I just finished my morning beach walk here on Marco Island
hoping to see a setting of the full moon as dawn breaks, in the
past a highlight of my stays here. Unfortunately, cloud cover
made this morning’s moonset at most a 3 on a 1 to 10 scale.
However, the moon did not disappoint last night, when there was
a circle of light around the moon that was truly spectacular. The
diameter of the ring was roughly 20 to 30 moon diameters in size
and was two or three moon diameters in width. Directly
overhead, my wife thought it looked like a gateway to heaven.
On a more down to earth level, other things seem to come full
circle. On my walk this morning, I wore a blue sweatshirt
decorated with a logo of a bell and the slogan “Reach out and
touch someone” underlined in lines of different colors. I bought
the sweatshirt in a company store back when I worked at Bell
Labs, then part of the Bell System, which was broken up in 1984.
For those unfamiliar with the Bell System, it was a giant
company of a million employees that provided most of the local
and long distance phone service in the U. S.
The Bell System’s virtual monopoly on telephone service was
the target of concern by the government and others for years. A
key factor leading to the breakup was the formation of a new
company known as MCI, which wanted access to the Bell
System’s telephone lines for its own telephone traffic. MCI won
the right to this access and it wasn’t too long before the CEO of
AT&T, Charles Brown, agreed to a 1984 divestiture in which
AT&T kept Bell Labs and the manufacturing arm of the Bell
System, Western Electric. The telephone companies were spun
off as 7 “Baby Bells” and another “Bell Labs” called Bellcore
was created to serve the Baby Bells.
Ironically, the business headlines recently have highlighted two
interesting takeovers. A Baby Bell, SBC, is slated to take over
an emaciated AT&T and another Baby Bell, Verizon, reportedly
will take over MCI! Since 1984, both Verizon and SBC have
merged with other Baby Bells. To us cynical ex-employees of
the Bell System it appears as though things are coming full
circle. Could it be that there will again be a dominant telephone
network named after Alexander Graham Bell?
Enough about circles around the moon and a possible full circle
in the business world. Let’s talk now about life on a circular
path apropos of our discussion last week of misconceptions about
our expanding universe. One of Einstein’s major contributions
was the fact that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.
Consider what a strange world it would be if this were not true.
Suppose that you are in a baseball game and you have to face
fastball pitcher Nolan Ryan, who has developed a pitch faster
than the speed of light. On the other hand, you’ve attained a
super form of Ted Williams’ eyesight. Ted reportedly could see
the seams on the ball rotating in flight. Bat in hand, you face
Ryan, who uncorks his super fastball. No problem; you can see
the seams of the ball rotating and swing the bat squarely at the
ball. However, you’re shocked when you hit ball and there’s
nothing there – it’s already in the catcher’s mitt! What you
swung at was just a bunch of photons trying to catch up with the
This is a ridiculous example of what it would like if something
could travel faster than the speed of light. But could there be an
exception to this rule that even Einstein would find acceptable?
To lead into this, let’s explore that life on a particular circle.
Pretend that I live at the North Pole, you live at the South Pole
and our friend Bob lives at the equator. I want to visit you and
Bob, making a circular trip around the globe. As we did last
week, let’s say we live on a globe/balloon that’s expanding.
To make the math easy, let’s assume our balloon is 4,000 miles
in diameter, smaller than Earth, and calculate the distance (or
circumference) covered in my circular roundtrip. The answer is
pi times the diameter. Pi is a number that goes on forever,
3.14159… but let’s just call it 3. In that case, my roundtrip is 3
times 4,000 or 12,000 miles. At the South Pole, you are halfway,
6,000 miles from my North Pole igloo and Bob’s equatorial
thatched hut is half of that, 3,000 miles.
Now, let’s assume that our balloon is expanding 4,000 miles a
year. When I make the same trip a year later, our balloon is
twice as big (4,000 plus 4,000), or 8,000 miles in diameter. My
roundtrip is 3 X 8,000 = 24,000 miles. Neither you nor I nor
Bob have moved; but now the distance from my home to yours is
half of 24,000 or 12,000 miles while Bob’s is 6,000 miles away.
Though none of us has moved, the space we live on has
expanded. We talked about this last week, but there’s one thing
we didn’t consider. The distance from my home to Bob’s at the
equator increased 3,000 miles (from 3,000 to 6,000) but from my
home to yours at the South Pole the distance increased 6,000
miles (from 6,000 to 12,000) in a year.
What do I conclude? The farther away my friends are, the faster
they are receding from me. Well, let’s return to the real world
and our expanding universe. If we look at very distant galaxies,
sure enough, the ones that are farther away are moving away
from us at a faster rate than those closer to us. There’s a simple
formula for this. The rate is equal to the distance away from us
times something called a Hubble constant.
We don’t have to know the value of the Hubble constant to
anticipate that, when you plug in the humongous distances to
truly distant galaxies, you’re going to get very large rates. In
fact, this “recession rate” for really distant galaxies becomes
greater than the speed of light! Is this possible? The answer is
yes. As on our balloon, it’s space that’s expanding and no
photon is ever going to be outrun by its source.
Some of you may say, “Didn’t you once write about the
Andromeda galaxy moving towards us on a collision course with
our Milky Way?” Our simple formula says all galaxies should
be moving away from us. But galaxies come in clusters and
within the clusters there are all kinds of motions due to the
gravitational forces within the clusters. Our formula involving
the Hubble constant only holds on a very large-scale basis.
In this week’s Week in Review, posted last week, Brian
Trumbore notes that stocksandnews.com is marking its sixth
anniversary. He also acknowledges a certain close relationship
with Dr. Bortrum. (I’ve said before that Bortrum is a thinly
disguised pen name.) I want to thank Brian for the opportunity
to write about subjects that challenge this feeble brain and,
hopefully, keep it from deteriorating any more than it has over
I also want to thank my faithful readers, some of whom have sent
helpful comments and information. This past week, for example,
Harry K from Canada pointed out that the problems with our
rental condo’s concrete deck and the corroded metal rods are
shared on some Canadian roads. He and my golfing buddy Tony
could write an authoritative column on that subject, I’m sure.
As Brian indicated in his Week in Review, he’s not sure at this
point what the future of stocksandnews.com will be. Obviously,
old Bortrum is keenly interested in the outcome, as I hope you
Allen F. Bortrum