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“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.

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Emergency 411 Video

E411: I blew it out the god damn airlock.

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.

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.

At last! A practical death ray.

Hidden amongst the pop-up ads upon Flash pop-up ads, NewScientist reports that scientists at UC Riverside have found a way to use the decay of antiparticles to create gamma radiation millions of times more powerful than conventional chemical lasers.

If positronium atoms could be forced to merge into a kind of “super-atom” condensate, it would decay in bursts of identical gamma rays, which could lead to gamma-ray lasers a million times more powerful than standard lasers.

Um, I just said that. The thing that fasctinates me is that I had grown so accustomed to shiny red lasers being the next big thing in high-tech murder that I forgot they’re nothing more than a focused energy beam, and are only a small part of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation at that. Electromatic radiation exists in a range of frequencies from radio waves to X-rays to gamma rays, and a gamma ray burst of sufficient energy is just as effective at breaking apart molecular bonds as a beam of high-energy visible light, if not moreso. The freaky part is it’s also invisible.

These induced gamma ray emissions are also known as the significantly more terrifying, but unfortunately named, Gaser. I don’t know what weapons will be used to fight World War III, but WW4.0 may see the ravages brought by the n00b-grenade, pwnz3r tank, or perhaps a LOLtomic bomb.

Oh, and the icing on the cake is that scientists are creating anti-matter to accomplish this. Finally, a sane use for positronium.

In other news, OldScientist is trying to develop a death ray using inclined planes and alchemy.

The Synesthete’s Alphabet

Much has been made of Daniel Tammet, the “Brain Man” who could recite Pi to 22,000 places. How the savant achieved this feat was by picturing the digits that make up Pi’s infinite and complex string of numbers. The condition facilitating this monumental task is called synesthesia, where the mind unconsciously blends together two different sensations. In this case, it is grapheme-color synesthesia that causes his mental picture of a number (or letter) to appear as more than just an abstract numeral, as it would on a page. Instead he perceives it to have a great deal of unique, identifying characteristics. To a non-synesthete, 3 is just 3, but to him, “every number up to 10,000… has its own color, has its own shape, has its own texture.”

“For example, 289 is an ugly number, I don’t like it much.” And he’s got a point. Yellow, inky-blue and reddish-pink? Yeck, what an ugly color combination!

Though my degree of grapheme-color synesthesia is nowhere near as profound as the Brain Man’s, I’ll share the colors I associate with the letters of the alphabet, as well as the numbers 0 through 9.

A B C