Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 524 Lifelong Learning

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

I have always sworn that I would never get on a tour bus with a bunch of old people. And then, I did. I got on the bus - and this is what happened.

Retirement offers us a time to venture into new areas; try something new. And that is a real luxury in life. Our school days and work life are usually pretty well locked in. We have hours and most days spelled out for us. Of course we do try new things during that period of life but most of our time is absorbed with demands that offer little leeway.

Refusing a chance at a new opportunity has never been something I am good at. This past year I read in the paper of a travel log being presented through the local university by two acquaintances. They had just traveled to Antarctica. My wife and I went.

Our friends are also retired and they took this trip of a lifetime and decided to share it through slides and a lecture. It was great. We loved every minute of the two hour presentation. This was our first experience with the Academy of Lifelong Learning in our town. I'm not sure but I think they probably have these things in most cities or towns that have a university or college. Once exposed we were hooked for one more try. That is where the bus came in.

We saw they were having a trip to explore Wild Horse Wind Farm close to Vantage, Washington. We would learn of wind power and even get to go into one of those tall wind turbines. The next day we would spend at the LIGO site on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Hanford Reach visitor center.

The thing that got me all excited was that the LIGO site, along with a companion site in Livingston, Louisiana, recently proved a theory that Einstein had postulated just a hundred years ago. It had to do with Gravity and the collision of two black holes. He thought that if and when two black holes merged into one even more gigantic black hole a huge gravity wave would be sent throughout the universe. If we just had a way to measure gravity waves we would be able to detect them. Well, over the last twenty-five years MIT and CalTec scientist have been trying to build a detector. And just within the last two years they succeeded in proving Einstein's theory.  And by the way, this is some of your hard earned tax dollars at work: The National Science Foundation. Money well spent as far as I am concerned.

They found a gravity wave from two of these mergers of black holes. The first was found within days of ramping up the observatory. I say observatory and that is what it is. Not that it looks like an observatory that we usually envision. This one is linear. It consist of two pipes four foot in diameter; each two and a half miles long laid out like a right angles. Then a lazer bean is directed down the length of the tube and in combination with mirrors it is enhanced so that a gravity wave can be detected if there is one. And there was.

For those of you who marvel at science and what it can do: the event, or merger of the two black holes took place 1.3 billion years ago. Imagine. And the gravity wave is just now arriving on earth. And then the amazing fact that this gravity wave detector could pick up the signal. It can detect a wave smaller than 10 to the nineteenth meter (one tenthousands the diameter of a proton). The people that made this interferometer observatory have minds that are amazing.

You can go to for a better explanation of all of this stuff. Of course no one really knows what the implications of this discovery will be. But the history of scientific study would indicate that it will be beyond our present imagination.

In the afternoon we visited the Hanford Reach. It is a national monument that relates the story of developing the plutonium that was used in the first atomic bomb. This visitor center is in Richland, Washington where we were staying. We had a fantastic presenter show us slides and tell us the story of the development of the bomb starting with the discovery of the splitting of the atom. We then followed Einstein's letter to Roosevelt, the start of WWII,  and the decision to do everything possible to invent a nuclear bomb. This was one of the best story tellers I have ever heard. The reviews were all raves.

Our the third day of our bus tour was a visit to a wine center in Prosser, Washington. We were welcomed into the facility with a glass of refreshing white wine. Though just ten in the morning we all accepted the challenge. This center is in the Columbia Valley which is in the heart of wine country for the state. Once again our visit proved very interesting. We had a brief lecture on wine production and the wine country we were visiting. We toured the facility and then settled into the wine tasting and sales area. It was all highlighted with a delicious lunch on their patio.

And how was our touring in a bus with retired folks going? Very well. This was a group of people about our own age. By this time in our three day trip we had gotten to talk to most of the participants. We found them all friendly, polite and kind. They were very keen on continuing learning at this stage in life. They had inquiring minds and it showed in casual conversations. And there was no one-up-manship. No one talked of degrees or intellectual pedigree.

The bus itself was comfortable, clean and carefree. We drove through the city of Seattle and I never noticed. And Seattle is not an easy city to traverse. Yet I sat in comfort listening to podcasts and never once let bumper to bumper traffic bother me. The longest time spent without stopping was three hours. We took stretch, and bathroom, and coffee breaks.  At times we had talks while riding on the bus about the wind farms, the LIGO observatory, the Manhatten Project and the Hanford Citizen's Advisory Committee. And a geologist who was a participant gave us a short talk on the geology of the country we were riding through and how over the eons it had migrated to the area in which we now live.

The restaurants we ate at were good and the hotel we stayed in was excellent. The leader of our trip was a former physics instructor and was so very keen on the LIGO project that he drew us all into the drama and importance of such a project. His enthusiasm was catching.

It was a great thing to do. I stayed closer to home than almost and trip I have ever taken yet traveled farther in my mind than I had ever ventured.

If you have life long learning classes and a bus trip being taken somewhere near you I would highly recommend it. One thing about it: this was a three day trip and on something that long you can judge for yourself and get a feel for what it is like. If it doesn't suit, you can never go again. That was my starting point. Start small.

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

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