Archive for the ‘Author’s Blog> Paradigms Lost’ Category

The Quantum Monastery

Sunday, July 27th, 2008 by Terence Witt

As I was walking by a pet store the other day, I spotted a rodent running in one of those exercise wheels, and quantum reality suddenly came to mind. The parallel seemed fitting, except for the fact that the rodent a) probably knows it’s not going anywhere and b) is getting a useful workout. For the past 80 years or so, the confusion wrought by some of matter’s curious properties has crystallized into a latter-day mysticism called quantum reality. Quantum mechanics is a useful, powerful tool. Quantum reality however is about as credible as the study of paranormal activity, but has somehow wormed its way into the physics department. Indeed, one of its claims is that reality has a spooky nonlocality. The only difference between quantum reality and clairvoyance is the funding. Clairvoyance tends to be privately funded.

Quantum reality, like ‘jumbo shrimp’ and other oxymorons, has nothing to do with reality. What it has everything to do with is human ego. Unbridled, run-amok ego. The atomic realm doesn’t follow the classical rules we have so carefully laid out over the last hundred years, so the universe is irrational! When the confusion really started to percolate in the early 1900’s, de Broglie and Bohr, at least in the beginning, had no intention of starting a religion. Louis de Broglie wrote an excellent book, called Matter and Light: The New Physics (1939) that did a good job of expressing his deep desire to understand what the quantized world was trying to tell him. Heisenberg didn’t have the introspection of de Broglie and Einstein, and through force of will and his opponent’s inability to explicate a series of bizarre results, Werner started his own religion, and it is called the Copenhagen Interpretation (Quantum Reality).

Like any good religion, quantum reality rests atop deep, inexplicable mystery, and there are many things that, by the Uncertainty Principle, are taken to be forever beyond the reach of our instruments. Quantum reality works in mysterious ways. Do not question it. Do not ask us why it is the way it is; to do so is to consort in philosophy. Learn the magic rules of quantum reality, for that is science. These rules defy common sense, but nowhere is it written that the universe must adhere to common sense. Here is that megalomaniacal human ego again. We don’t understand it, physicists much smarter than us didn’t understand it, therefore it is beyond understanding. I pick up mixed signals on this assessment, but let’s see which one is the more likely interpretation. Are physicists a) freely admitting that they are not smart enough to understand the universe; or b) convinced that it can’t be understood because they are really smart and even they can’t understand it. One wonders. On what side does the burgeoning human ego fall?

Quantum realists walk silently along the halls of their quantum monastery, with shaven heads and wearing brown robes, and when they speak they all agree that physics’ job is to describe the universe, not understand it. To attempt to do so is at the best hopelessly naïve, or in the worse case heresy. Heretics are not tolerated in the quantum monastery. But one day, as the quantum monks are filing into their undecorated dining room, carrying their plates of lukewarm rice, they are startled to discover an intruder, sitting at a table, eating a hamburger, wearing shorts, a baseball cap, and a tee shirt with a colorful, offensive logo. “Yo” I said, “Want to see some cool geometry?”

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Spacey Travel

Saturday, July 19th, 2008 by Terence Witt

I’ve had more than one friend ask me if I, being interested in science and all, have ever thought about buying one of those expensive tickets to the international space station on a Russian rocket. Before responding with my usual sarcastic retort, I sometimes envision what the travel brochure must say: One week in space, paste meals and entertainment included, 2% bone loss, unknown cosmic ray exposure, no shower. Travel arrangements: launched as cargo on ancient Russian rocket, return to earth in emergency escape pod. Price $20,000,000. Sounds lovely.

I have nothing but admiration and enduring respect for anyone brave enough to be shot into space, but like visiting distant relatives, I want to be able to leave when I want to. When they build a space plane that I can fly, I’ll be off to the ISS in a heartbeat. Go up, hang out for a while, throw up a few times, maybe start to notice blood pooling in my face and upper body. “Wow, look at the time, I’ve got to get home to water my plants.” The bottom line is that I just don’t like camping, whether it’s in a desert, forest, or in our 60 billion dollar “trailer in the sky”. I was in the infantry for three years, and in that short, yet long time, managed to do a lifetime worth of camping. So, as I like to say, the reason why I went to school and have a job is so I don’t have to sleep under a tree.

But these are personal issues, and the larger question concerns our species. Should humans travel into space? Or should the exploration be left to robots? Should we colonize Mars? I like these kinds of questions, mostly because they are almost entirely subjective. Let’s look at a couple of commonly used, reasonable arguments – interplanetary emigration and diversification.

Interplanetary Emigration

This issue might be forced if Earth’s population reaches a certain level and we consume all of her resources. I have a friend who is obsessed with this line of inquiry. The Earth’s maximum human population is called it’s ‘carrying capacity’. This has been calculated a number of different ways, and the highest value to date is around 800 billion people. The downside is that in this case we all have to eat nothing but blue-green algae. Then there are the wild cards. Achieving biological immortality, for instance, might exacerbate the population problem (unless only our overlords are immortal and the rest of us are used for fertilizer, but that’s a somewhat pessimistic assessment).

Interplanetary Diversification

This is the “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” logic. It has some merit, but only helps if a) the Mars/Europa/Moon colony is completely self-sufficient and b) the problem we face isn’t our sun’s failure. There’s also the whole “moving outward in our solar system because our sun is swelling into a red giant problem”. Now that’s “global warming”.

The fallacy of any long-term space travel isn’t really the technology to do so; it’s the same fallacy that haunts the anti-Evolution crowd. The definition of human is not a static thing. We will, if all goes well, be going to the stars to diversify the presence of beings who started out as human, but I doubt that the star travelers of our distant future will still be human any more than Neil Armstrong is a Neanderthal (Note to Neil Armstrong – I didn’t just call you a Neanderthal!).

What we need right now, more than anything else, is an inexpensive and safe way to get into and out of Earth orbit. It makes no sense to go to the moon or Mars or anywhere else when it costs millions to hundreds of millions of dollars to get to the first rung on the space ladder. I often hear the comment, “space travel is risky and expensive, that’s just the way it is.” No, this is precisely what needs to be fixed. If, for instance, every time I returned home in my car, I parked it by driving 50 mph into the rear wall of my garage, that would be “risky and expensive”. But a clutch, disc brakes, and a transmission make my parking procedure far more safe and enjoyable. Certainly attaining Earth orbit is technically more difficult than bringing a car to a stop, but as this is written we have thousands of humans in the air, flying at over 500 mph above 30,000 ft, and they are all more safe than driving with me, and not because I park my car by slamming into the back of my garage (except for the one isolated incident).

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Infinity Police and the Ontological Disconnect

Sunday, July 13th, 2008 by Terence Witt

Cultures usually have subjects that are taboo – things that are too repugnant to even discuss in low tones in the privacy of one’s own home. Cannibalism, for whatever reason, does not fall into this category. Far from it; people eating people is a staple of the movie industry, from low-budget zombie movies (always a favorite) to blockbusters where an elderly, avuncular man easily overpowers much younger (and one would think agile) opponents and well, eats some of them. Horrific subjects, such as the ‘cides’ (genocide, patricide, suicide, and of course the all-time favorite homicide) are more often entertainment than taboo. Indeed, certain daytime series have created an industry based on incest and adultery.

Then there’s infinity. I realized two things, as I was recently defending my interpretation of infinity for the 782nd time. First, that writing a book might not be the best way to present new concepts, and second, that infinity was, for whatever reason, sacred mathematical ground that I had despoiled by, well, thinking about it in a new way. Talking about cannibalism is not taboo, you see, but discussing the physical implications of infinity is simply not done. But across that hallowed ground I had trodden, and now found myself in trouble with the infinity police.

The infinity police are just one of many branches of thought police that have arisen in the past few hundred years to ensure that we think about things in the proper way. These include the quantum reality, black hole and big bang police, among others. The good news about thought police is that they can’t issue citations; the bad news is they always seem to show up just when you’re trying to start a productive conversation. The thought police are certain, with an absolute certainty born of their deeply suppressed fear of nonconformity, that questioning the way in which science or mathematics is done is simply unthinkable. This is because, of course, it requires thinking. Progress has nothing to do with it. The thought police are ready and able to enforce any given perspective, for decade after decade, even if it directly impedes new development. Especially if it impedes new development. Because you see, new development means that the old development was well, missing something.

So there I was, my dialog parked by the side of the road, making my case to a young infinity policeman who was trying to peer into my mind with his vacant, unwavering stare. I told him how I used infinite magnitudes all the time, large and small, in calculus, and it worked each and every time I did it! I told him that the two poles of the Riemann sphere were zero and infinity, and that their product was 1! He continued to stare, but I could see the anger rising in his cheeks. The source of the anger was obvious; he didn’t like what I was saying (at all), but he couldn’t arrest me for it either.

Ontological disconnect

Our mathematical systems are built on axioms, which are used to prove theorems and allow us to perform certain operations. Our number systems begin with empty sets and end with multidimensional geometries, to which we can apply topology, differential geometry, and all sorts of other neat mathematics. So we’ve got this thought construct called math, and we use it to make sure that our bridges stay up and our planes stay in the air. The infinity police don’t get upset when engineers borrow calculus, because the only things they see when they peer over our shoulders are finite quantities.

But here’s the rub. The thought construct called math is full of all sorts of rules and regulations, but it cannot, by its own design, contain a rule that says it is ok to use it on reality or that it actually conforms to reality. Math is a bridge, built on thin air, with no clear destination, and it certainly never arrives at reality. Indeed, pure mathematicians, the artists of this thought project, often look down on applied mathematicians the way that scientists might sometimes denigrate engineers.

Along comes null physics. Here we postulate the apocryphal heresy that the best way to understand reality is to start with reality. Perhaps, just perhaps, the reason why math works to describe reality is because math is the thin shadow that reality leaves in the human mind. So we rummage through its tool box, looking for mathematical widgets that have proven useful in keeping our bridges up and our planes in the sky. Head and shoulders above all of the rest of these tools stands calculus. This isn’t because of our associative or transitive axioms or even math itself. It is because the universe is a compositional thing, and when you do an integral in calculus, and add an infinite number of infinitely small differentials, you get a valid result because that is the way the universe is built.

What the infinity police fail to understand, as they glower at that (inf) symbol, is that infinity is everywhere. Every single piece of our universe has an infinite aspect, even finite pieces. Finiteness has infinite resolution, as in 2.033230… kg, because it is the result of infinite composition. So go ahead infinity police, try to write me a ticket. You have no jurisdiction in reality.

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Sunday, June 29th, 2008 by Terence Witt

I have a friend who’s a medical professional, but is incredibly skeptical about a wide variety of scientific topics, physics in particular. He doesn’t believe a word I tell him about anything to do with physics, from the equivalence between mass and energy to the power output of the sun. He doesn’t believe, for instance, that light is composed of photons. When I press onward, trying to establish a baseline of mutual understanding between us, digging for a common denominator, he will eventually relent that “of course the moon causes the tides!” or “of course the sun burns hydrogen!”, then look at me as if I’m an idiot. Yet this same person will believe the most ridiculous fishing anecdotes that you can possibly imagine. He’s a self-described skeptic, and for the life of me, I can never isolate the boundaries of his skepticism. But it is fun trying. Sometimes it’s difficult to resist the obvious temptation: “no, the sun actually burns coal…”.

During the course of releasing my book, which contains a number of new physics ideas, clouds of skepticism have enfolded me like a weather pattern. Remarks such as “I’m too skeptical to read something like that” or “I’m skeptical about anything that the scientists don’t agree with” are common. I’m left with the nagging suspicion that most skeptics don’t really know what it means to be a skeptic. Or, to quote the wonderful movie The Princess Bride, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means…”. The ‘skeptics’ that I’ve met seem to treat it like fashion, where they are free to choose, for no apparent reason, the subjects to which their skepticism can be liberally applied.

I am guilty of this as well, but I like to think that I reserve it for extreme examples. If I get an email from someone claiming to have been Werner Heisenberg’s confident, and who has secret knowledge of the inner workings of Area 51, I tend to be a little skeptical. If, however, someone thinks that they can produce a photovoltaic cell with an efficiency of 30%, I’ll listen for a while, trying to determine if what they say makes sense, regardless of their background. Skepticism is a powerful tool, but only if you use it for the purpose for which it was originally intended. It is not a shield that protects ignorance; it is a looking glass that promotes introspection. If what you believe can’t survive a few playful, penetrating questions, perhaps there’s something wrong with it. If there are topics that are, because of their nature, simply beyond question, or if you think consensus constitutes evidence and won’t ask questions if other people seem convinced, you might not be a skeptic after all. If you’re the only one in the room asking questions, you probably are a skeptic. True skeptics are a definite minority.

It is with no small amusement or irony that, by releasing my book, I’ve incurred the gestalt wraith of thousands of would-be ‘skeptics’ across the globe. The reason I wrote the book, after all, is because I am a skeptic. If you tell me something that isn’t entirely evident or seems a little odd, I will be asking questions. In some cases, lots and lots of questions. If you tell me the universe came from a primordial fireball 13.7 billion years ago, I’m going to keep asking questions until this story makes sense, and your answers don’t carry more weight just because you are the world’s leading cosmologist and believe in them with all your heart. Regardless of how artfully and strenuously we try to dodge the universe’s inevitable and immutable nature; regardless of how heroic our mathematics or strained our interpretations, logical consistency continues to matter, because it is the glue from which comprehension emerges. A lie told a thousand times might seem more believable than the truth, but only if you’re not a skeptic, and repetition doesn’t make it any truer.

So when the physicists tell you that the universe “doesn’t need to be rational” or “has nothing to do with common sense” or “your question is meaningless”, little bells should be going off in your head. I’m not saying that you need to treat modern cosmology like a scam, but it helps.

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