Friday, December 12, 2014

Coping with Gravity

One of the first lessons infants and toddlers experience is the phenomenon of gravity—how it acts on their bodies and how they must cope. If our young children’s ability to think or reason were better developed, their awareness of gravity may initially be negative. They are not aware how the force confining them to their bed or holding them to the floor acts in a beneficial manner. Perhaps at some level of awareness children in their early walking stage may realize their muscles and sense of balance compensates for their body’s tendency to fall when they are learning to walk. The body’s reaction to gravity consumes much early learning.

When our preschool grandchildren began to visit our home in the country, they were fascinated with the discoveries available on our lot. These included all manner of plants and animals, including a few astronomy lessons before going off to bed. One source of concern for us grandparents, perhaps worthy of less caution than we feared, was the steep, curved paver block driveway we had installed. Most children are tempted to run pell-mell down an incline. It is a wonder more facial abrasions and broken limbs do not result from tumbling down such threatening inclines. My stern warning, “Watch out…gravity will get you!” went unheeded. I needed to remind myself the children were more focused on healthy fun than caution.

At the risk of becoming overly esoteric, we discuss briefly some of the governing characteristics of our privileged planet known as physical constants. Our planet is ruled by dozens of physical constants. Science authors generally agree that the universe would be impossible with even slight changes in the numerical quantities defining the physical constants. The popular expression “law of gravity” implies at least one physical constant—the numerical quantities defining the strength of gravity as it operates in this universe. Physical laws such as the “law of gravity” involve constants which are changeless wherever you are located in the universe and whenever they occur.

One writer stated it is “spooky” that even tiny changes in almost any physical constant would result in making life in the universe impossible. While small changes in the strength of gravity—greater or less—may seem to make it easier for my grandson to charge up or down our driveway, physicists have identified the chaos ensuing in our world if gravity would increase or diminish even by a tiny amount. Life processes of plants and animals would be thrown into hopeless confusion by even a minute change in gravity. The domino effect on other physical constants would be catastrophic. Life would cease and conditions in the universe would descend into chaos. These changes would result from alteration of the parameters of only one physical constant—gravity.

Gravitation is one of the four fundamental forces in the universe. Of these four forces, gravity is far and away the weakest, but its effects operate at an infinite distance. Every object exerts a gravitational pull on every other object. It is the glue which holds together entire galaxies and keeps planets in orbit. It holds our bodies on earth and governs the trajectory of baseballs, footballs, and soccer balls. We must keep in mind that the gravitational constant together with all other physical constants keep our universe functioning in an orderly manner. We embrace the meaning of “privileged planet” as the production of the Creator who fixed the physical constants at the moment of the initial creation and every divine work of creation since that time. Even the formless, empty earth of Genesis 1:1-2 was governed by the physical constants still in effect in today’s world.

As a science teacher I sought to present our world’s physical constants in an accessible and reverent manner. Metaphorical humor was often useful as a teaching tool. Many students identified with athletic imagery and the necessity of playing their games by the rules. These posts are from the archives of 2009: