Evanston RoundTable, Jan. 26, 2022
The Earth spins at 1,000 miles an hour. That’s more than 16 miles a minute, 1,400 feet a second. Like Superman, faster than a speeding bullet (1,300 feet a second). We are all, as Russian writer Lidiya Ginzburg put it, “borne along through space on a ball rotating about its axis.”
Why then aren’t we spun off the ball, people idly wonder, like some reveler spinning off the barrel-of-fun ride at the amusement park?
Speedwise that’s not all. The Earth spins around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, more than 18 miles a second.
And the sun whirls around the galaxy (the Milky Way) 448,000 miles per hour, 124 miles a second.
And the galaxy flies through the cosmos at 1,300,000 miles per hour. That’s 360 miles a second.
So let’s see: we’re moving 1,000 X 67,000 X 448,000 X 1,300,000 miles per hour. You do the math, it’s too much for my calculator – or my brain.
But the question remains: how is it we don’t fly off, and moreover seem to be standing stock still, solid and immutable, feet firmly in place? Some say the answer is obvious. Gravity keeps us grounded. But gravity is the weak force, witness any four-year-old catching a ball and defying gravity with ease.
Others point out we’ve had millions of years to evolve and adjust to the hurly burly whirly of Earth spinning and speeding through the universe. Maybe. But millions of years is a mere finger snap in time’s 13-billion-year run.
Here’s another mystery: The farther out we go (spinning on our axis, speeding through the galaxy, hurling through the universe) the faster we go, as if some other strange gravity at the far end is pulling us inexorably toward some other strange mystery.
That’s the macro picture. At the other end of the spectrum, atoms vibrate 100 trillion times a second. We are all made of atoms.
Speed at every end of the scale, up down, side to side. We are shaken if not stirred.
Does all that speed have any impact on our lives? Maybe. Things sure seem to be spinning out of control. Schools open and close, goods and services are in short supply, health care delivery is strained, doctors and nurses and pharmacists and technicians and other essential workers are slammed, distribution chains are snarled. Pandemic aside, we see spiraling gun sales, persistent racism, higher crime rates, skyrocketing prices. Putin threatens war, political parties threaten dysfunction, civility seems in permanent decline. Meanwhile the planet keeps getting hotter and CO2-saturated. Sounds like a dystopian nightmare.
But is it even unusual? Turn back the clock a century. Nations were still reeling from the Great War and a global pandemic was killing millions. The Prohibition bred crime, the nascent Ku Klux Klan terror. Poets warned us life was coming apart.
Judging from history, being spun off is the norm. We are ever undone by speed and disaster, unloosed and unhinged, living in an amusement park forever hurled off the barrel-of-fun ride, climbing back on, whirling off again, climbing on again. Each time we whirl into a new space and time, ever strange and unknowable, ever faster. Ever, as the bard of Belfast sings, into the mystic.