Lesson #392: Cosmic String

Every now and again I learn about something that makes me say something along the lines of, “holy f**k, that’s cool!” out loud. Today, I learned about cosmic string.

A cosmic string is a one-dimensional — they have length, but a height and width smaller than a proton — fault line in the universe that’s made up entirely of energy. Which means it has no mass. Which means that a string even a mile long would be much, much heavier than the earth. Astrophysicists theorize that cosmic strings, of which they believe there are billions, are flaws created during the Big Bang’s cooling period (which was literally nanoseconds after the Big Bang). So basically, cosmic strings are the cracks that form in asphalt after too many freeze-thaw cycles,* but way more awesome.

Serio, you guys, do you have any idea how effing cool that is?!? My head nearly exploded from the excitement of learning that.**

As of yet, there has been no direct evidence of cosmic strings, though researchers at the University of Buffalo found indirect evidence while studying quasars a few years back.

Okay, here’s the super ultra cool part — in case the rest of that was too real science for you: because of the structure of cosmic strings, anything that found itself within one would travel backwards through time because the gravitational pull is such that anything within a cosmic string would benefit from (fall victim to?) time dilation.

Cosmic string is science fiction come to life. On a very, very, very, very small scale. If it exists at all.***

If you’re interested (and you should be), you can read more here, here, here, and here.

*A thing that will make no sense to those of you who didn’t grow up in cold climates.

**True story: when you’re interested in something you’re hearing/reading, your pupils dilate. When I’m really interested in something, my head actually tingles.

***Which it probably does.

Lesson #379: Quantum Foam

Most of the universe is empty space. Even you, no matter how big or small, are mostly empty space. But the universe get a bit self-conscious about all its unused space and creates what physicists call quantum foam. The empty space is, at the Planck scale, actually made up of particles that appear and disappear in a span of time that’s long enough to be measurable — though this is quantum physics, so it’s nanoseconds — but short enough to have absolutely no bearing on the existence of the universe.

It’s called quantum foam because all of this exists in a similar structure to the way carbonation works in a pint of beer. A bubble exists for a time and then disappears and another one forms and vanishes somewhere else. It doesn’t affect the beer in any way,* but it can be observed. The particles in empty space exist and then don’t just as the carbonation bubbles exist and then don’t.  Except they do it on a very, very, very small scale. In a Planck scale of space and time (10^-35 metres and 10^-44 seconds).

And you — well, physicists — can actually see how quantum foam works in experiments using metal plates separated by a distance. Because the amount of foam between them is less than the amount surrounding them, the plates will eventually close the gap and come together.

For more, read here, here, and here.

*Well, technically speaking, it does in exactly the same way that quantum foam affects the universe, but we’re not going into higher concepts of beer and physics here today.

Lesson #359: 1 Planck

Today, I learned that the smallest unit of measure is a Planck.

A Planck measures 1.616199(97)×10−35m, which is really, really, really effing small.

So this is kind of a cheat because I don’t actually quite understand the use of the Planck length. I know it’s a constant in quantum physics and is directly related to Planck’s constant (h-bar*, which I know a little more about because I happen to know that ΔE x Δt  ħ/2, which is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), and I know that it is the outcome of taking Għ/c3 (the square root of the gravitational constant times Plank’s constant divided by the speed of light cubed), but outside of that, my grasp of quantum physics is so limited that the entire concept is hard for me to wrap my head around. Especially now that I’m not living with physicists who were able to dumb everything down for me.

Still though, it’s a good thing to know for Jeopardy! or at a random party.

*My physicist friends used to joke that someday they were going to open up a bar and call it H-bar, but it would be written like so: Ħ. I fully support that idea! 

Not a lesson, but still awesome

Sometimes, usually when I have to wake up early the next morning, my brain does this thing where it refuses to shut off and instead contemplates things that are frequently way outside of my scope of knowledge.

Last week, I went to work on two and a half hours of sleep because between 2am and 5am, my brain was working out the physics of alternate universes. And sorting out how small a percentage of the ever (and exponentially) increasing number of parallel realities I actually exist in. I’m not even kidding. I blame Brian Greene.*

Anyway, Abstruse Goose, which is one of my favourite webcomics, addressed this for me yesterday in a brilliant comic. I’m with you, dude.

*I’m still waiting to get my hands on a copy of that book because a. I like Brian Greene’s other work and b. I want a copy I don’t have to give back, but have a reading list about a mile long, so haven’t gotten there yet.

Lesson #283: The Dissolved Nobel Prizes

I read a really interesting article on NPR this afternoon (no need to guess which way my politics lean) about how Niels Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen dissolved a pair of Nobel medals in order to avoid their “reallocation” by the Nazis.* Fascinating!

As a student of revolution, I’m a bit of a sucker for things being stuck, as it were, to The Man, so this little bit of trivia is right up my alley. Gold, it turns out, is a particularly stable element, so its dissolution is a bit tricky. But when German physicists Max von Laue (1914) and James Franck (1925) sent their medals to the Institute for safekeeping**, and the Nazis annexed Denmark (more or less) in 1940 and went searching for gold, — in this specific instance, gold that had been illegally removed from the Reich (and very obviously since the prizes bore the names of their winners) —  Bohr, with the help of Hungarian chemist Georgy de Hevesy, who won his own Nobel prize in 1943, decided that the best way to keep the Nazis from the prizes was to dissolve the pair in aqua regia, a solution that is three parts hydrochloric acid to one part nitric acid.

By some stroke of luck, when the Nazis arrived and tossed the Institute in search of gold, the aqua regia solution was left alone on some shelf, and, after the war, the gold was extracted from the aqua regia and sent off to Stockholm to be restruck for von Laue and Franck.***

Bohr’s medal (1922, Physics), incidentally, was sold at auction just prior to the Nazi occupation.****

I love stories like this — and history is replete with them. There are always people who find ingenious ways of circumventing governments and doing what is right and I love that.

*Interestingly, this story came from a book I’m waiting to get from paperbackswap.com, which is a BRILLIANT book trading site.

** von Laue was of Jewish descent and Franck was a known dissident.

***For more information see here and here.

****As a mostly unrelated aside, Bohr’s son won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1975. Also, my physicist friends and I have a running joke about how when they win the prize, they’re going to demand a taco dinner because it’s impossible to eat tacos and retain one’s dignity and the image of this is funny to us. In fairness, the idea of a specific one of said friends winning a Nobel Prize is actually a completely real possibility. Not that I expect, if he won, that he’d actually demand a taco dinner.

Happy 2011

I’ve not stopped learning things, but a new job that makes me want to turn off my brain when I get home and a dying computer are keeping me from posting. So I thought it might be time to shift gears for a little bit.

I used to read a lot more than I do now. I think that part of my decline in reading over the last 10 years has come as a direct result of how much I had to read for classes. Something I noticed when I was still living in Western Europe is that I was reading a lot less for fun than I had when I was living in Eastern Europe. Partly due to the fact that 10 hours of research reading a day didn’t leave me much desire to read anything once I was out of school mode and partly due to the fact that my commute was a 5 minute walk to my office, not a 45 minute each way commute on public transport. The irony of it was, I had access to so many more books in Western Europe than I did in Eastern Europe — no doubt in part because of the predominance of books in English in Western Europe. But even when I returned from my sojourn abroad, I wasn’t reading as much as I’d have liked. Mostly because I was lazy and DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were easier and besides that, hot boys on screen are more fun than imaginary boys, hot or otherwise.

So I set myself a moderate reading goal for 2011. I want to read 52 books this year. Well, technically speaking, I want to read 53 books this year because I want to finally make it through War and Peace, the first 300 pages of which I’ve read three times before, but never any further.* And that’s not a book you just read in a week. My friend in the Texas capital and I figured out today that if I read 30 pages a week for the rest of the year, I can do it. That’s totally manageable.

As a result of my new job being a complete fraud — in that I get paid to be there, but at the moment, I’m not actually doing much work…last week, I think I did a combined 2.5 hours of actual work — I’m making excellent progress on this goal. As of about noon today, I had finished four books. A somewhat odd assortment, really — Annie Erneaux’s ‘Simple Passion’, which in my opinion is just a poor man’s ‘The Lover’**, which is one of my favourite books of all time, Max Brooks’ ‘World War Z’, a novel about the governmental, military, societal and individual responses to a zombie apocalypse that my college roommate’s husband lent me at Thanksgiving, a book called ‘Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers’, which is about a debate between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper that took place at Cambridge in 1946 in which the former may or may not have brandished a poker at the latter, and Ken Dryden’s ‘The Game’, which is, according to people who know these things, the best book ever written about hockey.

In addition to the four listed above, I’m currently working my way through Max Barry’s dystopian novel ‘Jennifer Government,’ which if things keep on as they have been, I should be finished around noon tomorrow because it’s a quick read and Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children,’ which is brilliant and engrossing, but for some reason a much slower read than one would expect. In four hours today (after I finished ‘The Game’), with a few distractions, I got through only 100 pages.

On the docket for the weeks to come — Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, a pair of books about physics — one about astrophysics and one about theoretical physics, a book called ‘Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand’, an Icelandic Saga, a theological discussion about the changing nature of the accepted gospels over the course of early Christianity, a math novel called ‘Flatland’, some Fitzgerald, Heinlein, Vonnegut, Kerouac and Kundera, the Pulitzer Prize winning dispatches on the genocide in Bosnia, a book about the BBC’s Shipping Forecast, a book on the 1956 revolution in Hungary, some ancient Roman historical texts, social histories of both spices and reading, and Theroux’s epic travelogue ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’.

So yeah…it’ll be an interesting year in books. My library is a lot more fun when I actually get to make use of it.

*The thing about the Russian authors is that you have to read a whole normal book’s worth of material before anything picks up and that can get frustrating.

**Marguerite Duras

Lesson #239: Quantum Cats

Sometimes, I learn things that I have no idea what they actually mean (The Noether Theorem for example*). Usually this involves me having a conversation with one of my physicist friends and them talking about a project they’re working on. Today, it involves me reading a science article.

I’ll be honest, this concept is outside the realm of my understanding; photons aren’t in my repertoire. But given my love of Schrodinger’s thought experiment and my fascination with theoretical physics, I’m not going to let this go without a lesson.

Basically, scientists have managed to manipulate photons so that they exist in a “cat state” i.e., they exist in two states at one time, like Schrodinger’s cat. Scientists feel these quantum cats may make quantum measurements more accurate and assist in quantum computing and  communications.**

Whatever it actually means, it’s cool. They took something that was a theory for a long time and made it real. Science for the win!

A bonus science joke for today, since we’re (indirectly) talking about the Uncertainty Principle: Heisenberg is out for a drive and get stopped for speeding. The cop asks, “do you know how fast you were going?” Heisenberg answers, “No, but I know where I am!” 

*Seriously, I have no freaking clue what the Noether Theorem is about. All I know is that my very favourite Russian is working with it and that he describes it as one of the most complex theories in the field of theoretical physics. This makes me feel better because a. he’s a genius and b. I’m a physics moron. As a result (c.), it gives me some sense of security that I’m not a total imbecile.

**That article is here.