Brian Keaney

Tag: physics

Better than I used to be

For most of high school I didn’t really care for science class.  Introduction to Physical Science was OK my freshman year, but I didn’t like biology in my sophomore year, and I really despised chemistry as a junior.  Come senior year, however, I actually really enjoyed physics.  The teacher was great, and I found the subject matter intuitive and engaging.

I’ve written here before that I’ve been questioning the structure of the atom since suffering through Mr. Creedon’s lectures in the 11th grade.  The past few books I’ve read have been on quantum physics, and once again I was teased into believing that I might finally be told how a quantum jump (when an electron moves from one orbit to another, without being any place in between) works.  Alas, once again I was disappointed.

The last of my trifecta of books on this subject was Kenneth Ford’s 101 Quantum Questions, and early on in the book – question 26, to be exact – the question “What is a quantum jump?” is proposed.  I was excited, as I thought I might finally have an answer.  I wish that the question was instead “How does a quantum jump work?” because while it was described, it was still not explained.  The author did mention that Einstein didn’t like them either, so at least I am in good company.

In a somewhat related question (72), Ford says that

Perhaps the most astonishing feature of that graph is that at five points… the probability is exactly zero.  This means that if the particle is in that particular state of motion, it will never be found at one of those positions.  If it is never going to be found at points B, C, or D, you  might ask, how could it get from A to E?  How could it cover the distance from one wall to the other without some probability of being found at every point in between?

I have been asking that question for more than a decade now.  The best answer Ford can come up with is that “Well, there are some things in quantum physics that we just have to accept whether we find them reasonable or not.”  Needless to say, this answer is less than satisfying.

Einstein reportedly called quantum physics “spooky.”  I think mind blowing is a more apt term.  A particle is both a wave when it suits it to be a wave, and a particle when it suits it to be a particle.  Not only that, but a particle by itself can travel backwards and forwards in time, jump through walls, and do any number of other things that completely defy common sense.

I am both intrigued and frustrated by the subject, but am painfully aware of how much else is out there of which I am even more ignorant, and have moved on in my reading pursuits.  I’m currently on a philosophy bent with Sandel and Kierkegaard both in the queue, and am on the lookout for a new topic to explore when I am done with them.  With this being the summer, and substantial time being spent on the beach in addition to a hefty diet of MBTA hours, I’m looking to branch out into something completely different.

 

Along those lines, I am taking my first math class in over 10 years.  While in grad school I would usually skip over the portions of journal articles that described how the studies were conducted and only skim the statistical analysis.  At one point, as more of a personal challenge than anything else, I decided to check out Statistics for Dummies out of the library and teach it to myself.

I did alright, although I don’t think I finished the book.  Several of the jobs I’ve been applying to want someone with an understanding of the subject, however, so I decided to pay someone who knows what they are talking about to teach it to me.  I’ve done very well so far, and am considering finding a calculus class in the fall so that I can take a college level physics class in the spring.

In Tim McGraw’s new song he talks about trying to become a better person.  I don’t think he means academically, and heaven knows there are plenty of areas where I could use some improvement, so lately I’ve been listening to it even more than We’re Not Young.  Still, I’d like to think that when he sings “I ain’t as good as I’m gonna get, but I’m better than I used to be,” that it applies to me as well.

All I know is that I know nothing

Before I begin, one of my favorite Monty Python skits ever.  It ranks up there with the Spanish Inquisition and the dead parrot.

My boss told me today that I need to watch more TV.  Basically he was calling me a geek, but I think I get enough pop culture in my diet to not get tagged with the term.  For example, I know enough about Jersey Shore to know that I never want to watch it.  Let’s also not forget that I can’t get through the day without checking Texts from Last Night a few times.

He’s also told me in the last week or so that he’s not sure if I get out too much, or not enough.  I think it’s the latter, but that’s really not the point.  His comments today came after I was telling him that I’m (still) reading a book on quantum physics.  While it hasn’t yet, it seems to be leading towards answering one of the questions I’ve long held about the structure of the atom.

I might be wrong, but so far I’ve surmised that a quantum leap isn’t a jump into an alternative universe, but is actually how an electron moves from one level of orbit to another without being anywhere in between.  I’ve been asking that question since high school and still don’t quite understand how, but I’m hoping I will by the time I finish the book.

OK, so maybe I am a geek, but I prefer to think of myself as a philosopher in the truest sense, as a lover of wisdom.  This afternoon I was brought back to a college philosophy course I took with one of my toughest and favorite professors, Fr. Brian Shanley.  I distinctly remember the class in which we discussed the problem of predestination.  If God is omniscient and eternal, the argument goes, then she must know what you are going to do in the future before you do it.

If that’s the case, then your entire life is set out before you from time immemorial, and thus there can be no such thing as free will.  According to that logic I’m writing this blog post because I was destined to do so, and I have no control over whether I act for good or for evil in anything I do.  Fr. Shanley got around the problem (as he certainly does believe in free will) by saying that the Almighty exists outside of time, in a sort of eternal present.  There is no future or past for God, only right now.

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!&...
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One of the 182 people I follow on Twitter, a handful are religious types.  Of this category two of my favorites are @DalaiLama and @TheFuckingPope.  (The former claims to be an official feed; the latter, not so much.)  Closer to home, the Archdiocese of Boston tweets fairly frequently, and every day puts forth the name of a priest and asks that their 500 followers pray for him.  I don’t think my prayers count for much, but I am aware of what an important role these men play in the lives of so many people, so I do usually try and take a moment to send a note upstairs on their behalf.

Today they asked that we pray for all the deceased priests of the archdiocese, and thus we get back to Fr. Shanley’s class.  If I can pray in what for me is the present, and God is forever in the present, then does she hear my prayer yesterday, or last week, or 100 years ago as well as today?  If I can pray for the repose of the soul of a priest who died before I was born, but when I pray makes no difference to God, could I instead pray that he lives a good and holy life, or that his first girlfriend doesn’t break his heart, or that he aces his math exam, even those these events took place, according to my concept of time, tens or hundreds of years ago?  Going in the other direction, wouldn’t it make as much sense to pray for a painless death for my great-grandchildren – children that are not now and may never be?

I don’t know the answer to that any more than I know how a quantum leap works.  What I do know is that in the first book I ever read in college, Socrates, my least favorite of the Greek philosophers, said something that has stuck with me more than anything else I learned in those four years: All I know is that I know nothing.

I’m painfully aware of how little I actually know, so I don’t plan on turning the TV on any time soon, even if that makes me a geek.

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Some thoughts on media

A couple thoughts that have been kicking around in my head, in no particular oder, on the media today.

Online:  One of my guilty online pleasures is Texts from Last Night.  Reading them always has me entertained, and often has me disgusted, disappointed (that I didn’t think of doing that sooner), fearing for the future of our country, or laughing out loud.  Naturally, I check it at least once or twice a day.  That’s not the medium I want to talk about, however.  On the site, American Apparel, which I must confess to have never heard about before, is running ads.  It’s an interesting ad campaign.

The first ad I remember seeing from them was a blond wearing a little black dress in a rather awkward pose.  She was positioned such that you could see that she had a pair of matching black panties on.  Someone is going to get fired, I thought to myself, for letting that one slip by.  Not so.  It was my mistake, not their’s.

The following weeks brought more scantily clad models, so it was clear the woman was deliberately photographed such that we could see up her dress.  I’m still confused by the ad campaign though.  Their models are as unattractive as their clothes.  It’s as if the theme is ugly people wearing ugly clothes.

Books:  I really enjoy the writing of Andrew Ross Sorkin most of the time.  I often read his work in the New York Times, and if he didn’t write 100 posts a week I would read his blog, too.  I can’t keep up with him, so I’ve given up trying.

Being a fan of his work I thought I would check out his book on the near collapse of our financial system and the actual collapse of our economy, Too Big to Fail.  I got about a third of the way through it but eventually gave up, something I rarely and don’t like to do.

It was focused too much on the personalities involved, and almost seemed like a way for Sorkin to advertise how good his sources are.  What the chairman of Goldman Sachs had for breakfast as he talked to the president of the New York Fed isn’t of any interest to me, but much ink was spilled telling us.

I’m much more interested in knowing about the economics behind the collapse.  I don’t know any of the people he is writing about, so reading about their interpersonal relationships and the internal politics that allowed to to rise to their current positions holds no appeal for me.

I’m instead now reading Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality.  Early on author Manjit Kumar has given some biographical details about the principal players, but its just enough to set the scene.  He certainly is not dedicating whole chapters to their upbringing and career paths as Sorkin did.  It’s still early going, but I like it so far.

Television:  I’m not a big TV fan, but every now and then I’ll turn it on if something reaches such huge level of discussion in popular culture that I feel I should at least see what everyone is talking about.  Truth be told that’s how I became a fan of The Office, the only program on television I think is worth recording.

Glee has now reached such a level of pop culture prominence that I thought I should check it out.  My expectations were pretty low going in, but I have to admit on some levels I did enjoy it.  The song selections were excellent, and the actors (or their voiceovers) could sing.  I wasn’t expecting to hear Aerosmith or Journey, but I did and they actually did a great job covering them.

On the other hand, the shows were over the top.  I haven’t been to Mass on a regular basis in a while, but after watching a couple episodes I feel like I’m good until at least Christmas.  The shows were much preachier than anything I’ve ever heard escape a priest’s lips.

I don’t necessarily object to the messages they are promoting, but I don’t want to be hit over the head with it either.  What ever happened to those “very special” episodes of Saved by the Bell where Jessie has a problem with caffeine pills?  Get the message across in 22 minutes, and by tomorrow we are all worrying again about whether Mr. Belding will catch Zack in whatever his latest scheme is.  It might not be true to life, but there’s a reason sitting in front of the tube (or the flat screen, as the case may be) is called vegging out.  People use it to escape reality, not focus on it.

Cogito ergo sum… a hologram?

As an undergrad at a school with a great philosophy program I heard lots of bad jokes.  Most philosophy majors were either on their way to becoming lawyers or priests, neither of which is known for their sense of humor.  Perhaps the most common was the standard Saturday night AIM away message of “Bibo ergo sum.”  I drink, therefore I am.

It was a play on Descartes‘ famous maxim that cogito ergo sum, or, I think, therefore I am.  I still remember pondering the implications of this statement when I read it in my own philosophy class.  Could it be possible that everything I’ve ever known is a hoax? That the laptop in front of me doesn’t really exist?  Niether does my Jeep, or my bowl of Cheerios, or my mother?  That this is all just some big cosmic joke?

Turns out, it might just be.  New Scientist magazine is reporting that our entire universe might be a hologram (registration required).  No one is saying for certain, but it does explain some background noise researchers have been getting while trying to measure gravitational waves.

The holograms you find on credit cards and banknotes are etched on two-dimensional plastic films. When light bounces off them, it recreates the appearance of a 3D image. In the 1990s physicists Leonard Susskind and Nobel prizewinner Gerard ‘t Hooft suggested that the same principle might apply to the universe as a whole. Our everyday experience might itself be a holographic projection of physical processes that take place on a distant, 2D surface.

The “holographic principle” challenges our sensibilities. It seems hard to believe that you woke up, brushed your teeth and are reading this article because of something happening on the boundary of the universe. No one knows what it would mean for us if we really do live in a hologram, yet theorists have good reasons to believe that many aspects of the holographic principle are true.

Of all the sciences, physics has always been my favorite.  I have a copy of Einstein’s book explaining the special and general theories of relativity to laymen like myself – and I even understood it.  I still have plenty of questions, and even a pecking order for them.  At the top of the list is about the structure of the atom (all the empty space shouldn’t work, and how electrons get from one orbit to another) and how the universe could possibly curve and thus provide a boundry (by definition it seems it should be infinite).

This, however, has to jump to near the top of the list.  I always assumed one day I would get the opportunity to ask a physicist about them.  Now I’m back to worrying that just because I can ask the question, that doesn’t mean she will be able to answer it.  After all, she might not really be standing in front of me.

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