hill, the light’s journey took longer. More time passed than did for the observer on the train, even though they were both watching the same light.

EIGHT… This principle of relative time was demonstrated for a much wider audience in the 80’s, when a different Einstein – Doc Brown’s dog – spent a few seconds in a speeding DeLorean that simultaneously lasted a full minute for Marty McFly.

SEVEN… Any tween who was ever forced to play Seven Minutes in Heaven already understands the relativity of time with excruciating clarity. How slowly those seven minutes pass when we are awkward and self-conscious. Yet when I met Hodor earlier this year and we set a kitchen timer to 20 minutes on our second date (an attempt to wield some grown-up control over our teenage attraction) we were suddenly on a speeding train. Those minutes passed in seconds, and we had to reset the timer at least three more times to test its functionality (for the sake of science, of course).

SIX… I once even experienced the entire life-cycle of a relationship over the course of a six-hour conversation. Via text. It started as a chat about a basketball game, during which we acknowledged our usually moderate flirting had escalated to blatant, and then both admitted we were very interested in the person but not currently ready for the relationship. The raw honesty on display made me far more interested than at the start of the conversation, and our subsequent discussion about how to conduct ourselves in the future felt like passing through a break up and coming out the other side. In the course of one night, I gained an amicable divorce.

FIVE… Time is relative everywhere, not just in love (though especially in love). When I teach a five-hour logic class, I am most definitely on the train. Passage from start to end seems to take no time at all – though I know we traveled because I finish exhausted. My poor students experience the full expanse of the time, however, watching from the figurative hillside.

FOUR… Soon, we wave goodbye to the year 2014, a year full of time quirks. Looking at the bulk of events, we seem to have both traveled far and stood still. A lot of ugliness we thought was behind us turned out to be very present. But at the same time, the fact that we are now talking openly about things like religion, drugs, law enforcement, homophobia, sexism, racism, principles and so on is a huge step forward for our community.

THREE… For the first three months of 2014, I was an observer on the hill, living more life than my counterparts on the train. On January 1st I was a single girl between projects; by the end of March I had hundreds of regular readers and had both met and fallen completely for Hodor. For the last three months, I’ve been back on the train; Hodor left in September, but it feels like only days ago to me.

TWO… Career-wise, I ticked off a second full year of waiting for the biggest deal of my professional life to finalize. It is my own personal Groundhog Day – stuck reliving February 2nd when February 3rd is the day life starts. I fully understand why Bill Murray’s character experiments with violence in that movie.

ONE… December 31st is only one night, but somehow we imbue it with the weight of an entire year. With so much time passing in an instant, it is easy to feel bruised by the impact. But it is important to remember that the real significance of New Year’s Eve is…

ZERO. In almost every sense. It is nothing, a place-holder, just another day; it is also something, a baseline foundation from which to build another year. Zero can add nothing, nor can it take anything away. Yet it has the power to multiply things exponentially, or to negate them entirely.

It’s all in how we choose to use it. So, I say we use December 31st for a little bit of reflection, a whole lot of appreciation, and a healthy amount of celebration. Travel on the train or off, but remember it is still only one night, much as zero is only one number among many.

As long as zero isn’t also the amount of champagne left for drinking, everyone will be just fine.

Life, the Universe, and Thanks for All the Dolphinfish

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I thought it would be nice to go back in time for my birthday this year – get a glimpse of things as they were when I was born. Plan A was to invent a time machine, but I had a wedding to go to this weekend and one of the cats has a UTI, so I just didn’t get around to it. Instead, I went with Plan B – the stars.

Whenever we look at the stars, we travel in time, because the star we see is not the star of this present moment. Light may be the fastest thing in the universe (non-super-hero), but even it takes time to get from there to here. That ray of sunshine is SO eight minutes ago, and the moonlight is even more passé since it had to travel from the sun and then bounce.

Somewhere, up in the night sky, there is a light from 38 years in the past; an echo of the day I was born. Turns out, its name is Zeta Doradus – a yellow-white dwarf star a little bit brighter and hotter than our own sun. Sounds just like me.

Zeta Doradus looks like a single star, but really is a wide binary system. We can only see the primary star (Zeta Dor A) with our naked eye, but closer inspection with a telescope reveals Zeta Dor B, its dark partner, a mere .018 parsecs (22 light minutes) away. It’s similar to how I look like a fun, normal person until folks get closer and discover the quirky neurotic tendencies that make things a bit more complicated.

The Zeta Doradus we see today is an echo of the star that was at my birth, but it has been around much longer. It was first noticed and named by humans around 1600; specifically by Dutch humans, which is nice because 1600 is also roughly when my Dutch ancestors came over to the New World.

Dorado” is the constellation where my birthday star lives. It is Spanish for “dolphinfish”, also known as “mahi-mahi”. Why those Dutch astronomers chose to name their new constellations in Spanish is beyond me, but since I am trying to teach myself Spanish this year I appreciate the happy coincidence.

In the night sky, the Dolphinfish is located just behind the Flying Fish, because apparently that’s what mahi-mahi hunt. Dorado is also referred to as the Goldfish (yummy) or the Swordfish (less yummy, more badass). Whatever the title, my Zeta star is located in the tail – which I like to think makes it a strong driving force.

Star gazing always puts me in a Romantic mood (and a little-r romantic mood if there’s a cute boy nearby), because of the way past, present, and future intersect in one moment. That light we see is an echo of the past. This moment is my present, but is also the future of the star in the sky. I cannot know the star’s present (Zeta Doradus could have exploded thirty years ago and we’d have no idea) any more than I can know my own future, but 38 years into my future is exactly when I will be able to see Zeta Dor’s present, which by then will be my past.

Looking at the stars too long can make a person dizzy, in more ways than one.

We do know that Zeta Doradus is/was a relatively young system – only .58 gigayears (but not looking a day over .5). It is/was young enough to still have a “debris disk” around it – the aftermath of its formation – and I’ll be damned if I’ve heard a more fitting way to describe the current state of my own life.

There are no planets yet discovered around Zeta Doradus, but if one existed at a habitable distance, it would have a roughly 420-day orbit. Which also means that if I lived on that planet, I would be only 33 (sweet).

As for the future/present – who knows? Astronomers predict Zeta Doradus will not be content to stay in one place its entire life (I can relate), and will likely leave Dorado for the constellation Pictor in about 4400 years. That’s French for “the painter”. From Dutch culture to Spanish fish to French art – that’s a life path I could live with.

My look into my birth year has been rewarding and enlightening, but there is one small problem I haven’t mentioned: I can’t actually see Zeta Doradus from North America. The Dolphinfish is a southern constellation visible from 20 degrees latitude on down. I could see it from southern Mexico, or Puerto Rico, or India, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands or Australia. Not to mention Antarctica, where the penguins are watching it right now.

This sounds to me like the most important lesson I could learn from my birth star: it’s time to take a vacation, pronto! New Zealand, here I come; save some mahi-mahi for me.

All’s Well That Ends

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Let us begin with a mathematical axiom: all relationships end. Even the most successful ones reach a conclusion when one of the two parties dies. Okay, yes, I suppose there are those stories about the couples who are together for fifty or sixty years and who die within hours or days of each other – or couples who die together under more tragic circumstances (thanks, Shakespeare) – and I suppose for them it could be said that the relationship never ended because even though it technically did, from their perspective it didn’t end so much as everything ended… so okay, fine. Let us begin with a revised axiom: 99.9% of relationships end.

Though this sounds like a cynical statement, endings in themselves are not inherently bad; they just are. Certainly, some endings are terrible: Rhett walking out on Scarlett just after she finally comes around; Robert Downey Jr. walking out on Ally McBeal to go back to rehab (and forcing that bizarre donated-egg-daughter season); every relationship at the center of any Lifetime movie. Even the good endings are usually sad in the moment. But since most of us will experience significantly more relationships that do end than relationships that don’t (a number limited to one), we might as well accept that things will (probably) fall apart.

I find that after the end of every relationship, I experience a little moment of relief. Usually, it is a few days after all of the talking, crying, hair tearing, and chest thumping is over. Once the dust of the ending has settled, I’ll find myself out driving, or walking, and I’ll let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding and think, “Ah. So that’s how that ends.”

It is almost as if I have been waiting to find out how it ends, or frustrated by the unknown of it all. Actually, the truth is worse. From the moment I even consider pursuing a relationship with a guy, I am actively speculating how it is likely to end.

Sometimes the picture is great! He and I will both be successful artists; we’ll have smart and creative children, start a family band, and live to the end of our days the envy of all we know. Usually, these scenarios go along with me pining away for years after some narcissistic writer or musician who would barely notice if I dropped out of his life entirely – which I eventually do. That’s how those actually end.

With some people you just know from day one that you are going to have to end it. Maybe you nip it in the bud right then, or maybe you keep him around for a bit out of affection, or cowardice, or because he is cute and you might as well get a few more good make-out sessions in before you bring down the hammer. No matter the details, you know the end will be some form of “we have to talk,” and you just hope that it won’t also involve the strong desire to punch him in the face.

A couple of times, I have been pretty sure he was going to die young. This was liberating, because the pressure was off to feel he was “the one”. If he wasn’t, I’d probably have a second chance down the road as a young widow. For better or for worse, my own health issues stopped me from pulling the trigger on those relationships, and now that I am older any possible second chance is more and more likely to involve an artificial hip.

My most relaxing experience was the relationship that I knew would end in one of two ways: either amicably once we were a few years older (we loved each other but were never going to marry each other), or because he snapped and murdered me in my sleep. Sure, I hoped for option A, but either way I wasn’t going to have to be the bad guy.

The worst are those relationships that you just know are too good to be true. You’re crazy about him, but the odds are definitely not in your favor, so you know they will end, but have no idea how. Maybe he’s young, or you’re young; one of you is too-recently out of a major relationship, or both of you; he’s anti-marriage, or anti-family; or every single one of his ex-girlfriend stories involves them being psycho – which means he is the problem. In the best-case scenario, this guy turns out to be an asshole and you are free to hate him. Worst case, everything you knew would be a problem turns out to be a problem and you both wind up with broken hearts.

Still, it occurs to me that, while I have experienced all of these endings (and more), I don’t wish that I hadn’t. Not even a little. What, then, is the point of the mental exercise? Self-protection? Cynicism? Just the compulsion of a story-telling mind?

I love stories that involve time travel, if only because it is entertaining to watch their authors try to deal with the paradoxical problems inherent in stories about time travel. But one I read recently also made me think about two big questions. First, if I knew for sure how a relationship was going to end, would I do it anyway? And second, how does knowledge of a possible future affect my behavior?

The first question is easy – probably. When you’re in a relationship, you are in it presumably because it is making you happy, and as a species we humans do enjoyable things that we know won’t end well all the time. Like eating spicy food, or getting drunk, or having unprotected sex. Often all in the same night! We also have the emotional bravery to face unpleasant experiences in exchange for the benefit at the end. Experiences like law school, boot camp, and child birth.

Even if I knew about my most painful breakups in advance, I probably wouldn’t have sacrificed the relationships that preceded them, because the worst breakups usually end the best relationships. And also, despite the evidence of everything I have written so far in this piece, I am a stubborn optimist. You tell me this relationship is going down in flames, I am going to work that much harder to show you it doesn’t have to – and I will probably win just to spite you. Go ask my mother.

Which leaves the second, more difficult question: what effect does future knowledge have on current behavior? This is a big problem for time-travel stories, because once something new is known, the knower is slightly changed and thus her future is also changed. Unless the future result was already contingent on the player’s prior knowledge of it, in which case the question becomes which came first, the future result or the past knowledge? And that’s when our heads start to spin.

But even in this world, where I cannot know the future, how much does believing I know it change my outcome? There have certainly been friendships that I have not pursued further because my expectation that the relationship would end meant risking the friendship too. By not exploring the path, maybe I saved a friendship, or maybe I missed a possible “one that doesn’t end.”

More upsetting to me is the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. If I go into a relationship with a certain expectation or prediction for its ending, doesn’t that make it more likely to come true? Heck, how many times have I not even started because I was so certain it would never work out in the end? Sure, you have to trust your gut, and with most of these guys I was probably right, but there is something to be said for the merits of our criminal justice system; perhaps I should operate under the idea that I’d rather see several guilty men get dates than one innocent man left with a self-protective rejection.

Plus, the time has come for me to recalculate the odds. When I was nineteen and in love, the odds of it working out were pretty low. Frankly, I would have been disappointed if I had ended up with my first love – story-wise, it’s pretty boring. But I am nowhere near nineteen anymore, and I have already had many relationships that came to an end. To think that the next one could be my “one that doesn’t” is not that big a gamble anymore. Instead of listening to the warnings of my future self, I think the time has come that I finally take that bet.

Quantum Leaping

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The other day, a girlfriend and I were discussing the defining challenges we all face in each decade of life. You know, in the first ten years it is mastering the basics, like walking, talking, and not soiling yourself; in the next ten it is navigating social situations and surviving high school (again, without soiling yourself); and in your twenties it is coming to understand that you have not actually figured it all out and that you really are still kind of a shit. Now in our thirties, we decided that the major lesson we are fighting to learn is the challenge of letting it all go – not worrying so much about how we are perceived and instead just living the life we want to live.

This is a challenge facing all people, but definitely one that is significantly harder for women. Our fearless leader, Barbara Streisand, summed it up nicely when, after a decade and a half spent pushing the rock that was Yentl up the Hollywood hills only to be vilified for it, she said, “Why is it men are permitted to be obsessed about their work, but women are only permitted to be obsessed about men?” At my first job after college, I can remember the frustration of feeling this double standard but not being able to define it. When I defended one of my ideas in a meeting, I was invariably chided for “taking things personally”, while my male colleagues who did the same were praised as “passionate” and “assertive”. The societal expectations for women are far more defined and far less forgiving – and it really doesn’t help that random estrogen surges occasionally make us cry for no reason at all.

So my girlfriend and I started talking about how often we let the judgment of society (or even the potential judgment) have more say in our behavior than our own desires. Do I want to be starting a family? No, but I feel like I should. Do I want to cut this negative person out of my life? Yes, but I am afraid she will hate me. Do I want to tell this story or voice this opinion? Yes, but what if they call me a bitch? Even with Tina Fey declaring “bitch is the new black,” that one still hurts. But we need to stop letting ourselves be so limited, and instead allow ourselves to reach our full potential. In other words, we need to unleash our inner quantum.

The Theory of Quantum Mechanics exists because over the years scientists have come to understand that, at the atomic level, particles operate in far more interesting and liberated ways than boring solid objects do in the real world. The marquee headline being that atomic particles can and do exist in two states at once. Why? Because of quantum. Duh.

Regardless of why or how, the big problem for many scientists (and other logical types) is the idea that there are separate rules for particles and objects. After all, objects are made of particles, so shouldn’t things be able to act just as “quantumly” as their parts? That little syllogism is probably why so many of us – you too, don’t pretend – believe deep in our bones that quantum tunneling, teleportation, time travel, and all those sci-fi fantasies must be possible.

One of these scientists, Aaron O’Connell, was so certain the logic must follow that he became the first person to actually get a solid object to be in two places at once. No kidding. For a fully respectable explanation of his breakthrough, check out O’Connell’s 2011 TED talk (Making Sense of a Visible Quantum Object), but for now let me hit you with the highlights. To achieve his result, O’Connell had to figure out what it takes for a physical object to “unleash its inner quantum” (my silliness, not his). The answer tuned out to be… nothing.

Literally nothing, in this case. O’Connell created a tiny piece of metal that he then suspended over a void in a containment device that allowed him to remove all light, sound, and air, and lower the temperature to just above absolute zero. When completely free of any interference, the tiny object began to “breathe”. More precisely, they found that it was both still and vibrating simultaneously – which means its various particles were both stationary and bouncing around like pong at the same time. Two states, one object. Whoa.

The analogy O’Connell uses to explain is an elevator. As solid objects, we basically live life in a crowded elevator, with lots of other things to keep us company and keep us acting “normal”. But just like you and I are way more likely to get jiggy wit the Muzak when there are no other passengers or visible security cameras (admit it – I am not the only one), solid objects are more likely to behave quantum mechanically when they are alone.

On a practical level, I am pretty sure that this means Aaron O’Connell has proven the show Quantum Leap to be entirely accurate, except for the fact that Sam could see, hear, breathe, and didn’t boil to death in a freezing vacuum. On a broader level, though, his discovery is important because it reinforces the idea that the more we can kick out of the elevators that are our heads, the closer we can come to operating at our full potential.

For us, it is a matter of shutting out the light of all the eyes that are watching and judging, banishing the inner sounds of self-doubt and pride, ignoring the winds of both criticism and praise, and not feeling the heat of embarrassment or fear. If we can boot all of that interference out of our elevator, maybe we can finally start to live quantumly – both remaining solid (the person we are, the qualities we cannot change) and at the same time vibrating freely (quantum leaping like fools to the Muzak of our souls).

Or, maybe we’ll just invent time travel, which would be pretty cool too. Oh, boy!