Monday, November 14, 2011

Our Expanding Universe

This is a long one.  Are you sitting comfortably??


On my drive back to the apartment after teaching yoga tonight, I heard a great interview on Fresh Air on NPR.  Terry Gross was interviewing an astrophysicist named Saul Perlmutter who just last month was (jointly) awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.  His team does research on supernovae and the expansion of the universe.  (Kind of like my little sister.  No really, she is a Ph.D. student in astrophysics.)

Anyway, this Perlmutter guy was doing some research on the rate of expansion of the universe.  Everyone know that the universe is expanding, right?  It has been expanding since the Big Bang.  And according to logic and intuition, that expansion ought to be slowing down due to the effect of gravity - stuff attracts other stuff.  Perlmutter's team set out to measure how quickly this expansion was slowing down, which seemed like a cool project.  But once they got the data and crunched the numbers, they found the opposite of what they had expected.  The expansion isn't slowing down - it's speeding up.

This is a cool result which certainly deserves the Nobel Prize, but the really funny part is how nobody can explain exactly why the universe is expanding at a faster and faster rate.  There are lots of theories, all involving something called "dark energy" which basically - to my understanding - fills up the empty spaces in the universe and is multiplying.  I think there must be a Doctor Who episode in there somewhere.

In my favorite part of the interview, Terry Gross asked Saul Perlmutter what the physics community would do if they ended up disproving some theory or law that had previously been validated.  What if, for example, they found that part of Einstein's theory has been wrong and they had to go back and revisit it?  Now, until this point in the interview, Perlmutter had come across as the type who doesn't really get out much - he spoke with the sort of halting, breathless speech pattern of either a non-native English speaker or a total geek.  (Possibly he is both.)  But when Terry asked him that question - what if something we "knew" was true turned out to be wrong? - he answered with the enthusiasm of a little kid:

"That would be our favorite thing!"

He went on to say how wonderful and exciting it would be for all the physicists if one of their theories were proven wrong, because then they could go back to the original problem "and get another crack at it."

What a fantastic worldview, right?

Now back to me (in case you are wondering where I am going with this).  I was not listening to this broadcast while driving my little Toyota Corolla around a city in the northeast, as you'd expect.  I was listening to NPR on the Mississippi Public Broadcast, in Mobile, Alabama, driving around after yoga class in a big Ford pick-up truck.

Let's talk about questioning assumptions and changing worldviews.  Because I am a bleeding-heart liberal hippie, lifelong vegetarian, born and bred in Massachusetts, blue-state registered Democrat, city girl since age 17, and a goddamn professional yoga teacher, and I just discovered that Alabama is friggin' great!

If you would like a soundtrack for this part of the post, here is a video of the band from St. Louis that I saw live at an Irish Social Club in midtown last night.

Now here are some things that have been awesome in Alabama!

- Went with studio owner Lucille, her husband Bill, and fellow teacher Devra to a first-Friday-of-the-month Art Walk in downtown Mobile.  (Which by the way is pronounced Mo-BEEL, as in "automobile," not mobile as in "mobile phone.")  Downtown Mobile is actually pretty cool, and the city has clearly put a lot of work into sprucing it up and making it an attractive place to visit.  Lots of pretty lights and cool old building with intricate ironwork.  Lots of local art and small bars.  One really kick-ass chocolate shop, as well as a roasted peanut shop a little farther down the street, right across from the independent movie theatre which apparently serves beer - payment is on the "honor system."  There was an art exhibit called "Paper Cuts" where everything was made out of hand-cut paper, and it pretty much blew my mind.

-  We ate dinner that night at a restaurant called The Bike Shop.  It used to be a bike shop, and in fact there are bikes hanging from the ceiling and I think you can still buy a bike there.  Now they sell delicious Mexican food, and you can also order off the sushi menu from the Japanese place next door.  Huge beer list, and I got lucky that they had my choice on tap.  Delicious huevos rancheros.

- The scenery, of course, is beautiful.  Big old houses, giant oaks and magnolias, and there are some great drives that go right along the Gulf of Mexico.

-  Some of these radio stations are way better than the pretentious hipster one that I listen to in Baltimore.  There are some good mix stations and MPB plays some awesome bluegrass and jazz on the weekends!  And come on, we are just a stone's throw away from New Orleans.

Great used book store - got three nearly-new books for $18.  Some Sherlock Holmes, the first book in Song of Fire and Ice, and a non-fiction collection from the author of Fight Club.

- I don't eat (much) seafood, but I learned that the blue crabs that they get on this part of the gulf coast are the same ones that Baltimore is known for!  They are only found in two places in the country - Baltimore, and here!  Although 'round here I don't think they soak them in Old Bay seasoning.

- I had one of the best vegetarian sandwiches I've ever had in my life at the Mediterranean sandwich shop downtown.  Grilled vegetable gyro with hummus and feta cheese, in fresh pita bread.  For like 7 bucks.  I could eat that every week.  Also found another Mediterranean place that did a great Sunday buffet.  Also ate at a Waffle House, just because.

-  On Sunday afternoon I went to a Renaissance Faire, of all things!  It was right near the Jersualem Cafe where I had lunch with Lucille and Devra, and one of the yoga students had mentioned it to me that morning.  So I paid my $10 admission fee and spent the next few hours wandering around the fairgrounds being deeply entertained.  Little kids whacking at knights with a stick, belly dancers, arts and crafts, lots of real swords, fried gator on a stick, an actual jousting tournament, homemade root beer, the best fire show I have ever seen, and also - for some reason - camel rides.  Here is a sentence I just never expected to hear: "Why don't you want to go with Bubba and them on the camel?"  Great mixture of accents - about 80% Southern accents, with the remaining 20% talking like they're in a Game of Thrones episode and shouting "Huzzah!!"

Have you run out of music yet?  Here is another track.

Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three "La La Blues" from Filipe Bessa on Vimeo.

- The music you are listening to is by Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three.  I saw them play on Sunday night at a neighborhood hangout spot called Callaghan's Irish Social Club.  It really is a social club - it's the spot where everyone who lives in the neighborhood hangs out.  They have live music at least once a week, and everyone knows everyone.  I mean, I ended up hanging out with a woman named Lisa (friend of a friend), and she could pretty much say "hi" to everyone who walked by.  It was a tiny place and super cool - wouldn't have been out of place in South Boston.  Lots of friendly people, and I loved the music.  I ended up chatting outside with Mr. Pokey LaFarge for 5 minutes during the band's break, and it turns out they had just come down from a tour in the northeast.  Besides playing the Newport Folk Festival, they'd also played the Iron Horse in Northampton (about 10 minutes from the house where I grew up) and they'd played (wait wait don't tell me) Club Passim in Cambridge.  We had a fun chat and I explained to Pokey about Smoots.  (This is an MIT/Boston thing - look it up.)  He is from St. Louis, but his band has been touring all over and they were loving the vibe in Mobile.  I told him about the Bike Shop and the sandwich place.

- After the band finished, I ended up going along with Lisa and a few other women to a late-night place downtown.  Two of these girls, Elizabeth and Tracy, were recently married - to each other!  Tracy told me all about it at Callaghan's - they had a ceremony down here in Mobile, and she said that everyone was a little "curious" about what the wedding would be like, but they just did it "really traditional."  They had to go up to NYC to get legally married, so that was their honeymoon.  They love the south.  "The only bad part is that it's pretty conservative, but everything else is great!"  We all piled into Elizabeth's Prius and went out for drinks, dancing, more music, and pool.  There was one guy at the bar who kept trying to grind with all the girls on the dance floor, and Elizabeth just went up and started dirty dancing all over the place with him (she was a great dancer), just totally winding him up, to the great amusement of all the spectators, which only got better when Tracy stormed through like "What the f**k?!  My wife is dancing with an asshole!" and then went outside for a cigarette.

Oh yeah, and I have taught some yoga out here, too!  The yoga studio - Bikram Hot Yoga Mobile - is absolutely gorgeous.  It's a pretty new studio, so the classes are pretty small, but the people who do practice here are totally serious about it.  They're really good.  Lots of the students here have lived and practiced in other parts of the country, but the hot yoga concept is slowly catching on with the locals, too.  Everyone is friendly and welcoming, and they are happy that I am enjoying their city!

I started off this post by talking about our expanding universe.  And all this was just to say, my universe is continuing to expand.  My universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.  Exploring this city has been like a treasure hunt.  I keep discovering these unexpected gems all over the place.  This isn't even the full list.  I'm still here for three more days.

I had plenty of vague assumptions and stereotypes about "The South", and most of them have been proven wrong.  I mean, there is still plenty of conservatism and religion.  There are some gigantic churches, and each day I drive past this sign that says:


which is just deliciously aggressive and Southern.  But still, I'm driving through these tree-lined streets in the big old Ford, listening to bluegrass, on my way to the chiropractors office, and I'm having a great time.  It's just like Sean Perlmutter, our physics Nobel Laureate, said on the radio.  What if something you "knew" to be true were proven wrong?  "That would be our favorite thing!"  Because then you get to start from scratch and rediscover it all.

I am discovering Alabama for the first time and it is just my favorite thing.

See you Friday, Baltimore!

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