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Even when your dad's a physicist, it's hard to wrap your head around the Big Bang discovery

Friday, March 21, 2014

For someone whose whole career has always centered around music or writing, I’m always being asked about physics.

That’s because of my dad, Alexander Vilenkin. He's a physicist whose work turns up a lot in pop science magazines and TV shows like NOVA, and sometimes, in the news — like this week, when “smoking gun” evidence of the Big Bang was discovered at a lab in the South Pole.

The truth is: I suck at physics.

I barely got a C in high school physics, and that was only with a lot of help from you know who. I went to the same university where my dad still teaches physics, and as a freshman wanted to take his introductory class, which was sort of legendary.

To demonstrate conservation of energy, he’d hold a heavy pendulum to his head and let it swing out across the lecture hall and back while standing stock still.

To illustrate the Leidenfrost Effect, he would stick his hand into a vat of liquid nitrogen. I figured if my dad was going to freeze his hand off in front of hundreds of students, I should at least be one of them.

But he threatened not to teach intro physics if I signed up. Don’t make me flunk my own daughter, he said. I also think I remember him mentioning he could train a monkey to do physics better than me.

I wanted to call and congratulate him about the news in his world — or multi-worlds — and maybe try to wrap my head around it a little.

Okay Dad, so what did they discover?

“What they discovered,” he told me, was “gravitational waves, right? Gravitational waves are, you know, like radio waves, like electromagnetic waves. They are distortions in the geometry of space and time…”

Somehow this is always where I fade out — right when distortions in the geometry of space and time kick in.

I try putting this in my terms, picturing the universe as a burrito, only now it’s somehow crumpled? Like maybe someone sat on it?

Mark Everett, the leader of the rock band Eels, is also the son of a physicist, the late Hugh Everett, whose work in quantum physics made him world-famous.

The BBC actually did a one-hour documentary following Mark as he tried to unpack his father’s theories of parallel worlds. I think that’s when I realized what it would take for me to understand my dad’s work — a six-month boot camp with the world’s greatest physicists, a million-dollar production, a phalanx of consultants — then maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to tell a cosmic string from, like, a shoelace or something.

Or maybe I shouldn’t stress it. According to my dad, there’s a parallel world where I’m the fancy physicist and he’s the one on the radio, joking about how he can’t understand a word I say.

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