May the force not be with you: Sandra Bullock goes for a spacewalk in Gravity. Photo: Warner Bros
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# In search of the notorious Big G: why we still know so little about gravity

Gravity is pathetic and so is our understanding of it.

Gravity is pathetic. The Oscar statuette, for instance, has a mass of 3.85 kilograms but it is pulled down to earth by a force so weak that you can buy a £2.99 fridge magnet that can beat it. It’s shameful that the gravitational pull of the entire earth can be overcome by a cheap piece of magnetised steel.

Gravity is by far the weakest of the fundamental forces of nature (the fridge magnet puts the far stronger electromagnetic force to work). It is so weak that its strength is proving difficult to measure accurately. In late February, while Alfonso Cuarón, the director of the sci-fi film Gravity, was on tenterhooks waiting for the Oscars result, the world’s experts on gravity assembled just outside Milton Keynes in an attempt to sort out this most embarrassing problem.

Numbers such as the strength of gravity, the speed of light and the charge on an electron are known to physicists as the “fundamental constants”. They are in some ways the sticking plaster of physics. We can explain the origin of most things but we know the values of the fundamental constants only by measuring them – there is no way to work them out from a theory.

These days, most are very well defined – but not gravity. It is the only fundamental constant for which our uncertainty over its value has got worse over the years.

The gravitational constant is sometimes known as “Big G”. This differentiates it from “little g”, which describes how fast things accelerate towards Planet Earth when free to fall. The first accurate measurement of Big G was made in 1798. Henry Cavendish used a torsion balance, a device in which two lead weights are attached to the ends of a metal bar. The bar hangs horizontally by a metal wire attached to its midpoint. Cavendish then brought other weights close to one of the lead weights and measured how much the gravitational attraction between the weights twisted the wire. From that measurement, he calculated the strength of gravity.

Cavendish’s accuracy was five parts in 1,000. Over 200 years later, our accuracy stands at roughly one part in 10,000. Given that modern measurements use lasers and electronic devices and Cavendish used a mirror and a candle, it hardly counts as a great improvement.

What’s worse is that our measurements of Big G are getting less accurate. The latest measurement, reported at the end of last year, reduced the overall value by 66 parts per million but the uncertainty
of the value increased from 100 parts per million to 120 parts per million.

The measurement was taken by Terry Quinn, emeritus director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris. At its meeting in February, he argued that it was time researchers admitted that everyone must be making some basic errors in their method and that they should give up on making any more unilateral measurements.

The experts now agree that future experiments seeking the value of Big G will be done in big collaborations, with the proposals for equipment and methodology being scrutinised by everyone in advance to minimise the chance of further embarrassment.

It will, they say, mimic the way that researchers worked together to find the Higgs boson. That gave us the secret of mass: the hope is that if the physicists all pull together, they can finally work out exactly what size of force brings that mass down to earth.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Maggie Goldenberger
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# Living the Meme: What happened to the Ermahgerd girl?

Four years after going viral, Maggie Goldenberger reveals what it was like for her childhood photo to become a meme.

Maggie Goldenberger is not the Ermahgerd girl, not really. Although she is the star of the four-year-old meme of an awkward tween girl holding up her favourite Goosebumps books, she was actually in costume at the time.

“I was in like sixth grade [year seven] maybe, and I’d always dress up and take photos with my friends,” she says. “I don’t feel that offended by it [becoming a meme] or feel that embarrassed by it, because I was just messing around.”

Now 29, Maggie is video-calling me from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, where she works as a cardiac nurse. Although she was 11 or 12 in the now internationally famous picture, it only went viral when she was 25 and on a six-month-long travelling trip. The image spread across the internet and was quickly captioned phonetically to imitate a speech impediment, and thus a rhotacised pronunciation of “Oh my God” was born. “Ermahgerd,” an internet user emblazoned the image, “Gersberms!”

If you’re not exactly sure what that means, you’re not alone. Maggie’s mother, although immediately proud of her daughter’s new-found fame, was a little bemused by the internet’s captions. Maggie tells me her mother, “had the picture up in her office and she thought it was hilarious. But she kept telling me like: ‘Maggie! They’re putting all this German writing all over your picture! What’s going on!’

“She didn’t quite understand it but she loved it.”

Like her mother, Maggie didn’t immediately comprehend her new online fame. She is happy to share her story, and laughs about it, but admits she still doesn’t really “get” the meme. “I’m even more confused about it now than I was then,” she says. “I kind of got like the novelty of it and it being fun but I don’t understand how it’s lasted so long.”

It is this confusion that means that Maggie, unlike most of the memes I have spoken to, has not made much money from her viral fame. “It’s hard for me to get behind something that I don’t understand,” she says when I ask if she ever considered releasing merchandise. “Also if I’m gonna make shirts I wanted them to be like fair trade, organic . . . and it just seemed like a lot going on, like the responsibility of it.”

Though Maggie could potentially have made thousands of dollars, not cultivating her online fame means that she is now able to live a relatively normal life. Most people don’t recognise her from the image, although word-of-mouth does mean that sometimes strangers approach her to take a picture. Maggie doesn’t mind this, but she is annoyed when people won’t reveal why they want a picture with her. “Then I’ll just find out a couple weeks into knowing them that they know about [the meme],” she says, “and I’m like, oh, just say it upfront.”

Yet while Maggie has never been embarrassed of Ermahgerd girl, she did get a taste of the darker side of internet fame when her friend’s brother uploaded a more recent photo of her, in a bikini, to Reddit, and revealed in his post that she was lesbian.

“I could finally feel for other people like in those tabloid magazines,” she says. “I thought I was a pretty confident person, not that weird with my body and things, but to have someone put your photo out there without your knowledge and to have people sharing it and making ugly comments . . . it's kind of an ugly world out there.”

Although Maggie did not enjoy being exposed in this way, she says the best thing about becoming a meme was when Vanity Fair wrote a profile on her in 2015. “I was going through a break-up at the time and when it came out I was getting attention for that and it just took away attention from the big break-up, so that was good timing.”

Despite enjoying the renewed attention on that occassion, however, Maggie is generally very grounded, and says she doesn’t normally announce who she is when she meets new people. “I usually try and not say anything,” she says, when I ask if it affects her dating life. “I keep it on the DL.”

Via Maggie Goldenberger

In many ways it is fortunate that 29-year-old Maggie is detached enough from her Ermahgerd persona to be able to do this. “I try to feel for others that have their meme go viral and it's their real picture,” she says. “It was kind of weird that people were just making fun of a child without trying to figure out who the child was . . . I just don’t understand why people feel like it’s okay just because it's online and it's a stranger.”

For the future, then, Maggie says she is “still working” on embracing her meme status. She has no plans to cultivate it online or to make any money, and instead intends to do some travel nursing across the United States or potentially abroad. I ask her, if she could have been famous for anything else, instead of this, what would she choose?

“Initially I think like comedy,” she muses. “But then I think I should do something for the greater good.”

“Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the previous articles here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.