Wednesday, February 24, 2016


I am not a scientist, not even close, but I enjoy science; the wonder and mystery of it all. A recent scientific story has grabbed my attention: Gravity.

More than 300 years ago, Isaac Newton said that any two objects that have mass are attracted to each other and held together by a force.

And that force is what Newton called gravity. He could calculate it, but he couldn’t explain where gravity came from. That is how things have stayed for more than 200 years: Until Albert Einstein showed up.

Einstein thought about gravity in a fundamentally different way. Here’s where things get fun. I want you to close your eyes. Imagine a large rubber sheet, like a trampoline. Now drop a large metal ball onto it. The ball causes the sheet to bend beneath it, forming a dimple. The bigger the ball, the bigger the dimple.

OK, scale it up. Now the ball is the Sun, and it’s sitting not on a rubber sheet, but rather in a four-dimensional fabric — what Einstein called space-time.

Masses like the Earth or the Sun bend the space-time around them, and by bending the space-time around them, they effectively attract nearby objects. That is how Einstein understood gravity — gravity is what happens when objects bend space-time.

Einstein saw it as one of the four fundamental forces of our universe — including electromagnetism and the two forces at work inside atoms.  But even though gravity is the force that is most obvious in our lives, it turns out that gravity is the weakest. So to see its effect, you need something dramatic — something that creates massive ripples in space-time, like waves moving out from a rock dropped in a pond. In fact, Einstein called these gravitational waves.

If you were to turn up the amplitude of a gravitational wave beyond anything which we think is reasonable to expect, eventually you would feel it as something which would stretch you from head to toe while squishing you from side to side, and then reverse in polarity and squish you from head to toe and stretch you from side to side. But while Einstein predicted gravitational waves, he never observed them. The tools just didn't exist. Until today.

A couple of weeks ago, a team of some 1,000 researchers from the US and around the world announced the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves.

"It's just exhilarating," says Gabriela Gonzalez, a physicist at Louisiana State University and a spokesperson for the project called LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). "Here, we detected the space-time around us wobbling, getting distorted, compressed and stretched for a fraction of a second. There’s so much to learn now!"

And how these gravitational waves were detected is nothing short of incredible. The LIGO team built two giant L-shaped detectors in Louisiana and Washington state. The arm of each L is two-and-a-half miles long.

The arms of this L are these concrete bunkers and under the concrete bunker, we have a tube so that we can suck all the air out — it’s a vacuum tube. The team have tested equipment for the LIGO project in their lab at MIT. The lab is about the size of a basketball court, and a giant metal tube with a laser in it travels its length. A lot of what’s here and inside the real bunkers is meant to keep the apparatus absolutely still. You can't have any shaking because the lasers measure the precise lengths of those two-and-a-half mile arms.

So if there were no gravitational waves, they would have the same length," astrophysicist Priya Natarajan says. "But if it turns out, because of gravitational waves causing a jiggle, one of the arms is going to have a slightly different length than the other." And that difference in length is really small. "We are talking about a fraction of the diameter of a proton," Natarajan says. "It’s that tiny." They’re trying to detect less than a proton difference across 2.5 miles — that’s why it’s so challenging.

And yet despite the crazy, they did it. The LIGO team used those L-shaped buildings to detect gravitational waves that were produced by a collision of two black holes more than a billion light years away. It's the first time we’ve observed this violent phenomenon in the universe — ever. It’s as if we had an enormous hearing aide, which let us pick up the sounds that the universe has been producing — we just have been deaf to these sounds up until now. In fact, you can actually convert a gravitational wave into a sound wave.

The collision sent gravitational waves rippling outwards at the speed of light. More than a billion years later, they passed through the Earth and made the arms of the detectors in Louisiana and Washington change their lengths ever so slightly.

OK, this is all cool to think about — bending space-time, shooting lasers down vacuum tunnels, colliding black holes — but beyond proving Einstein right, what’s the big deal?

Natarajan says, "It’s like opening a new window into the universe." You see, up until now, we’ve studied the stars and outer space using light or something related to it — radio waves, X-rays, microwaves. "But gravitational waves are the first step away from that to some completely new way of looking at the universe," Evans says. "It’s not a way of looking at things through light any more. It’s a way of listening to things through the disturbances they make in space-time."

"It reveals an entire new side to the cosmos," Natarajan adds. For instance, we might now be able to directly observe black holes. Because while black holes don't emit light, they do emit gravitational waves. "If you look at the universe just using gravitational waves, you’re likely to see all these jiggling black holes," Natarajan says.  And here’s the other reason this is a big deal. "Because gravity waves are not obscured by anything, we can see right through to the edge of the universe," Natarajan says. And that means we might be able to get closer than ever to observing the earliest moments of time, just after the big bang — and closer than ever to understanding how the universe came to be, and how it works.

"I actually never imagined that in my lifetime that window would open," Natarajan says. With that window now open, Natarajan says it may boost interest in another international collaboration — a joint NASA/European Space Agency project to look for different kinds of gravitational waves. All kinds of exciting possibilities lie ahead. But let’s return to today. Because it’s not every day that we get to hear (literally) the universe confirm something we first conjured up on paper a hundred years ago. "It is really hard not to be completely in awe of Einstein," Natarajan says. "Just to think that this theory came completely out of his pure thought."

KASHKARI DROPS A BOMB - Minneapolis Fed President (and ex-Goldman Sachs banker and George W. Bush Wall Street bailout mechanic) Neel Kashkari dropped a bomb on the banking industry on Tuesday with a speech in DC calling for breaking up "too big to fail" banks. In remarks at Brookings, Kashkari said the "biggest banks are still too big to fail and continue to pose a significant, ongoing risk to our economy" and promised a plan to end the problem by the end of the year."

Among possible actions, Kashkari listed : "Breaking up large banks into smaller, less connected, less important entities. Turning large banks into public utilities by forcing them to hold so much capital that they virtually can't fail (with regulation akin to that of a nuclear power plant): Taxing leverage throughout the financial system to reduce systemic risks wherever they lie.”

"Options such as these have been mentioned before, but in my view, policymakers and legislators have not yet seriously considered the need to implement them in the near term. They are transformational - which can be unsettling. The financial sector has lobbied hard to preserve its current structure and thrown up endless objections to fundamental change.”

WALMART SALES DROP - Walmart reported its first annual sales decline since at least 1980, underlining the stiff challenges it faces competing against Amazon in ecommerce while coping with the impact of the strong dollar and a loss of share at its UK Asda stores. The 0.7 per cent decline in revenue to $482.1bn* for the year ended January was due mainly to the strong dollar, without the impact of which sales would have risen 2.8 per cent. ... The fall, the worst in at least 35 years according to S&P Capital IQ data, came as the world's largest retailer said that ecommerce sales growth slowed for the fifth consecutive quarter to 8 per cent in the final three months of the year. The company blamed the deceleration on its UK, Chinese and Brazilian markets. By contrast Amazon's quarterly growth was 26 per cent despite its much larger base.

The company reduced its sales growth outlook for this fiscal year to flat from between 3-4 per cent, reflecting a worse than expected impact from currency fluctuations and loss of revenue from its store closures. Shares slid 3.1 per cent to $64.09 by close of trading in New York. The 54-year-old company, which grew into the world's largest retailer from a single store in rural Arkansas, is undertaking its biggest transformation since its inception as it tackles intensifying competition amid rapid shifts in the way consumers shop."

MOCKINGBIRD REVIEW - "When 'Mockingbird' Was New": The cover of N.Y. Times Arts section shows the full clipping of Herbert Mitgang's July 13, 1960, review of "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee, who died last week in Monroeville, Ala., at 89: "The meaning in this novel runs even deeper because of the subject of injustice in the South. Miss Lee's original characters are people to cherish in this winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say, South and North." See the image, read the review.

GOOD READS --"In Conversation: Antonin Scalia," by Jennifer Senior in the Oct 6, 2013 issue of New York Magazine: "On the eve of a new Supreme Court session, the firebrand justice discusses gay rights and media echo chambers, Seinfeld and the Devil, and how much he cares about his intellectual legacy ('I don't')."

--"Last Days," by William Finnegan in The New Yorker: "Preparing for the apocalypse in San Bernardino."

A SIGN OF THE TIMES - A group of guys, all age 40, discussed where they should meet for lunch. Finally it was agreed that they would meet at Hooters, because the waitresses had big breasts and wore short shorts.

Ten years later, at age 50, the friends once again discussed where they should meet for lunch. Finally it was agreed that they would meet at Hooters, because the waitresses were attractive. The food and service were good and the beer selection was excellent.

Ten years later, at age 60, the friends again discussed where they should meet for lunch. Finally it was agreed that they would meet at Hooters, because there was plenty of parking, they could dine in peace and quiet with no loud music, and it was good value for the money.

Ten years later, at age 70, the friends discussed where they should meet for lunch. Finally it was agreed that they would meet at Hooters, because the restaurant was wheelchair accessible and had a toilet for the disabled.

Ten years later, at age 80, the friends discussed where they should meet for lunch. Finally it was agreed that they would meet at Hooters, because they had never been there before.

Thank you to Dr. Seth Kogan (Detroit Country Day ’72) for the above piece.

MUST-READ -- "No direction home" -- From Capital & Main, a week long, in-depth look at the affordable housing crisis in California: "The scope of the problem is huge. California leads the nation in the number of severely rent-burdened households, and has the largest shortage of affordable rental homes. The Golden State has 21 of the nation's 30 most expensive rental markets -- yet at the same time, nearly a quarter of California residents live in poverty."

WOMEN AT WORK - Older women are reshaping the U.S. job market. They are working or seeking work longer than any previous generation as they look ahead to more years of life than men their age, with less accumulated wealth. Since the start of the recession in December 2007, the share of older working women has grown while the percentage of every other category of U.S. worker has declined or is flat. Overall, older Americans are better off financially than the previous generation, but would-be retirees had less time to rebuild their savings after the economic downturn. Yet the tie between financial insecurity and later retirement is difficult to prove: many working later in life are skilled workers earning higher incomes—though they do cite need for money as their reason for working.

BIRTHDAYS THIS WEEK – Birthday wishes and thoughts this week to: Jim Brown (80) Pasadena, CA; Cindy Crawford (50) Malibu, CA; Smokey Robinson (76) San Marino, CA; Cybill Shepherd (66) Studio City, CA; Maria Suffredini …famous photographer; John Travolta (62), his face is (6) Beverly Hills, CA.

HOT VIDEO - Watch the Cast of Hamilton Perform the Electrifying Opening Number-and Win a Grammy" - 4-min. video

OUT AND ABOUT – Last Friday night’s St. Lawrence vs. Yale hockey game, in New Haven, CT. (we lost 4-3), brought out some very famous Beta Theta Pi’s to the event:

From left to right: Teb Barnard (Carol Street, Franklin, Michigan), Kevin McGrath, John Greenwood, Hugh Lappe (famous hockey and baseball player and lover of The Doors).

COLLEGE HOCKEY GAME OF THE WEEK – Saturday 2/27 7:00 PM ET, HGTV: The last weekend of the regular ECAC season #12 Harvard University Crimson (15-8-4) vs. #19 St. Lawrence University Saints (16-12-4). Appleton Arena in Canton, New York will be rocking in this battle for third and fourth place in the ECAC. Saints win 5 – 3.  Season to date (6-7).


(SCIAC, Feb. 27) Baseball; University of La Verne Leopards (5-2) vs. Claremont-Mudd Republicans, Republicans prevail 7 – 4.

(NHL, Feb. 27) St. Louis Blues (35-18-9) vs. Nashville Predators (29-21-11), Nashville is fighting for a playoff, they win 2 – 1.

(NBA, Feb. 27) Miami Heat (32-24) vs. Boston Celtics (33-25), Celtics 90 – 86.

Season to date (20 -15)

DRIVING THE WEEK - Nevada GOP caucuses on Tuesday. Canada here I come, Trump Wins ... Treasury Secretary Jack Lew travels to Shanghai, China for the G-20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Meeting on February 26-27 ... House Ways and Means has a hearing at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday on the Global Tax Environment in 2016 and Implications for International Tax Reform ... House Financial Services subcommittee has a hearing at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday on "The Impact of the Dodd-Frank Act and Basel III on the Fixed Income Market and Securitizations" ... SEC has a meeting at 9:30 a.m. Thursday on small and emerging companies ... House Agriculture subcommittee has a hearing at 10:00 a.m. Thursday on review the G-20 swap data reporting goals ... House Natural Resources Committee has a hearing Thursday at 10:00 a.m. on "The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Analysis of the Situation in Puerto Rico" ... Case-Shiller home prices at 9:00 a.m. Tuesday expected to rise 0.9 percent ... Consumer confidence at 10:00 a.m. Tuesday expected to dip to 97.3 from 98.1 ...

Next week: Wall Street vs. Me Street

Until Next Monday, Adios.

Claremont, CA
February 23, 2016

CARTOON OF THE WEEK – “Pandora’s iPhone”

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