Gravity in Sri Lanka

Serendib geophysics and metaphysics

By Mark Hager.

Published on March 10, 2015 with No Comments


Did you know that gravity’s pull in Sri Lanka is weaker than it is almost anywhere else? No, not cocktail conversation, I mean literally: you weigh just a teensy bit less in Sri Lanka than you would almost anywhere else on the planet. This was reported in some local newspapers three years back without analysis of why this would be the case. It can be verified with a quick internet search. The fact has been noted and perhaps mysticized by some nice people I met recently at an art/crafts mini-festival at ‘Street 360,’ a cute venue at 66/3, Ward Place serving ‘street food from around the world.’ My new friends follow an emerging movement called ‘New Earth Nation’ (check out the web site). Based on a quick glance, NEN seems to be about selfsubsistent utopian communities growing vegetables organically and redeeming human existence through cultivating awareness of spiritual ‘nondualism’: positing that the heart of all human conflict and suffering is the bedazzled delusion that we are beings separate from one another and from unified being or consciousness itself. Here in Sri Lanka, NEN is planning to launch just such a community on some donated tea property somewhat inland from Bentota.

Though I might differ on beliefs and prospects, I wish them godspeed. I’ve long held an interest in Vedantic philosophies of non-dualism. I have never managed to accept them as comprehensive accounts of the human condition, for reasons I will mention below. But I sometimes think that people who do accept them or their equivalents in other religious traditions have a chance of pointing us toward more humane and satisfying modes of living than can be found in our dispirited consumerist bubbles, so cut off (it often seems) from awe and transcendence. When was the last time you took a walk at night, or even went outside just to look?

My friends attributed at least one link between Sri Lanka’s low gravity and their Vedantic makeover project: plants grow so well in Sri Lanka due to lower gravity. This makes Sri Lanka a good site for establishing self-subsistent communities with spiritual ambitions. I suspect that NEN followers may attach other significance to low gravity as well that I did not have time to hear about. I doubt that there is much to the idea that Sri Lanka’s low gravity explains its vegetative lushness. Heavy rainfall seems a likelier explanation than imperceptible gravitational differences, but I’ll keep an open mind for the moment. Seeds, after all, seem to ‘sense’ gravity. No matter how they land, they always send the roots downward, the shoots upward. And bacteria seem to thrive in the zero-gravity environment of outer space….


One of my friends mentioned something else quite interesting. He plans to conduct experiments on using music to optimize seed germination. After our conversation, I reviewed a Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Arizona purporting to show with careful trials that seeds do indeed germinate better when exposed to music as opposed to normal random sound. Because all living things are mostly water, which vibrates with sound and vibrates resonantly with music, we may plausibly conjecture that music is somehow inherently beneficial to all life forms. To be sure, there are studies undermining the hypothesis that plants respond to music. But it seems to me a hypothesis worth further study. I would love it to be true, but of course loving to think something is true does not make it so.

So why can’t I accept Vedantic conceptions as adequate? I concede as I must that my critical mind may prevent me from ascending to experiential planes where such conceptions are true. But I just can’t bring myself to organize my own life or my social philosophy around that theoretical possibility.

Vedantic ideas about the unity of selves and consciousness, implying that spirit is more fundamental than matter, may inspire and assist efforts to institutionalize more humane modes of living. But I cannot conclude that such an outlook is realistic all the way down or that the utopianism it sometimes sparks can solve the implacable conflicts that afflict human communities. The irreducible separateness of our existence cannot in the end be escaped by contemplating connectedness to other beings. We live our actual lives in actual bodies, bodies that hold our souls inescapably like gravity and make us inevitably appetitive, competitive and conflictual (though not only that, of course). One way of looking at it is the following: Non-dualism of souls presupposes separability between souls and their bodies. If all creatures share the same soul, soul is not tethered to any particular bodies, which are undeniably separate. Hence, non-dualism among souls implies dualism between soul and body: consciousness exists independently of body. This contradicts Darwinian theory, which indicates that mental faculties arise in organisms through evolution by conferring advantage in struggles to survive and propagate. You can believe in the unity of all consciousness or you can believe in evolution, but you can’t believe in both, can you?


In his intriguing book, Mind and Cosmos, philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that you can and should. He purports to accept the truth of evolution, but points out that science is still a long way from adequate explanation of three crucial transitions in humanity’s evolutionary history. By what physical mechanisms did life first arise from lifeless matter? By what physical mechanisms did life forms grow capable of subjective awareness? By what physical mechanisms did moral sensibility arise? Nagel suggests that each of these crucial transitions represents a ‘discontinuity’ or limit to possible scientific explanation and that each will remain forever obscure to science. He goes on to argue that comprehending those transitions requires grasping that matter itself is infused through and through with a unified purposeful consciousness that is inherently alive, aware and moral, moving toward higher realizations of its inner potentialities. This purposeful consciousness pushes matter upward over otherwise inexplicable transitions toward the emergence of morally aware life forms: i.e, us. Creating something like us is the universe’s inherent destiny.

Nagel denies believing in God, but what’s a better name for such a unified purposeful consciousness? I find his argument at least plausible, though Nagel has been heavily shelled from the scientific community. His argument is, of course, entirely unscientific. It represents a contemporary restatement of a school of thought sometimes labeled ‘orthogenesis,’ holding that there is an inherent directedness in evolution toward ‘progress.’ Orthodox Darwinism rejects orthogenesis: evolution has no prefigured direction, but is rather a multi-directional improvisation emerging from the interplay of genetic variance and changing environment. That catchy phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ is therefore subtly misleading. Looking backward, we describe as ‘fittest’ that which happens to survive: ‘fitness’ is not inherent but more like a kind of long-term evolutionary luck.

The existence or non-existence of Nagel’s unified purposeful consciousness can never be proved or disproved. A scientific outlook requires belief that all phenomena, including Nagel’s mysterious transitions, have some physical explanation, even if we have not found it yet and may never find it. That scientific outlook may be erroneous, I suppose. I have no objection to believing otherwise as long as it does not involve denial of things that science has demonstrated, like the fact that life forms arise through evolution, not instantaneous creation in their currently-existing forms. Even at (frequent) moments when reflection or experience makes me sympathize with Nagel’s picture, later moments always come when I ask ‘what possible difference could it make in how I think or act to believe one way or the other?’ I go with the Enlightened One: the existence or non-existence of God is a distraction from grappling with the real problems of life. I would not mock efforts to live more ‘spiritually’—to defy the bodily gravity that grips us. I sympathize with hope that self-discipline and meditation might lighten the pull of bodily gravity. Indeed I cannot imagine a meaningful human life without effort to leap a little higher. But gravity cannot be escaped: in evaluating ourselves and others, we should bear in mind that it will always defeat our spiritual flights of fancy. It is critical that gravity, not its imaginary absence, be our polestar when pondering how to organize communities and societies.

Efforts to organize society around selflessness-the imaginary absence of bodies with their self-seeking gravity have failed countless times, sometimes with grave consequences. Acknowledging the gravity of actual conflict among ‘embodied’ selves, we can now recognize that improved communities cannot dispense with humanity’s greatest invention: the rule of law. It acknowledges conflicting selves but views them dispassionately and impartially. Ponderous, technical and boring, rule of law offers our only sustainable transcendence of self-absorbed selves. It is Vedanta for souls that cannot leap free of bodies. If you want your utopian community to thrive, make sure a good lawyer writes good rules (even if you don’t want him living there: fair enough).There is nothing mystical, it turns out, in Sri Lanka’s low gravity. A bit of research turns up seven possibly pertinent physical features, which combine in a fascinating way. First, Sri Lanka is near the equator, which means it is further from the earth’s centre than are points north and south. Earth is not a perfect sphere but a somewhat flattened quasi-sphere with an equatorial bulge due to the centrifugal force of its spin, which diminishes as one approaches the poles. Because gravity varies inversely with distance from Earth’s centre, things weigh slightly less at the equator than elsewhere. Second, bodies on the Earth experience more centrifugal force at the equator than elsewhere.

mh2Centrifugal force tending to fling us off the planet partly counteracts gravity, making us that much lighter. (Technically, this is not lower gravity, but gravity confronting a counterforce: it comes to the same thing, however, when you weigh something.) Third, earth’s gravity measures lower when another massive body pulls upward against it: this explains ocean tides, caused by the moon’s gravitational pull upward against Earth’s downward pull on the seas. Quite distinctly, Sri Lanka features a permanent counter-mass above in the form of its own steep, high mountains, which pull ever so slightly upward on a body at sea level, counteracting the downward pull of Earth’s remaining mass. Fourth, those mountains are mainly metamorphic rock, the densest kind of rock, formed when igneous or sedimentary rock is squeezed inward upon itself by massive pressure and heat. Dense rock is more massive than is less-dense rock and therefore exerts greater gravitational pull, in this case upward rather than down. Fifth, when metamorphic rock is pushed upward into mountains, it may ‘stretch’ underlying crust, making that rock less dense.

With stretched, lower-density crust underfoot, Sri Lanka experiences weakened downward pull. Sixth and seventh, ocean crust south of Sri Lanka may be thinned and reduced in mass by downward suction, the way a bread slice might stretch and thin if you apply a vacuum cleaner in the middle. Two possible sources of suction from Earth’s quasi-fluid sub-crustal mantle may be at play. One is a downwardmoving arm of a local convection current and the other is a slow-motion ‘wake’ behind the Indian subcontinent as it ploughs through the mantle’s upper portion while slamming into the main Asian continent.

So congratulations. Sri Lanka, special in so many other ways, is special again in its unusually low gravity. That this has botanical implications is questionable, that it has social implications even more questionable. It’s surely no substitute for the rule of law.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Mark Hager lives with his Sri Lankan-American family in Pelawatte. He consults on complex legal and writing challenges.


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