Tangents of tangents of tangents, oh my!

It’s Wednesday, the middle of the week based on our usual reckoning of things.  Welcome.

Of course, the universe at large doesn’t give any preference to days of the week, or months, or whatever.  Days, per se, are more or less natural units of time, as are years.  Both are related to regular, physical phenomena in the solar system*.  Now, one could argue that since the moon’s orbit around the Earth is roughly twenty-eight days, that seven days in a week is a sort of natural division, since 28 divided by 4 is seven.  That’s not an unreasonable thought, but it is derivative, unlike the measure of a year or a day.

Of course, rather irritatingly, the days don’t evenly divide into the years, nor do the months (orbits of the moon, which itself isn’t quite an even number of days), which means we have to do all sorts of mucking about with the number of days in months to get a reasonable number of them per year, and only one of them has 28 days, but even that changes every 4 years, except every hundred years when it’s 28 again, except every thousand years when it’s 29 again, and so on.  And then, of course, we have to add and subtract “leap seconds” on an irregular basis to adjust things to keep them consistent, lest the seasons creep steadily in one direction or the other relative to the calendar as the years pass, even as the times of day and night also shift.

If the period of the moon’s orbit around the Earth divided evenly into the orbit of the Earth around the sun; and the length of days on Earth** also evenly divided into the orbit of the Earth around the sun; and if those divided evenly, say, into the orbits of the sun around the center of the Milky Way; and then if the second, as we decided it, turned out to be some round number of oscillations of a cesium atom being pumped by a particular wavelength of light—say 9 billion exactly, when measuring a previously decided interval of one sixtieth of one sixtieth of one twenty-fourth of a day…that would all be quite a collection of coincidences!  That would make me start wondering if the whole thing was designed by someone.  As it is, though, it looks very much like it just all kind of happened, with no inherent direction or purpose or goal.  Which makes more sense of most of human history and the natural world than the alternative does.

It would also be quite a coincidence if, for instance, pi turned out to be 3.141618110112114…or some other regular pattern alone those lines.  Especially if some similar pattern of interest showed up when it was measured using other number bases, like base 2, base 16, whatever.  That would be something.  Or imagine if pi were an exact integer.  Of course it’s hard even to imagine what it could possibly be that could make the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter into an integer, how that could actually be achieved, since the number pi is something born of what appears to be fundamental geometry, constrained by internal logical and physical consistency.

Anyway, the universe looks very much like, as I said yesterday, a spontaneously self-assembled system.  For all we know, it’s just a collection of quantum building blocks of some kind that fall together in a bunch of spin-networks, if that was the right term, to form spacetime that acts like General Relativity when there are enough of them***.

And, maybe the other quantum fields are just emergent phenomena that develop as part of the properties of these conglomerated spin-networks, and the net result of their gross uniformity leads them to mutual repulsion, and then—rather like quarks being forcefully separated leading to formation of new quarks if you could do it, which you can’t—when spin-networks are stretched apart, they simply generate new, connecting networks in between, out of the energy from the tension of their repulsion.  Thus, spacetime can expand forever, generating new space-time as it does, and perhaps the other quantum fields, again, are mere epiphenomena that arise when enough spacetime exists.  And everything else, as we can already tell, is a bunch of epiphenomena overlying, or produced by, that.

Here’s a question that just occurred to me:  If spacetime can be continuously created by stretching of the preexisting network, in response to “dark energy” or “inflaton field” or whatever one might call it, popping little new nuggets of spin networks or whatever spacetime is made of into existence, can it, on the other end of things, be made to disappear?  Can quantum spacetime be unmade as readily as it is made?  I don’t think it would have to happen, say, in the “singularity” at the center of a black hole.  I can see that as potentially being a thin and narrow “tube” of spacetime stretching off and continuing to grow but only in one direction, like the function 1/|x| as it approaches zero, with a finite “volume” perhaps, but an infinite “surface area” that can keep growing indefinitely if spacetime really can just keep reforming itself.  Though maybe, if the chunks are of finite size, the tube can never narrow past some certain minimal “circumference”.  I wonder what the implications of that could be.

But can spacetime ever un-form?  Quarks that could be formed from, for instance, stretching the gluon field between two of them could, in principle, “un-form” if they encountered an anti-quark of the proper character.  They can even decay, I think.  But they wouldn’t simply disappear, they would convert into, presumably, some pair of high-energy photons, and maybe something else, too.  But spacetime itself doesn’t always obey the straightforward law of conservation of energy/mass, as GR has already shown.  Conservation of energy is a property of things within spacetime, and is born of the mathematical symmetry of time translation, as per Emmy Noether’s**** Theorem.  It doesn’t necessarily apply to spacetime itself.  So under what circumstances, if any, could it simply spontaneously disappear, and what affects would that have?

Well, that’s something I’m not going to figure out right here right now, I’m afraid.  But, boy, have I gone off on some tangents!  It’s rather like a moon or a planet suddenly released from the gravitational embrace of that which it orbits, to go off into eternity like a rock from a King David-style sling.  Or like the derivative of any continuous function, or the derivatives of derivative of derivatives, “most” of which end up settling out at some constant, if memory serves (but not the exponential function, ex!).

All this is, apparently, just what happens when one cannot stay asleep after three in the morning and so gets up very early and waits for the first train on Wednesday morning.  One thing leads to another, but with no inherent direction or purpose or goal.  Things just happen.

That sounds familiar.

*The rotation of the Earth and its orbit around the sun, in case you didn’t already know.

**Of course, there are different ways to define a day.  There’s a solar day, which—if memory serves—describes the time it takes for the Earth to turn until the same longitude line (so to speak) is facing the sun, which, because of the motion of the Earth in its orbit, is going to be slightly longer than a sidereal day, which—again, if memory serves—describes when the same longitude line returns to its place relative to the distant, “fixed” stars.  Of course, the stars themselves are not truly fixed, but their angular location changes so slowly that that’s an adjustment that doesn’t have to be made often.  I think there are other day measures, but they aren’t popping into my head right now.

***I realize that this is very loosely a description of loop quantum gravity, and that one prediction of one form of that model predicts that light speed even through a vacuum varies ever so slightly by frequency—and that our best measurements of light from distant quasars and the like seem to disconfirm that prediction.  But I don’t think the jury is completely in on that question.  And maybe that specific form of LQG is not quite correct, or the difference is smaller than expected.  I don’t know the subject well enough to opine.

****Look her up.  Einstein called her a mathematical genius.  Hilbert invited her to teach in the University of Göttingen (fighting against the powers that be that didn’t want a woman professor).  She should be a household name.  Her face should be on currency.  She should be bigger than every TikTok “influencer” combined.  That she is not should bring every human shame.

It blinded me…with science!

It’s Saturday morning, and I’m at the train station quite a bit too early for the first northbound train of the day.  I woke up much earlier yet, quite a bit earlier than I would need to wake up to get even to the train I usually take in the morning during the week.  Yet the office opens for business an hour later on Saturdays than during the week, so there’s no office-related reason for me to get up or leave so early.  I just can’t seem to sleep all the way through the night.

This morning, I woke up at about 2:30 am, and I couldn’t get back to sleep after that.  This isn’t unusual.  I do go to bed relatively early—starting to wrap things up about 9 pm, most nights—because even if I don’t get to sleep early, I still tend to wake up early, so if I want to get at least some sleep, I need to go to bed early.  Then I can wind down and relax a bit, watch a few videos I’ve seen before*, and hopefully drop off before eleven.

Last night I was able to do that, but I woke up unable to relax again, so I decided to watch a video I had marked for myself to check out.  It’s about the basic math and ideas regarding the strong nuclear force and “color” charge, as it relates to spin, and to regular charge, and to the Pauli exclusion principle.

It sounds dense, I know, but it’s actually quite fun—I’ll embed the video below, because I think anyone interested in such things might enjoy it.  The guy speaking just obviously loves his subject, and even gets transported with delight in explaining the analogy to the way our eyes process “real” color out in the world, and how color television and monitors work.  This analogy is, evidently, why physicists used the term “color” to describe the interactions in the strong nuclear force, which has nothing to do with actual colors as we normally use the term.

There are some vectors and ket notation stuff in the video, but it’s not really necessary to understand it specifically.  The presenter does a good job of conveying the gist, and it’s quite wonderful.  After watching it, I felt that I understood the strong force significantly better than I had before, and that’s one of those rare, reliable good feelings.

I often wish I had stuck with my original intent to go into Physics as a career.  Unfortunately, my path was derailed when I was found to have a congenital heart defect** that had to be surgically corrected.  Heart-lung bypass, such as happens when one has open-heart surgery, has cerebral effects because of the “unnatural” way the brain is perfused with blood during the process, and it often causes transient cognitive deficits.

This is not the only cerebral dysfunction that can manifest.   I realized only in retrospect that I had another one as well—for the first few hours after I awakened from my surgery, I was blind.  At the time I just assumed something was covering my eyes, in addition to the ventilator in my mouth, the three chest tubes, the straps holding both of my wrists, and the more-than-one IV line I had.  I didn’t think much of the blindness because I had other things on my mind.  It was very painful to have open-heart surgery, surprisingly enough.

Anyway, being 18 years old at the time, I recovered from a lot of the other stuff pretty quickly.  But I had a a temporary cognitive deficit.  It was not enough to make me need to take a year off college or anything—it never would have occurred to me even to consider such a show of “weakness”.  I did, however, find the calculus and physics classes in second year as a physics major too difficult to keep up with, and that was frustrating.

It was not helped by the fact that I had been triggered—again, not at all an unusual effect of heart-lung bypass—to have a significant exacerbation of my dysthymia into what was probably my first real, full-blown bout of major depression.

Faced with my difficulties, and at that time thinking I would be in the Navy after college anyway, I had to switch majors to English.  This is not a horrible thing, obviously.  I love English—the language and the literature in general—and I love to read, and obviously I’m a writer.  My overall GPA did, however, go down slightly compared to Physics (not counting the first semester after my surgery), and it turns out this was probably at least partly due to my other ASD.  I had a terrible time in those small-group classes because I did not know when to comment, when to ask questions, or even where people were getting their thoughts and ideas about the various things we were reading.  I liked the stories, and I liked wordplay and intricate language, but the process of discussion and interpretation and interaction about it all was thoroughly puzzling to me.  And needless to say, writing essays that would please the professors was a tall order; I had no idea what they might want.

Obviously I got through the rest of college, though not without lots of heart-rending things happening—personal, familial, career-wise, psychiatric/psychological, physical***—and found myself deciding to go to medical school because I had to do something, I had relevant personal experience, and I love Biology almost as much as Physics.  Medicine was a career in which I could do a lot of good, and it was basically zero risk.

By “zero risk” I mean, I knew that I could get into and pass medical school.  The sorts of things required are right in my wheelhouse:  standardized tests, Chemistry, Biology, dealing with things other people think are “gross”, remembering and understanding complex systems and their interactions—things with actual, concrete answers.  And I’m actually pretty good at caring for other people.  It’s not that it wasn’t hard work, don’t get me wrong.  But it was work I knew that I could do, unlike—for instance—understanding what I should write to get an A on an essay about The Faerie Queene.

Of course, had I not gone into medicine, other things would not have happened that have been thoroughly catastrophic for my life, from which I have not even come close to recovering.  But I cannot and will not ever truly regret anything that happened before the birth of children, so I don’t truly regret not going into Physics as a career.

But it would be nice to have someone around in my actual life with whom I could have conversations about stuff that really interests me, apart from stories, which I seem to have lost my knack for enjoying.  At best, I can sometimes tell the other people around me about some interesting fact or concept, and sometimes they’ll appreciate how cool it is, but then that’s that.  Anyway, I seem to have lost most, if not all, of the social skills I’d had in the past, so it’s hard even to imagine seeking out someplace to interact with such people.

Oh, well.  No one (with authority to do so) ever promised that life would be satisfying, and many smart people have reckoned that life is inherently unsatisfying, so I have no one but myself with whom to lodge any complaints.  The universe is the way it is.  We were not asked for input when it came into existence, and we do not have veto power over any of the facts of nature.

I won’t endorse the old tee-shirt slogan, “There is no gravity—the Earth sucks”.  But I will rather cheerily say, “There is no gravity—the universe is just warped.”  It’s a nerd joke I came up with myself (though others probably have done so also), and so I like it.  It’s also, basically, true.

*I watch previously seen ones so that I don’t get engaged in thinking about new things too late at night, because that can keep me up even more than usual.

**An atrial septal defect, shortened to ASD, but not to be confused with the more commonly seen modern acronym for Autism Spectrum Disorder, which I seem also to have.  So, interestingly, I was born with two ASDs, one discovered at age 18 and surgically corrected, the other discovered or realized (by me, anyway) when I was just over 50, and it cannot be corrected, per se.  I’ve done a literature search and skimmed through some papers, and it seems there is a higher incidence of such cardiac defects in people with Autism Spectrum Disorders, but the reason for the correlation is not at all clear.

***No one goes through open heart surgery without some physical sequelae.

You pick the space and I’ll choose the time, and I’ll climb the hole in my own way*

It’s Tuesday now, the day that Professor Coyne, aka PCC(E), over at Why Evolution Is True calls “the cruelest day”.  I’m not sure the origin of that expression; as far as I can recall, his website is the first place I encountered it, but I like it.

It’s not the beginning of the week, which has a certain hectic energy at least, with everyone in a kind of recovery from their—hopefully restful—weekend.  It’s not “hump day”, which many people call Wednesday, when things are starting to coast toward the end.  And, of course, it’s not its counterpart:  Thursday, which is a day on which anticipation of the coming weekend can energize one for the day’s work.  And, quite obviously, it’s not Friday, when those who are on a 5-day-a-week schedule are effectively already beginning their weekend**.  Tuesday is the day with the least to make it stand out.  Which, of course, makes it stand out.

Also, as the Beatles pointed out, and as I often note, Tuesday afternoon is never-ending.  And, if time were to be truly continuous and infinitely divisible, then one could effectively make Tuesday afternoon never-ending in a Zeno’s Paradox sort of way, just by subdividing the time in between each moment as each moment passed.

Or, of course, one could fall through the event horizon of a black hole.  To distant observers, that fall would indeed seem to be never-ending (though before too long the image of the faller would redshift into invisibility).  And for the person falling, the end would come rather quickly.  Assuming that person survived the gravitational tides, according to General Relativity, time literally comes to an end in the singularity of a black hole.

Though I always picture the heart of a black hole a bit more like one of those “Gabriel’s Horn” shapes in mathematics, which has an infinite surface area but a finite volume.  Of course, I don’t have the skills and expertise to work the equations of GR, but it feels to me that, if spacetime is endlessly flexible****, then there need never be a true “end” to time; it could just stretch longer and thinner always, infinite in “surface” but finite in “volume”.

I know that’s all a bit esoteric, and I’m sure my understanding is incomplete.  If there are any theoretical physicists specializing in GR reading this who can help me think more clearly about black holes and singularities and why it would be necessary for time to completely end if spacetime were continuous rather than simply to stretch—making a mathematical singularity, but not literally an end—then please do let me now.

I realize that there may be concepts that can only be dealt with rigorously using the mathematics, but on the other hand, clearly the mathematics is translatable into “ordinary language” at some level, or no one would ever be able to teach it or learn it.  And I have at least a bit of mathematical background, though I haven’t formally studied how to do the matrices and whatnot involved in GR.  Still, Einstein himself didn’t know how to do it when he came up with the initial ideas, so he had to learn it and then work with it, but he had the ideas first.

I don’t have his brilliance, obviously—which is certainly not an insult—but if there’s a way to demonstrate why time literally ends at a singularity***** rather than simply stretching out into an endless tube, with shrinking cross-section (in higher-dimensions) but ever-expanding “area” (again, in higher dimensions), I’d like to know.  I mean, according to the whole Dark Energy paradigm, the expansion of spacetime is accelerating now and there’s no theoretical limit to how much it can expand, which seems to mean, at some level, that it has infinite stretchability.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that spacetime can continue to be created between any two points that are stretching apart, somewhat—but not quite—analogous to the way in which if you try to separate two bound quarks, all you do is create two new partner quarks with the energy you’ve put in to try to stretch them so now you’ve got two pairs of inseparable quarks.  Neener neener neener.

Anyway, I know that Penrose and Hawking developed their singularity theorems for black holes and those are accepted by physicists and mathematicians throughout the world.  They are/were brilliant people, there’s no doubt about that.  But does the theorem mean that spacetime literally vanishes at some literally infinitely dense point in the middle of a black hole—which strikes me as implausible given the stretchy-stretchy nature of spacetime—or is it a singularity more in the pure mathematical sense like the function 1/x as x approaches zero?

Enquiring minds want to know.

Wow, that wasn’t at all where I thought I was going when I started this post today, but those random, drunken walks can, at times, at least lead past interesting scenery.  No one would be likely to argue that a black hole doesn’t necessarily belong in a wasteland; in a sense, it is the ultimate wasteland, at least this side of the heat death of the universe.  But it is interesting, topographically (and topologically, to a novice such as I), and though it would be nice to be able to enjoy such scenery with company who would appreciate it in a similar fashion to the way I do, well…one has no “right” to such a thing and no good reason to expect it.  It’s lonely, but at least the wasteland has places of beauty.

And if one gets tired of walking, and/or one is curious enough to see where it leads, one can always just jump into that black hole.

*This is a slightly altered line from the Pink Floyd song Fearless, off their excellent album Meddle.

**Some of us work every other Saturday, of course, and when you have no life, like I have no life, a weekend is not something to which to look forward, except for the chance to rest one’s back.  I don’t really do anything for fun, have no friends with whom I spend time, no places that I go for entertainment or for shopping or whatever.  All such things are too tainted by memories of loss, and anxiety, and the feeling of not belonging on this planet.  My life is more or less a wasteland.  But I can’t see any way out of it (other than the obvious), and I can’t even really tell if I’m just walking in circles within it.  I think I’m walking in random patterns, like a “drunkard’s walk” (though I rarely drink).  And, of course, in a random walk or drunkard’s walk, one will eventually get arbitrarily far away from one’s origin point (though the average location will be the origin, interestingly), but the distance between one and the origin increases—I think, if memory serves—only logarithmically.  And I suspect that the exit from the wasteland is very far away, if it exists at all (other than, as I say, the obvious).  Oh, well.  Life promises one thing and one thing only; anything else is just luck***.

***A footnote within a footnote, just to note the mildly amusing fact that, so far, my footnote is longer than the main text of this post.

****A big “if”, of course.  It doesn’t seem to jibe with quantum mechanics, apparently, but we have no convincing theory of quantum gravity to settle the issue.  I’m so frustrated.

*****Again, according to General Relativity—I know it’s thought not to be the correct picture in such extreme circumstances, because of the uncertainty principle, among other things.

If Tuesday afternoon is never-ending, Wednesday morning ITSELF can never come.

It’s Tuesday again, just like it was last week on this day, and I’m still doing my “daily”* blog posts, since I don’t have any desire either to write fiction or even to play any guitar.  This is at least a quasi-productive way for me to use time that I would have used to write fiction, at least until the Second Law of Thermodynamics claims me at long last, and I rush—all oblivious—into its cold but comforting embrace…to poeticize idiotically a simple fact of physics and mathematics.

Tuesdays often make me think of the Beatles song, Lady Madonna, because for me, one of the most memorable lines of that song is “Tuesday afternoon is never-ending”.  This is particularly pertinent when things are slow at work in the afternoon, though I don’t think most other people regard dull days at the office in terms of songs, like I often do.  This being me, I tend to focus on dark and/or negative songs and lyrics, or at least melancholy** ones.

I rarely think of Thursdays in terms of my stockings needing mending, at least.

The notion that Tuesday afternoon is never-ending raises an almost Zeno’s Paradox type notion.  If Tuesday afternoon really were never-ending, then Wednesday would never arrive, so there would never be another day.  Although, despite it always being Tuesday afternoon, if people could nevertheless still move and act and do things, it would be useful to break time into manageable chunks for the purposes of scheduling, planning, working, sleeping, and so on.  Also, it’s never Tuesday afternoon everyplace on Earth at once, so if Tuesday afternoon in Britain were to be never-ending, then Tuesday morning in the US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, etc. would be never-ending, and Tuesday evening for most of Europe, and of course, Tuesday night into Wednesday morning for places east of that, right up to the international date line.

And, of course, if the Earth had stopped spinning—assuming it had done so without the numerous catastrophic effects this would otherwise entail (watch this lovely video by Vsauce to see some of these discussed)—the weather patterns on Earth would be permanently changed and made horrific.

Depending on whether Earth became the equivalent of tidally locked on the sun, or if it had just stopped rotating, it would either have a permanent sun-facing side, or it would have a day as long as its year.  Then again, even a year-long day is not literally never-ending, so I guess it would be the “tidally locked” situation.  Before long, the Prime Meridian would become a very hot strip of Earth indeed!  And the International Date Line would become extremely cold.

It is tangentially interesting to think about—having mentioned Zeno’s Paradox earlier—the notion of continuously divisible time.  If time (or distance, as in Zeno’s original paradox) were infinitely divisible, à la the real number line, it would seem that one could never experience the passage of time because before you could get to Tuesday evening you would have to go halfway through Tuesday afternoon…and before you got halfway, you’d need to get a quarter of the way…and before that you’d need to get an eighth of the way…and so on.  If things are infinitely divisible, or so says the “paradox”, you should never be able to get anywhere, either in space or time, because no matter how arbitrarily close you choose two points in space to be, or two points in time, or two numbers on a number line, there are an uncountable infinity of points in between.

Calculus, of course, deals with this issue by means of taking limits as distances go to zero, and the like; it handles instantaneous and continuous rates of change quite nicely, thank you very much, while still rigorously defining functions in terms both accurate and useful.  As for reality itself, it seems to side-step the issue entirely by making space and time, in practice, not infinitely divisible at all.

The minimum distance that makes any physical sense is the Planck length, and the minimum time is the Planck time.  To say you’ve traveled half a Planck length, or that something lasted half a Planck time, is apparently saying something that has no meaning in the real world.

Of course, the Planck length and time are REALLY small:  1.6 x 10-35 meters and about 10-43 seconds.  So, we cannot directly measure either of them with current technology, anyway.  Not even close.  But they are real things, when it comes to quantum mechanics, with real, verifiable physical implications that have been tested and confirmed with tremendous accuracy and applicability.

One does tend to wonder, though, about spacetime itself.  According to General Relativity, gravity is not a force in the sense that electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces are forces but is instead a manifestation of the curvature of spacetime, leading objects in it to attempt to follow the closest thing to a straight line (a geodesic) in a curved, “flexible” four-dimensional structure, in the way one has to follow a great circle on the surface of the Earth to pick the “straightest” possible path between two points on the surface of a spheroid.  This really matters for airplanes, and even for ships.

But is space itself infinitely divisible?  GR*** treats it as such, but GR conflicts with Quantum Mechanics at places of small size and high mass, producing senseless results (so I’m told…I haven’t done the figuring myself, regrettably).  Spacetime certainly seems to be able to expand indefinitely, as it has done since at least what we call the Big Bang, and it continues to do so at an increasing rate even as we speak, so to speak.  That’s trivial to conceive of with things like continuous variables, real numbers, things with uncountable infinities between any two points.  Just multiply everything by two, say, and all the numbers are twice as big, and just as uncountably infinite.

But if space is discontinuous, in some sense, as implied by presumed quantum gravity, how does the expansion manifest?  Does more space pop into existence between two regions formerly separated by a mere Planck length?  We know that if you try to separate two quarks that are bound to each other, the strong force between them becomes so intense that new, formerly virtual, quarks pop into actual being between them****.  Is this what happens with spacetime itself?  As intervals get stretched, do new nuggets of spacetime appear?

We know that it’s possible to produce new, positive energy in spacetime, balanced by the “negative” energy of gravity, so there is no local violation of conservation principles*****.  Maybe spacetime spontaneously generates more spacetime, using the force of the cosmological constant, or its equivalent, to create these new bits of spacetime as it goes along.  It seems plausible, given what we know about the finite divisibility of things we’re able to confirm experimentally, and at least little bits of spacetime seem much less energetic on a per-unit basis than things like quarks or even electrons and neutrinos.

Infinite divisibility may work quite nicely in mathematics—indeed, it does—but it may not be plausible in the real, physical world.  Spacetime is real, and if it expands, then that expansion must happen at some level and be describable in principle.

None of which changes the fact that Lady Madonna is an awesome song.

*I put “scare” quotes around that, because technically, it’s not a true daily function, since even if I continue doing it for a long time, I don’t expect to write on Sundays, and probably roughly not every other Saturday, since I won’t be going to work, and I write this during my commute.

**“Melancholy” has become a rather soft kind of negativity in modern parlance, but I wonder how people would feel if they considered when using the word that it comes from the old concept of “black bile”, one of the supposed four “humours”.

***General Relativity.

****Not a violation of Conservation of Energy…they get their substance from the energy you applied trying to separate them.

*****Again, alas, I have not done the specific math myself, but the concept is straightforward and logical.  One can similarly create a new positive electric charge as long as one creates a balancing negative charge at the same time.  It happens in nuclear decay all time.


It’s Wednesday, and I cannot summon the will to write on The Dark Fairy and the Desperado, so I’ll do a bit of writing here as I discussed yesterday.  I’m not sure what the topic will be.  I did at least come up with a headline that amuses me, though I doubt anyone else will find it funny.  Still, you can’t rely on anyone else to amuse you—they’re much more often infuriating—so you might as well amuse yourself.

There’s no dearth of potential topics out there in the wide world, from the war in Ukraine, to the January 6th hearings, to recent Supreme Court rulings, and of course, “mass” shootings**.  The latter, though certainly serious and important, still constitute a mere rounding error in the overall gun deaths in the United States, the majority of which are still suicides, as I understand it.

All of which nevertheless makes clear that, whatever your take on gun control/gun rights, there’s little doubt that we have a mental health problem in the USA (anyone reading my writing can surely testify to that fact).  In some ways it’s merely part and parcel of our overall healthcare issues, but I suspect that there are aspects that are orthogonal to, and in addition to, all the various other issues we have with our healthcare system.  I’m not part of that system anymore.  I don’t have insurance, nor do I go to any doctor, though I am one myself (no longer in practice).  My own health is one of the things about which I am least enthusiastic—which is really saying something.

Of course, in six days (if all goes as scheduled) the James Webb Space Telescope will release to the public the first of its scientific data so far.  Actually, the telescope itself won’t be releasing the information.  Though it could be considered a robot, it’s not that kind of robot.  NASA and/or the various agencies and institutions involved in the research being done will be the ones releasing the info.

Isn’t that just typical?  The JWST does all the work, but various groups of humans take all the credit.  Humans!  Ptooey***!

As for me and my house…well, I don’t actually own a house, though I live in one, but its state is up in the air right now (figuratively speaking).  I’m being moved into a different room in it so the owner can then rent out the remainder of the house to people as yet unknown.  Meanwhile, my former housemate is doing repairs and upgrades and whatnot, cleaning up after the people who were there before (who were nice, but were messy as well as unreliable, still not having paid for their last 2 months of utilities yet—I covered all that myself).  He’s been using this new sports energy drink powder that’s making him a little too wired, and he was doing odd repairs at about eleven last night, right outside my room.  It woke me up, and I was rather cross; I don’t like surprises much.

Anyway, I’m apathetic and stressed out, all at once.  I’m also still at least a bit ill****.  It’s all terribly interesting and exciting…but only in the sense of the curse, “May you live in interesting and exciting times”.

I’m working on editing a video project or two, which I expect I’ll mention a bit more tomorrow, during my usual weekly blog post.  That editing process reasserts the reality of my appearance upon me, and I really doubt I will do any more such videos in the future.

I honestly still don’t know what, if anything, I will do beyond the immediate future.  I have no plans of significance, and I have no real hopes.  At least, there’s nothing to which I’m looking forward.  No, not even the JWST results, nor even the findings from the latest startup of the Large Hadron Collider, which surely won’t give anything that can be coherently shared with the public for months.  At least we can reassure anyone who still fears the LHC might produce some dangerous phenomenon that will obliterate the planet, by pointing out that cosmic rays of similar character to LHC collisions but vastly greater power—I mean there’s really no comparison—strike the upper atmosphere of the Earth countless times every day and have done so for as long as the Earth has existed.  Fortunately (or unfortunately), none of them has wiped out the planet.  That’s a tremendous number of missed opportunities on the part of nature, if nature actually did want to destroy us*****.  So, there’s no reason to worry about the LHC.  Looking through a magnifying glass at something interesting in the grass is, honestly, more likely to do damage; if it’s a sunny day, you might accidentally focus sunlight and burn an insect or start a fire.

So, please be careful, anyone who still has the childlike sense of curiosity that might make you go out in the field and look at things under a magnifying glass.  First, do no harm.

*Because even though it looks like it ought to be prime, it isn’t; it’s divisible by 17 three times.  53, however, is prime.  57 is not.  59 is.

**Defined in physics as shootings that interact with the Higgs field, and so cannot ever travel at the speed of light.

***I doubt the JWST really cares—it was never designed to have such mental states, even if humans knew how to design and create such states yet, which humans don’t.

****Physically, I mean.  There’s little doubt that I am, have been, and probably will be mentally ill until the day I die.

*****Clearly it doesn’t, because if the universe, or nature, did want to kill us, we would be dead, instantly.  There are innumerable ways the universe could obliterate all traces of life on Earth if there were some actively hostile will behind it.  We living things are, after all, extremely tiny and insignificant on any scale but that of our own minds.

So What Is All This GeV Stuff, Anyway?

[This is a reprint of an article I wrote for my hubpage…but I want to focus here on my own page, now, so hopefully no one will be too upset by the re-use.]

Recent news about events at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has brought particle physics more into the mainstream, as scientists have discussed hints that they’re getting closer to finding and defining the Higgs particle…the messenger particle of the Higgs field.

I’m not going to try to rehash the meaning and nature of the Higgs field here. Most of the articles I’ve looked at do at least a decent job with that subject. If you want an even better treatment–as well as a fantastic summary of the state of modern physics that is thorough but extremely understandable–I recommend getting a copy of “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene. He does a better job of explaining difficult subjects in easy-to-understand terms (that nevertheless don’t dumb down the material) than just about anyone else I’ve ever read.

No, what I’m going to talk about is a term that’s thrown around an awful lot in articles about particles: The GeV (and more generally, the eV). The term eV is shorthand for “electron volt,” and “GeV” is the notation for “giga-electron volt”…a billion electron volts, in other words (MeV, mega-electron volt would be a million electron volts).

But wait…the articles about the Higgs (and other writings about atom smashers) refer to measures such as 125GeV as being a measure of a particle’s mass! What does that have to do with volts!? Don’t volts have something to do with electricity? Isn’t household current measured in volts? Does that mean that it takes a Billion times as much voltage as in household current to find a Higgs particle?

Well…not exactly. In physics, the electron-volt is actually a measure of energy, not the voltage in a circuit. Specifically, it’s the amount of kinetic energy (the energy of motion) a free electron would accumulate after being accelerated through a potential difference of one volt. You see, voltage is to electrical fields a lot like what pressure is to water. Voltage differences push things that respond to electric fields…and electrons are one of the most well-known of things that respond to electrical fields, and have been since at least Benjamin Franklin’s time. In other words, falling through a “pressure” difference of one volt will accelerate an electron until it has a kinetic energy that is defined as one electron-volt.

So what the heck does the kinetic energy of an electron have to do with the mass of a Higgs particle? Well, as you probably know, energy can change its form, but it doesn’t disappear, and if need be can always be measured in the same units. At every day energy levels, physicists are more likely to use joules as a measure of energy…a joule is the amount of energy put out by something that has one watt of power in one second. So a one hundred watt bulb puts out 100 joules of energy every second.

Now, when you’re dealing with smaller scale things–like electrons and protons and Higgs particles (Oh my!)–it’s better to use a smaller unit of measure. The eV is a VERY small amount of energy, and can be excellent currency when describing what goes on in interactions between subatomic particles. Just as you wouldn’t use a brick of gold to try to buy a gumball out of the grocery store gum machine, but would instead use your pocket change, you don’t usually use joules in particle physics. You COULD, of course…but you’d be using REALLY small fractions of joules and it’s just easier to use the particle physics version of pocket-change, the electron-volt.

But still, what does this have to do with the mass of a particle? I’ve been talking about energy here!

Well, now we come to probably the most famous equation in all of physics, at least as far as the general public is concerned: E=mc2 (the two here means “squared”, or a number multiplied by itself). This equation explains that matter and energy are interchangeable. Matter and energy are just two forms of the same thing. So you can describe how much Stuff something is made of by describing it in ordinary terms of Mass (such as grams and kilograms), or, if you’re feeling like it and if it’s useful, you can describe it in terms of energy. Now, the “c” in that famous equation is the speed of light, which is mighty fast: about 300,000 kilometers a second (about 186,000 miles per second). It’s already a big number, but when you multiply it by itself, it’s MUCH BIGGER. So even a little mass converts into an awful lot of energy. That’s why nuclear reactions are so powerful: they convert a fraction of a percent of the matter involved in the reaction into energy, and you get all the glory of our sun and all the horror of nuclear weapons.

So finally we arrive at the reason for using eV’s and MeV’s and GeV’s in particle physics. It turns out that, like joules, working with ordinary mass units like grams gets very cumbersome when talking about really tiny things like subatomic particles. You have to use extremely small numbers with a lot of zeroes after the decimal point. If you’d rather not deal with all those zeroes, well, since matter and energy are interchangeable, you can instead describe very small masses in terms of a pretty fair number of a similarly small unit of energy. An electron-volt is just such a useful small unit.

In other words, when they say that the Higgs particle doesn’t look like it can be more than 125 GeV in mass, they mean that, if you took its mass and turned it into free energy, the amount of energy you’d get would not be more than 125 billion electron volts. That may sound like a lot, and on the scale of subatomic particles, it IS. However, it really is a very small amount of energy, and thus an exquisitely small amount of matter.

Of course, the Higgs fields is thought to permeate literally the ENTIRE universe, and the Higgs fields effects are all carried out by Higgs particles, so the mass equivalent of the field would add up to a pretty big amount in total. In fact, ALL the ordinary things with which we are familiar are made up of particles whose masses can be described in terms of electron volts, and most of those “weigh” a lot less than the Higgs appears to. So big things are made up of small things, just lots and lots of them. Like, lots and lots of electron volts of energy can equal the mass of one small but very important particle.