I wrote a post on Iterations of Zero

I haven’t written anything on Outlaw’s Mind this week so far, because what’s the point of that or anything else, after all?  But this morning I got an idea in my head that I decided to write an IoZ post about, and so I did that in the time in which I usually would have written fiction.  Here’s the first few paragraphs of it, followed by a link to the remainder of the post, in case you’re interested:

To really know you’ve created the best possible universe, you’d have to create them all

I was on my way into work this morning and started thinking about a curious question.

You may be aware of the area of theological inquiry called theodicy*. It deals with the “problem of evil”, though I’m sure that’s an oversimplification. In other words, it deals with the issue that, if God exists, and is infinitely powerful, and is omnibenevolent and omnipresent and omni-whatnot, then why is there evil?

We can leave aside arguments based on notions of free will and just desserts; bad things happen to “good” people in the world, whether through the actions of “evil” people or simply through the operations of the forces of nature. Think of childhood cancers and the like, and indeed, most childhood diseases prior to the modern era, as well as the fact that many children, through no fault of their own, are born to parents who are idiots (this probably describes all children, including mine).

One potential solution to the “problem of evil” is the notion that, despite appearances, the universe in which we live is the best possible one there can be. This idea is caricatured by Voltaire in the form of Dr. Pangloss, but it’s a serious point that is seriously made, and there is a certain logic to it. The notion is that, if things were changed, locally, to make some particular situation better, it would overall make more things worse, by whatever criteria you might happen to choose, and so every bad thing that happens, though it may not have any local good to it, is nevertheless necessary to minimize the evil, or maximize the good, of the universe, by whatever measure happens to be used by the one doing the parsing…presumably, God.

But how would such a God know what the best possible universe was? Such a being is assumed to have infinite intelligence**, as well as infinite power and awareness. We could, perhaps, describe it as a sort of “computer” that is infinite in all dimensions (perhaps an infinite number of them) and with limitless processing power, constrained only to the degree that it does not lead to paradoxes and contradictions, since we must assume—or I do, at least—that logic would apply even to an omnipotent being. Even God cannot actually make two plus two equal five without changing definitions, in which case it hasn’t actually been done.

To see the rest, follow this link.

As imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the blogger’s pen turns them to shape

Hello and good morning.  As usual, it’s Thursday—well, that’s only usual on one day of the week, but since this is that day of the week, it’s usual on this day—and so it’s time for my weekly blog post.

I’m feeling pretty exhausted today, partly because of a temporary change in work schedule that’s throwing my mental functions into a minor tailspin, and partly because of frustration associated with trying to get feedback and do useful research about my neurophysiology through the advice or input of people with expertise in the matter.  Some of the fault is mine—I have a hard time forcing myself to initiate or undertake most interactions, including contacting and setting up some form of new relationship with a new therapist…or doing therapy at all.

I also get distracted—and I suspect that some of the people I’ve tried to contact have done so as well—by the ongoing issue of my dysthymia/depression, which is certainly troubling, but which is an old companions of mine and unlikely to improve.  But there’s only so much one can get from YouTube videos and reading, whether it’s technical literature or works aimed at laypeople.  And I have a terribly difficult time even contemplating joining online support or discussion groups (or “in person” ones, which seem even more intimidating and disruptive).  I may be stuck.  I feel stuck.  I could really use some help—of various kinds—but the very prospect of seeking it is too daunting and confusing, and it is further hindered by the fact that I feel, deep down, that I don’t really deserve any help of any kind.

On the other hand, work on In the Shade is proceeding reasonably well, as it has been for some time.  I’m doing a nice job trimming it down, at least as far as raw numbers go.  I hope it improves the story; it would be a shame if it made it worse.  In any case, though, I’m more than halfway through the overall editing process, and that’s a good thing.

A thought popped into my head this morning that has popped in many times before, and I’m tempted to send emails or similar to the likes of Brian Greene just to see if he can clarify anything about it.  But I would feel quite cheeky and rather obnoxious to trouble him, even if I could find a way to send him a query.

Roughly and briefly, the thought is related to the ideas of “M Theory”*—which encompasses more “traditional” string theory as I understand it—and the notion that our entire three-dimensional universe might be a “brane” embedded in a higher-dimensional “bulk”, and that we can only experience the three dimensional universe in which we live because we—all the force-carrying particles and matter particles of which we are made—are trapped within the brane, possibly because they are composed of open-ended “strings”.  However—again, if I understand correctly based on the reading I’ve done—the graviton, the hypothetical force-carrying boson of the gravitational force, would be a closed string, and could, if there are branes and a bulk and so on, travel between branes.  The hypothesis has been put forward that this might be part of the reason gravity seems so weak; it is not as narrowly confined dimensionally as the other forces, and so spreads out to a greater degree.

I played with some of these ideas very indirectly in The Chasm and the Collision.

Anyway, my thought was that, perhaps, this could provide the explanation for the apparent existence of “dark matter” which is proposed as the presence of a large amount of mass in the universe that doesn’t interact much with “normal” matter, or with light, but which has gravitational effects measurable in the speed of rotation of galaxies and of the interactions of galactic clusters and so on, and which, based on those various measures, would be about five times as abundant as “normal” matter.  But no one has been able, so far, to detect the presence of any such dark matter particles, which would be presumed to interact at least occasionally with normal matter in some way.

It’s proposed as possible in M Theory that there could be other parallel “three-branes” in the bulk, “next to” ours in higher-dimensional space, analogous to planes or pages that float, aligned but not touching, in three-dimensional space.  If most fermions and bosons are stuck in their branes but gravitons can more or less freely pass between them, and if parallel branes came into existence—in their current states, anyway—roughly at the same time, so to speak, then as those universes expanded and evolved, with initial quantum fluctuations leading to increasing clumping of matter, leading to galaxies, stars, etc., they would have influenced each other’s clumping, and so a galaxy in one brane might well tend to be “near” or roughly lined up with, a galaxy in nearby branes, and so on.  If so, and if gravity can, at least to some degree, pass between branes, then the vector components of such gravity that happens to align with the nearby branes’ dimensions might well be felt as an “extra” gravitational force without any source in detectable matter.

If there are multiple branes in parallel to each other—or perhaps even a limitless stack of them, so to speak—depending on their separation and the degree to which gravity can pass between them, the net effect might well be enough to generate the phenomena we measure as evidence of “dark matter”.  If one were only thinking of, say, a four-dimensional space between the three-branes (with other dimensions curled up small), the force of gravity between matter in them would presumably fall off at a rate of one over the distance cubed, but if there were multiple branes in parallel, and again, if the distance were right and the properties correct, then I don’t see why it couldn’t accumulate to give a net effect greater, on large enough scales, than the apparent impact of gravitating mass within a given brane.

Unfortunately, my math skills are not presently up to the task of even doing a “back of the envelope” calculation about how that might work, though I have tried from time to time.  I also don’t know much of the technical details about string theory/M Theory.  And, of course, the whole theoretical framework is troubled by difficulty creating measurable predictions, at least with current technology.  But…if such parallel branes could in fact account for “dark matter”, they would, if correct, predict that there would be no measurable dark matter particles.  Ever.  And so, of course, the longer we go without being able to find one, the more our Bayesian probability might edge toward the correctness of at least some version of M Theory.  Of course, if dark matter particles are found and have characteristics that explain the phenomena we see, then that would at least disprove my notion, if not all of M Theory.

It’s likely that such a notion is already ruled out by some specifics details that I just don’t know—which must of course be almost all the specifics of M Theory.

Maybe some day I’ll work up the courage to forward some version of this to someone like Brian Greene, or maybe Lisa Randall or Leonard Susskind**.  But probably not.  I have a hard enough time mustering the nerve to talk to anyone regarding my own neurological and psychological health.  And, in any case, those people have enough on their minds.  And I have books to write.  And—unfortunately—miles to go before I sleep.

In the meantime, I hope you all stay well and do your best to take care of yourselves and of those who matter to you—and also, while you’re at it, do your best to avoid causing problems for other people.

TTFN

more branes


*Which is, of course, speculative to say the least, but which is certainly intellectually interesting, and which could, in principle, be a description of the deeper physics of our universe.

**These are the three physicists from whose popular works I’ve learned most of what I “know” about such matters.  I first encountered string theory and M Theory in Stephen Hawking’s book, The Universe in a Nutshell, but alas, no one can get any messages to him anymore—or, at least, we can’t get any messages back.

So we profess ourselves to be the slaves of chance, and flies of every wind that blogs

Hello.  Good morning.  It’s Thursday—the first one in March of 2021—and so, of course, it’s time for another of my weekly blog posts.

As is often the case, I have no specific plan about what to write today; it’s very much going to be stream-of-consciousness.  I expect this post will be relatively short, therefore, but I’ve often been wrong in this expectation previously.  We shall see.  Indeed, you can probably already see, since you’re reading the completed product, while I—the writer—will only see it as it takes form, at least in the initial draft.

First, and most important to me, work on The Vagabond continues steadily, and I’m well over halfway through the final edit.  One of the great tragic moments in the book has just occurred, and things are looking very dark indeed for our heroes.  Hopefully, they will find a way to overcome this setback, or one will be provided for them.  You shall have to wait and see, though in a reversal of the situation mentioned above regarding the length of this blog post, I happen already to know the outcome, while the reader can only bite his or her nails* and read on anxiously (when they finally have the published book, that is).

Little new has happened in my personal life otherwise, which is pretty much the way my personal life goes…such as it is.  As usual, I find many of the various deeds of humanity, both globally and locally—down, even, to the people in the office with whom I work—to be often terribly disheartening and discouraging.

Not that things are all bad; obviously that’s not the case.  But the second law of thermodynamics seems always to insist upon making its presence known, and thus it is always easier for things to fall apart than for new things to be built or even for existing things to be maintained.  This is the condition of the universe itself, though ironically it is also the very force that allows life to exist, and which drives all positive process we see.

Were entropy a general constant—as the laws of physics seem strongly to imply that it eventually will be—there would be no change whatsoever, at least no change of any significance.  Life could not exist in a state of pure and total thermal equilibrium, even though its existence is entirely dependent upon the universal mathematical and physical tendency for things to move toward that equilibrium.  This is the curious irony—which might seem paradoxical, though it is not—of the existence of complexity and life.

I think I got the following descriptive and analogous image from Sean Carroll, of a coffee cup with milk being added; it is only during the mixing process when eddies and whirls, clouds and vortices, unpredictable chaotic forms can appear.  It’s only while the drink is mixing that anything interesting, in that sense, occurs.  Once the coffee is well stirred, nothing more of interest will happen**.

Of course, in principle, it is possible for a stirred cup of coffee to unmix spontaneously and separate again into milk and coffee, thence to remix once more.  However, even on so small a scale as a cup of coffee, given the number of molecules involved and the vastly greater number of possible mixed compared to unmixed states, it’s going to take a very long time for that to happen.  Don’t hold your breath.

In fact, though I haven’t worked the specific numbers, I nevertheless feel quite confident that for the coffee cup spontaneously to unmix would take a time vastly greater than the present age of our universe.  The Earth—and any coffee cups resting upon it—will long since have been incinerated by the swelling, dying sun before any such unmixing could happen.  Taking the cup away into interstellar space would only freeze it, significantly slowing any possible unmixing process.  And, of course, coffee left out in the open tends to dry up as the water in it evaporates, and on a far shorter time scale.

Anyway, who’s going to mix and stir a cup of coffee only to leave it sit and wait for the process to reverse itself by random chance?  I don’t know about you, but if I have a nice cup of newly poured and stirred coffee, I tend to start drinking it pretty quickly.

And, also anyway, on time scales such as those involved in local reversal of entropy by spontaneous molecular motion, an astonishing number of events will have happened on the human scale.  Measured in terms of information exchange, it may be that the process of human time is literally speeding up, as computers and the internet and other means of global communication and computation fundamentally accelerate the rate of what’s happening in civilization, though the pace and duration of biological human life does not change nearly as much.

Measured in “flop time”***, as it were, the pace of events really has been, and is, accelerating.  The rate of that acceleration seems unlikely to continue indefinitely, but even if the growth curve levels off somewhat, more “things” can happen in a current decade—let alone a century—than happened throughout most of the first hundred millennia of human existence, at least from the human point of view, which is the only one we have right now.

So, though things do fall apart, and the center indeed cannot hold, it is not merely anarchy that is loosed upon the world.  As Darwin put it, during the process of entropic mixing, when all the interesting stuff happens, and driven by that mixing and that tendency toward increasing entropy, “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”  If only he knew how beautiful and how wonderful and how unpredictable those forms are and may someday be, I think he would have been even more awed than he was.

See, I’m not a complete downer.  At least not all the time.

Well, this post is not much shorter than usual, if at all, but I think I will call things to a close here.  I hope you are all as well as you can be, and are being careful of yourselves and each other, and staying as safe and as healthy as you can.

TTFN

Cloudy coffee


*Or someone else’s if they’re very close friends.

**I’m not counting the drinking part just now.  As far as I know, there’s no one waiting to drink the universe once it’s well mixed and cool enough not to burn the lips and tongue…though that’s an interesting notion.

***I recorded an audio blog about this concept but I haven’t yet posted it to Iterations of Zero.  My apologies.

For here, I hope, begins our lasting blog.

Hello and good morning.  It’s Thursday again, the first Thursday of an already rather tumultuous 2021, and thus—“Sound drums and trumpets!  Farewell sour annoy!”—it’s time for my weekly blog post.  We thus continue the regular pattern from yesteryear.  Hopefully, some other patterns will be less persistent.

At the beginning of last year, I posted (on Facebook, I think) that I hoped that 2020 would be “the year of seeing clearly,” since it sounded like the usual pronunciation of the (American at least) description of normal vision.  Alas, as is often the case when I attempt to be optimistic, I was disappointed.  I’m also likely to be disappointed in my less serious wish that the year following 2021 should be 2223, but at least that’s just silliness, while the former was a legitimate hope.  Maybe I should stick with silliness.

I’ve been doing my best to continue with my usual processes over the course of the dismal holiday season, and thus I can happily report that The Vagabond has now entered its penultimate editorial run-through, and I’ve even begun formatting it for eventual publication.

I think horror aficionados will appreciate it, as will even some who may not be true horror fans, but who enjoy fantastic adventures interposed into seemingly ordinary reality.  Based on my own experience of popular fiction in one form or another, I suspect that a great many people do enjoy such stories.  It’s just kind of fun to think about the usual, mundane* rules of ordinary life being suspended or infringed upon by epic, paranormal events.

Yesterday I posted a new “audio blog” on Iterations of Zero.  It’s a meandering soliloquy about, among other things, the biological source of the human tendency not to appreciate what we have but only to bemoan its loss or impairment.  I did an audio blog because I had trouble writing another post using my smartphone, partly because of the continuing musculotendinous pain in my left hand and forearm.  Also, I just felt too glum to summon the will to do it.  It can be hard to find the motivation to put one’s words out into the aether.  If a voice cries out in the wilderness and no one hears it**, did it really say anything?

I gave myself the freedom not to edit out background sounds and whatnot too much for that post, to make it easier and more likely that I really would upload the recording—which I did, so I guess that worked.  I don’t know whether the audio has so many such artifacts as to be irritating, but at least I put it out there.  If anyone listens and has comments, feel free to leave them in the appropriate section on IoZ or here.

I continue to have trouble getting interested in new fiction (new to me, anyway) of any kind, whether movie, TV show, book, or even comic or manga.  This distresses me greatly, because fiction, especially novels and short stories, but also movies and TV shows, has always been one of my greatest joys.  That’s one of the main reasons I write fiction.  I bought a new tablet, of decent size, so that I could read manga and some of my old favorite comic books from my youth on it.  That pursuit ran out of steam after about one and a half days.

I still do enjoy some nonfiction—science, particularly—but I’m running out of new material that interests me even there.  I’ve read so many of the science books that interest me, and I’ve watched most of the hundreds of YouTube videos on science-based channels that I like, such as PBS Spacetime, Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, Veritasium, and so on.  I even have (in the office at work, where I’m given a fair amount of leeway, which is nice) a collection of harder science books, like Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, Thorne el al’s Gravitation, Sean Carrol’s Spacetime and Geometry, and Hawking and Gibbons’ Euclidean Quantum Gravity, but it’s hard to be surreptitious when perusing a big-ass textbook during moments of downtime, and let’s face it, those books require some real attention.  I’m interested in the last one because I was quite taken with Stephen Hawking’s notion of complex time as eliminating the singularity problem of black holes and the Big Bang, making the nature of such boundaries no more unreasonable than the fact that one can’t go further north than the north pole while on the surface of the Earth***.  But this material is…well, it’s complex, obviously, and to understand it deeply would take some real concentration.

That’s what I seem to have trouble with, perhaps.  Real enjoyment, I think, requires concentration, and that requires the will and discipline to concentrate.  I’m not the sort of person who can come and go while a movie is playing, for instance, and I get irritated when other people do it.  But it’s getting harder and harder to be interested in anything enough even to care to watch or listen to or read it, and I certainly have no one with whom I’m able to share or interested in sharing any of these experiences…not anyone who wants to share them with me, anyway.  (Can you blame them?)

Sorry, I don’t know why I got off on that tangent so much, but it is bothering me tremendously, and it makes everything else in the world seem progressively, increasingly gray, muddy, and faintly noxious.  Maybe I’m hoping that someone reading this will recognize the issue and know of some hitherto unimagined solution.  But I don’t think that will happen.  As with Moriarty and Holmes, I suspect that everything people might have to say has already gone through my mind and has been found insufficient.

I could be wrong, though.  I’d be quite satisfied to be wrong on this matter.  I don’t mind being proven wrong, myself, because what I really want it to become more right as time goes by, if that’s possible.  Maybe that goal simply isn’t conducive to satisfaction and enjoyment; I don’t know.  But if ignorance is necessary for bliss, then I guess I’d rather be uncomfortable.

Anyway, that’s enough of that.  Welcome to the new year.  I’d like to be optimistic about it, but at least if I’m not, I will only tend to be pleasantly surprised.  Stay well, and stay reasonably safe, and do your best to stay (or become) sane.

TTFN

eye testing


*Of course, they’re only mundane because we’ve become inured to their familiarity.  If you stop and read (or watch or listen to) some works on cosmology and physics or on natural history, biology, ecology, or similar things, you will encounter forces interacting at scales both vast and minute with character that the greatest mythologizers of the past could never have imagined—or would never have had the audacity to share.

**Not even the chair.

***I even used some highly bastardized related notions in Son of Man to describe the workings of the “Assembly Chamber”.

Yet, do thy worst, old Time; despite thy wrong, My love shall in my blog ever live young.

It’s Thursday again, and thus, it’s time for another of my weekly blog posts.  I would like to say, “Hello and good morning,” to all my readers, even though you may not be reading this in the morning.  (I switched up my usual starting order to keep things fresh for those who read my blog regularly, and for me as well.  It’s not much variety, but it doesn’t take much to break up minor monotony.)

Speaking of things that might seem as though they would be monotonous, but which somehow are not, the editing of The Vagabond is proceeding well.  I said last week that I was only twenty or so pages from the end of the latest run-through, and I’m now well into the next.  I’ll be more than halfway to the end of my usual, rather laborious process, by the time I finish this current iteration, and getting past the halfway point is always a good feeling.

Unless you count life itself, I suppose.  For most people, realizing that they are already (probably) halfway through their lives is a somewhat troubling thought.  Sometimes it’s a very troubling thought.  One readily sympathizes with their angst, particularly when one realizes that, as we grow older, our subjective sense is that time passes much more quickly.  Much of our perception of time is dependent on how much of it we’ve already experienced, so the years before us seem far less substantial than those that came before.  I can remember, when I was much younger, that being told that it was twenty minutes until dinner time felt like an almost unendurable wait.  And if it was still an hour before dinner?  It was hard not to think that I would surely starve to death.

But though I can recall the fact that I felt that way, I can’t recall the feeling itself.  Twenty minutes now feels like an eye-blink, and an hour is barely enough to get anything useful done at all, unless one applies that hour daily.  Pink Floyd captured this nicely and concisely in their song, Time:  “Every year is getting shorter/ never seem to find the time / plans that either come to naught / or half a page of scribbled lines,” as well as, “And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking / racing around to come up behind you again. / The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older / shorter of breath and one day closer to death”.

Of course, everything is a matter of scale and comparison.  Over the course of a single day, the sun may not change in a relative way, but it is older, and though its “lifespan” is measured in billions of years, it is finite.  Likewise, on even larger scales, our universe itself has a limited lifespan, enforced by the laws of nature and the inexorable tendency for entropy to increase.  There are some very good recent popular science books that deal with this, and I personally recommend two of them:  Until the End of Time, by Brian Greene, and The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), by Katie Mack.  Both authors are working scientists who know their subject well.  Mack’s book is slightly more playful but is nonetheless clear and informative.  Greene, as usual, gets slightly deeper, but his love of the subject is unmistakable and contagious.  He uses a wonderful metaphor to try to convey the vastness of the time scales he’s discussing, asking the reader to imagine an Empire State Building in which each subsequent floor represents ten time as many years as the floor below.  The top floor is a lot of years later than the bottom floor.

And yet, as Carl Sagan first told me (and a lot of other people) in the ninth chapter/episode of Cosmos, “The Lives of the Stars”, neither a googol nor even a googolplex is any closer to infinity than is the number one.  Even the lifespan of our universe is just an eyeblink from a certain point of view*.  Of course, there may exist some grander arena, a metaverse, which is truly eternal and infinite in all possible dimensions.  I suspect that this is the case, mainly because I find it harder to conceptualize an end of actuality (What’s there at the end?  How does it know where to end?  What could it even mean for there to be nothing beyond it?) than an infinite regress.  But reality isn’t constrained by the failures of my imagination (thankfully) so that’s just a strong intuition or prediction or supposition.  I make no claim to final knowledge.

Anyway, what was I talking about again?  Oh, yeah, the changing subjective sense of time over a human lifespan.  The fact that our own sense of time changes so drastically (in a seemingly logarithmic way) over the course of our lives can lead one—or at least me—to wonder what the subjective experience of time would be for a being, like one of Tolkien’s elves, who lives a very long time, or forever.  It’s more or less pointless to think too precisely about the latter, because forever never happens, or at least it never finishes happening.  But a being that lives for many thousands or millions of years would eventually, I imagine, come to see even the rising and falling of nations as no more momentous than, say, the life of an adult mayfly, or the brief growth, sporulation, and then shriveling of toadstools after a rain.

I think it can be useful to imagine such perspectives, though I’ve found few authors who have tried really to get into the mindset of such possible characters.  Still, to see things from the long view can help us keep our own concerns in perspective.  Our petty differences can be seen to be all the pettier, our urgent ideological divisions not much deeper or more consequential than changes in fashion, and the experiences of our lives both less cataclysmic and at the same time more precious and beautiful.

With that thought, I’ll close by sharing with you a picture that I encountered on Jerry Coyne’s website, taken and shared by one of his many readers.  It’s a photograph, edited in camera** only, by Joseph Routon, who said that I was free to share it if I wanted.  I think it’s beautiful and brilliant, and I like his title for it:  Life is beautiful!  Wear a Mask!!

TTFN

Life is Beautiful! Wear a Mask!!


*In fact, if I recall correctly, in Roger Penrose’s book The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind he points out that, taken from the scale of the Planck time, and the time scale of subatomic processes, the lifespan of a human is comparable to the lifespan of our universe itself.  Now that’s thought-provoking.  I was so pleased when they gave him the Nobel Prize this year.

**I mean that in the literal sense, not that it took place in a judge’s private quarters, without the press or the public present…though I in fact doubt that there were any members of the press around when he did it.

So in the world. ‘Tis furnished well with blogs

wow

Good morning!  Welcome to yet another blog post, since this is yet another Thursday.  They do seem to keep coming and coming, don’t they?  Thursdays, I mean.  Thursdays have been going on for a lot longer than blog posts have been, and they’re likely to continue long after my blog posts have stopped.

Of course, on a cosmic level, the very notion of dividing time into days, each representing roughly a revolution of the Earth on its axis, is highly local and arbitrary.  The naming of days—such as naming one of a continuously repeated seven after a Norse thunder god known to most people nowadays as a character played by Chris Hemsworth—is even more local and arbitrary.

One “day” on Jupiter is only ten hours long, despite the fact that Jupiter’s diameter is ten times as great as the Earth’s.  This rapid revolution contributes to some truly amazing weather patterns on that planet.  A “day” on the moon, on the other hand, is about twenty-eight Earth days long…and there’s no weather there at all.

A day on Mercury, named after the wing-footed messenger god of Greek mythology, is almost sixty Earth days long.  And all these variations are just a few of the ones represented within our solar system, itself a tiny, tiny pixel in our galaxy (a “day” of which is a quarter billion Earth years long), which is in turn just a tiny, tiny splotch among hundreds of billions to about a trillion galaxies in the observable universe.  And that, of course, is only a chunk—miniscule to infinitesimal—of a much larger region of spacetime that seems likely to be infinite.

But don’t worry.  Your personal, day-to-day concerns still really matter.  Sure, they do.

Okay, sorry about that bit of sarcasm.  I’m pretending to be more cynical than I really am.  Your individual, day-to-day concerns do matter, in the only way that anything can matter:  they matter to you.  Meaning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  This is good, and can be highly life-affirming, unless you’re one of the unlucky people who feels that they themselves don’t matter, even to themselves.  For such people, the crushing weight of reality can feel at once both infinitely oppressive and at the same time very much worthy of a “meh.”  As a person who writes horror stories, among other things, I can honestly say that this is real horror.

Some horror fiction expresses a sense of being lost and trapped in a hostile and very large universe, which cares about us only as irritating insects, and seeks to crush us as such.  A similar notion is occasionally (metaphorically) invoked even by such science educators as Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has been heard to speak of “all the ways the universe wants to kill us,” or words to that effect.  But of course, this is a highly narcissistic misinterpretation of reality, used only as a figure of speech by Tyson (in order to emphasize certain points) and as a plot conceit for horror.  If the universe really “wanted” to kill us, we would be dead.  Instantly.

The real horror, from the reflexively hubristic, human point of view, is that the universe doesn’t give a tiny little rat’s ass about us.  As far as we know, the only place in the universe that’s even capable of caring about anything at all is in the minds of humans…and perhaps other sentient creatures.  As far as we know, only here on Earth (and in low Earth orbit) does caring exist at all.  Now, depending on the likelihood first of the origin of life, then of multicellular life, then of intelligent life, there may be many other such islands of caring in the universe, and if the universe is infinite in size, simple math reveals that there must be an infinite number of such islands.  But it’s equally simple to see that there is a proportionally larger infinity of places where there’s nothing that cares about anything.  This is far from the worst way things could be.  If there really were a Crimson King, or a Morgoth, or an Azathoth and Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu* out there, we would be in for a much rougher time than we actually experience.

Of course, as physicist and pioneer of quantum computation David Deutsch argues beautifully in his book The Beginning of Infinity, we humans—and our descendants, whether biological or technological or both—have the potential really to become significant on a cosmic scale.  As he also points out, there is no guarantee that we will do so, but there appears to be nothing in the laws of nature that prevents it.  It’s up to us** to decide.

That cosmic importance or lack thereof, however, does not and cannot change what is happening right here, right now, and which seems for the moment so inescapably important:  That it is Thursday, and that I am writing this blog post…and, of course, consequently, that you are reading it.  Nothing can ever actually be more important than “now,” because “now,” ultimately, is all we ever experience.

And now, I leave you with a brief update:  Unanimity proceeds well, shrinking as I edit it much more slowly than it grew as I wrote it, like a volcanic island having sprung forth to be subsequently eroded in the middle of a vast sea of strained and overused similes.  It’s got quite a ways to go before it’s a lush, tropical setting that you’d want to put on your vacation itinerary, but it’s getting there.  If you do visit, I won’t guarantee that it will be a uniformly happy trip—some very bad things indeed do lurk there—but at least it should be interesting.

TTFN


*A curious side-note:  of these three examples of entities from H. P. Lovecraft’s worlds, only Cthulhu appears well-known enough not to be marked for correction by Microsoft Word’s spell-checker.

**And of course, to our continued luck in avoiding cosmic catastrophes that are, for the moment, utterly beyond our power to prevent or avoid.

“I Am” (Soy) Isoflavones, and I (probably) Decrease the Risk of Prostate Cancer

I recently had a friend ask me whether eating and drinking soy products can increase the risk of prostate cancer; he had heard that it can, and that all men should avoid soy “like the plague.”

This question really surprised me, because most of the medical information I have encountered has tended to point in the opposite direction…and for reasons that made good, sound biological sense.  However, I know that good, sound, biological sense doesn’t always pan out.  This is why we have to do actual experiments.  After all the Universe is complex, and the human body is arguably the most complex thing we know of in it.  Often an expected biological effect of some dietary or medical intervention, that seems inescapable on its face, can turn out to be utterly undetectable or at least thoroughly confounded by other consequences.  So, bearing this in mind, I did a little reading, and I learned about at least one source of data that might have been behind what my friend had heard.

First, though, to get back to the believed protective effects of soy:  Soy products contain chemicals called flavones and isoflavones, which are part of a group of biological chemicals called phytoestrogens.  Now, “phyto-” is just a word root that means “plant,” and estrogens are, well…estrogens.  I think most people in America are at least passingly familiar with estrogens, especially given the current controversy over the required coverage of birth control pills.  So phytoestrogens are just estrogens from plants.  In human females (we often refer to them scientifically as “women”), estrogens are among the hormones that control fertility and related processes, and they are quite abundant.  However, in the male body–including that little devil, the prostate–estrogens tend to counter the natural effects of testosterone.

Testosterone is also, I suspect, a hormone of which most Americans are aware.  It is the substance, to paraphrase Dave Barry, that makes men take league softball seriously.  Its actions produce such male secondary sex characteristics as increased muscle mass, facial hair, deeper voices and bar fights.  It is also the hormone responsible for the fact that almost every man who lives long enough–if he isn’t testosterone deficient–will develop prostate enlargement (so-called “benign” prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH), with its lovely constellation of maddening symptoms.  The presence of testosterone can also stimulate the growth of many kinds of prostate cancer, and in fact some treatments for testosterone-sensitive tumors include drugs that directly block testosterone, such as bicalutamide (the name isn’t really that important).

It is thought that the effects of phytoestrogens in soy products are responsible for the protective effects that they may have against prostate cancer.  These effects are not tremendous, nor are they absolutely demonstrated, but they are probably real and the science is sound.  So whence comes the idea of soy actually increasing the risk of prostate cancer?

Well, I found out about a study in Japan that covered a number of different dietary sources of soy and its isoflavones on the risks of development of several subgroups of prostate cancer, including localized and advanced cases.  This was a good country in which to study those effects, because the traditional Japanese diet includes a number of soy staples, including tofu, miso and natto (a kind of fermented soybean concoction).Not too surprisingly, this study actually generally supported the idea that soy intake in foods (not necessarily supplements) reduces the risk of prostate cancer overall…but there was ONE little peculiar exception.

The study found that increasing intake of miso soup may be associated with a small increased occurrence of advanced prostate cancer in men 60 years of age and older.  Now this reallyis peculiar, because it seems very specific to miso soup, which raises the question of whether there’s something ELSE in miso soup that’s causing this measured increase.  Also, such studies are always inexact because there are so many potential variables that could be influencing the outcomes by other means.  In addition, the number of cases of advanced prostate cancer in this study, compared to the size of the study, was VERY small, which means the statistical connection is quite a bit less robust than it might be.

Nevertheless, I can at least tell my friend this:  Unless he’s eating a LOT of miso soup (and is over 60), he probably doesn’t need to curtail, let alone avoid, soy products.  In fact, he can probably indulge in all the soy milk, tofu and natto he wants, and if anything, it may decrease his risk of prostate cancer a little bit.  It’s even possible (though not clearly demonstrated) that it might reduce his future problems with prostate enlargement.  Of course, the trade-off is that he may find himself caring a little bit less about who wins a particular sporting event.  Still, having treated a good number of men suffering from prostate problems of various kinds, I can assure you, that would be an extremely small price to pay.

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.