I’ve often joked that not only do I not understand physics, I don’t even know what physics is. I attended an academically rigorous Catholic high school, and I was in the honors program. The honors physics teacher had a reputation for being tough and fun, and as I remember she was also progressive and outspoken. In previous years her students had created elaborate Rube Goldberg machines, constructed bridges out of toothpicks that held up under a person’s weight, and conducted egg drop experiments from the roof of the convent. I was a little nervous about the difficulty level, but also excited to face the challenge. The summer before my senior year there was a sudden and mysterious change in the teaching staff. The former teacher “left” the school for reasons not explained to us. Conspiracy theories abounded, at least in my head. She was replaced at the last minute by a very sweet woman who had been teaching basic science at a smaller public school. She tried but, as we say in the South, bless her heart, she was seriously unprepared. My friends and I spent most of the semester playing Tetris on our graphing calculators and “borrowing” links from the math department to have competitions. We were such rebels. Fast forward to adulthood and I’m great at packing for a move but clueless when it comes to the workings of the universe. I tried to read Stephen Hawking’s “The Universe in a Nutshell” several times, but never successfully cracked it. I set it all aside for a few years until a recent conversation with a friend made me realize I really don’t know how gravity works, aside from a vague notion about objects exerting force on other objects related somehow to their mass. While perusing my shelf of yet-to-be-read books, I happened upon “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene. Published in 2003, which also happens to be the year I finished college, it starts with the work of Newton and Einstein as a foundation, then moves into string theory. I took it as a sign, decided to give my physics self-study another go, and pulled it down for some light bedtime reading.
It didn’t take long to confirm my suspicion that this is an area of knowledge in which I’m severely lacking. The good news is that the writing style is very approachable and it’s helping to fill in the gaps in my understanding. And it’s totally mind blowing. If you, like me, had a tentative grasp on the force that’s keeping us all from floating off into space, then read on for a simplified explanation. You’ll soon find, as I did, that gravity isn’t so much a force as it is a shape. As objects with mass float in the sea of space, space actually bends around the object. The substance in which everything exists is more accurately described as “spacetime” but for ease of communication I’ll stick with just focusing on space in this discussion. The fabric of space is warped by the presence of an object with mass. The analogy commonly given is that of the bowling ball on a rubber membrane. Imagine a rubber sheet suspended horizontally. What happens when you place a bowling ball in the center? The sheet stretches, curving around the mass of the ball. Greene acknowledges in his book that this is an imperfect analogy, since space is three dimensional. I like to think of space as a giant tub of pudding, but that would cost a lot more than $240. It’s very hard for our minds to imagine the qualities of space as there isn’t a perfect comparison in everyday life, so the rubber sheet will have to do for now. Back to the bowling ball suspended on the curved sheet. Picture a much smaller object, say a golf ball, being dropped onto the same sheet. If it is far enough away from the bowling ball, where the sheet is still flat, the ball would roll along its own path undisturbed by the presence of the bowling ball. But if the golf ball landed close enough to the place where the curvature begins, it could start to roll towards the bowling ball. It could potentially begin circling around the curved lip of the depression and spiral into “orbit” around the bowling ball like the earth orbits the sun. Another possibility is that it could “fall” straight in towards the bowling ball and land on the surface, sticking there the way objects stick to the earth. Gravity then is not a force that exerts itself onto objects, but rather the distortion of the medium through which objects move.
In yoga philosophy there are two main polarities that work together to make up the universe: Shiva and Shakti. Shakti is the active energy of creation, Shiva the pure consciousness that contains the life force energy. Shakti is often described as feminine energy, and Shiva masculine. However it is important to note that all people, regardless of gender identity, possess both Shiva and Shakti energy within themselves. The goal of yoga, which means union, is to join these two different qualities in a balanced way. When I read physicist John Wheeler’s famous quote, “Mass grips space by telling it how to curve, space grips mass by telling it how to move,” I immediately thought of Shiva and Shakti. We know from Einstein’s famous formula E=mc^2 that mass can be transformed into energy and vice versa; they are two different forms of the same substance. Yogis also say that matter and energy are made of the same stuff vibrating at different frequencies to manifest everything we know as reality. Playing with Wheeler’s couplet, we arrive at, “Shakti connects with Shiva by telling him what shape to make, Shiva connects with Shakti by telling her how to move within that shape.” Shakti dictates the shape of the container by virtue of her mass, or energy, causing him to bend around her. Shiva dictates the movement of Shakti by virtue of his space, shaping the path through which she travels. The universe once existed as a densely packed unit containing everything in a single point, which then explosively spread apart. To this day, space and time continue to stretch as matter and energy move farther away from one another. Putting this into yogic terms, Shakti energy caused Shiva space to grow exponentially, creating planets, stars, and everything else in the universe along the way. This phenomenon is aptly known as the Big Bang, though I’m not sure if the yogic pun was intended.
Some people think that science and spirituality are incompatible, or at the very least dissimilar. The more I learn about both topics however, the more overlap I see. The yogis who received these teachings interpreted them through the lens of what they knew about the natural world around them, without the benefit of telescopes and space ships. When Mother Earth hugs us to her breast, Father Sky is the gentle hand that curls around our backs, holding us in place. Shakti creates worlds and Shiva choreographs their cosmic dance. Despite not having the advantage of modern technology, the ancient sages came to many of the same conclusions that our modern scientists do, even if they spoke in different languages.