Category Archives: Physics

Quarkiness, The Story Of Nothing

“Photons. Lots of photons.”

That’s what I said to myself, well, actually I said it out loud as I groped in the dark to make my way across the living room this morning to get to the stairs that lead up to my new writing room.  At the base of the stairs there’s a light switch and flipping it produced lots and lots of photons, maybe trillions. Literally.

Life is photons, and a bunch of other invisible particles. Life is particles all the way down. There’s even a physicist proposing that space itself may be particulate, or digital, and he’s running an experiment to test that hypothesis.

We tend to think in terms of atoms when we think of subatomic stuff at all. But an atom is little more than a few particles organized in a system that is approximately 99.99 percent nothing. Someone noted that if you took all the humans on earth and crushed them, perhaps in hypergravity, to remove all the space in the atoms, smushing all the particles together, right up against one another, you’d have a ball the size of a marble. It would be very heavy. But it would comprise all humanity, and, as a bonus, it would solve a number of environmental problems.

You could make the ball even smaller by crushing out the space between quarks that comprise the protons and neutrons. Apparently there’s quite a bit of room inside protons and neutrons. It makes me wonder if we can call them particles when they are pretty much just space. And what about the inside of quarks? More space? Or are quarks really particles, spaceless, as it were? Perhaps they’re some sort of semi-particle, something comprising strings of vibrating energy that in one instant are only energy and the next are solid matter, constantly changing state at incomprehensible speed.

Amazing as all that may be, it doesn’t have a lot to do with how I make coffee in the morning or what I use to brush my teeth or what a woman feels like breathing next to me in the middle of the night. Physicists try to connect the unimaginably small world of quantum mechanics with the unimaginably large world of gravity through the universe. They haven’t done it yet, but it’s a little like trying to connect that woman with quarks. She’s not having it. (She is also completely imaginary, in case anyone was wondering.)

Thinking about these things, the mind struggles. If I am 99.99 percent nothing, then what am I? What’s left in that .01 percent? Ultimately the question is irrelevant. We live on the macro scale, we act in the world on the macro scale, and we need only step on the bathroom scale in the morning to see how macro we may be. We can’t change the way we act in the world by contemplating our spaciousness or by focusing our minds on rearranging the atoms of political enemies via some sort of quarkian brain waves.

We are Popeye. We am what we am and that’s all what we am. We are a lot of nothing and so is our spinach. But I find it fascinating that at four in the morning I can go out on my back porch and look up at the stars, and think that I am just quarks here contemplating quarks there. That’s pretty amazing for a lot of nothing.


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The Zen of motion, or possibly the motion of Zen

Today I’m back to physics, specifically Chapter 3 of Conceptual Physics, Linear Motion.

Here’s the skinny: Motion is relative. All motion.

If you’re riding a bus going thirty miles per hour your motion relative to the bus is zero. But your motion relative to the surface of the earth is thirty miles per hour.

When you’re standing on the sidewalk, not twitching a muscle, you’re still moving at tremendous speed relative to the sun and relative to the center of the galaxy.

The rest of the chapter goes on about speed, velocity, and acceleration, but since I was on only my first cup of coffee I naturally started down the path of motion relative to self.

Relative to itself an object can never move, according to the criterion for motion: Motion is relative.

So I, in fact, have not moved since I was born, since before I was born if you want to get snitty about it. I have never remained in the same place and I have never moved. Take that, Aristotle!!

When you hear one of those Zennish sorts say something like, “Wherever you go, there you are,” you now know he’s just spitting out some basic physics.

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Uh-oh…the universe is fuzzier than we thought….

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (the illustrated version – though not exactly a comic book). It’s a fascinating tale of the history of science, well-written and interesting.

But this morning I found a disconcerting paragraph in Chapter 11, Muster Mark’s Quarks, a chapter in which we’re treated to the history of subatomic particles and the struggles physicists and cosmologists have suffered to understand the very tiny and the very large universes in which we dwell (and which apparently dwell in us). At the end of the chapter, Bryson writes:

The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances from us and each other we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.

Uncertainty rules! Apparently what we have taken for fact out here in the normal world might be a little loosey-goosey. Bryson notes that when an astronomer says that galaxy M87 is sixty million light years from New York, he really means it’s between forty million and ninety million light years from Boston.

And on the subatomic level, there are so many particles and so many interactions and so many unknowns that uncertainty not only rules, it rocks. Take the Higgs Boson, for example. If you can find it. The scientists and engineers at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland have got about ten billion dollars tied up in looking for the Higgs, which may or may not exist, depending on who you talk to. It’s supposed to be the particle that gives mass to other particles. Which leads to the mind-bending question of why a particle needs another particle to give it mass? At least that’s what bent my mind a bit this morning. A person more humorous than myself might ask if a person could go on a Higgs Boson cleansing diet to lose weight. But I am a little strange, so let that go by the boards.

On the positive side, it’s good to know that those guys know that they don’t know but they keep digging and peering and poking and prodding and theorizing. It’s a fun job and somebody has to do it. Hell, I’d be happy to sweep floors at CERN.

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Physics and the aging mind (and body)…

I’m plowing through the exercises at the end of Chapter 2 in Conceptual Physics, the chapter on Newton’s first law of motion, which defines inertia. There’s eighty one questions and problems, and a kind note from the author saying that he offers so many in order to give the instructor a ‘wide choice of assignments’.

Me being my instructor, as it were, I’ve assigned myself all of them, though without a deadline. Hewitt notes that the Exercises portion, comprising forty-eight problems, is designed to stress thinking rather than recall. If that doesn’t get the information into my head, nothing will.

All in all I’m excited about this book. It brings the science of Physics within my grasp, doesn’t torture me with math (though it may stimulate an interest in math), and offers a way to keep my aging brain active in a way different from my forays into Philosophy (which once upon a time was Physics).

The other night, as I was doing nothing in particular again, a thought rumbled through my head out of nowhere. "Oh my god I’m sixty-six years old. What the fuck am I doing? What in hell am I doing?" I’ve let that rattle around for a couple of days and still have not got a useful answer. I can, however, answer in part that I’m sometimes doing Physics, or learning it anyway. Which is something.

Part of the charm of Physics, so far, is that understanding Physics puts me in touch with reality. Not the dicey reality of the psychologists and the spiritualists and the ideologues, but the reality of a world that has weight and mass and dimension, a world that is discoverable and predictable and yet still full of mystery, a world that holds no evil, no good, no ego, a world that simply, without apology, without boast, is and which simply does not care.

That’s a good thing for an old mind to know.

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The inertia of inertia: bowling in space

My friend Shorty, from down South, bought me this marvelous textbook on physics for my birthday. It’s titled Conceptual Physics, by Paul Hewitt. It’s a marvelous big ol’ textbook that takes a learner from the very basics all the way into relativity, does it with minimal equations, a nice human touch, some cartoon work by the author, and lots of questions and exercises.

Which brings me to inertia, which I started reading about today, or more specifically, Newton’s First Law of Motion. (Newton’s stuff gets capitalized a lot.) Anyway, NFLOM says, "Every object continues in a state of rest or of uniform speed in a straight line unless acted on by a nonzero net force."

Hewitt notes, in a sidebar, "Inertia isn’t a kind of force; it’s a property of all matter to resist changes in motion."

He also notes, "We don’t know the reason for objects persisting in their motion when no forces act upon them."

Now here’s the thing. If you roll a bowling ball across a rug it will soon stop due to friction with the rug. If you roll it down a shiny bowling alley it will go a lot farther and if you’re lucky do some damage to a structure of tenpins before it stops. But if you were to take that ball out into space, beyond the gravitational influences of, say, a solar system, two things can happen.

If you just let go, applying no force, the ball, perhaps a bright red one, will sit there forever until something, some force or other, does something to it. Or, if you give it a push it will move at the same speed in a straight line, barring outside force, until the end of time.

As a practical matter, things will happen to disturb the ball’s inertia. It might run into a star, or pass by a planet, or get hit by a comet or asteroid. It might travel undisturbed for a trillion years except for hitting an atom head on once a year and thus be brought to a stop eventually.

But here’s the thing. Think about that ball’s motion. Out there in deep space all you did was give it a little push, using your arm muscles. That’s the only force applied to it. If nothing gets in its way, if no other force ever acts on it, the ball will just keep moving at the same speed in the same direction forever. If you gave it a five mile per hour push, it will cross the universe at five miles an hour.

How can that be?

The physicists say, "We don’t know."

How can that be? How can they not know? But I’ll take their word for it.

But I still feel mindboggled. My brain keeps asking the question, "What keeps it going?"

And comes up with strange answers, or questions. For example, did the initial push impart sub-atomic particles that carry force and that then react with the quantum fabric of space-time as constantly recycling drivers? Particles carry other kinds of forces, why not inertial motion?

See what I mean?

Part of the problem is that our frame of reference is so earthbound. Here, friction rules. Bowling balls slow down and stop because they constantly fight opposing forces like friction (and tenpins). Friction is in the blood of our brain’s synapses. It is a Law of Nature: bowling balls slow down and stop.

We don’t live in deep space. Stuff acts differently out there. Inertial motion is just too alien. Too out there. Too cosmic, if you will. The human brain will accept the theory, but the fact of an infinitely traveling bowling ball, no, neurons will not wrap themselves around that in a cocooning embrace. They will fight it, synapse by synapse, until the last synaptic soldier lies dead on the beaches of time.

Newton could really tick off an average brain. I can hardly wait to see what else this book is going to do to get my synapses in a twist.


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