The recent discovery about gravitational waves has been all over my news feed lately, and while I’ve enjoyed following it because it’s relatively neutral compared to so many other hot topics (which means it won’t make me grind my teeth until I get a migraine), I have to admit I don’t really understand it. I’ve read several dumbed-down descriptions of the discovery that were well written and suitable for the layperson, but I’m still not clear on how this astounding phenomenon known as gravitational waves is related to the fact that when I’m running trails and I trip on a rock, I fall down. What do gravitational waves (which seem to operate with massive objects) have to do with plain old gravity as I (not truly a massive object despite how much chips and salsa I ate yesterday) know it?
I guess all of it falls under the dumbed-down-to-the-nth-degree idea that things are drawn to other things because of energy. Yeah, there’s more to it. There’s, like, Einstein. But the only way I can “get” Einstein is to purchase bagels from the bagel shop that carries his name, and frankly, they’re not much more than slightly chewy hamburger buns with a hole in the middle and fucked-up flavors. (Yes, I’m one of those cranky old curmudgeons who believes bagels should not be chocolate, coffee should not come with whipped cream, and pizza should have nothing stuffed in its crust, no, not even hot dogs.)
The metaphoric qualities of gravity and its derivations tend to be serious. A situation has gravity if it’s significant and has impact. A person has gravitas if they are dignified and solemn. And then there’s grave, which is so serious as to be downright depressing. But there’s also gravitate, somewhat more positive in its usage. When we say someone gravitates toward something or someone else, we simply describe attraction—an attraction, it would seem, sanctioned by the universe itself.
In everyday life it’s easy to see this kind of metaphoric gravitation in action. The fiancé and I went to the movies Friday to see the latest Star Wars flick, and I can tell you that not only does gravitation affect galaxies far, far away, it affects movie theaters in rural Illinois. I had grossly overestimated how early we needed to get to the theater, figuring that there might be some early Valentine’s Day date nights happening, but I forgot this movie has been out so long that most people who aren’t me have already seen it multiple times (or else emphatically and insistently refuse to see it—OK, I get it, you don’t like scifi/fantasy; I’m sure there’s some people being voted off an island somewhere you can watch). As a result, we were the first to be seated, the first to be stuck watching commercials for 20 minutes (for this I put on nice clothes and brushed my hair? I could get that at home on the sofa in sweatpants). Eventually a dozen more people showed up—and all of them, all of them, sat directly in front, in back, or next to us. The theater was a small one so it’s not like you’d need binoculars to see the screen if you sat in the last row. There’s not a bad seat in the house, and yet for some reason everyone clustered around us like moons around a cranky old curmudgeon of a planet.
Misanthrope that I tend to be at times, I was mildly irked. Luckily no one talked during the movie, no one took a phone call, and there were no tubercular-sounding coughs, but still, I wondered why this had to happen. Nothing drives me crazier than going to a nearly-empty restaurant and being seated directly next to the only other patrons. I know they do this to make things easier for the wait staff so they don’t have to go scrambling all over the room, but damnit I want some semblance of privacy when I eat, even when I eat in public, as paradoxical as that sounds. I don’t think I’m the only one. What do we look for when we get on a bus? A seat alone. What do we think of the person who sits next to us on the bus instead of in that perfectly good seat in the next row? Fuckin’ weirdo.
I don’t think it’s necessarily bad or wrong to feel this way. Hell is quite frequently other people, and it’s natural to feel particularly suspicious of strangers’ potential to drag us down to the fiery depths. I enjoy the luxury of being lost in my own thoughts from time to time, or to speak my mind frankly about things I only want the fiancé to hear, and all that tends to be confounded by this perplexing gravitational pull people have to each other. And yet of course the gravitation of humans is as crucial to us as the gravitation of the universe is to pretty much everything. We move toward each other. Sometimes the results are hellish; they become items in a newsfeed that make us cringe, shake our heads or our fists, sometimes make us want to give up on humanity altogether. But then sometimes you get dinner and a movie. Yeah, I know that’s absurdly insignificant compared to the whole business of black holes merging, but it’s still one more instance of this particular force of attraction. The force, truly, is with us.