Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 6: "Gravity"
You gotta realize that the pull of gravity affects everything, the science guy says. He is walking down the sidewalk on a bright afternoon. Every step he takes supporting evidence to his point.
Without gravity, there’d be no you, there’d be no me, there’d be no Earth, there’d be no sky.
Gravity, the science guy says, looking upward to the multiplex marquee above him. Now playing everywhere! The marquee reads Gravity. It is rated G, one suspects, for Gravity.
And the science guy is right, of course. Not just in predicting the overwhelming inescapability of a film called Gravity almost exactly twenty years later, but in the thing before that. The more important stuff. How the pull of gravity affects everything—how there’d be no anything without it. Duh. You are able to write this sentence thanks to gravity. And the one before. And the infinite sentences after. Right now, your cat is stalking a translucent sea-green bug the size of half your pinky nail. The bug is high on your wall. The cat is a tense bundle of nerves on the arm of your armchair. Gravity dictates his expectation.
What is he waiting for? He is waiting for gravity to do what gravity does. Eventually, inevitably, it always will.
There is a feat that juggling superheroes the Flying Karamazov Brothers have been performing for almost forty years. Throughout an evening’s program, they introduce bizarre, unseemly items into their ever-moving repertoire. A salt shaker and a meat cleaver. A torch. A block of dry ice and a skillet. A ukulele and an egg. Fish. A bottle of champagne. Piece by piece, the pieces rise and fall through the air, each new one more absurd than the last, more likely to ensure astoundment from the cheap seats. And at the end of the night, all of the pieces create a full puzzle: the Brothers begin juggling them together, at once. The cheap seats go nuts. The front row is speechless. Surely the cleaver will drop. You can’t simply keep a fish suspended. But they do. And then they don’t. Piece by piece, one by one, they catch it all, start concocting a diorama of movement within movement. The torch heats the skillet. The egg’s cracked and salted. The cleaver cleaves the fish. By the time the juggling’s done, the Karamazov Brothers are sharing a meal of cooked egg and fish on stage, passing a popped champagne bottle amongst themselves, listening to one of their own play a nameless ukulele tune.
For thirty years, this was the Flying Karamazov Brothers’s closing number. They called it the Terror Trick. Then abruptly, at the turn of the new century, the name was dropped. A mistimed piece of the puzzle. Like watching a Brother sneezing when he should be catching. The gravity of the situation suddenly, frighteningly more present than the situation itself. The jugglers still toured, kept performing as they had been for thirty years nearly without pause. Leavening the gravity by daring to keep as much suspended as they were able. The Terror Trick became the Danger Trick—it meant the same, looked the same, resounded, they thought, just a little more easily. Flip the fish. Catch the cleaver. Turn dry ice into a whirling dervish. Astound the cheap seats and pack it in for the next town. Give the next crowd, waiting to feel speechless, waiting to be terrorized, exactly what they want.
Hippity-hoppity, hippity-hoppity, hippity-hoppin’ over the hills.
This is Neil Armstrong, skipping across the moon. The footage is no “one small step for man,” but it’s there. Not too difficult to find. It’s part of the package you always present in teaching the Space Race to eleventh-graders. Can you imagine? you always ask. Can you imagine what it would have felt like to go hippity-hoppitying across the surface of the moon? To be the first ever to do so? Ever. The word is terrifying enough as it is—so much gravity in just four letters.
Sometimes, this is the first time they’re seeing this footage. On your best days, you allow yourself to think that without you, they’d never see it at all. Teaching history is like this sometimes. Introducing Snapchatters to more sustained imagery, to footage their minds aren’t meant to erase so easily.
Now, you know that when you’re standing on the earth, you have weight, the science guy says you know. That’s because you and the earth are both made of matter, so you both have gravity and you’re attracted to each other.
The science guy demonstrates this by comparing his weight on different celestial bodies. More than twice as heavy on Jupiter. About a sixth lighter on our moon. Well, gee wiz! the science guy says, feigning amazement. He understands how gravity works, how great a pull a lesson can have to the previously uninformed. Some of your students hear Cuba and think cigars. When you show them Kennedy’s Missile Crisis Oval Office address, they feel that pull. They shiver a little, and understand: history is the sun, a body so stable in its gravitational magnetism that we keep circling the same orbit. Again and again and again. To hippity-hop along without knowing what the previous orbit looked like is to float, untethered and weightless, through space.
In eighth grade, you carried your skateboard everywhere. You would have skated it everywhere, but it took too long to get places that way. Walking through school, up and down stairs, hallway after hallway, you kept the board pinned to your side, cradled in your left hand just enough to seem casual. After school, then after Friends, you’d head for the garage to try the thing out, keeping the door to the neighborhood closed just until, you promised yourself, you were good enough to wow the neighbors speechless. But the thing, it turns out, was not easy. You learned to ollie. Sort of. Mostly. Did the thing where you balanced on your back wheels—got pretty good at that. A week into self-taught kickflip lessons, though, and you were done. Forget it.
It wasn’t that you kept falling. It was that you were too afraid to fall, to feel the pain of concrete on shoulder-meat, of your helmetless head against the road’s rough gravel. Sometimes, you thought, if you’d just broken your arm the first time you’d stepped on a skateboard—fallen so hard you’d shattered right away—you’d have actually learned to skate. Instead, you carried the thing everywhere. The image was enough. You watched Joey Tribbiani make friends simply by standing next to someone else’s curb-parked Porsche and thought: Yes. Thought: Same.
The science guy is talking gravity with the Flying Karamazov Brothers. He has brought them in as experts. When he interrupts their three-part club-juggling, they mistime the handling, dropping the top-heavy clubs to the ground.
You guys dropped ‘em, the science guy scolds.
It’s not our fault, a Flying Karamazov Brother says, a little rightfully petulant. It’s that darn gravity.
Hey, another says, if it wasn’t for gravity, anyone could juggle.
An impatient man, the science guy tires quickly of the bickering. Are we gonna talk, he says, or juggle?
No terror trick today, not with the science guy stepping in to join. They settle for balls and clubs. Gravity does its job, carving into the air the invisible, inevitable, inescapable path an object makes on release. One foot in front of the other. One day followed by the next. A life that persists and persists, ignorant of your insistence on keeping it frozen. The science guy, maybe more than most, is aware of the ticking. He wears a watch every day, to remind himself. He moves things along. He calls it like he sees it. He’ll play pretend, for a purpose, if it means a quicker lesson. He’ll gravitate, like all falling objects, like you, eventually back to the center of the earth.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.
Original Artwork by Lena Moses Schmitt.