Friday, 12 February 2016

Black holes and Donald Trump

One of the more remarkable aspects of the work of Albert Einstein is the way many of his ideas have been confirmed only decades after he advanced them. Decades, even, in some cases, after his death.

The latest to join that list is his notion that there’s such a thing as gravity waves. They have at last been detected, and along with them, a spectacular event: scientists using the snappily named Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO observed a collision between two black holes. What’s most mind-blowing is that these two objects, one 35 times more massive than the sun and the other slightly smaller, were observed spinning around each at a staggering 30 times a second, growing to 250 times a second just before they finally collided.

A graphic of the black holes used at the LIGO press conference
35 times the weight of the sun and spinning around another object 250 times a second. It seems inconceivable. And yet Einstein conceived it, and the LIGO scientists observed it.

That ability to pierce what once seemed impenetrable mysteries shows humanity at its best. The kind of thing, like an excellent film or an outstanding teacher, which allows us all to feel proud of our species. It’s wonderful to have the feeling confirmed to us again by such an accomplishment as the LIGO team’s.

It’s only sad that the announcement came in the same week as Donald Trump won the Republican primary in New Hampshire and took a big step closer to the White House. Because if the observation of gravitational waves is an example of the best that humanity can do, the Trump campaign reflects all its grimier and crueller side.

Trump represents humanity at its most fearful and bitter. At their worst, men like to draw together into select, exclusive groups, and view all those outside them as in some sense different, or even wrong, or ultimately less than human. Faced with challenges, not necessarily to life itself but simply to a way of life to which they’ve grown accustomed, they react not by rising but by falling. They develop hatred for those they identify as outsiders, and they round on them, driving them out and ignoring their pleas for mercy.

What we’re seeing in Trump is simply the latest manifestation of that toxic behaviour. He literally talks the language of exclusion: illegal immigrants are all to be deported; Muslims are to be denied entry to the US; and a wall is to be build along the Mexican border to prevent further migration from that country.

This he presents as making the US great again, not seeing that it will make the US smaller, by cutting off and isolating the nation. If it’s even possible to achieve: Trump is always long on what he wants to do, and terribly short on how to do it.

I suppose this turns the week into a fine metaphor for the nature of mankind. An extraordinary achievement at one end of the week. A descent into shameless baseness at the other. And both are deeply ingrained characteristics of our species.

The question is always which will prevail: the noble, outward looking, questing side, or the base, fearful, hateful side. If the former, we could go on to greater and still more admirable things. If the latter, our descent into a world wrecked by environmental catastrophe, hunger and war will be all the quicker.

A process as terminal as the black hole collision observed by the LIGO scientists.

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