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!

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