July 28, 2009

Let's talk about monkeys. Everybody likes monkeys.

Category: Science And Technology — Cranky @

Let’s pretend I have a box.

It’s a plain box with a little light on one side. Precisely once every minute the light comes on, and it stays on for exactly one second. The box is completely impenetrable, and impervious to any kind of analysis. I can never open it. I have absolutely no way of knowing what is inside the box, and I never will. So I speculate on the contents of the box, and I come to my conclusion.

Inside the box, I theorize, is an immortal monkey. It has been rigidly trained, and it will turn that light on for one second every minute, forever. And so my Immortal Monkey Blinking Light Theory of the box is born. Lots of people will question my understanding of the box, but the prediction given by my theory is accurate time and time again. It can be used as long as the box behaves as expected.

Scientists are faced with this problem. Einstein referred to it as “the practical limit of knowledge.” Quantum physics offers no way to see “inside the box”, since there aren’t “things” in the box – just interactions and tendencies. We make predictions about gravity, for instance, and they prove accurate, but even if we come to the point where every single prediction we make is accurate, we still don’t know what’s inside the box.

When a meteor falls toward a planet, is it curving inwards, or is it moving straight through curved space? We don’t actually know. Is there a monkey in the box, or isn’t there? Does it matter? We just know our model works. In the 1920’s, Neils Bohr said: “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”

In other words, don’t talk about the monkey. Talk about the outside of the box, the light, and how it all behaves, but leave the monkey to the philosophers.

One could argue that this acknowledgement of the basic “unknowable” nature of reality leaves room for God.


July 21, 2009

Does This Galaxy Make Our Universe Look Fat?

Category: Science And Technology — Cranky @

When it comes to the universe, there are two possibilities. It either goes on forever, or it does not. Well, that’s not really true. There’s a third option – it does, and it doesn’t. Some people have speculated that it kind of loops back on itself, so while it’s not infinitely large, there’s no edge. They call it “finite, but unbounded”.

Imagine a universe as a bubble. We’re pretty sure that universe is expanding, but what is it expanding into? Immediately the mind adopts the idea that it must, of course, be expanding into empty space. But what if it isn’t?

If the universe is finite in size, but it is expanding, the problem for our poor brains is to visualize that the expansion is not the simple casting of matter into emptiness. Space and time began together, and all of the space is in the universe. There’s no “outside” into which the universe expands.

So immediately the brain throws up the other tool at its disposal – “not space”, but not really. When I try to visualize a true “nothingness”, absolutely devoid of everything including even space itself, I mostly just picture space that can’t be reached or used. However, that’s just filled space, not the elimination of the concept of it. I cannot truly conceive of a real, absolute null.

That’s the problem. “Outside the universe” doesn’t exist in a finite model.

Well, that just sucks. So we look at an option – “finite, but unbounded” – where the universe behaves kind of like a mobius strip. You can take off travelling in a straight line and somehow end up back where you came from without ever reaching the edge of space. Still the mind rejects the idea, because it wants there to be something around that universe. We might not be able to pass the edge of it, but it still can’t be surrounded by “nothing”.

Okay, fine. So that sucks too. Well, it’s off to option number three – the universe is just infinitely large. It goes on forever and ever in all directions. There’s no middle and no edge.

Wonderful! …except I can’t picture infinity any more than I can picture nothingness. When I try, I mostly think of a horizon, which is hilarious since I’ve already started chopping it into manageable, finite chunks by putting a landscape under it.

The real problem with contemplating the universe is that our brains aren’t actually capable of grasping the reality, no matter which form it takes. We can use math to try to pin it down but that intuitive understanding – that “aha!” moment – might be beyond us.

Now that’s the part that sucks the most.


May 25, 2009

Does This Smell Okay To You?

Category: Science And Technology — Cranky @

Lois Griffin: “Oh, what’s that smell?”
Brian Griffin: “It’s either bad meat or good cheese.”

I often wonder why it is that animals can eat meat that has been sitting in the sun for days, but humans can’t eat a couple of bad peanuts without getting sick. It seems odd to me that we should be so vulnerable to the state of our food supply. After all, it couldn’t have always been this way.

Early in our development, long before we mastered fire, we ate whatever we could get our hands on. That meant we ate raw meat all the time. Dead animals had to be fair game if we were to survive. So what changed?

I think what changed is that we started cooking our food. Once we figured out that fire plus meat equals delicious, I’ll bet that it only took a generation or two before we had destroyed our ability to deal with the nastier stuff that decomposition produces. We cooked our way into weakness.

To be sure, we haven’t necessarily lost our taste for raw food. I don’t cook vegetables at all, and I eat sashimi on a regular basis. Sometimes I’ll eat steak tartar, too. I’m also a medium-rare kind of steak consumer. I rely on the producers of these products to handle them properly, and if they mess up, I’ll get sick. They do screw up occasionally, but it happens so rarely that nearly every occurrence hits the news.

Of course the situation is much worse in other countries, where food is suspect and contagion is rampant. Destitute Africans around Lake Victoria in Tanzania frequently dig up and consume the rotting remains of fish from landfills fed by processing plants. For them it’s survival. If I tried it, I’m quite sure I would be very ill. After all, I’ve been coddled my whole life, food-wise.

Could I achieve their tolerance for “bad” food, or am I a lost cause? Not that I’m in a hurry to turn in my happy, healthy freezer of carefully prepared products… I’m just curious.