“There will be days when we lose faith. Days when our allies turn against us…but the day will never come that we forsake this planet and its people.” ―Optimus Prime
There was too much to simply keep it to a single article a day this week here at Starts With A Bang! The dynamic duo of Megan Watzke and Kimberly Arcand published a delightful contribution on scale, and we’re gearing up for a month where we’ll highlight some of the telescopes of the 2020s (and maybe beyond) that will help shape the future of astronomy. In the meantime, those of you who caught totality from the eclipse have affirmed to me that it was, in fact, one of the greatest experiences of your lifetime. Want to know exactly what it was like? Well, check out our latest episode of the Starts With A Bang podcast, where we highlight exactly that!
- What science experiments will open the door to the future? (for Ask Ethan),
- The ‘Eye Of Creation’ Holds The Secrets To Cosmic Life And Death (for Mostly Mute Monday),
- How Hurricane Harvey’s Record-Setting Rainfall Is Happening Right Now,
- No, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Squashing Curiosity And Wonder Is Never Okay,
- Why understanding scale is vital, not just for science, but for everyone (by Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke),
- 5 Facts We Can Learn If LIGO Detects Merging Neutron Stars, and
- A new explanation for dark energy: the matter in our Universe.
I just received word that we’re six weeks away from the publication of Treknology, and that enough preorders have happened that they’re already going to have to do a second printing of the book! (That’s good news, probably.) But you’re not here to get book updates; you’re here for the bonus science. With that said, let’s get right to it, and into our comments of the week!
From Elle H.C. on nuclear reactions and energy conservation: “On the mass-energy conversion, so why do they say there’s no energy released during particle collisions, like in a fission reaction for instance, or is this something I misunderstood?”
So there’s an important starting point that I want to make sure gets emphasized: in every particle-particle, particle-photon, antiparticle-particle, etc., reaction that’s ever been observed, energy and momentum both are always 100% conserved. If you add up the energy of the rest mass plus the kinetic energy of the initial reactants, and compare it to the energy of the rest mass plus the kinetic energy of the products, energy is always conserved. Those two numbers will balance one another out.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the masses are going to balance! In fact, in pretty much every nuclear reaction, they don’t; either you have fusion (where energy is released, bringing you up closer to iron-56), or fission (where energy is released, bringing you down closer to iron-56), and so there’s more kinetic energy available at the end. That’s what normally happens. So overall, energy is usually liberated in a nuclear reaction, but it’s just being converted from one form (mass) to another (kinetic energy).
And from Elle H.C. again, on what may be the root of all these misconceptions: “I am only focusing on the idea of how vibrations might change the energy/mass levels of a Proton, and if that may lead to the disruption of a Proton.
Please do explain to us what’s so ‘misleading’ about this question.”
What’s misleading is that “vibration” is a completely unrelated classical concept that has no business in the quantum world. It’s not related and the question makes no sense, as nuclei don’t vibrate, energy levels don’t vibrate, and nothing of the sort causes the disruption or disintegration of a proton. For what seems like ages, you’ve been going on about this, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why you wouldn’t take “this makes no sense” for an answer.
But now I think I see. For clarification, you also provided a link to where this idea of vibration comes from: Sean Carroll’s blog. And Sean, like many, talks about how a particle can be viewed as a vibration, or excitation, of a fundamental field. For example, he calls the Higgs boson a vibration of the Higgs field. So I think this is where your misconception arises, because you are picturing the field as an underlying, static thing, permeating all of space, and that it’s vibrating in one place, creating a particle there, and so if you make that field vibrate in one spot over and over, perhaps you can make something interesting happen.
I think that’s where your mind is. And if so, here’s why it’s wrong.
Sure, for a physical string, it makes sense to talk about different vibrational modes, and how they correspond to different sounds or frequencies. But for fields and particles, they’re only called:
- or vibrations,
- or energy levels,
- or excitations,
because the different allowable states obey an analogous set of mathematical rules. But nothing is vibrating, and nothing is excited, and nothing is physically at a different level, and so on. The proton does not vibrate; space does not vibrate; even fields do not vibrate. Particles don’t exist (or not exist) because a field is (or isn’t) vibrating; particles exist (or not) with a particular configuration because of the quantum state that a quanta of energy occupies (or doesn’t occupy). I hope this clears up your “vibration” questions once and for all!
You have misinterpreted an analogy to mean something other than what it means, and have been talking about physical impossibilities as though they had validity because of it. But that’s not the end of the world! It just means that you have an opportunity, so long as you’re humble before the laws of nature, to learn about where your misconception is. You can learn about the way the Universe actually works, revise your picture of it, and begin drawing more valid conclusions and asking better questions. If you can do that, you’re well on your way to a satisfying life that’s rooted in the physical reality we all inhabit.
From Frank on what is and isn’t possible: “Basically, we don’t really know many big ideas in science-fiction are really theoretically/practically possible or not. And that means our knowledge of physics is incomplete. And that means we should try to answer those questions by doing more theoretical research, as well as more experiments and observations.”
Here’s the important thing, to be totally transparent: Everything that we can draw conclusions about is based only in our current understanding of physics and the laws that govern the Universe. But it’s fun, as a theorist, to play the game of “what if?” What if all we know isn’t all there is to physics? What if there are some new things? And if X or Y or Z is a new thing, what are the consequences that arise?
That was the point of last week’s Ask Ethan article: what could possibly occur to bring some of our “science fiction” dream technologies into reality? And if antimatter has a negative gravitational mass (we haven’t made a sensitive enough test), or dark matter can be harnessed and turned/amplified into energy via E = mc^2 (it may be possible), or if the Universe rotates at the right rate to allow closed timelike curves (it probably doesn’t, but it isn’t ruled out), some very interesting consequences arise. In particular, some presently thought-to-be-impossible ideas become possible. And that’s worth remembering, as we continue to experiment.
From CFT on loss and behavior: “My last few posts were very upset and angry, I made the mistake of drinking after receiving a phone call about the death of someone very dear to me.”
Well all the best to you in these troubling times. May you make peace with what has happened and come out okay with yourself, your life, and the world without your loved one on the other side of your grief.
Thank you, also, to rich r for being a model of kindness in his compassion to CFT. Kindness, remember, costs us nothing.
From John on the physics of hurricanes: “It’s notable to read here of a science that appears essentially the same as was presented to me in primary school many moons ago!”
This is very much the case! The basics of hurricane science and tropical storm formation, in general, has changed very little in perhaps the past 40+ years. Once we began launching Earth-monitoring satellites to watch how these storms form over the ocean, we learned very quickly what the mechanisms at play were. Air blowing rapidly over a warm ocean (typically, at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit or 27 degrees Celsius) will result in that air collecting water, rising, cooling, forming clouds, and then the air dropping again, while additional warm, wet air continuing to rise beneath it. The faster the winds and the warmer the water, the more devastating this can get.
People with a variety of political persuasions are going to argue about what the finer points of this one event — Hurricane Harvey — means, but the previous paragraph, about the basic science behind hurricane formation, will not change, no matter what is legislated.
From Sean T on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s wonder-crushing statements: “Most people will only experience an eclipse when it is relatively close to home, as this one was for Americans (as will, of course the 2024 one be as well). Let people just wonder at and enjoy it when they can.”
Do you see the above image? See that “giant” swath where the eclipse falls? That quarter-of-a-percent of Earth’s surface? According to Neil, that’s what “not rare” looks like. Now, there was misinformation out there — and it’s always good to correct misinformation — but it’s important to do it in a way that’s inclusive, that doesn’t talk down to people, and that amplifies the wonder and awe at the natural Universe. At least, that’s what I try to have be my modus operandi.
But I have gotten, particularly on Twitter and Tumblr, a lot of hate mail about the piece I wrote about Neil. This is one of the dangers of a personality cult: if you deify someone, you lose the ability to recognize their flaws, no matter how egregious they are. And if you believe it about yourself, you lose the ability to self-improve. May we all never fall into that trap here!
From jvj on another eclipse experience: “I spent 45 minutes explaining how an eclipse happens to a young person, with a HS education, who didn’t know what the Milky Way is. He spent 1 1/2 hours watching the eclipse with his family with a pair of Celestron 2X eclipse glasses I gave him. (We had 80% totality in our location).
No doubt hundreds of thousands of folks who haven’t given “science” a second thought in a long time also joined my friend in experiencing the eclipse.”
Part of the reason, I think, that so many people don’t engage with science is that it feels so foreign to them. It feels as though it’s divorced from their day-to-day experience. What made this eclipse special is that there were literally 200,000,000 people who lived within a 1-day drive of the path of totality. This was a very rare opportunity for people to experience a cosmic event that only occurs over any particular location on Earth, on average, once every 400 years or so.
Yes, eclipses anywhere aren’t rare, but you don’t get to be everywhere on Earth at once. Relating science to what people experience and understand is one of the biggest challenges of science communication. Yes, Neil correctly stated a fact, achieving McLovin levels of communication.
But that’s just my opinion, and you’re entitled to your own as well.
From symball on visualizations for scale: “Here in the UK we have a more standard unit scale, for areas it is the size of Wales, and for volume either olympic swimming pools or Wembley Stadium. For height we use double decker buses, or occasionally Nelsons Column.”
I personally propose that we begin using a single, standard unit for areas, volumes, heights, and weights.
How do you feel about units of “Godzillas”?
From Anadish Kumar Pal on whether LIGO could have detected merging neutron stars or not: “There might be some astronomical observation of gravitational waves produced by neutron stars; although, I think, this time it is quite improbable, looking at the sheer fortuitousness of the so-called detection makes it untenable — the VIRGO run was too short (just 25 days), LIGO never found any orbiting neutron stars’ gravitational waves in the last 3 years, while there are too many neutron stars nearby to have slipped LIGO’s notice.”
Remember, please, how probability works. And combine that with how gravitational wave events work. The amplitude of gravitational waves increase tremendously in the final moments, as the distance between two objects reaches a minimum. The known neutron star pairs are far too distant to have their gravitational wave amplitudes detected. In fact, it’s only during the final seconds, at most, that inspiraling binaries will be at the appropriate frequencies and amplitudes to be seen by LIGO.
So saying “we didn’t see anything in years” is like buying a lottery ticket every second for a few years (it was months, actually, but whatever), and not winning, and drawing the conclusion that therefore, I won’t win if I play for another few weeks. But maybe you will!
No one expected LIGO would detect its first black hole-black hole merger after turning on for just a few days in September of 2015, but it happened. Merging neutron stars — with or without VIRGO observing it, too — could have happened. Of course, it could not have happened, too. It’s just speculation at this point. But don’t say “too many neutron stars nearby to have slipped LIGO’s notice” as though that’s a fact. Until we know the merger rate and the local population of neutron star binaries, that’s not a valid conclusion.
And finally, from Frank on analogous experiments: “If physical Black Hole analogue(s) possible, then maybe we should try to find physical analogue(s) for expansion of the universe/Dark Energy.”
You must be very precise if you want to create an analogue system. Most people, when they talk about building a system as an analogy for a system that we cannot physically study in a lab, misunderstand what’s going on entirely. It’s very tempting to try and create a visualization in your head for what an analogous system would look like, to set that system up, and then run experiments. But that is not what an “analogue system” as you call it actually is.
Rather, it’s a system that is governed by the same equations, which may or may not look anything like the original system you’re trying to model. You know how we build black hole analogs? We create a low-temperature, condensed matter system with a rapidly flowing fluid, where it flows so fast it exceeds the speed of sound in that medium. These sonic black holes are called this because sound waves cannot escape from the fluid. It’s a mathematical analogy. We can try to find a physical analogue for an expanding Universe or dark energy, but that’s a tall order that won’t be easily accomplished by a conventional, positive-pressure fluid or gas. It’s important to be open-minded, but when you confront your idea with physical reality, it’s reality that shall always be the victor and the arbiter of what’s right.
Thanks for a great week, everyone, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow for more Starts With A Bang!