The 1,000 “like” road marker disappearing in the rear view mirror…
The WP auto-post function just told me that I have accumulated 1,000 “likes,” which are all because the imaginary “you” have been appreciating what I’ve been pouring forth since June 22nd. It hasn’t been four months yet and I have so many “likes!” Who knew?!?
I’ve logged 87 posts (one was a repeat, so doesn’t really count and one was a reblog in respect for a new WordPress-induced friend) in 111 days, meaning that I’ve hit about 78% of the days between start and present. Not bad. Could be better. Let’s see if I can pick up the slack.
This border is gradual and becomes more real as any of us ascend into our atmosphere. While the troposphere contains ~80% of our air (which is a mix of gases as faithful readers already know), the stratosphere holds a mere 19% or so. As we leave sea level and go up mountains, there is less air, therefore less pressure exerted by the air upon us. By the time we get around to climbing Mount Everest, there is so little oxygen left in the lower pressures of atmosphere experienced at that altitude that climbers must bring their own. On the other hand, it gets much colder as we climb so there are two good reasons to remain close to flat land: (1) decreasing air and (2) decreasing temperature. This is all graphed out in the Pressure scale helpfully included in the following:
As a little imagination game, imagine that your roommate and/or spouse (depending on years of commitment) has just cracked open a rotten egg in your kitchen. The spreading smell represents earth’s atmosphere and you want to get as far away from that particular atmosphere as possible. The farther you remove yourself, the less the smell and (for purposes of this analogy only) the less atmosphere there is. Although you can’t really smell air, you can experience its absence quite profoundly (caution: side-effects may include a light-headed feeling, confusion, dizziness, shortness of breath, and death).
2. The air we can breathe and the earth we cannot.
While sea level and much mountain air is pleasant to breathe, inhaling earth of any kind results in clogged oral and nasal passages. If attempts to breathe earth are continued, bronchi and alveoli may become non-functional leading to a lack of air and at least some of the side-effects mentioned above. Do not breathe earth. While it is good for plants to stick their snouts deep within a nice chunk of earth, particularly when it is enriched with supplements, we must insist that you do not attempt to replicate their behavior. While a diagram of the earth coming into contact with air is not very exciting, there are many important processes that happen between the various solid surfaces, natural and human-made, and the air. Here’s a nice diagram of how the stuff we put into the atmosphere comes back for visits:
3. The air we can breathe and the water we cannot.
You would think this boundary is as boring as the one between the air and the earth and you would be incorrect. The atmosphere and bodies of water of significant size have a very dynamic interaction. This incredible time-lapse map of global oceanic currents (courtesy the nice people at NASA) shows their beauty, dynamism, local and transglobal effects, their overall complexity:
But these are only the surface manifestations of phenomena that reach into the clouds and oceanic depths as well. The following video, produced by NASA using data from a number of their satellites and narrated by Liam Neeson, starts with an explanation of how the earth is protected and affected from the sun’s energy output by the magnetosphere.
Chances are that you may have missed the thermodynamic heat pump that powers circulation in our oceans. It is called thermohaline (“temperature-salt”) circulation or conveyor belt. As surface water is warmed by the sun at the equator it is swept north and south toward the icy poles. There it is cooled. As cold salt water is denser than the warm variety, it sinks as it approaches the poles and is swept along the ocean’s floor back towards the equator and elsewhere around the globe. Given the complexity of the currents and circulation, it is thought that it may take up to 1,000 years for one unit of water (let’s say a cubic kilometer) to circulate back to its point of origin.
4. The water we cannot breathe and the earth we cannot breathe.
This is not our realm. We belong walking along the surface of the earth, breathing the atmosphere and drinking the purer forms of water. We must take our atmosphere with us when we move into the water or earth.
Our takeaway lesson? While you can only breathe the air portions of this very real barrier between the air and water or between earth and water, the effects that air, earth, and water have on each other is astonishingly complex and persistently in motion. Without this perpetual motion going on between the three of them, there would be no weather and no recycling of the gaseous and aqueous realms so necessary for us to live.
The fifth border is imaginary—human-made—compared to the four above. Here is one way of picturing it:
All these countries, all these governments, all these people divided up by imaginary lines cut into the earth and bleeding the blood of its citizens. Why do some people want to go elsewhere? Why are “violations” of these imaginary lines fraught with so much emotion, so much passion, so much need?
Here’s another way of looking at these imaginary lines:
At one end of the spectrum of net national incomes, we have Malawi, a country that is full of nice people who through no fault of their own barely scrape through a year on virtually nothing… and that’s the AVERAGE income! At the other end, we have Qatar, Monaco, the Scandinavian countries, some others (the names aren’t as important as the concept here). The average net national income across all countries is around $45,000/year.
The reasons the imaginary boundaries are important is that people who have governments that don’t work in the interests of the families who live there want to leave and find opportunity elsewhere, which makes their destinations nervous—probably for some good reasons. The destinations of choice all seem better from a distance as the people who want to leave their countries are doing fairly poorly. As more people arrive at their destinations, it is likely that the quality of life in that country will be overwhelmed by newly arrived citizens—and the existing citizens who were already doing poorly and will see a deterioration in their quality of life. On the other hand, the people who leave their countries of origin leave behind many family members, the culture and geography they know and appreciate, their way of doing things, which may have been that way for millennia and are much loved.
The solutions are not easy. I propose the following:
The countries that are not doing well by their citizens must determine why there are disparities in quality of life and correct them so that anyone who wishes can make a one-to-one comparison between their lives at home and their imagined lives elsewhere.
This will often mean that the people who are doing the best in those countries must find ways to share their success with more of their citizens. As it is often the case that wealth from natural resources, agriculture, etc., are harvested by the poor and enjoyed by those who are already comfortable, that seems to be an appropriate basis for sharing. Do corporations and governments own the natural resources of any particular country? I would think all citizens of the planet “own” them equally and that the corporations and governments are only there to ensure equitable distribution of them and any profits that arise from manufacturing.
The countries that are doing well must find ways to channel resources to the countries who are not. These resources must find their ways first to the people who need them the most. Once inequities in education, nutrition, safety, health, domicile and baseline income are addressed, more generalized issues (e.g. governmental corruption) must be addressed as well.
This kind of change is needed. The earth—on its own—figures it all out in spite of the various environmental disasters we keep visiting upon it. Now, we the people must figure out how to stop killing each other—or passively allowing each other to be killed—and work through the inequities that we allow to exist between us.
It is easy to come up with arguments that refute these positions: political, religious, racial, gender, class, family history, income, etc. It is better to stop arguing and get to solutions. We are all one thing and that thing is the human species. Let’s solve our problems so we can all stop with the stupidity.
Confabler nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award!
My distant, yet close friend Confabler has nominated me for the Shiny Shiny Sunshine Award. I love her imagination and sense of whimsy; she lets her muse du jour lead and she follows. There’s a wonderful freedom to that which is (1) difficult to allow in the rational process of “writing” and (2) enjoyable to find.
1. If you were to choose an insect that would take over the world after human extinction, who would that be?
It sort of depends on our route to extinction. If it involved an epidemic, the population of flies might see a giant uptick. This would be a good one:
If it is a slow process, then I nominate the Japanese Rhinoceros beetle because it would be awesome if creatures with such improbably fashioned protuberances were to be the alpha species (Megasoma and Titan beetles would be acceptable alternatives):
If our extinction took all other terrestrial life along for the ride, I would like to see this enormous isopod (a relative of our terrestrial roly-polies) rule the seas (note inclusion of actual human hands for sense of scale):
2. How old were you when you first read Harry Potter? And your favorite author of course?
I was pretty old when I read my only Harry Potter book (the first one). I didn’t enjoy it enough to complete the series, although I’ve seen all the films and enjoyed them well enough. In the period I read that first one, I was typically reading a lot of history and didn’t find that it was a good use of my time. When I was really young, I read the Classics Illustrated versions of novels, which were quite good at introducing a curious young mind to the wonders of literature without having to do the work (sort of illustrated CliffsNotes (I didn’t use these in school though), if you will). When I was a little older, I read Robert E. Howard, Sax Rohmer, John Carter of Mars, H. Rider Haggard, Stanley Weinbaum, George McDonald fantasies, etc.
My favorite author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing is so rich, amusing, full of simple wisdom and abundant humanity it is hard to believe he was just a human being writing about the lives he saw playing out around him. I literally would read some passages and have to put the book down as if I had just sipped the richest chocolate elixir in the world and needed to savor it until I sipped again. His Spanish-to-English translators did a good job in getting it right; Gregory Rabassa (OHYoS translator) was even praised by Garcia Marques himself!
3. If you were invisible what is the craziest thing that you would do?
Here’s an odd one: Go and hang around bigots, transcribe their conversations, and publish them for the world to see how terrible people speak when they think no one is listening (but, oh yeah, we have the internet so this already happens). If I could walk through things, which seems fair since I’m invisible, I would go around seeing what it felt like to do that—see if there were different textures to different things on the inside than on their surface.
4.what food makes you feel like a hungry hyena?
This has changed so much over time! These days, I don’t get this kind of urge anymore. In my early adult (late teen?) years… ICE CREAM!!!!
5. A song that makes you dream?
Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie
6. Have you ever planted a tree?
Yes. Unasked but answered: quite a few!
7. Choose your man: superman/ Spiderman/ iron man and if he was your best friend one thing that you would make him do?
Can I choose Supergirl? If I can, I would have her take me around to various places in the world, build shelters so I could stay there and visit free, then whisk me off to the next place on “our” list (she would be enjoying the sight-seeing with me, of course! What kind of boor do you think I am?!?!).
8.How much time do you spend in front of the mirror everyday?
As little as possible, which involves shaving and brushing my teeth. I find that shaving my teeth first helps with the brushing.
9.why you started blogging and tell us about the post enjoyed the most making.
I was having a bunch of conversations with people who did not seem to understand the wonderful humility of learning and doing science and wanted to see how well I could write about how science is a discipline that can assist us all in not leaning out too far over our skis (getting ahead of ourselves and pretending we know stuff we don’t). Blogging has become so much more than that since my first post on June 22, 2016, and I have had so much fun writing fiction and revisiting some poetry I wrote several decades ago (and finding them easier to “fix” than I remembered).
I’m not sure which of my posts I enjoyed the most. They’re all my children so I like them all? I probably like the odd bits of fiction that I had no idea were inside me when I woke up and then found them on the page looking up at me. I like The Big Day of these. Of the science posts, I like The Mess: Parts 1 & 2 and the Appendix 1 items best (maybe). Of the historical pieces, I like Risk Management. Of the life pieces, I like Building Blocks the best. Anyone who reads this is encouraged to make up their own mind; I am hopelessly biased.
10. Which social media platform are you addicted to (including WordPress)?
I don’t do much social media except WordPress. I don’t like Facebook at all and deleted my account. WordPress is addicting but in a very healthy way! You get to create something and share it with new friends from all over the world. That’s a great addiction have.
Now the rules:
1.thank the person that nominated you.
Thank you, Confabler. You are a true virtual friend, and I don’t mean that in any Pokemon way either!
2. Answer the questions from your nominator.
3. Nominate fellow bloggers you follow.
Hereinafter lie the following nominees in no particular order (order, of course, being an illusion):
Confabler – it would be completely wrong not to boomerang this thing back at her; how could I like what she writes and like that she nominated me but ignore why we share interests at all?
November_child – in her poetry, every word is judiciously considered for its various meanings and the images they stir and she makes great short stories that are deep and playful and serious all at the same time
anonymouslyautistic – for doing an AMAZING job of writing about this misunderstood spectrum of living – and for inviting others who share her interest to contribute
English Lit Geek – because she searches the web and her library for poems that communicate her inner soul to us all out here in the ‘sphere and I appreciate this!
Wiser Daily – because this guy writes REALLY well about every single subject he wraps his mind around, because he is not a scientist but writes extremely clearly about science, because he is just a damned good writer!
Breathmath – because they are doing an astonishingly serious job of trying to get the world to see the beauty in mathematics
Sheryl – because she’s written a book, is working on others, has great tips for doing the same, and kindly visits my offerings fairly often
The Nexus – because he writes REALLY well about physics and does a great job of doing what I set out to do, whether I’m doing it on any given day or not
The Biology Yak – because she is passionate about biology and shares her passion in every word on every topic she chooses
afternoonifiedlady – even though I have no idea what it is to be an afternoonifiedlady, I love her rants about living with and without her ex and trying to wrestle with notions of romance – she is very witty and amusingly pissed off!
When we see a galaxy being born, we are viewing several jaw-dropping phenomena all at once…
When we see a galaxy being born, we are viewing several jaw-dropping phenomena all at once:
We are seeing an event that started transmitting light outwards from its location some number of light-years ago; before it got here (and all of the other places it went), there was nothing for us to see in that bit of space
We are seeing the birth and evolution of something like 100,000,000,000 (100 billion) stars (± some billions, but who’s counting?!?)
We are seeing fantastically large clouds of ionized gas light-years across in their own right, glowing with the overwhelming energy that initiated with the generation and evolution of that galaxy, however many light-years ago
The ionized clouds may or may not eventually condense into new dense forms, thus making yet more stars; all of that energy will turn into a local galactic phenomenon much like our own sun or planets, perhaps larger and more ferocious or smaller and meek
Somewhere in all of that brilliance of stars and ionized gaseous forms of hydrogen, helium, isotopes thereof, and of heavier elements and their isotopes (not to mention naked bits of sub-atomic stuff zooming around), there may be planets condensing from the astonishing catastrophe that initiated that galaxy, settling into white-hot (ultraviolet-hot! x-ray hot!! gamma ray hot!!!) clouds of dust with poorly defined orbits around the gravity centers closest at hand, then condensing further over time into molten elements (or ultra-cold matter balls), then really hot dust with a metal core (or a big chunk of methane, etc. ice), then something coalescing further into a blisteringly hot (or supremely cold) planet, perhaps with an atmosphere of whatever gases stuck around and got pulled into the new planet’s own gravity
That thing we are witnessing from so far away in light-years once happened here roughly 4.5 billion years ago. As the Milky Way condensed into a circulating system and ionized gases condensed into stars and planets started their lazy ellipsoids around those brand-new gravity centers staggering out towards the edge of each tiny solar system, the system settled down into something wild but that followed more deliberate rules than it had initially. Among the planets formed was our little blue world, although it was once more amorphous than it is today and it wasn’t blue until much later in its evolution. It was brutally hot and as it coalesced, solidified chunks of various sizes plummeted into it at accelerated speeds. There are plenty of these solidified chunks out there crashing into our atmosphere even now; NASA estimates that 100 tons (200,000 pounds) of meteoroids hit our atmosphere each day and burn up. Cornell University astronomer Dr. Lynn Carter estimates that 84,000 meteors with a mass of at least 10 grams (about 2 level teaspoons of table sugar) hit the earth each year. While our galaxy was forming, these processes were far more common. With our telescopes—earth-bound, satellite-based, and outward-bound—we see this happening all the time, although paradoxically long ago.
Space.com has lots of great articles elaborating on these processes. For a brief article and video about the formation of planets in our solar system, go here:
The wonderful and talented folks at khanacademy.org have a series focused on these processes. Here’s the first in a series of five video units.
Inevitably, there are varying hypotheses and timelines associated with exactly how our galaxy, solar system, star (the Sun), and planet came into existence. Is there variation among the hypotheses? Sure. That’s part of the scientific method. Will we ever be able to go back in time over 4.5 billion years and watch the process happening for the next 4.5 billion years? Highly unlikely (in fact, absurd, but it would be the only way to know with certainty; can you imagine being part of a (1) backwards time travel expedition that (2) was stationed somewhere in our portion of the Milky Way to watch, over billions of years, how the process actually progressed?). What we are left with is an enormous data set collected by telescopes that cover every portion of the electromagnetic spectrum scanning the inner, middle, and outer fringes of all the space that surrounds us, trying to watch how it all works. The following is an animated model of how a starburst galaxy forms based on data collected relatively recently by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. This particular galaxy is “only” 300 million light-years from the Hubble.
To close, Hubble has gathered so many images of the universe and of galaxies surrounding our own that its earthly handlers at NASA were able to put together a composite video of our nearest galactic neighbor—Andromeda. It is “only” 2.5 million light-years away—spittin’ distance—just over yonder, etc. Watch this astonishing video composite; it is available in resolutions up to 4K HD, so set your YouTube gear to the highest resolution your video card and monitor can handle and prepare to lose your mind! Each point of light is AT LEAST one star; we cannot be absolutely sure as the point resolution this far from (this close to) Andromeda cannot provide certainty.
And here’s a logarithm-based (our solar system in the center and distances out from our solar system scaled logarithmically) image of the entire known created from NASA data by artist Pablo Carlos Budassi:
Every day, we can view this celestial wonder and try to comprehend its complexity. For me, it is preferable to know that humankind is unlikely to ever understand even a small fraction of this profundity than it is to dismiss it as something comprehended and explained away by oral traditions conceived well over 5,000 years ago and eventually written down and codified as the single explanation to life, the universe, and everything.
We are all (I assume) very comfortable with the tangible, observable facts that surround us. I am sitting in a chair at a desk in front of a computer I assembled a couple of Augusts ago from parts recommended on the www. My desk is cluttered with papers, CDs (some music, some software), a few groupings of office supplies, and some random stuff that I haven’t gathered the courage to toss yet.
We are all (I assume) very comfortable with the tangible, observable facts that surround us. I am sitting in a chair at a desk in front of a computer I assembled a couple of Augusts ago from parts recommended on the www. My desk is cluttered with papers, CDs (some music, some software), a few groupings of office supplies, and some random stuff that I haven’t gathered the courage to toss yet. Oh, and a work glove – I really have no idea what it’s doing here. Beyond the desk, there are a few tables, one for a scanner, one for a printer, one for a reading light next to my recliner (I should call this the Sleepinator™, or perhaps the Napinator™, as I only nap (or “have a kip,” thus the British trademark for the Kipinator™ is born) in it). My cat (her name is Emma) is sleeping on the window seat (a little earlier, she was sleeping in my left armpit as I read in the Napinator™).
A brief paws for a picture of my kitty (it’s a little blurry, but captures her majestic qualities quite well I think; as she spends a lot of time sleeping, this is an “action” shot).
The floor has a nondescript light brown carpet but is covered by a Persian rug. Various electronics lie about with a nice efflorescence of cabling (I prefer LAN lines to WiFi), and too many books in boxes (although tidy boxes, I might add). Beyond the walls and windows, all objects as well, lies the planet at large, with a scattering of trees interspersed liberally with asphalt and concrete, grass and weeds, shrubs and (less obviously) the invisible beds of fungi waiting to fruit a body and exhale a cloud of spores so that more invisible beds of fungi will grow (and let’s not forget their friends, the adventitious bacteria, etc.). There are squirrels and a variety of birds with wonderful voices, a few neighborhood cats and when accompanied by their obedient masters a variety of dogs, usually of the small and yappy kind (see majestic cat above). An unnecessary miscellany of automobiles, some small and energy-efficient (relatively speaking), some comically large, supported on wheels that would do a gargantuan earth mover proud, move around out there, rushing on errands that may or may not be as important as indicated by their speed. And then there is lots of earth and rocks and sky and, eventually, ocean and, down further, mantle and magma and other molten earth essentials, simmering away at 3,000 to 3,500°C (5,432°F to 6,332°F for non-scientists and Americans) and at a pressure of 1,250,000 (1.25 million) times the pressure up here in my writing room.
Above our sky lie other stars, other planets and moons and asteroids and comets and meteors with all of the associated atmospheric heterogeneity imaginable (methane or sulfuric acid or nitrogen or hydrogen sulfide of frozen water or… well, just about anything) and maybe other life forms, other squirrels and cats and dogs and grass and weeds and shrubs and trees and intelligent bipeds (I mean, whom among us really knows at this point in our young, relatively unevolved lives; there are, apparently, in excess of 100,000,000,000 (100 billion) galaxies known to date (with the limits of our present instrumentation) and each of those galaxies is estimated to have 100,000,000,000 (100 billion) stars, each with who knows how many planets and moons and asteroid belts and all the rest). There is a ton (by which I mean way more than a ton) of “stuff” around us, very near and extremely far away and we have some idea of what constitutes it all – molecules (small and large), elements, atoms, electrons, protons, neutrons, subatomic particles, weak and strong attractive forces, electromagnetic particles and waves (energy), gravity, all the subatomic particles you can blast out of nuclear hiding places in the various kinds of accelerators we have designed and built.
But all of it, if gathered into a giant ball in giant and ethereal hands like a ball of dirt, composes about 4% of the substance of the known universe. The rest of the universe is composed of “stuff” called dark matter (26% of the universe) and dark energy (70% of the universe). As what I have just said may be new to your way of thinking (and/or you may have just stopped reading as I may be entirely nuts), this is an excellent time and place to watch the following video by Dr. Patricia Burchat of Stanford University.
Note how completely energized she is by these ideas (I really love to see passionate people talk about their work). Now, when Dr. Burchat and others in her field speak or write about “dark” matter, they are using words in a very imprecise way. They are finding words that are place-markers for the mathematics that they have worked through, math that is perched on the shoulders of other math worked through by other physicists and mathermaticians, reaching back to the Greeks. But you need to be a deeply committed practitioner of those disciplines to understand what really underlies the metaphorical “dark matter” and “dark energy.” I am attempting – as Dr. Burchat does – to expand on these insufficient metaphors.”Dark” matter isn’t dark in color – it’s not black (a color that appears to our eyes and minds when an object has absorbed ALL wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum), it is not dark in a spiritual or theological sense, it is not dark in the way that
“Dark” matter isn’t dark in color – it’s not black (a color that appears to our eyes and minds when an object has absorbed ALL wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum, which is in turn a very tiny sliver of the overall electromagnetic spectrum), it is not dark in a spiritual or theological sense, it is not dark in the way that Scandinavian “black” metal is dark (that compels me to reach for the “stop” button).
Dark matter is only apparent because of its influence in the fabric of the universe, its effect on gravitational forces that, by way of Einstein (and Riemann) permeate that blackness up in the sky at night and hold the shiny bits (including our apparently sky-blue bit) in place. The observation of dark matter is seen in the behavior of galaxies; stars at the edge of galaxies, if only under the influence of gravity, should move more slowly than stars closer to the center. They don’t; the speed of stars rotating around the center of a galaxy move at the same constant rate as the stars towards the middle of the galaxy, so there must be matter that is interacting throughout the galaxy that forces the exterior stars to move at that rate. An oversimplified analogy might be that we do not see air, but we see the effects of wind (but air and winds are composed of atoms of gasses and have mass and energy that we understand very well, so this is a poor, earthbound analogy indeed). The effect of dark matter is seen not only in the circulation of outer stars (and their planets, etc.) around the center of the galaxy but in how galaxies cluster together and how the light from individual galaxies smears due to gravitational lensing. This unseeable matter has enormous effects in our universe, but we are still struggling to find a method of “seeing” (this is a poor word to use here) it. For some stunning computer simulations of how the universe might have evolved in the presence of dark matter and dark energy, watch the “full-size” version of the film at this website (bottom of page).
Now, if all 96% of the remaining “stuff” in the universe was dark matter, solar systems and galaxies and clusters of galaxies would tend to cluster and the universe would not seem to be expanding outwards. Instead, we (well, astrophysicists and their ilk) observe a universe that is expanding. Space itself is spreading apart. The hypothesis is that this occurs due to dark energy, the predominant “ingredient” in the universe, one so powerful (in spite of its unseeable nature) that galaxy clusters and the universe that contains them in a web of gravitational force are expanding away from each other, the opposite of what we would expect to see from the more neighborly, clustery behavior of galaxies and their contents.
This is weird suprahuman stuff, stuff beyond touch and beyond our usual intuition, unless one bathes the brain in a nutrient-rich broth of advanced mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and similar elixirs. The concepts of dark matter and dark energy are elusive to those of us who crawl the earth looking for groceries and the next mortgage payment, but I am extremely (EXTREMELY!) pleased that some of us are paying attention to how this whole amazing thing fits together.
To close, while I was writing this thing I thought about a great Brian Eno song called “Help Me Somebody” from his amazing collaboration with David Byrne “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.” The song centers on samples of Reverend Paul Morton letting his congregation know what time it is but is fattened up by funk of the most satisfying kind, delivered by Eno, Byrne, John Cooksey (drums) and Steve Scales (congas, other percussion); I dare anyone to stay still while listening to this track.
The “lyric” (i.e. Rev. Morton’s sermon) includes the following, which I will paraphrase:
“It’s so high you can’t get over
It’s so low you can’t get under
It’s so wide you can’t get around”
I obviously dilute Reverend Morton’s intent here, but the song and lyric popped into my mind and seemed to be telling me that this is the nature of the universe – so high, so low, so wide. That’s the 96%. We live in the 4%.
As in all of these weighty posts, I encourage whatever readers I have to explore the additional materials. Some of them might make your brains hurt or itch or explode or collapse in on themselves. All of those are good! Do more of the things that make these things happen! There is great happiness available to those that feed their minds!
Every year, just like you, I have a “birth day,” which is a misnomer as I am not born on that day every year, although I was once. When people ask me why I don’t like to acknowledge my birthday I tell them that time is a continuum. It breezes from one tiny fraction of a second to the next without counting where (when?) it has been or where (when?) it is going. There are no fractions of seconds, of course. We made seconds up and then when those were too large, we fractionated them into as many decimal bits as we needed.
Every year, just like you, I have a “birth day,” a misnomer as I am not born on that day every year, although I was once. When people ask me why I don’t like to acknowledge my birthday I tell them that time is a continuum. It breezes from one tiny fraction of a second to the next without counting where (when?) it has been or where (when?) it is going. There are no fractions of seconds, of course. We made seconds up and when those were too large, we fractionated them into as many decimal bits as we needed. We made minutes up at some point, perhaps when hours seemed too long or work seemed too slow. We made hours up when the days passed like sap in the wintertime. Days, weeks, months and years were strongly suggested by planetary, lunar and solar phenomena. To our credit, we noticed these patterns and live our lives waiting for them to begin – or end – a hard day, a boring hour-long meeting, a cold winter, a hot-and-muggy summer, the wet season, the dry season, etc. For a nice review, have a look at this.
Typically, though, we don’t think of times much shorter than 0.17 seconds. That is approximately the time it takes to count each of the six beats (or in poetry, “feet”) in “one-Mississippi,” etc. The “one” gets sort of two beats and the “Mississippi” goes in four. If we are keyed into a speed sport, we may split things down to the tenth of a second – I’m not sure I can do this, but I’m relatively certain that people who judge these kinds of events may have a refined sense of one-tenth of a second. Then it’s down to the hundredths of a second and, although all sorts of stopwatches and “photo finish” timers work in that realm, I can’t imagine that the human mind can honestly do much more than watch as the hundredths accumulate into tenths.
There are many time intervals that are extremely difficult for humans to comprehend, though, very short and pretty long. At one end of the range, we have a unit developed in physics called Planck time, named after Max Planck, one of the brilliant theoretical physicists of the 20th Century. This unit is defined as the amount of time that it takes for light to travel one Planck length in a vacuum. A Planck length (not a piratical plank length) is very short indeed: 1.616199×10−35 meters (m), which is about 1×10−20 the diameter of a proton, which is very tiny and comes in somewhere between 0.84×10−15 to 0.87×10−15 m. It is conceived of as the shortest theoretically measurable length within an order of magnitude (or a factor of 10). How much time is a Planck time then? It is a mind-bendingly brief 5.39116×10−44 seconds. Let me show you a comparison between numbers. First, we have 1/10 second:
0.10 or 1/6 second 0.17 (the “Miss” in “Mississippi,” let’s say)
Now, let’s show a Planck time: 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000538116 seconds
To say that differently, but not necessarily more helpfully, there are about 2×10+43 of these Planck times in one second (simply the inverse of 5.39116×10−44 seconds), which is obviously a huge number (2 followed by 43 zeros). The links for Planck time and length will allow you to explore this matter more thoroughly, but both use the speed of light (c=3.00×108 m/s), the gravitational constant (G=6.674×10−11 N⋅m2/kg2) and Planck’s constant (actually, the reduced Planck’s constant, which divides Planck’s constant by 2π), which is 1.054571800(13)×10−34 J⋅s. All this to say something quite simple – Planck time (and length) is derived in a fairly straightforward way using some well-established physical constants, although with some very careful consideration by Dr. Planck. His considerations have held up well; Planck’s constant is part of any useful high school chemistry or physics curriculum.
The real takeaway here is that time and action are inextricably linked. For a Planck time to elapse, a Planck length must be traversed by a photon in a vacuum. A photon must start somewhere and, on its way to somewhere else, it must etch a Planck length in space. This linkage is pretty neat, however resolutely transfixed and “motionless” the avid reader may be in their chair. How can I say that? Are we ever still? No.
Consider the amount of time it takes to absorb one photon of the appropriate energy into the electronic shell of an atom. The photon is either moving at the speed of light (in a vacuum) or somewhere close to this speed if it is traveling through a non-vacuum medium. This modified speed of light is calculated by dividing the speed of light (c) by the index of refraction (n). The higher n is the slower the modified speed of light. Here’s a table of diminishing speeds of light:
Index of Refraction
Light Flint Glass
Dense Flint Glass
If the energy of an atom and the energy of a photon, moving at whatever speed after going through whatever medium, are compatible, the photon is absorbed by the atom with an electron quantum leaping proportionately. This process takes about 1 femtosecond or 1x10−15 seconds (or 0.000000000000001 seconds). There is some infinitesimal distance involved in these transitions, but the distances, if they are meaningful at all, are on the order of Planck lengths and do not add meaningfully to the time it takes a photon to be absorbed.
After that absorption occurs, a new cascade of intra-atomic events occur, each with an associated time, each a tiny bit longer, slower, more human-paced, than the absorption event. I would enumerate them, but instead, I’ll just use a picture, a table and a video for your edification.
The other completely nuts thing to keep in mind is that every single molecule and ever single atom in your body is vibrating and rotating – continuously! Every molecule we breathe, eat, digest, incorporate into our teeming collection of collaborative molecules is doing exactly that same thing. Here is a set of nifty .gif images to help you imagine the critical turmoil going on inside (and around) us all:
These represent the different modes of vibration along covalent bonds. In addition to this motion, there are the rotations of each atom at the ends of each bond – and these modes of rotation get complicated really quickly, with spin orientations and precessing (this is what a top does when it spins – the wobble is precession) around axes. It’s all really a maddening, continuous mechanism of complexity. Even if all these molecules inside us were cooled to absolute zero, the motion would continue, although slowed. And all of them are like tiny clocks running at tiny fractions of a second – at an astonishing rate of speed, at roughly 10,000,000,000,000 to 100,000,000,000,000 times per second.
But I am writing about time, not intra-atomic events, and we could all easily be lost inside an atom for the rest of time if caution is abandoned. It is part of the definition of being a chemist – getting lost in the atoms (or at least the molecules). And with phosphorescence events taking a tenth of a second (1×10-1 seconds (or 0.1 s)), we’re at the interval for phosphorescence and can almost comprehend this.
Let’s move on.
Human lives are measured in seconds as well. Nine months of gestation is 23,328,000 seconds (give or take); ask any mother and she will be able to vouch for the satisfaction and endlessness of each second. We go to first grade at 6 years or 189,216,000 seconds and graduate high school after 567,648,000 seconds. Lives get into a murky middle bit after this and people hit benchmarks at various times, but it all comes down to life expectancy in the end. The people in Monaco, one of the richest in the world, have an average life expectancy of 89.52 years, which is 2,823,102,720 seconds – almost 3 billion seconds, people, while the people of Chad, bordered by Nigeria, Niger, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Cameroon, have a life expectancy of 49.81 years – 1,570,808,160 seconds – very close to being half the average life expectancy of people in the Principality of Monaco, bordered on three sides by France and on the fourth by the Mediterranean, home of casinos, yachts and the Grand Prix. In the United States, average life expectancy is 79.68 years or 2,512,788,480 seconds, 311 million seconds less than the average citizen of Monaco; when stated that way, it seems like a huge difference, doesn’t it?
But we’re not done measuring out human life. In the U.S., we count forward from 0 (zero) B.C. and are currently in the year 2016 as I write this. Two thousand and sixteen years is composed of 63,576,576,000 seconds, only about 22.5 Monaco lifespans ago, but 40.5 Chad lifetimes ago (sort of crazy when you consider it that way). But B.C. (or B.C.E., the term used by anthropologists and anyone studying world history instead of Western European and Middle Eastern history) is just a convenient temporal interrupt in a much longer series of events.
Our species crept into the genome around 200,000 years ago – a time that dwarfs the 2,016 years B.C.E. by two orders of magnitude or roughly 100-fold (100 x). Two hundred thousand years is a whole bunch of seconds – 6,307,200,000,000 seconds, or six trillion three hundred seven billion, two hundred million seconds (the time seems more awesome when typed out as words). But we’re not done yet. Anthropologists have found lots of bones of our ancestors, our nearest relatives to the great apes appearing between 6 and 7 million years ago, 30 to 35-fold more time than for the slow evolution of Homo sapiens, or between 189.2 trillion and 220.8 trillion seconds ago (keep in mind that the 0.2 and 0.8 in those number represent 200 billion and 800 billion seconds).
But let’s keep going. The Cretaceous–Tertiary (K–T) extinction occurred around 65 million years ago; current theories favor a huge meteor striking the earth in the northern Yucatan peninsula; 2,049,840,000,000,000 seconds ago (2 quadrillion seconds). But the earth is believed to have coalesced from hot gases and particles of stardust into something like its current orbit around the sun around 4.5 billion years ago; various models move the digit after the “5” around (is it 4.49 or 4.54?), but there is general scientific consensus around the 4.5 billion figure. 4.5 billion years equals 141,912,000,000,000,000 seconds quadrillion seconds ago, and it was not a livable planet at the time.
The universe, on the other hand, is yet another order of magnitude older. There are at least five models for its age, but the weighted mean of these models puts the age at 12.94 billion years, thus giving the earth about 8 billion years to coalesce into the nasty, raging bit of heat that cooled to what we know and love now. If you do the dimensional analysis here (as I have done so often above), you get a universe that has been in existence creating stars and galaxies and solar systems and planets and moons and asteroids – and that continues to do all of those activities VERY actively right up until today – you get a universe of 408,075,840,000,000,000 seconds (408.1 quadrillion seconds). The universe has been in existence, plus or minus 2.3 billion years or so (see the link above) for 162,399,598.4 average American lifespans (one hundred sixty-two million three hundred ninety-nine thousand five hundred ninety-eight point four lifetimes).
Why have I taken you through a journey from Planck time to the age of the universe? To suggest two thoughts:
When humans try to imagine events in time, all of us start getting a little foggy about the whole business when it exceeds one of our average lifespans; even then, it is a rare twenty-year-old that can imagine what it means to be forty or sixty or eighty and the eighty-year-old increasingly feels that everything happened “as if it were yesterday.”
While I have divided up time into fractions of seconds at one end of the scale (the Planck time) and quadrillions of seconds at the other end of time, time is not a series of discrete events; it is continuous and seamless. If one divides a Planck time by another Planck time, the fraction of a second gets shorter – it is about 1×10-89 seconds. One can keep doing this – infinite divisibility – and never reach the continuous nature of time; it will always result in smaller and smaller fractions of time with seamless continuity of the asymptote.
It is entirely possible that we are at the measurement limits regarding the start of our universe. Our current measurements are “birth-of-universe-dependent,” that is, the phenomena that we measure to determine its age are all related to the birth of this universe, the one in which we are a tiny particle orbiting a tiny sun in a tiny solar system in a huge galaxy, which is one of countless huge galaxies (we keep on finding more galaxies) that comprise the universe as we know it SO FAR. Stephen Hawking currently hypothesizes that our universe is one such event in a multiverse. Consider a near-infinitely dense point somewhere in space-time (a “singularity”). From time to time, the density becomes too dense for the singularity to contain it and it “burps” out superfluous matter into space-time, but not in the plane and/or dimension of our universe. Sometimes, these burps are tiny and are reabsorbed by the singularity, but sometimes a new universe of some magnitude buds off and starts expanding. For additional erudition on this idea, please watch the following videos:
This is heady stuff and nearly impossible to understand, except through metaphor and analogy, without the help of advanced mathematics and profound amounts of deep thought (I am a mere chemist and find that I am boggled by these concepts, but I will not deny their allure (p.s. a mere chemist is different from the mythological mer-chemist)).
I will not get into how long this, our, universe is likely to exist. It is an imponderable but is being pondered. Let’s leave the future to those who speculate on those matters (cosmologists and physicists).To conclude, time is a dimension that is infinitely brief (or continuous) and infinitely long (or continuous). Dividing it into human events is convenient, but none of us should pretend that we understand it except by comparing it with events in our own lives. This is not always true; anthropologists, paleontologists, cosmologists, physicists, geologists live on a timeline that, by nature of their study, makes more sense to them and is relatively unlimited by average lifespans and birthdays. We should be humble when we consider the enormity of what has been observed and consider the enormity of what has been observed and consider carefully what is known while allowing that we are not done observing and trying to learn and probably will never finish unless we cease to exist altogether.
I was born in 1953 to people I don’t know and raised by people I wish I knew better. I have an academic background in literature and science and have worked in positions of increasing responsibility for over thirty years in one realm of the healthcare industry.
Biographical note: I was born in 1953 to people I don’t know and raised by people I wish I knew better. I have an academic background in literature and science and have worked in positions of increasing responsibility for over thirty years in one realm of the healthcare industry. I am interested in many areas of knowledge; literature and science (obviously), but also film, art, many types of music, various episodes in our peculiar, shared, often ignored history, political behavior (rather than politics), various religions. I wish there were more time in every day and more days in every life. I have more books than I know what to do with and keep on adding things to my wishlist that I may never get to read, but it is better to be curious than not, alive than dead.