Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The State Machine

Dorky engineer joke of the day (from a cartoon on a co-worker's office door):
  • Person: Make me a sandwich.
  • Other Person: What? Make it yourself.
  • Person: sudo Make me a sandwich.
  • Other Person: Okay.
One more thing I wanted to call out from the post on String Theory a couple of weeks ago was another upshot of the existence of Planck's Constant: the existence of a smallest measurable unit of time. This means if you are, say, tracking the path of a photon (which I myself was doing just the other day), the best you'll ever be able to do is take a series of "snapshots" of the movement of that photon (to say nothing of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which implies that you won't be able to get an accurate position without upsetting the velocity). I previously argued that for quantities theoretically smaller than those derived from Planck's constant, there is no reality--at least not as we understand it. If I were to look at the snapshots, I could try to infer to motion that was taking place "in between" each snapshot--I could see the particle in one place in one picture and in another place in the next. But the Heisenberg Principle implies that I'd never be able to know for sure, and the 20th century interpretation of this is that there simply isn't an answer. The particle may as well have teleported from one place to the next.

(L., who has not followed a single thing I have written so far, has just keyed in to the word "teleported." She is very interested in somebody inventing teleportation).

So does this mean that we're actually living in a universe constructed like an early-80's version of Flight Simulator? Are we experiencing a reality in which a few instants of processor time are taken to render each frame, with each frame only slightly different from the last? Is it only the (seemingly trivial!) fact that these instants go by about a billion-trillion-trillion times too quickly for us to detect that makes us believe that we're experiencing reality as a continuous stream of events rather than a series of pictures?

To further abuse the computer metaphor, the universe seems an awful lot like it has a maximum processor speed--it has an absolute upper limit (the speed of light) at which information can be delivered, and it seems to have an absolute lower limit on its resolution. I don't know if this is a particularly good metaphor, though, or if it is, what it might signify.

Next: Nobody understood the Flight Simulator reference, did they?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Begetting Too

Men of Luggage, check your coats, sit down and stay awhile,
Loosen your ties. Enough rope to hang yourselves
Is waiting on the nightstand when you're picking up the phone.
I thought at least you would have figured out by now

That same mistake that you'll make over and over again

In your lives. You're burying the past, then just digging up the graves.
Don't blame yourself, I know you'd fight it if you could.
You're making up the rivals who are knocking down your door,
Don't hang around, they might be coming back for blood.

That same mistake that you'll make over and over again,
That same heartbreak that you'll make over and over again.
So travel light.

And you're wearing The Coat That Isn't Keeping Out The Cold,
And you carry that torch for yourself.
And I warn you the flame might just burn you at the touch,
But you don't want to hear about it all that much.
So travel light.

Men of Luggage turn around, try to retrace your steps
I do not think they will be coming back for you.
Men of Luggage it's okay, it's hard to live this life.
In your shoes I don't know what I would do,
So travel light.

Next: Context! (No, just kidding, no context.)

Friday, October 06, 2006

Seven Minutes in Heaven

(No, just kidding. It's about Physics again).

The discovery that launched the century-plus-long miasma of chaos and discovery in which Physics now finds itself was Max Planck's discovery in 1900 that energy comes only in discrete quantities, the eponymous quanta of Quantum Physics. At last count, the satchets of energy came in 6.6260693 (+/- .0000011) x 10 -34 Joule-second-sized pieces, so they're not, you know, big or anything.

The fact that energy comes in packets necessarily creates other smallest measurable units--e.g. the Planck Length, which is the smallest distance that can be measured (1.62 x 10-35 meters), or the Planck Time, which is how long it takes a light photon to traverse that distance (5.39121 × 10-44 seconds). You can see the rest here (no, don't really click there. You aren't actually interested). The existence of the Planck Time is of particular befuddlement to the physicists who are trying to figure out how our universe started. They have a pretty good idea of everything that happened starting from 5.39121 × 10-44 seconds--elementary particles were formed; galaxies, stars, planets coalesced; THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT; your first kiss playing "Seven Minutes in Heaven" at Tana Barton's house in the 7th grade; they know all of that stuff. But from time 0 to 5.39121 × 10-44 seconds, before the forces of nature and elementary particles formed, that stuff's a theoretical mystery.

For those of you whose eyes glazed over in that last paragraph, here it is in handy chart form:
TimeThings Known
5.39121 × 10-44 - nowStuff
0 - 5.39121 × 10-44Fuck all

What I like about String Theory (which I mentioned last time and is the point of this entry--bet you didn't see that coming) is that it agrees with the Hindus and the Buddhists that the universe is vibrating. What bugs me about it is the same thing that probably bugs most people about it--it has thusfar failed not only to make any testable predictions about the nature of the universe, but any predictions it could have made so far would never be testable, for (very, very roughly) the reasons I list above. The strings of String Theory are supposed to be Planck-length one-dimensional objects. To form all the particles and forces that are so far known, they would have to have eleven or twelve or thirteen dimensions in which to symmetrically vibrate.

There could well exist a dimension or twelve too small to be observed--I'm all about all the extra dimensions, myself. What really bugs me about String Theory is that at the Planck length and smaller, there is no is. What we learned from the first part of 20th Century Physics is that if nobody observes something, its properties...aren't. Light is both a particle and wave until somebody forces it into one or the other identity. Entwined particles have no spin until you observe the one or the other, and then they both have complementary spin. You could never observe a Planck-length string--to make such an observation you'd have to energize a photon so much that it would create tiny black hole in the location you were trying to observe. So as far as I'm concerned the universe is actually made up of myriad stoats of Planck-length size, all shrieking their stoaty cries at various frequencies and timbres, each shriek determining whether that stoat forms a neutrino, graviton, or gauge boson. It happens, by remarkable coincidence, that my Super-Stoat Theory of the universe uses the exact same equations for the cries of my tiny, tiny stoats that String Theory uses for the n-dimensional symmetric vibrations of their tiny, tiny strings. But my theory involves infinity percent more stoats than does String Theory, thus making it superior. And there endeth the lesson.

Next: Somewhat more useful lessons!