This page exists because I wanted a place to put random thoughts... and people look at me funny when I insert them into ordinary conversations, ... so here we are:
Living Among Superheroes
I spent the first 18 years of my life consuming science fiction books as rapidly as I could acquire them. At 41 years old, I am absolutely amazed to report that we have officially surpassed my wildest expectations regarding the level of technological and scientific achievement that I expected in my lifetime. The spy gadgets of my youth look like novelties compared to the equipment that is carried around by middle school students. The robots and computers that we imagined on spaceships, 300 years in the future, now look clunky and obsolete compared to basic equipment that can be purchased in any major department store, and the communication tools that we imagined 1000 years in the future, while not completely obsolete, are getting there fast. Where we will go from here, I can only imagine.
There is a reaon that I am pointing this out. We are all, now, officially superheroes. The iphones that we carry on our hips give us access to, more or less, the current sum of human knowledge. There is, essentially, nothing that we cannot learn if we have the desire to do so.
When I was completing my undergraduate degree, between 1989 and 1993, the most substantial limit on writing a paper for class (other than discipline), was access to knowledge with which to inform the paper. We had a limited library of books that were mostly 5 to 50 years old, a few journals, and the interlibrary loan service. While we had computerized search functions for library holdings, they didn't work very well, and we could not download obscure journal articles. We were, at that time, just 20 years ago, only marginally better off than scholars 100 years before. We were isolated, in time and space, from the global intellectual dialogue. Someone gathered together the knowledge of the preceding 100 years or so, added their tiny piece to the puzzle, and added it to the literature. The material was printed, slowly disseminated to a few locations, and then waited for years or decades before someone else managed to assemble enough pieces of any given question to figure out where the edges of the known, the current sum of human knowledge on the subject, were. Then, if they were able to piece together enough information to synthesize a meaningful picture, they could attempt to add something to the puzzle... before the process began again.
Today, everything is different. Tools like google scholar, and the increasing availability of primary, peer reviewed literature to the general public, are tearing down the walls that once isolated us and slowed our progress. We are unshackled. We have, at our fingertips, waking and sleeping, a greater cross-section of the sum total of human knowledge than any collection of scholars, in any single previous age, held at any given moment... and we have the ability to find the part that fascinates us, learn what is known about it, and make our own contribution.
No superhero of my childhood, no captain of a starship, and no mighty robot could do what a child with an iphone can do today.
I look at people walking around today, and I frequently think of an old saying. "A lion that learns its own strength cannot be caged."
And this is only the beginning!
The Gravity of the Situation
The following is not, despite the use of big words, science. It is random, idle musing that took place during a lecture.
A colleague of mine, an astrophysicist, mentioned a couple of days ago that gravity waves carry away energy from their source. I had not been aware of this, and found it intruiging. Immediately, my mind fired up all 8 cylindars and started throwing questions at me to which I didn't have answers. I'll jot a few down here, and revisit them if I find answers.
The first thing I wondered was if this is true for gravity emitted from a stationary object that is not interacting with another object, or if it is only true in a system of relating gravity fields that can produce gravity waves. Since stationary objects bend space and since gravity waves are really just fluctuations in gravity due to relative distance of a set of masses from a given point of reference at a given moment, producing a variable difference in net combined effect, I'll assume the former - that objects constantly emit a gravity field composed of hypothetical gravitons or whatever it turns out to be, and that gravity field constantly carries away energy from the object or system of objects.
Immediately, this gave me an image of a universe in which all mass was slowly evaporating into energy that was neither light (EM), nor mass, but hypothetical field particles. And, since energy has a mass equivalency, thiswould mean that the total mass energy of the universe has, since its inception, been seeping off into an ever increasingly complex blanket of background energy... gravity in transit from one point to another, lost in space.
My colleague threw a number on the screen that translated energy loss, through the action of gravity, into watts per time per mass (if I saw correctly - it was only up for a second), and I thought wow(!)... not only does it have a mass energy equivalency, but the equivalency is quantified and non-trivial. In other words, one could calculate the total mass to gravity energy conversion of the matter content of a galaxy since the big bang, or the mass to energy conversion over a given time, in kilos!
This immediately raised the question... So, if light produces a gravity effect, does light lose energy to the gravity field, ever so slight though it its, that it produces as it travels through space? What would that process look like?
This led to the thought - what would the mass-energy portion of the universe that has, over the last 13.77 billion years, been converted to gravitons, look like if quantified, in relation to our knowledge of other states of baryonic matter... assuming gravitons are presumed baryonic, which I would guess they are. Would this unmeasured and currently unmeasurable (Go LIGO!) mass cut into the quantity of dark matter or energy relative to measured mass energy if it were accurately inferred? And by extension, has anyone ever attempted to infer the total quantity (and density) of waste gravity floating around in the universe?
Does that mean all of the hot, bright bits of the universe are losing mass as they emit light, with that mass speeding outward, as energy, to either be absorbed and minutely increase the mass of cool objects, or simply exert its effect upon the curvature of space at an ever increasing distance from its point of origin, among the nether regions between galaxies, at the 'edges' of the expanding universe, located everywhere, between all of the stuff? To borrow the old 'gravity is a dimple in a sheet' analogy, wouldn't the simple process of the universe, that steady dissipation of the hot bits, and corresponding increase of mass or mass equivalent energy in the cold bits, account for some flattening of the universe, a cumulative decrease in the dents of gravity where the big, hot, bright, massive bits are, and a steady depression of the entire surface as the mass of the cold bits is depressed with additional mass or mass equivalent energy. Is this how expansion works?
The idea of waste gravity streaming constantly across the universe in an infinity of loops and curls gave me, then, a picture of the path of a light beam as it travelled across the vastness of spacetime, for 13.77 billion years. I imagined a beam of light, forced to follow the curved and corrugated 'surface' of space as defined by an ever increasingly complex background of gravity waves - a washboard surface that would become more and more complex with the continued process of things happening and existing. For a beam of light, like an ant crawling across a crumpled sheet of corrugated cardboard, as time progressed, it seemed, every point would be farther and farther away from every other, creating an effect not unlike the expanding universe we see.
Then I though... what about the other fundamental forces, strong and weak nuclear,can we play similar mind games with them? Does some half-baked equivalency, in mass/energy/gravity emerge from their ongoing existance? And if so, how does this quantify and compare to the mass energy of the known universe after 13.77 billion years of the ongoing labor of things 'being.'
And then I remembered the quantum nature of the universe, and though so what happens when a particle is too small to emit gravity or anything else without losing its indivisible existence.. does it cease to be, popping out of existence as a final fluctuation in a field strength, perhaps to re-emerge somewhere else where field density crossed some threshold beyond which an amplitude spike, for lack of a term, suddenly became too much and a sub-atomic particle is pinched off, like a droplet on the crest of a wave in the actic ocean, freezing into a snowflake of solid matter for a moment of eternity before again falling upon the ocean...
Then Ben flipped to the next slide, and I realized, for a moment, that I... though a rock nerd, envy astrophysicists the training that allows their deep excavations into space time.
Ars longa, vita brevis.
Lab Coats and Tweed Jackets with Elbow Patches
I am tired of seeing news articles and 'spiritual' books presenting ideas that people have, literally, completely made up, that sound like science. As with (some) preachers, who put funny stresses on syllables and wave their arms around while talking in order to borrow from the cultural toolkit of previous preachers, thus lending themselves credibility, the scientific community has a set of traditions that identify a speaker or author as part of an august club. These range from word choice (calling rain 'meteoric water'), clothes (lab coat or tweed jacket with elbow patches), facial hair (neatly trimmed beard), and so on. The borrowing of this tool kit, by people who have never done anything even remotely scientific, and never intend to do so, in order to make bad ideas seem like science is a form of dishonesty, and a dangerous one...
Advertisers have been doing this, in one form or another, for years. So have politicians, salespeople, and lots of others. I'm goind to make a daft assertion here... daft because it seems to go against some very fundamental aspects of human nature. We should be more concerned about whether what we say is true and useful than about whether we can get people to believe us. To compel someone to believe something that we say, if it is not evidentially supported and supportable and/or does not clearly lead to the demonstrable benefit of the listener or to the community as a whole, should be as morally repugnant as stealing or causing physical harm to an undeserving person.
One of my all-time favorite professors, Dr. Steve Boss, who had neither a tweed jacket nor a neatly trimmed beard (to my knowledge), and who more than once (and probably rightly so) accused me of arm waving, once said, in a lecture, that 'In the absence of evidence, anything is possible.' This was an admonition against presenting assertions as science. Another professor, from my undergraduate days, once said 'Assertion does not constitute proof.' It is with these principles in mind that anything on this page should be read. Using large words to communicate an idea does not make it science. Evidentially supported, testable assertions, communicated within a context that makes them open and available for challenge and disproof or improvement... that's science. This, as they say, ain't that. Nevertheless, a great deal of good science starts with idle speculation. A beer and a free-flowing dialogue about what the nature of things might be can often lead to testable hypotheses and to exciting investiations. If it leads, however, directly to published assertions presented as fact, it is called pseudoscience or merely BS.
Note: Many of the people that I admire the most, including Dr. Derek Sears, with whom I will be eternally grateful for having the opportunity to work, Dr. Lynn Oliver, and Dr. John Dixon, along with several others that I greatly admire from my undergraduate days, wear tweed jackets with elbow patches and have, or occasionally have, neatly trimmed beards. I, myself, own such a jacket, and when I finish my doctorate, I intend to wear it in celebration... but not before then.
Beneficial Viruses and the Common Cold
I read a news article, yesterday, about the potential employment of viruses in the medical battle against cancer. The article said something about engineering viruses to attack cancer cells and kill them, and asserted that the viruses, in triggering an immune response, would also call the bodies attention to cancer cells, thus assisting the body in identifying and using its own resources to battle on the patient's behalf. Aside from the rather obvious challenge presented by life's remarkable ability to adapt in order to be able to consume additional available resources (healthy adjacent cells), this seemed like a pretty decent and interesting idea.
It also reminded me of something. Sometime back in the late '90s, I acquired a fungal infection or some other sort of ugly crud that affected the skin and nail at the end of one my fingernails. I am given to understand that these are quite common, though this was the only one I have ever had, before or since. It lasted for a couple of months or more, was disgusting, and resisted various improvised and over-the-counter treatments. I got very good at handling things with my thumb and three fingers, and at keeping my index finger sort of curled out of sight.
Then I got sick. I don't know if it was a common cold, strep, a mild flu, or whatever else, but it lasted a week. I had a terrible sore throat, fever, and the usual aches and so on that generally accompany such things. When the cold passed, the finger infection was gone... completely. I wondered whether the fever or the virus had killed the thing. It occured to me that humans have been living with the common cold and a number of other annoying, but non-lethal ailments for a very long time, as well as that these ailments are remarkably well adapted to be tolerable. The common cold is, in fact, a marvel of engineering. Its only major symptoms are evolutionarily designed to irritate those bits of us that cause us to express the germs, through coughs, sneezes, and various unpleasant expectorations. It does this with a delicate balance of intensity that only minimally impairs our mobility, while maximizing its expression. Both its length and severity are moderated to minimize mortality. Our bodies, which have co-evolved with this virus for millenia, and are amazing at eliminating vulnerability to known diseases within populations that are exposed to them for substantial periods (generations) fail rather substantially at preventing or eliminating it. Most people catch it at least once a year, and we assume this is an accident.
After hearing the article, another couple of facts that I have heard various places over the years popped into my mind and joined with my decade-long pondering of the fingernail infection and sore-throat incident. They were as follows (and I can't vouch for their accuracy): 1) the body develops and spontaneously eliminates many small cancers over the course of a persons life. 2) an awful lot (90%?) of the cells in our bodies are not us, but rather critters from the environment that populate our skin, guts, and organs in order to assist us in staying alive. In short, we are colonies.
A thought... what if our bodies are gentically clever, and have adapted to our own blind spots by allowing in critters from outside in order to ferret out problems... Unlike the population of organisms that live in our guts all the time, constantly protecting us from invaders, some of these may be to aggresive to remain in residence. Instead, we manage them, keeping ourselves vulnerable to their occasional entry in order to keep them wandering around the gene pool, and playing host to them as a steady enough rate that they do not need to adapt far from their current, useful form in order to regain entry. In short, what if our personal kit of beneficial micro-organisms lives not only inside us, but remains resident in the population as a whole, entering and exiting individual organisms within the population at intervals, as shock troops, in order to clean out infections and invaders that are otherwise difficult to deal with.
We are, evidently, not very good at recognizing certain kinds of things that hide within our own body. We miss infected fingernails, warts, cancers, and a number of other things despite our amazing immune systems. Could our immune systems periodically borrow from the collective pool of these viruses in order to cleanse itself of worse invaders or slowly progressing problems?
Its just a thought, but I think this is really possible, and it is certainly testable. If it is so, then, even more excitingly, are there strains of viruses that already exist, running around the human population, that have been quietly fighting on our behalf for millenia, and that we can intentionally use to fight cancer and other health problems?
<note: a reader sent the following link related to the above thoughts: http://www.radiolab.org/2009/sep/07/ Thank you to Jon.>
The Trap of Expertise
The trap of expertise: There is a phenomenon that one frequently sees in both popular press and in academia that I think is kind of fascinating. Expertise is presumed to be general, or at least broadly encompassing. This idea, hewever, is a contradiction in terms. In my own life, I see this expressed in the tendency for people to ask if they can bring me modern coins to look at for them, under the assumption that I know something about them. When I say 'I don't know anything about coins that are less than 400 years old,' they very often say, 'well, I'll bring them by, and you can have a look.' Now, I'm a serious nerd, and I've accumulated a lot of handy trivia in my life, but I truly couldn't tell you the difference between a 'liberty cap nickel' and a 'standing eagle quarter' (two random coiny sounding names that I think might have to do with american coins), except that I presume one involves a hat and the other an eagle that is standing up. I can google, the same as anyone else, and tend to do so when pushed, which occasionally saves both me and a friend from embarrassment. ie: Instead of saying 'Um, I told you I don't know anything about these,' I can cleverly say 'Um, lets look it up.'
So, why is this worth writing a paragraph about? I think this may be one of the major mistakes of our civilization! Let me explain: Because I spend most of each day telling people about things they may want to buy or writing about things most people aren't interested in, I am percieved as an expert in a couple of subjects. In reality, I have a very limited expertise in perhaps 3 VERY narrow areas of knowlede: 4th century Roman coins, the geology of the town I live in, and the intricacies of the specific type of small business that I have been running for almost 20 some-odd years. This is probably true of many people. We know a lot about our job, if we have held it for long, a hobby we may have persued with a lifelong interest, and one more subject in our life... perhaps a person or place.
Because what I do for a living relates to my personal interests, I have a reputation for having the occasional useful trivial answer or for knowing where to look. People tend to ask me things... particularly things about rocks, a subject about which I know a lot (its my job), but without much particular depth of specialization. Unfortunately, people also ask me about subjects outside my areas of specialization... that is, questions that do not have to do with rocks, running my business, ancient coins, or... well... more rocks. I am always tempted, when a friend that I care about (or a customer that will spend money if they are confident in my expertise) asks me something, to try to answer their question the best that I can. I do not always preface my answer with 'Now, bear in mind that you are asking your question of someone that knows diddly squat about this subject, so take my answer with a few grains of salt and then ask someone else who may actually know...' Worse, sometimes I may mistakenly think that what I do know about the subjects in which I am interested may actually be relevant to their question.
This is the danger: The public often assumes that expertise is general. This is a contradiction in terms, but, nevertheless, a fact that leads to people listening to what 'experts' have to say on a broad range of topics because of their knowlede of a narrow range of interests. Because they are asked, the person with expertise may easily make the same mistake, speaking confidently about subjects about which they know nothing, with the assumption that the depth of their knowledge within their own discipline somehow leads validity to their opinion. So, I imagine that you are asking (though you probably aren't), 'why do you think this is one of the major mistakes of our civilization?'
Thanks, I'm glad you asked. Allow me to use my in depth knowledge of local rocks as a bridge in order to expound upon broad sociological issues! People look to quantum physics for philosophical arguments, to religion in order to explain geology, and to politicians in order to understand morality. The converse, because these people are asked to weigh in on the subjects, also becomes true. Priests know a great deal about their theological tradition and apply it to trying to explain geology. Politicians know a great deal about the systems of law and governance, and try to apply their knowledge to human morality and environmental science, and so on.
The extreme examples lead to sad incidents such as local preachers 'casting demons out' of cars (honestly, transmission specialists are way better than this), and to many of the pseudo-moral and pseudo-scientific arguments that inform our national political discussions on human rights, environmental, medical and education issues.
Trusting a priest's explanation of geology or a politician's explanation of environmental science or of the educational process is the moral and intellectual equivalent as asking me for fashion advice or for insight into your personal dating relationships.... I'll give you an answer, and I may even believe that it is a good answer, informed by a real understandign of the underlying geochemical principals and placed within a solid global context. I will probably think that I was qualified to give the answer... that my knowledge was relevant... why else would you have asked. Because I would speak with confidence and use impressive sounding words, I might even convince you that I am right... But in the end, following my fashion or relationship advice is only likely to lead to heartache or to the sound of your friends laughing at you. I meant this to be funny...
If you asked me for legal advice (coins - the ancient Greeks and Romans pioneered legal argumentation), insights into parenting (business management...), medical advice (happens constantly - crystals heal, right?)... it could end tragically rather than sadly or humorously. I offer that this is true of any so-called expert in any field. Let them be good at what they are good at. Allow them the courtesy of being ignorant in other fields... expertise comes with an opportunity cost in terms of other life experiences and knowledge. And if you ask how their perspective may contribute to an unrelated broader dialogue, for goodness sake, don't treat their answer as equal to their answers within their specialty. Consider that they might be dead wrong.
The Weighty Matter of Light (and altered at random intervals thereafter.)
I'll preface this one with a reference to the section about the 'trap of expertise.' I study astrogeology. I know less than diddly about astrophysics and do not pretend to know more. This is only idle musing and curiosity.
A random thought: Space is filled with electromagentic (light, radio, etc.) energy the way a summer forest is filled with the sound of birds. Any object is illuminated from many directions, with varying intensities, and with radiation of various characters.
Here's the question: What is the mass equivalency of all of the electromagnetic radiation in the Universe. (An aside - This question derives from one that I remember fussing over when I was a little kid: Will a flashlight accelerate under the energy of it's emitted beam if left floating around out in adequately empty space. The answer is yes, but really just amazingly, astoundingly slowly. I've been tempted to work out, several times, exactly how slowly, but haven't done it.) Curiosity about the mass equivalency of energy leads to two immediate spin-offs: How does this relate to gravity in the universe? (A quick web search reveals that light, during travel, does exert gravity.) and how does this relate to the proportion of visible versus 'dark' matter/energy? A quick web search says that mass is equivalent to energy in a proportion of about 1kg to about 8.9876x1016Joules of energy. Using the web and a napkin: Since 1 joule = 1 watt/second and the sun puts out about 1.2x10(34) Joules per year, and the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, a sun like ours, if it had burned since the big bang, would have emitted the mass/energy equivalent of about 1.37x1044 kg, or about 1000 times the mass of the earth or 1/1000th of the mass of the sun. (I'll check my math the next time I look at this.)
Though I am not a physicist, I'll take a leap and presume that energy of movement... momentum or inertia, also has a mass equivalence. So how does one clculate the mass/energy equivalency of motion... or would only change in motion have a mass energy equivalency. Quantifying this, I suspect, would lead to a conclusion that the mass equivalent EM output of the galaxy and universe, considering all accumulated emitted energy over all time since the big bang, might actually be a pretty significant number. If this energy is taken as part of both the volume and mass of a galaxy, then galaxies are pretty large and diffuse objects (humor)!
How to add up the energy emitted by all stars and other objects in the 13.7 billion some-odd years of the Universe's history.... Most of this energy is presumably still floating around as EM or motion. What percentage of the mass of the observed universe is composed of this energy? Does this affect the ratio of dark to observed matter/energy? Does it meaningfully affect the curve of space? Does the mass equivalency that results from the energy density of accumulated EM in the rarified bits of space between the galaxies amount to enough to change the gravity curve along which light travels over great distances?
More questions that derive: First, how efficient was the production of matter from the energy released in the big bang? Did most of the energy become matter? Or is much of it still in the form of EM? What is the total mass equivalency of this EM (eg: the cosmic microwave background)? What effect does this have on the shape of the universe. And second, Does energy of motion, momentum or inertia, if it has a mass equivalency, exert gravity / affect the curve of space? If it does, what is the combined effect of all of the energy of motion on the curvature of space... also, how does this affect acceration at relativistic speeds.
Why put nonsense thoughts on paper? Because I will return to them over time and gradually quantify them or find the flaws in them... just for the fun of it.
Impact Driven Long Term Greenhouse Effects
I just read an article in Smithsonian magazine that mentioned that water vapor, pumped into the upper atmosphere by increasingly violent storms, destroys ozone. This got me to thinking about the KT boundary impact site on the Yucutan peninsula and other large impact craters that represent strikes in marine targets. There are many ways that setting off an explosion the size of 4 billion Hiroshima bombs, which is the rough energy equivalent of the Chicxulub impact event, can kill lots and lots of critters (like dinosaurs), but I hadn't considered that ozone depletion could be one of these. In addition to sulphuric acid rain from the devolution of gypsum on the sea floor, tsunamis, fire storms, a nuclear winter, and so on, it seems like this event would have introduced a tremendous volume of water vapor into the atmosphere. It may even have produce a local hot spot capable of driving a powerful updraft for centuries afterwards... an intersting thought for both the Chicxulub and earlier craters, as well as for impact structures on other planets. I've often considered the role of large impacts in driving hydrothermal processes, especially on Mars, but have not previously given thought to their potential longer term role in pumping once present ground water into the planet's tenuous atmosphere.