Remember Lava Lamps? Turns Out, They’re Like Tiny Universes.

Remember Lava Lamps? Turns Out, They’re Like Tiny Universes. December 31, 2018

I recently bought a Lava Lamp for one of those Christmas gift exchanges where you can take someone else’s gift if you like it better than the one you get.080913-1050512

It was one of a couple of recent occurrences that reaffirmed my faith in the primacy of the natural world over, say, imaginings of a supernatural one.

As it worked out, I ended up with the Lava Lamp at the party and nobody else wanted it.

I didn’t know what to expect when I later brought it home, because I bought it for the get-together as a gag gift, not knowing much about the device. After all, Lava Lamps became so ubiquitous in the hippy-dippy 1960s and ’70s that they quickly acquired a certain tacky, passé reputation. And even though I was in high school when they became a thing in the 1960s, not long before pot also became a thing, I have never owned one, and I’m now 68.

The universe writ small

But, I’m here to tell you, better late than never. These are spectacularly wondrous gadgets, representing the whole of the universe writ small and also offering an excellent argument against supernatural religious faith.

Let me explain.

The night I brought the contraption home, I immediately plugged it in to see what it would do, which, at first, was nothing much. It is a sort of cone-shaped glass thing filled (I learned) with a translucent multi-colored mixture of mineral oil, a wax-like material named ferrofluid, and a heavier-than-water replacement for the originally used but toxic carbon tetrachloride. A light bulb at the base slowly heats the mixture, and this causes the slow-motion mini-cosmic show to begin, in about half an hour or so.

Turn your lights down low, put your feet up, light a joint or bong if that’s your thing, and just soak-in the lovely light-and-motion show. It’s kind of epic, if you think of it — as I do — as a tiny universe.

The laws of nature rule it

What I find so captivating and awe-inducing about the fascinating world inside these lamps is that it is completely controlled by the laws of nature. Of course, human beings invented the lamp and manufacture it still today, but otherwise its behavior is as natural as sunrise.

After the bulb’s heat distributes fully throughout the lamp’s interior fluids, spherical globules in various pastel colors and sizes begin to move slowly and silently about exactly as the natural laws of physics and fluid behavior require. Smaller globules coalesce into larger ones, then disassemble and separately join with others. Some globules at the base stretch languorously upward, merging with random spheres hovering at the top, and then both reform into a single, larger sphere, and then break apart and reform yet again. Some small globules independently slide around in the fluid, occasionally bumping into one another but bouncing off and traveling on independently.

As I watched this fascinating natural ballet the other night, I kept thinking that this is exactly how the universe eternally behaves, according to set natural laws, like gravity and thermodynamics, which form and reform cosmic materials into a dizzying array of shapes and sizes, of which the sphere seems to be among the most elemental.

At one point in existence, our earth and moon and sun were just hot gasses left over from the Big Bang. Over unimaginable spans of time, this primordial material was molded by natural forces, eventually coalescing into stable spheres and galaxies still constantly evolving toward future forms under the same forces.

I saw all this in the stately, majestic movements of a kaleidoscope of fluids in my new Lava Lamp. And I imagine the universe inside the lamp would continue its elemental symphony of motion forever or until someone turned off its warming light, the source of its life.

(To learn of a fascinating and significant present-day internet application of Lava Lamps, watch the video linked to the comment submitted by someone named “Combinatorial-Implosion” after the end of this post.)

A visitor from space

The day after I first fired up my wondrous Lava Lamp, I read an engrossing article in the January-February 2019 edition of Smithsonian magazine (available only by subscription), titled “Great Ball of Fire.”

The article noted that on the early morning of Feb. 8, 1969, a meteor — “a stardust memory about the size of a Buick” — blasted through the earth’s atmosphere and exploded as a meteorite into the Mexican desert south of El Paso, Texas, six years after the Lava Lamp was invented in 1963. It struck near the village of Pueblito de Allende, so was named the Allende meteorite.

Notably, the space traveler smacked into our planet on the eve of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing — the first time humans would set foot on another world in our solar system. The lunar landing was “one small step for [a] man,” lunar-mission commander Neil Armstrong wirelessly announced to Houston mission control as he stepped off the lunar module stairs onto the moon’s surface, “[but] one giant leap for mankind.”

The Smithsonian article reported that more than two tons of debris fragments of the Allende meteorite were scattered “like birdseed” over 100 square miles extending out from the impact site in every direction. Scientist today continue to study its fragments.

“The Allende meteorite is a book from outer space filled with primordial minerals and all sorts of stories and secrets,” Chi Ma, director of the Caltech geological and planetary division’s analytical facility, told the Smithsonian.

He said studying a meteorite’s properties at super-microsopic nano levels can reveal a lot about what was happening when the rock was formed. It’s a way to look ridiculously far back in time.

Stored at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Allende meteorite, at roughly 4.57 billion years old, is more aged than the earth itself but not by much; our planet is believed to be about 4.54 billion years old. In fact, Smithsonian magazine notes:

“Indeed, [the Allende meteorite is] the oldest object at our disposal in the solar system.”

Evidence of reality

So, for me, this is compelling evidence of the tortuously gradual evolution of everything in the universe, including our own world and the living beings in it. Christianity’s biblical concept of Genesis, that God breathed everything into being in seven days (even adjusting for possibly metaphorical language) in its present form seems nonsensical today. Especially since the vast majority of Christians throughout most of church history have believed that scripture represents the inerrant “Word of God” that should be accepted literally.

As I watch the warm fluids slowly slip and slide around inside my new Lava Lamp, I become ever more firmly committed to this naturalist conception of existence.

And that’s without even being high on pot.


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Image from “3,001 Arabian Days” — Son of an Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco) employee learns to ride a camel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 1955. (Photo courtesy Saudi Aramco)

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