Untrue Stories
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Untrue Stories

[ 9 ] Less than a ‘g’

Nuuk was humming, its streets (and pubs) now crawling with sports promoters, self-described science sleuths, the press. Slower to react to the gravitation sensation were disaster relief agencies, as there was no discernible disaster here. No one was in trouble, there seemed to be nothing endangered. Gravity’s integrity had been called into question, but for the moment this was viewed by the international community as a curiosity, not a crisis. So for the immediate future Nuuk belonged to athletes and academics, fitness freaks and aspiring astronomers.

And, of course, to Greenlanders. Leo took it all in. He was living in the moment. The experiments that went nowhere, he found beauty there. He was content to look on with curious detachment as amateur physicists spent hours and hours out of their depth, attempting to measure gravity. Alberta offered that despite popular belief, Galileo had never actually dropped anything from the tower at Pisa. He just talked about it.

‘That was fun.’

She meant the local free-falling weights demonstration.

‘But we need a gravimeter.’

The original gravity experiments were performed with a pendulum, she explained. Leonardo da Vinci drew numerous illustrations of pendulums in motion, and Galileo studied them in earnest at the beginning of the 17th century. Galileo kick-started the modern era by including mathematics in his scientific arguments, and seventy-five years later Sir Isaac Newton incorporated pendular motion into his proof of the law of universal gravitation. A well-designed heavy pendulum should swing through to its apex and return to and past its midpoint with a particular degree of acceleration and deceleration. Alberta rocked back and forth, demonstratively. After a few cycles the time from mid-swing to mid-swing, or from crest to crest, stabilizes and is measurable.

‘We can adapt the pendulum method by measuring free-fall acceleration of an object within a vacuum. As long as we can bolt the instruments to the ground.’

Alberta’s suggestion was met with expectant blank stares from the assembled journalists and sleuths.

‘Or we can ask a geologist to bring a gravimeter.’

The latter seemed a more efficient solution. A relative gravimeter was dispatched from Copenhagen, along with a geologist well versed in its sensitivity to vibration and its finicky behavior in fluctuating humidity. He brought a beautiful compact machine whose inner workings relied on a superconducting sphere suspended in a stable magnetic field. The geologist identified a granite plateau five meters above New Sea Level, on solid ancient ground, not soft reclaimed land. He set up the instrument and measured carefully. He communicated by phone with his laboratory. He deliberated with himself, out loud. The geologist took his time, repeating his measurements many times over. Then he declared his findings: that for some reason that was not at all apparent to him, in the immediate vicinity of Nuuk the ambient gravitational force was 0.910002 ± 0.030000 g.

This was the gravitational force exerted on man or beast or inanimate object at rest. When the being or object is accelerated upwards, as when jumping or lunging or being thrown from the flat stable ground at five meters above New Sea Level, the g-forces would change of course, but not as dramatically as with the same discrete motion occurring back in Denmark, where conditions, he hoped, were normal.

He went on to explain that gravitational forces if anything should be slightly more substantial, not less, as one got closer to the poles, so that an object weighing 100 kilograms at the equator should weigh close to 100.3 kg at the North Pole. Gravity might be less when standing on sedimentary rock instead of bedrock, but for his tests he deliberately chose stable ‘old’ land with a granite foundation. And gravitational forces should be higher at low altitude. He was at a loss, he explained, to explain how the heavy metal balls used in the shot put, both local and import versions, here weigh 6.68 kg / 14 pounds 8.96 ounces, curiously even lighter than the aberrant weight reported last spring. The same shot back home weighs an even 16 pounds. He could not explain his findings of decreased g-forces, and he was perplexed by their fluctuations. The gravimeter’s magnetic field should be rock-stable.

He should reconfirm the accuracy of his readings, he said, by returning to Copenhagen and calibrating the gravimeter with local measurements at five meters above NSL, today. And he did just that, phoning back to report that back on native soil his equipment measured the ambient gravitational force at a familiar 1.010001 ± 0.000001 g.

0.9 g’s. Not a huge difference, Alberta mused, but then it was ten percent less gravity, right? What could that do to a javelin’s trajectory? The spear would have a less compelling reason to return to earth, although it would do so eventually. And the sprinter? He returns to earth every tenth of a second, but at 0.9 g’s he does so less definitively. More tentatively. More freely, only to leave once again. Then she thought about the race-walker: he must have contact with the ground at all times. At 0.9 g’s would that be more difficult?

As soon as word got out that Greenland was an athlete’s paradise because it was newly lacking in gravitational fortitude, there came many inquiries into the possibility of future exhibitions, to be held as soon as possible. Sponsorship would be easy to secure. There were records to topple, careers to build, ad hoc history to be made. As far as anyone could tell, there were no rules of international competition that say that a record won’t count due to a lack of gravity.



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