Friday, December 07, 2012

The black hole in our kitchen

Disturbing news reaches us from galaxy NGC 1277, 220 million light years away from Earth in the constellation of Perseus, where space boffins have detected a black hole more than 4,000 times larger than the one at the centre of our very own Milky Way.

This discovery has thrown the astrophysical community into some disarray, forcing them to re-think their ideas about how black holes are formed, and causing one to exclaim: “When it first popped up we said: ‘We don’t believe it!’”

Which, if it adds nothing to our understanding of black holes, at least proves that scientists are human, and can on occasion be persuaded to do Victor Meldrew impressions.

As above, so below. Or so they say. Whoever “they” are. Probably the same people who say “Many a mickle makes a muckle” and  “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

But whoever they are, they’re right. Because the interstellar goings-on in NGC 1277 have their earthly counterpart: right here, right now, in the kitchen at Dixon Towers.

A few months ago the fridge went on the blink. The temperature rose inexorably like an impending Big Bang, the thermostat light flashed like a pulsar and the compressor started making the kind of expensive-sounding noises that can only mean one thing: get someone out to have a look at it.

So we did, but by the time he arrived it was working properly, so he went away, shaking his head rather sadly. At least he didn’t charge us.

Then last week, just as the astronomers announced their discovery, the fridge started making those noises again.

Presumably because of some sort of cosmic harmony between black holes and our fridge. One doesn’t like to probe too deeply into such things.

The same man came around, sucked his teeth, said we needed a new fridge and went away again, pausing only to mend the knob on the front of the washing machine.

So we ordered a new fridge, and set about emptying the old one. At which point it became all too clear that our chiller was the domestic equivalent of the black hole in NGC 1277: it had swallowed everything that approached it, and had become a something of a test bed for scientific endeavour and experiment.

Questions about the age of the universe pall into insignificance beside the greatest questions of all: How long can you keep a half-empty pot of Gentleman’s Relish before it starts to go off? And what is the radioactive half-life of one of Mrs D’s home-made pickled gherkins?

Our white hole
Investigations into the nature of matter are subsumed into the all-encompassing riddle: What happens to a frozen strawberry coulis when it enters its molten state?

Deeper inquiries into the origins of life are as nothing compared to the ultimate puzzle: What’s that growing on the Jarlsberg cheese?

And if you’re of a philosophical bent, you might even reflect on this little mystery: why haven’t we got any proper food in our fridge?

Be that as it may, the fridge was emptied, and now it sits, unplugged and defrosted, a white hole in the tiny galaxy that is our kitchen.

But as its light fades and dies like a brown dwarf, the ultimate question remains: When are they coming with the new one?

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