WE STILL do not know, regrettably, the ultimate shape of the universe, in the grand sense (not just our own universe, of which the sun is a part), and I thought I might as well get up and go.
But of course I stayed, and had a most interesting morning during the National Academy of Sciences' seminar commemorating the 20th anniversary of American space-satellitehood.
Most of the full auditorium of the Academy was made of high school students, and series of eminent scientists filled them in somewhat, on where we have been and where we are going.
Every 10 or 12 minutes I heard something I thought I almost understood, but will not relay it.
One young woman, who is never going to get anywhere if it would not have been better for the Army and the Navy to get together in the first place and not develop separate programs as they did in the late 1950s.
The answer, to which I listened carefully, is not worth repeating, since it did not answer her question.
Even if I had no idea what the sciencetists were talking about much of the time, I did enjoy shaking the hands of Space, especially the hand of James A. Van Allen, for whom the splendid radiation belt is named. I always liked his warning of 20 years ago, following some comments about [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of the 50-to-90-key range.
Other assumption...would obviously lead to different results," he said.
I happen to believe that with all my heart, though others, needless to say, may see it differently.
Once we made quince liqueur with scuppernong grapes - this was before the radiation belt was heard of - and merely by altering that one ingredient we got astoundingly different results. The whole thing turned to tough gelatin in the bottle, just like a demonstration in high-school chemistry, and was totally revolting. Fortunately a practical nurse, who had been called on to assist with a baby we were having at the time, ate two quuuarts of the jelly (which bore a strong resemblance to Sterno, tough of course made with different alcohol) during her stay. She put it on fish sandwiches. She was a teetotaler. I felt much safer when she left a the end of 10 days.
I mention it only to illustrate that different assumptions, different givens can make a difference, and if nobody did not believe Van Allen, he would have believed our liqueur.
Now, as well all know, we are bound for Saturn and his splendid moons. Someone once said there is something grand about the moons of Saturn, like great magnolias, and I for one look forward to what is learned there.
"My stomach is growling," said a young woman near me. "Itt is growing real bad."
I mentioned that to show how the creative mind works, because at that instant I reflected the universe is probably the shape of a stomach. (We already know the earth is the shape of a pear, not really spherical, and we know that from o our space explorations.)
On several occassions lately the universe has come to my attention, beginning with a show some while back at the Max Protetch Gallery, where Buckminster Fuller had some gew-gaws or metal sculptures that changed shape as you manipulated them. He also had a firm in which he speculated the earth is made up of tetrahedrons (which careless people call pyramids). Gods, in a nutshell, is triangular. I thought of that for some days, and now see the basic error:
All these people who argue from snow crystals, water droplets, fern leaves, etc., are in love with the idea that Nature is perfect. They do not notice, for some reason, that her tetrahedrons are often clumsy beyond belief, and her shells, crystals, leaves, snowflakes, etc., are commonly mis-shapen and resemble a puppy's geometry.
I thought of that during the seminar, and thought how wise Van Allen was to notice that assumptions are assumptions.
One thing I greatly admired was film showing a hammer and a feather dropped at the same time from the same height. They hit at the same instant.
This was established as fact some centuries ago, but it is one of those facts I have always had some doubts about. But now I believe it.
"Where are we going to lunch?" asked a young woman.
"I didn't bring enough money," said her friend.
Ah, another insight. The universe is the shape of a stomach that is hungry.
Our first satellite - our "first successful artificial satellite," as Philip Handler, the Academy president, has so carefully stated it - was Explorer I. It was launched Jan. 31, 1956, at 10-46 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Forget for a moment the natural satellites and the unsuccessful ones and just think of Explorer I.
It went up 119 days after the Soviets' first Sputnik.
Now as I entered the Great Hall of the Academy I thought two things which brain works. First, I thought it looked like something at Columbia University and left something to be destred as a visual aid. Second, I thought it was in this very room that the announcement was first made to the world that our satellite, admittedly artificial, was up and flying.
A dandy hall if not a great one.
At the seminar, a couple of beautiful things were said to the kids: "No area is closed," and "The future is yours."
Those are not novel sentiments to utter to the young, but I am here to report a tingle down my spine.
Another insight: Scientists have hopes, like everybody else, for the new crop.
A wasted morning, of course, since I had too little background in science to enjoy it much. Except for the quince liqueur that jells if you make it with scuppernongs, I know little of physics.
I found a restaurant where a Latin American woman had roasted a lot of glorious chickens and served them with rice and peas, with a bit of cumin, perhaps. Later it was not clear to me I had a legal right to eat there, but sometimes a criminal may be happy.
Honest cooking. A trifle over two dollars. Torture will not pry from me the name of the place.
I watched the woman's face. She was working hard. She was very proud, too, as well she ought to have been,."
Flash. The universe is the shape of a hungry stomach filled by a woman who is proud and who has a right to be.The universe is therefore oval.