Weight of the world

After keeping close watch on local worms, Gravity Commissioner Wayne Smith has concluded that we in western North Carolina may be living in the midst of a full-blown gravitational anomaly. Earthworms, says Smith, are “very sensitive” and react to — perhaps even predict — shifts in gravity. The commissioner has monitored both captive and free-range worms in Leicester for more than a year now. His conclusion? They definitely demonstrate a tendency to wriggle east — out of the mountains. “They’re not going toward Tennessee,” he observes.

Though he can’t yet say for sure, Smith believes this worm migration corroborates his theory that our little neck of the woods is experiencing an increase in gravity, which he says may be due to the thickening of some parts of the local lithosphere. What all of this means, says Smith, is unclear. Rising gravity might do anything from speeding up the plummet of raindrops to triggering impending avalanches and earthquakes, he says. On the other hand, it might not trigger anything at all.

That an area would experience an increase in gravity is enigmatic, Smith continues. According to his figures, the United States alone has left some 100 tons of equipment on the moon over the years (Smith has been unable to obtain Soviet figures, so far). That extra weight is causing the moon to move farther from the earth (at a rate of 0.75 inches per year), gradually sliding into another gravitational zone, he contends. As a result, the Earth is losing gravity, says Smith — and our weather patterns are going wacko.

New world gravity

Smith began pondering the effects of gravity on world weather patterns in 1989, while living in upstate New York. That fall, after days of heavy rain, a fascinated Smith watched the Delaware River run upstream. Excited, Smith called his mother, who advised him to contact the Institute of Gravity. (She’d heard of the institute decades earlier from her brother, who had consulted it during an attempt to build a perpetual-motion machine. The prototype never did work, but it still stands on the porch of Commission headquarters.)

Finding the institute proved easier said than done, however. A two-month search finally yielded an address for the T.S. Pahl Institute of Gravity in Sarejevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. “I wrote and said, ‘I think I’m having a problem: The river’s running upstream,'” remembers Smith.

Instead of answers, though, the “institute” (one guy and a warehouse full of gravity-related stuff) wrote back to Smith with an offer. The institute, said the letter, had disbanded. Did Smith want to restart it in the “New World”? “That’s what they called us — the New World,” remembers Smith, who took the job and has been in the gravity business ever since.

Armed with a new, global name, the World Gravity Commission quickly went to work. Early experiments included releasing bottled messages into the river requesting tracking info from finders. (One such bottle garnered a warning against littering from a National Park Service ranger.) The Commission also distributed a flier advising “gravity conservation” — using methods such as storing heavy objects on low shelves, and removing useless keys from key rings. And when the Commission announced its impending move to North Carolina, the headline in a local paper read, “Sullivan to lose center of gravity.”

Two gravity gurus

Smith follows in the footsteps of Commission founder T.S. Pahl, a man of epic proportions. Though a reference librarian at Pack Memorial Library could find no trace of Pahl, Smith says the story he inherited has Pahl falling in with the “quantum crowd” in the early 1900s in Switzerland, where he worked as a barber and sometimes gave Albert Einstein’s unruly mop a trim. (After an intense argument with Pahl over the nature of gravity, Einstein stormed out, declaring that he’d never get his hair cut again.)

Legend also has it that Pahl once knocked the father of quantum theory, Max Plank, off of a barstool during an argument about quantum mechanics. “He was a radical troublemaker. No one liked him,” Smith observes (which might also explain why nobody seems to have heard of Pahl).

But this brilliant, entirely self-educated German “physics groupie” may well have been one of the first to theorize that gravity is composed of waves, Smith asserts. Unfortunately, the world will never know the full extent of Pahl’s genius, because all of his final conclusions were buried with him. Pahl fell to his death in the mid-’70s, while working on a series of gravitational experiments — throwing objects off a tall building. “Gravity,” says Smith, “got the guy.”

Smith himself is no less an anomaly than his eminent predecessor. Polite and playful, this man with the trim, tidy pepper-and-salt beard clearly enjoys his role as commissioner of gravity. Loping around the headquarters’ grounds in his scruffy cowboy boots and khaki uniform shirt (complete with official apple patch) — and revved-up on coffee and conversation — Smith (a.k.a. “Gravity One”) comes closer to a perpetual-motion machine than anything his uncle ever dreamed of.

He and longtime Commission members Kevin Ishikawa and Mickie Dye-Ishikawa have dug two large ponds, built a water wheel, corralled worms, planted a sizable plot with flowers and vegetables (hence the worms), and nearly completed renovations to an outbuilding — all since moving headquarters (which doubles as their house) from New York to a five-acre spread in Leicester, a year ago last December. Plans are in the works for an on-site gem mine and gravity education center.

At this time of year, the Commission’s work lies chiefly in the theoretical realm: It’s cold outside, and worms are mostly dormant. Come summer, though, commissioners will continue their experimental efforts to monitor gravity, both through worm observation and via readings taken from the gravometer, a mysterious piece of equipment allegedly built by Pahl — and not fully understood by anyone.

Like Pahl before him, Smith has a mythic air about him. One gets the impression that there’s nothing he believes he can’t do. One thing he apparently can do is tame wild animals — right out of the trees. He’s raised or rehabilitated skunks, squirrels and even an owl. An affinity with animals may run in the family: His mother’s ancestors were bear-taming circus performers from France. Smith displays a photo of his great-grandfather. “You can’t tell from the picture, but his right arm is gone,” Smith explains. “Monkey bit him.”

Strangely, for one so immersed in a subject that still baffles the cutting edge of high-tech science, Smith stubbornly resists technology. There is no commission home page on the Web. The commission’s official mailing list consists of addresses scrawled on scraps of paper dumped in a cardboard box. Sometimes, Smith doesn’t even answer his phone. The most complicated piece of electronic equipment he feels comfortable handling is a labeler.

Like his predecessor, the 45-year-old Smith is entirely self-taught on the subject of gravity. As to whether or not he’s a radical troublemaker — well, that’s still up in the air.

As we sit at his dining-room table one morning — temporarily overwhelmed with debris spilling out of the boxes that still arrive weekly from the now-defunct Gravity Institute overseas — I ask Smith what he thinks gravity is. He stares ponderously across a sea of news clippings, bits of machinery and oddities like an antique Japanese tea set, and then responds in such a way that one would swear the man who can’t get halfway through one joke before starting on another one is serious.

He ticks off gravity’s characteristics: It’s universal, it’s eternal (so far, at least), and people tend to forget about it. “What does it sound like to you?” he asks. He smiles, then says, “To say that gravity is the god of the cosmos could get you hung.”

Commission theory debated

Though his ideas make sense (mostly) to him, and his work has been quoted in various publications (mainly the kind you’re likely to see while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store) — and despite El Nino’s dramatic swagger across the county — local experts say Smith’s theories don’t quite measure up.

“Gravity anomalies” do exist around the world, agrees Bill Miller, an associate professor of environmental studies at UNCA who also teaches geology. And gravity does, in fact, behave somewhat differently in the mountains, which actually warp the course of falling objects. But Miller draws the line at suggesting that our gravity is inordinately growing, and flatly denies that we should expect a rash of earthquakes (though he confirms that “lots of little earthquakes” so small we can’t even feel them do continually rock the Appalachians.)

Smith’s lunar theories flat struck out in the UNCA physics department, too.

“I don’t think what we left behind on the moon would contribute very much to the mass of the moon,” said Associate Professor Randy Booker. “That would be like a fly sitting on an elephant,” he said. Booker, in fact, has heard just the opposite — that the moon is naturally and gradually moving closer to the Earth. (Don’t be alarmed: “It’s not getting too close,” stressed Booker.)

UNCA meteorology Professor Jim Heimbach concurs that gravity fluctuates according to geographic location. But tiny local variations wouldn’t produce any noticeable change in our weather, he said.

(Somewhat ominously, however, Smith’s theory that the Earth is losing gravity reminded Heimbach of the fate of Mars — which once held water and may even have supported life, but is now a desert. “Mars didn’t have enough gravity to hold its atmosphere,” says Heimbach.)

For his part, Smith is content to let the so-called experts have their say. After all, astronomically speaking, “experts” through the ages have insisted on everything from planets rotating within crystalline spheres to the existence of interdimensional “worm holes.” Besides, at the Gravity Commission, “We take gravity lightly,” says Smith. For him, considering the implications of gravity isn’t about being right or wrong, or even being reasonable; it goes much deeper than that. When asked why he studies such a weighty topic, Smith has no trouble answering: “It’s fun.”

The World Gravity Commission can be reached through the Ichthyo-Annelid Center, 683-5311.

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One thought on “Weight of the world

  1. senator airedale

    hey Wayne!
    some one i know and is kind wants your duck!

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