General

Distance Doesn’t Equal Time Anymore: Denny Mayo for WFNYX

I. Time Dilation Due to Gravity and Motion

The baseball was in transit between Rajai Davis’ bat and the left field bleachers for something like four seconds. I know this because the timestamp on multiple replay videos told me so. Measuring the pregnant pause of the crowd yields a similar result. This data seems straightforward and irrefutable, but there’s something lost in it: those in the stadium will likely tell you the ball hung in the sky for what felt like a minute. Watching from home, the shot seemed to hang for something like 10 seconds.

It did not seem possible that the ball would clear the fence; that ball was never coming down.

Time moves, except when it doesn’t. It’s like gravity doesn’t apply.

II. Symmetry, Distance, Separation

My parents were roughly 30 when I was born. They raised me hundreds of miles away from where they grew up. I grew to be a fan of my home teams, not theirs. I am now raising my kids hundreds of miles away from where I grew up. I was 30 when the older one was born. There’s a symmetry here that feels both comforting and jarring, especially because I am aware of it in real time.

If I were to pick a single word to describe my relatively short and highly* influential stint writing for this website, ‘different’ would fit the bill. Different because maybe I didn’t take things as seriously as everyone else, or because I was the only idiot willing to draw a joke out well beyond its useful length and into absurdism, or because I was willing to openly sneer towards whatever drew my ire at the time (often other Cavs or Buckeye fans, who were ‘on the same side’ as me). But I also was, I believe, the only writer at the site whose family wasn’t from Ohio — and so I was the only one free from the weight of My Fathers’ Fathers’ Father’s Emotional Sports Investment.1

When I wrote here, I was also the only scientist on the staff,2 and my constant tendency to view things objectively sometimes put me at odds with others. Sometimes sports were just objectively silly or bad, and that had to be pointed out.

Most of me viewed pro sports as poisoned in the run up to LeBron leaving; the rest of me was so wounded when LeBron left that I pushed sports away. A few months and then years later, I told myself that the rational part of my brain did the pushing and left it at that.

III. The Importance of Experiment With Relation to Theory

It took LeBron James approximately four seconds to cover the court and block Andre Iguodala late in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The shape of this play has been analyzed and dissected at every level, and yet: there is something metaphysical here, something beyond what can be described by angles and distances and acceleration. It was not merely a mechanical occurrence. No amount of Reductio Ad SportScientium will turn it into something less than what it was and still is: that block was a goddamned tour de force.

About 15 minutes after that block, I found myself alone and silently whole-body sobbing in my living room. I went upstairs and woke up my wife by gasping ‘they fucking did it, holy shit, they fucking did it’. I have no idea what words actually came out of my mouth, but I do know that I scared the shit out of her.

It’s hard to know how something will affect you when you know that it’s probable but doubt that it’s likely.

IV. Two Independent Observations, Shifted In Time

Light most costly, complicated things, the Light Interference Gravitational Observer (LIGO) did not work the first time it was built and assembled. Those who advocated for and financed its initial construction and eventual rebuilding believed that its ultimate contributions were both feasible and important. It *had* to work, lest the theory be wrong. Without those beliefs and assertions (and continued investment), tangible evidence would not exist.

Atop some of America’s most poisoned ground, near the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers, there is a meter-wide, 2.5-mile long vacuum instrument that observed something in late 2013 we have long known to be true: that gravity fluctuates. There is an identical chamber in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish that observed the same invisible perturbations, shifted ever so slightly in time. This second chamber is important for two reasons: one, it allows one to triangulate the origin of the event that generated the gravitational waves (typically, the joining of two black holes). More importantly, it verifies events as real.

The technical details of each instrument are staggering: both systems (coined a Light Interference Gravitational Observer) take forty days to fully evacuate to operating pressure.3 This is necessary because light, like most things, moves faster in a vacuum. Each mirror in the instruments are the highest quality mirrors ever manufactured. The system is, essentially, a large tuning fork that provides experimental evidence for gravitational waves. That evidence is the result of one mirror moving a distance on the scale of an atom’s nucleus. Gravitational waves are a topic whose theory is so complex, few are smart enough to comprehend. I do not comprehend the theory — but the experimental challenges are ones that I can appreciate. Probability and improved instrumental sensitivity all but ensured that observation of gravitational waves would happen at some point. The difficulty and frustration of uncertain certainty lie in knowing when that observation would be. We are all at the whims of fate and eons-old black holes.

But the eternal optimist would tell you all that’s needed for success is a gravitational wave, two good laser-in-a-vacuum tuning forks, and four seconds. Put those all together and you’ve got your experimental evidence.

Invest, do the work, hope, and wait. It will happen. It has to happen.

V. Measurement and Context

Sometimes an old friend opens the door and invites you to the table, even though you haven’t been around for a while. So instead of getting ripshit drunk and snarking at everyone at the table, you sit down and get earnestly drunk and figure out the meaning your time together before you parted ways. I wrote for WFNY for maybe 18 months; it feels like I wrote here for three times longer than that, and that my writing was five times more beloved than it really was.

It’s a funny thing, being seven and a half years removed from both writing about sports and sports culture and caring enough about sports and sports culture to write about the both of them. I say it’s funny because there’s a part of me that still thinks I may just pop back into it some day, both the writing and the caring.

Occasionally I do care: on rare instances time dilates and gravity relents and a low Game 7 home run sneaks over the fence. There’s a signal there, making itself heard above the noise. In those moments, I’m glad to be here in some form. But I never write, and being out of practice makes things clunky and forced and frustrating enough that I’m never willing to put in the work.45 But the hope is still there — it always will be, because it has to be. And occasionally, with the right inputs, a shift in gravity, and a few seconds, that hope gets realized.

So happy birthday, Waiting For Next Year dot com. It’s nice to be back, however so briefly. Your website is about both stargazing and navelgazing now.

  1. This self-distinction should not be mistaken for a claim of staff diversity; the site was as diverse in voice in its early days as it is now. Which is to say not at all racially, culturally, or socioeconomically diverse. []
  2. Jacob was still in high school at the time, and hadn’t fully embraced the advanced analytics lifestyle that has become his brand []
  3. It takes longer to pump down each instrument than it takes to play the entirety of the MLB Playoffs; the NBA Playoffs operate on their own time scale. []
  4. Case in point: I wrote a draft of this two years ago, in a nine month stretch that saw the LIGO experiment, and the Cavs Finals, and the Indians World Series. []
  5. Editor’s Note: He’s not lying. []