“The Universe” Bingo Card


After years of watching The Discovery Channel, I feel like I’ve at last acquired a 10th-grade understanding of astrophysics, so even one of these is usually enough for me to change the channel.

E411: I blew it out the god damn airlock.

/Emergency 411

When you find yourself adrift in outer space without a spacesuit, the first thing to remember is don’t panic.

Seriously, it uses up your precious O2 that much faster.

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gpm = mpg^-1


More useless non-news from the front page of Yahoo! Report: U.S. drivers should think in gallons per mile.

No, they shouldn’t. Because it’s a ratio. Whether it’s ten miles for one gallon of gas, or a 1/10th of a gallon for one mile, it’s still the same goddam thing — nevermind that if your car gets 10 miles to the gallon, it better be a Greyhound bus. But Richard Larrick, a management professor (note: not a mathematics professor) at Duke University claims that:

“The reality that few people appreciate is that improving fuel efficiency from 10 to 20 miles per gallon is actually a more significant savings than improving from 25 to 50 miles per gallon for the same distance of driving,”

Improving fuel efficiency by 100% is the same no matter what — if there’s indeed a “math illusion” at work here as he claims in the article, it is very elusive indeed.

I think what he means is gaining 5 miles per gallon when your car only gets 20 is a bigger improvement than if your car already gets 40 miles to the gallon, but… oh wait, I was able to figure that out using the existing miles/gallon ratio. Remind me again why we need this new measurement?

Ultimately there are some funny discrepancies in math, like increasing 100 to 150 is a 50% increase, while decreasing 150 to 100 is a 1/3 decrease, but simply flipping the units in the ratio between miles and gallons does not mean you’re magically going to see an improvement in fuel efficiency. GPM is an utterly redundant marketing ploy, because you’re still paying $1 for 0.23 gallons of gas.

Adding ‘internet addiction’ to the DSM-V is just crazy


According to Engadget Mobile, the American Journal of Psychology is considering uncontrollable texting or e-mailing be “classified as an official brain illness.” which “should be added to psychiatry’s official guidebook of mental disorders.”

No. Just no.

I’ve studied psychology, and it gets a bad rap as a ‘soft science’ for just this reason. After Seasonal Affect Disorder, Restless Leg Syndrome, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, “ringxiety”, and the debacle that had every single 20-something who spends more than 3 hours a day on the internet self-diagnosing themselves with Asperger’s Syndrome, I’m going to have to draw the line here. Remember: the DSM-IV is an improvement over DSM-III because of the things it left out, things like homosexuality, masturbation, and not thinking everything was gee-golly swell for part of the time. This we smugly look back on as repressed egghead psychologists trying to over-classify anything outside whitebread ’50s Americana as ‘deranged’. And here we are, inventing mental disorders to add back in. This isn’t progress. By classifying every nuanced form of human behavior back into the DSM (albeit with a 21st century twist), we gain no better understanding of mental disorders, we merely muddy the waters by classifying normal, garden-variety irresponsibility as something much bigger than it really is.

Or as Chris Rock put it, “Whatever happened to crazy?”

A compulsive need for novelty and stimulation may not be a mental disorder at all but just the way humans are wired. Dr. Irving Biederman of USC explains why:

…coming across what Dr. Biederman calls new and richly interpretable information triggers a chemical reaction that makes us feel good, which in turn causes us to seek out even more of it. The reverse is true as well: We want to avoid not getting those hits because, for one, we are so averse to boredom.

It is something we seem hard-wired to do, says Dr. Biederman. When you find new information, you get an opioid hit, and we are junkies for those. You might call us ‘infovores.’ “

So mammals with large brains crave information? All this and more from the medical journal “Duh!”. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to eat as many sweet things as I can and smile when I feel nervous or threatened. You know, some people would call that crazy?

Lights in the sky


He’s been on the air since before the invention of television, so I’ll cut Larry King some slack when he runs short on credible topics to cover, but last weekend after reawakening from a surprise nap in a Las Vegas hotel room, I found myself with an hour to kill and Larry King’s episode about UFOs caught my befuddled attention. I guess there’s a conference in Dublin, Texas this week covering UFOs and Larry wanted to put a couple of housewives trained observers on the air to tell their tale about a sighting of a ludicrously large UFO over their house.

The observers know it was a spacecraft of alien origin because they saw five lights in the sky which looked connected. Of course. This begs an oft-overlooked question: do UFOs even have running lights? None of the satellites earth has sent into orbit or to the surface of another planet have blinking lights on their wings or bodies. Even the space shuttle — the only craft we know to have visited the earth from outer space — doesn’t have running lights. Navigation lights are an earth contrivance, standardized by the FAA. Are we to assume that the Greys from Omicron Persei-8 stopped to certify their craft with the feds before taking their silent, mile-long boomerang out for a joyride?

I’m guessing that idea hasn’t occurred to the brainiac sisters in the clip below. I feel for skeptic James McGaha when having to deal with the staggering genius of a UFO witness who refutes him with, “I don’t really care about the subject enough. I saw what I saw.”

100% Pure Energy


From the back to the middle and around again,
I’m gonna be there ’til the end

While doing the embarrassingly lazy equivalent of “research” into the origin of the universe on Wikipedia, I came across an interesting timeline for — wait for it — THE END OF THE UNIVERSE. With the cryptic name 1 E19s, this article lays out what’s expected to happen to the universe at time scales after 1 x 1019 seconds (or about 317 billion years).

Anyway, nothing particularly interesting happens in the first 1030 years of the universe, apart from entropy, the synthesis of heavy elements, and heat death, at which point all matter is swallowed up by black holes. Yawn.

BUT! After only 1036 years the universe will undergo a dramatic change: it will become entirely energy-based. The protons in the nucleus of every atom will start to decay. Oh yeah, every proton and every atom everywhere has existed since the birth of the universe, some 1.3 x 1013 years ago. Did I forget to mention that?

Proton decay is a process where matter turns back into energy as predicted by the Grand Unification Theory. The one problem here is that proton decay has never been observed and may not exist. Well screw you, it’s my story.

Just as radioactive elements decay, the protons that make up all matter will themselves begin to erode after a long enough time. So what you have is all the matter across the universe slowly breaking down into energy. This won’t create a big bang, but rather think of proton decay as you slowly turning up the heat in your oven until your dinner is burnt. Wait, bad example. Some like it hot, but some sweat when the heat is on. Is that any clearer?

Once this matter-decay energy has reached a high enough level, the plainly-titled grand unification energy predicted by GUT transforms “the electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear forces are fused into a single unified field.” This energy level is estimated to be around 1015 electron volts, and only a few orders of magnitude under the limits of the Plank temperature, Max Plank’s “these go to 11” idea of the greatest allowed energy state of matter before it begins to break apart. We now have enough energy throughout the universe that the four fundamental forces have become one.

So just as the universe started out as hydrogen, then built itself up into heavier elements, which combined to form compounds, which then created life, as the universe undergoes this change from a matter-based to an energy-based system, could the next stage of life be one entirely based on grand unification energy? Will life and intelligence survive beyond the heat death of the universe and survive into this brave new world? What would having control over electromagnetic, gravitational and atomic forces mean for whatever life that does exist?

I know it’s an old sci-fi staple, but seeing the theories behind energy-based life made it once again interesting to me.

While the heat death of the universe seems to be a bit of a downer, the Grand Unification Theory does provide some hope. Though the matter-based universe has run its course, it’s fascinating to speculate that at a certain time, when all matter has dissipated into energy, the state of the universe will reach a critical flashpoint where the four horsemen fundamental forces will unite and the universe will become pure energy (or at least 99 & 44/100% pure). Doesn’t this scenario sound somewhat similar to the conditions before the big bang? To anything living after that flashpoint, it would seem that the conversion from matter to energy would be their big bang.

Still no word yet on whether there will be a Crystal Waters / Information Society crossover club mix to herald that in.

Steady State vs. Big Bang model of the universe


A recent episode of The Universe, the thought-provoking series about (you guessed it) the universe, explained man’s increasing understanding of the origin of the universe as well as our place in it. Through the work of Galileo, Kepler, Einstein and Hubble we’ve come to understand more about the true nature of our universe and discovered with some trepidation that the more we understand about our universe, the further removed we become from the center of it.

What got me thinking were two competing models of the origin of the universe from the late 1940s. (As an aside, it’s unbelievable that what seems like a given fact today about the origin and nature of the universe was only a theory as recently as 1965.) These two theories were the Big Bang theory behind the creation of the universe — perhaps you’ve heard of it? — versus the Steady State model, which states that while it is expanding, the universe did not originate in a single explosion, but the way it is now is the way it will always be through the steady but infinitesimal introduction of new matter.

SPOILER ALERT: The Big Bang model has become the accepted theory.

Anyway, the thing that concerned me was the amount of heavier elements in the universe. Steady State said that at the non-moment of creation, we got all the heavier elements we have now: carbon, nitrogen, iodine, whatever. The big bang states that all matter originally formed from hydrogen, which was later fused together in the core of stars. That makes everything in the universe a byproduct of solar fusion, or to borrow one of Carl Sagan’s more popular terms, we are “star stuff”.

But if the heat and pressure of billions and billions of tons of hydrogen at millions of degrees is enough to fuse hydrogen into heavier elements, why did the heat and pressure of the big bang (roughly the mass of everything compressed into a space the size of nothing) result in only the creation of hydrogen, nature’s lightest element?

The easy out here is that the rules of general relativity are kind of thrown out for oddball situations like the big bang or when mass, velocity, or scale are very large, but it seems atypical — or at least unusual — that the universe’s largest explosion produced just one kind of matter.

Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so


Discover Magazine tells me time may not exist, which will be handy to tell my employer the next time I show up to work “late”.

The article’s point is that time is a bit of an oddball force in that it only ever moves in one direction. But I wouldn’t call it unique by that alone. One of the things that always bugged me in high school physics was that one could never have negative centripetal force, only a positive force from zero to whatever. And even velocity can’t have a negative value, just a different vector in which it’s moving. An object may be moving backwards relative to you because of its direction, but its velocity is still a positive value. It’s either moving or it isn’t. So is one-directional time really so unusual, or are we merely unable to perceive it moving in different directions?

Disintegration of the Persistence of MemoryMaybe it’s incorrect to assume that time moves in a strictly linear fashion. The Physics and Phenomenology of Time states that time may not necessarily move as the crow flies, but meander around like a vine on a pole, sometimes forward, sometimes backward, but it gets where it’s going in the end. I left home this morning and arrived at work afterwards; I didn’t take a straight line to get there — but I got there in the end. Just as the motion of subatomic particles occur on such a small scale that we don’t notice them, maybe that we’re all meandering through time on such a large scale that we don’t notice it, just as my car moved along various city streets on my way to work, but I didn’t change my position inside it.

Even the measurement of time may have cause and effect backwards:

“I recently went to the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder,” says Lloyd. (NIST is the government lab that houses the atomic clock that standardizes time for the nation.) “I said something like, ‘Your clocks measure time very accurately.’ They told me, ‘Our clocks do not measure time.’ I thought, Wow, that’s very humble of these guys. But they said, ‘No, time is defined to be what our clocks measure.’”

This illustrates the problem of time: it cannot be observed. The change in the state of objects (such as the hands of a clock) can be measured over a given period of, erm… time, but what’s being measured is just the objects themselves: the unwinding of a spring, the rotation of a cog, the pulse of an atom… but where is the “time” happening?

Now one question remains: if time doesn’t exist, why hadn’t I heard about this sooner?

Harnessing alien technology… mostly


I was watching UFO Files on the History Channel and they gave a list of the miracle technology from the last half of the century that’s the result of aliens: kevlar, nightvision, stealth technology, the transistor, fiber optics, lasers. All this amazing technology UFO believers will say is the result of reverse-engineered technology found from a crashed UFO in Roswell, New Mexico.

And yet this argument glosses over one minor missing piece of technology… the whole “intergalactic space travel” thing.

Seasonal Effect Disorder


It’s the 15th of November, it’s 82 degrees and you are fucking kidding me.

Winter of Discontent

But apparently it “feels like” 80. No it doesn’t. It feels like July.

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