the great maybe

I am not a physicist. I do not truly understand the theories behind relativity. I cannot really explain to you why gravity works. I just know it does. And that it is a generally accepted theory in modern physics which makes our existence possible. It is a kind of beautiful constant I found myself eager to write about this month.

Because in science, there are some things we don’t fully understand how they operate or even necessarily why. Sometimes we discover the reason is the opposite of what makes sense. We find everything we once believed in was never true. And discover there is no experiment you can design that will ever prove that it was. Sometimes scientists take on problems knowing they will not likely solve them. But they do it for the challenge. Because it may lead us to new questions that take us somewhere else. Because maybe. Just maybe, they can.

The last time I took a physics course was more than a decade ago in high school. I spent senior year crying over my textbook and only pulled off a C+ because I drew nice pictures in my lab reports. I never thought I would examine the tenets of relativity after graduation, and I never expected to be sitting in the office of a man who has spent the past 50 years chasing Einstein. And I definitely never expected that we would wind up briefly discussing love. But I guess it kind of makes sense. It is another one of life’s great experiments no one can fully pin down and explain how it works or why it exists. It just does. And we all sign on for it even though we don’t know if we will ever get ours off the ground.

Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes it all unravels in the places we expected it to hold fast. Sometimes it was never really there – just a series of smoke and mirrors and the illusion that you had something worth holding onto. Sometimes you find yourself wondering what the hell you were thinking. Or when you stopped. And sometimes, it is awesome.

Last week I met with a physicist serving as an investigator for NASA’s longest running experiment to date. It took 47 years to complete and was nearly a $750 million failure. In 1964, he was tapped to lead the project as a young PhD graduate. He anticipated a short stint on the project then expected to move on to pursue other research. Forty years later he witnessed as his scientific legacy took to the skies and left the atmosphere. He spent five decades of his life waiting for that moment. The final results are expected early next year. I wanted to learn if it was all worth it.

But first, he took me on a tour of his lab.

He showed me prototypes of the satellite assembled from the contributions of dozens of PhD theses and hundreds of thousands of man hours testing. As we walked the halls he explained the concept of superconductivity. How the act of slowing everything down makes conduction without resistance possible. He showed me a model of the telescope used to lock onto a distant guide star, connecting the past to this one moment in scientific history.

I asked how they selected the star that would be their reference point for the experiment. Because that seems like it would be an important detail – deciding just who to point your everything to on the faith that it will not falter. It will not go out as stars sometimes do. That it will hold steady for as long as you need it to.

“It was one of the most studied stars in the entire heavens,” he said, adding that afterward they just hoped it wouldn’t fade. “It would be incredibly unlikely, but then again, incredibly unlikely things happen.”

He told me about his expectations. How he never anticipated staying on the project long. Two years. Maybe three. But probably not. I smiled. And then he asked about me. How long did I think I would stay in California?

Me: Well … my boyfriend just moved to Utah for school. So, I guess you could say, I don’t know.
Him: There is no easy answer to that type of question.

I found that comforting. Coming from a man who has assisted in the development of at least a dozen different technologies and manufacturing techniques to make his search for the great maybe possible, I kind of liked that he felt the decision to change your life and turn it upside down for someone else and hope it still works afterward was out of his realm of expertise.

And then he made a confession.

“When I came here I did not know if the experiment would ever work. But I always liked a challenge,” he said.

He came on board not knowing that it would become his life’s work, not realizing that the undertaking would involve things and people that did not yet exist. That it would require the invention of navigational systems 10 million times better than were available on the planet. That it would require faith that whatever happened in the end, it was an improvement on the past.

And I guess that’s the whole reason you do anything. Like love somebody. Or build a satellite. Maybe you don’t always have to know how things work to know that they will. You just have to have a plan. And test. And fail to be better. And work on it. Then come back and try. And hope that whatever happens, you will figure it out.

Finally. I got to ask my question. Are you happy you stayed with the project?

Him: [without pause] Yes. Oh yes.
Me: Are you relieved it’s coming to a close?
Him: Relieved that I didn’t bungle it magnificently. But it’s not really ending. There’s more to be done. But eventually I will retire. There is more I want to do with my life.

I scribbled on my legal pad, smiling into the paper.

“It was not crazy to think we could do it,” he said. “It was not ridiculous. You might never actually do it. You might never get it to work. But it wasn’t ridiculous to think it was possible.”

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