Archives for category: physics

There’s a lot of dry wood in the forests around us. It stays there for a while. Only from time to time something happens that starts a fire.

Fill a room with a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen – at ‘room temperature’, and nothing happens. Strike a match and… you get a big noise and a little water. Don’t try this at home, you won’t live to tell the story. The noise is really big.

White phosphorus has to be kept under water. Whenever it gets in contact with humid air at a temperature above 30 degrees Celsius it starts to burn. And it cannot be extinguished in any other way than by submerging the whole thing under water.

Put a TNT stick (make sure it isn’t dynamite) into fire and it will simply burn. Fuse it properly and it will detonate whenever you ‘tell’ it to.

Let’s consider life now.

All the chemical elements, and a huge number of the organic molecules, which are the building blocks of any living organism have been around for eons while ‘life’ is a relatively recent occurrence.

Males and females – both animals and plants, roam around freely. Yet no offspring appears before something happens between a male and a female. This – the need for something to occur outside the individual organism, is valid also for bacteria – they need certain conditions to multiply, and viruses – which need the assistance of other, suitable, organisms.

Whenever conditions are right enough, sooner or later ‘life’ will surely appear. Or so it has happened all over our Earth. Till now, at least.

Whenever a living organism follows it’s normal set of instructions – its DNA remains fully functional, everything goes ‘as advertised’. If, by any reason, enough DNA is damaged beyond repair, the hell breaks loose. Being diagnosed with Cancer is enough to blow up even the most stable mind.

I’ve kept the most striking similitude for the last.
Both combustion and life continue only as long as certain conditions are met. Both need enough oxygen and fuel/nutrition.

There are also two big differences between them. One regarding ‘time’ – the successions of ‘moves’ which constitute the processes, and the other regarding ‘space’.

Combustion follows a set of pre-existing rules.  The chemical composition of the combustible might change the ignition temperature but that’s all it can do. Or it may add – as it’s the case for explosives, the possibility of detonation. But, again, both combustion and detonation follow a set of rules which are valid ‘across the board’. For all combustible and explosive substances.

On it’s turn, life follows two broad sets of rules. It has to obey all those which govern chemistry and physics – read combustion and detonation, and, on top of that, it has it’s own set of detailed instructions. Which vary from species to species.

I’ve left for the end the difference regarding ‘space’ because this one is very simple.

‘Combustion’ will extend all over the place where combustible is ‘continuous’, in a single ‘event’, while ‘life’ is, by definition, about finite organisms which multiply to make ‘good use’ of the available resources.
This being the reason for which combustion stops whenever the combustible available in an enclosed place is exhausted while life can resist a certain period of ‘famine’.

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Present owes just as much to Reaction, if not more, as it does to Revolution
Ilie Badescu, PhD.

Newton had noticed  that everything, no matter how ‘inanimate’, reacts whenever ‘prodded’. And, maybe even more importantly, that the reaction is exactly balances the ‘prodding’.
Provided that the ‘prodding’ doesn’t actually ‘destroy’ the ‘target’, of course. But even then, some ‘reaction’ is always exerted against the ‘intruder’.
Walking, for instance. Whenever we walk on tarmac, our weight is fully supported by the pavement. When walking on dry, fine sand, our feet leave an impression. Our weight is eventually counterbalanced but not before some local ‘readjustments’ have been made. Finally, when walking in knee deep water, our feet completely ‘destroy’ the layer of liquid before reaching the ‘terra firma’ below. But not without having been met by some hydrodynamic resistance – which is far greater than the aerodynamic one we constantly overcome when walking on dry land.

Darwin had noticed that species either evolve – and survive, or ‘go under’ whenever something changes in the environment they had been accustomed to.
It’s a no brainer to remark that here the reaction is no longer as instantaneous nor as ‘equally opposed’ as in the first case.

Since Berger and Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality it is tacitly accepted that our fate is heavily influenced by our actions.
Some of those inclined to entertain religious beliefs will now add that it is our actions which take us to hell or to heaven but since there have always been some ‘misunderstandings’ between the various currents …
Anyway.
My point is that in this third case, each specific ‘reaction’ is actively shaped by the individual ‘reactionary’. According to their own projections of the future, to the prevailing, socially adopted and individually internalized, rules and to the individual understanding of the until then discovered ‘natural laws’.

And that our future, as a species/civilization, is being shaped now.
By us.
Using whatever cultural heritage our ancestors have left us and, maybe more important, according to our limited understanding of the world.
And according to our wishes, of course.

It will be our children who will bear the brunt of our current decisions.

Let’s say you are like me, you are able to change a wireless card in your desktop but are no computer expert AND are running Windows 8 or 10:

Before doing anything else boot the computer and hit RESTART. Not SHUT DOWN but RESTART. For Windows 8 and 10 this not at all the same thing – here ‘shut-down’ is more like what ‘hibernate’ used to be for W 7.

The point being that if the computer has some updates pending (which would have been installed the next time you would have wakened it up) and you change something in it (a wireless card, for instance, 😉 ) it will have some trouble sorting things out. It will succeed, eventually. but it will take some time and it will get you worrying.

So hit RESTART first and open its belly afterwards.

PS
Don’t be sad when it ‘freaks’ out, for any reasons. Just take it as an opportunity to reinstall the OS. It will feel like a new computer. If you played safe and had everything backed up, of course.

future shock

Some 30 years ago Herbie Hancock published an album which proved to be uncanningly prescient. The future we have been building since is indeed shocking.

Breastfeeding in public is considered unbecoming by too many of us:

breastfeeding

“Weren’t you breastfed when you were little? – We had formula in those times!”

while almost none of us freaks out, for the right reasons, when seeing something like this:

devil prank

I’m afraid that if we don’t get our act together the future we are currently building for our kids will be even more gruesome than some of our pranks.

The current spate of dissent on this subject has been spurred by this guy, Angus Deaton, being presented with The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel

“A Nobel prize in economics implies that the human world operates much like the physical world: that it can be described and understood in neutral terms, and that it lends itself to modelling, like chemical reactions or the movement of the stars. It creates the impression that economists are not in the business of constructing inherently imperfect theories, but of discovering timeless truths.”

I’m afraid that the author had been so disgusted by the obvious mistakes that have been committed by so many of the supposedly reputable economists of this world that he has become amenable to throwing out the baby along with the bath water.

First of all we must remember that “Science is wrong. By definition.” All theories are imperfect and there is no such thing as ‘timeless truths’.
Ever since Karl Popper introduced the idea of ‘falsifiability’ as the litmus test for determining if any piece of information has any scientific value and Berger & Luckmann noticed “The Social Construction of Reality” it had become apparent both that science is being updated constantly – hence always ‘wrong’, or at least incomplete – and that people are ‘doing science’ on purpose – hence any discussion about reality being ‘described and understood in neutral terms’ is unrealistic, to say the least.

Coming back to Popper, Hermann Bondi had declared that ‘There is no more to science than its method, and there is no more to its method than Popper has said.’
True enough but as any ‘scientific declaration’ this is highly ‘updatable’.

In fact Science is, above all, a human enterprise. It’s a human that picks up – or devises – which method to use in a certain situation when he wants to find out something about a certain subject. Furthermore that method is applied by human individuals, not by robots. The same as those who had chosen it or by others, doesn’t make much difference. And, at the end of the cycle, some other people will evaluate – and sometimes try to replicate – the results.

So the mere fact that a certain set of results could not have been replicated by a certain team of evaluators doesn’t mean that much, by itself. This has been silently acknowledged by Andrew C. Chang and Philip Li in a paper published by the Federal Reserve in 2015: “Is Economics Research Replicable? Sixty Published Papers from Thirteen Journals Say ”Usually Not””. The couple admitted they needed some help from the original authors to replicate the results in a few instances and in some-others they didn’t have access to the same computer software as the first publishers.

But the most interesting fact is that in no instance the authors have been able to positively determine that the results published in any of the analyzed papers are inconsistent with the data presented by the original authors and/with the method invoked. In all instances when they failed to replicate the original results that happened because the original authors didn’t present at all the initial sets of data, they were incomplete or the method/sofware used to  process that data was incomplete, altogether missing or proprietary. And all this despite in some cases the papers being published by journals specifically requesting that all data/methods/software being made available at the moment of publication.

In this situation I find the conclusion reached as being both correct and highly objectionable. And above all lacking any scientific value.
“Because we successfully replicate less than half of the papers in our sample even with assistance from the authors, we conclude that economics research is usually not replicable.”

Yes, it seems that too many papers published by presumably reputable journals are not replicable. But that is due exclusively to the journals themselves not observing their own rules or by some of the authors acting less than ‘over the table’. This phenomenon has nothing to do with ‘economics’ being less of a science than, say, physics and everything to do with humans being… well… human!

Let me go back to where I started, to Joris Luyendijk claim that “Don’t let the Nobel prize fool you. Economics is not a science.”
The author ‘illustrates’ his claim by remembering the infamous LTCM – a hedge fund set up by, among others, a couple of economists who had received a … you guessed it… a ‘Nobel prize for economics’ less than a year before the hedge fund went bust. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?
But the problem remains. The fact that LTCM went bust doesn’t prove anything except the fact that its management was completely inadequate.
The point is that trying to assert that ‘economics’ is not a science only because some guys used a couple of economic theories and failed, abysmally, is akin to claiming that physics is not a proper science because no weather bulletin is 100 percent accurate. Or that biology is not a full blown science because medicine has not yet found a cure for cancer. Or to claim that chemistry is bogus simply because Big Pharma is ripping us off.

At the end of their paper Chang and Li offer some very pertinent advice about how things could be vastly improved. Their main idea being that everything must be ‘above the table’ – both the raw data and the method/software used to process it must be made available for whomever wants to replicate the results. In fact this exactly what science, real science, is about. People have to be able to check thoroughly whatever the proponents of a theory are trying to ‘peddle’. This is the only way for a theory to be proved true or false. Or incomplete so further research might be declared necessary.

Similarly, at the end of his article Joris Luyendijk points his finger at the real culprit.
In reality economics, as a space where people try to gather information, is different from, say physics, only because we, the people, approach them with different attitudes.
Time has taught us, repeatedly, that every-time we’ve tried to deny the obvious we ended up with a bloody nose. The problem is that not all of us are, yet, able to recognize the obvious.
No one in his right mind will pretend, nowadays, that the Earth is flat. Meanwhile some people still pretend that vaccines may induce autism. They don’t. But some of the ‘anti-Vaxxers’ continue to pretend this even after a study partly funded by themselves demonstrated that there is no link between the two.

As suggested by Luyendijk and demonstrated by these examples the real culprit for what is going on, not only in the economic field, is our arrogance.
Arrogance that has led to the survival of what is known as ‘tehnocratic thinking’ despite more and more people learning of the role ideology plays in our decision making.

After all what can be more arrogant than pretending that you have ‘scientific reasons’ for what you do, despite the obvious fact that every one of us acts according to his own ideology?

I’m not going to pretend now that there are good and bad ideologies. I obviously think they can be classified but I cannot pretend that my classification is the correct one.
But I can pretend, and you should too, along with Joris Luyendijk, Andrew C Chang and Philip Li, that each of us should honestly state its point of view along with his opinion when ever discussing something.

After all each of us having an ideology is a reality while pretending that any of us can act as if it doesn’t is a rather pathetic lie.

To conclude I’ll have to keep the promise I’ve made at the beginning of all this and ‘update’ Bondi’s statement about Popper:
‘There is no more to science than its method and there is no more to its method than Popper has said’ but we should always bear in mind that science is exclusively ‘performed’ by human individuals.

 

There are a lot of definitions available for these concepts. I’ve found out that Google offers the blandest ones so I’ll use those. You’ll understand why.

a. “An experience involving the apparent perception of something not present
b. “An extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency.”
c. “An optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions, especially the appearance of a sheet of water in a desert or on a hot road caused by the refraction of light from the sky by heated air.

If we follow the ‘dispassionate’ line used by Google we’ll notice that the ‘real’ problem is us, not a. b. or c.

We are the ones who are not able to figure out the source of the perception in a, the explanation for what happens in b and to reconcile what we know with what we see in c.

More than 35 years ago, while in college, I had to study ‘Marxism’. It was considered a science by the communists and all students had to take that class.
Marxism is a reaction against the idealist thesis that reality consists entirely of minds or spirits and of their experiences or ideas. The materialist conception of history, Marx and Engels contend, postulates the existence of an objective, concrete reality that is independent of human consciousness and is also its determinant“.

For a future engineer, and one that wasn’t particularly concerned with religion, the concept seemed appealing.
Something was nagging me though. In time I understood that Marx was making a huge mistake when conflating ‘objective’ with ‘real’ and individual consciousness with the collective one.
Also what he termed ‘reality’ is not that independent from consciousness as he would liked it to be.

I’ll start with the second idea.

We coined the term/concept of reality.
How’s that for ‘real’ independence?

Is there anything outside my individual knowledge/consciousness?
A lot.
Do I care?
Sometimes yes but most of it is both absolutely inconsequential for me and way out of my grasp. So my accepting its very existence depends decisively on ‘hearsay’ and faith…

Is there anything outside our collective knowledge/consciousness?
Probably yes. Hard to believe that we already know everything, right? Particularly since we discover something new each moment…
‘We discover’?!?
So it’s us who are ‘conquering’ more and more ‘reality’?!?
Wasn’t it supposed to be independent from us?

OK, you probably got it, I won’t bother you anymore with this.

Let me go back to ‘objective’ versus ‘real’.

Not influenced by personal feelings or opinions.
Actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.”

If we gather five children who haven’t yet seen a tarmac road scorched by the July Sun and take them to Arizona they’ll tell us, excitedly but objectively, that the road is boiling out there near the horizon.
We, the grown ups, know that’s a mirage. For them, it’s a miracle.
For a single child – one that knows the concept, of course – it might seem a hallucination, specially if he doesn’t have another person to speak to about what he sees.

Some independence… But wait, there’s more.

You are reading this on a computer. (If you call it a smartphone you are deluding yourself. It’s a computer that you can also use as a phone). Is it ‘really’ real?
According to Marx, I mean.
If your consciousness hasn’t yet digested effectively its ‘user manual’ that computer is little more than an useless  piece of junk… Not to mention the fact that its processor would still be a little pile of sand if not for an entire string of consciousnesses – from INTEL’s CEO to the driver who delivered it to the assembly plant and they are only a few of those involved in the process.

The fact is that we change the reality around us. We build cities, roads to connect them and power plants so we can cool our homes in summer.

And then we pretend reality is independent from us.
Who’s delusional now?

I’ve just read that

“Mind-blowing Experiment Confirms That Reality Doesn’t Exist If You Are Not Looking at It”

I won’t enter into details now, read the article if you need to.

Then I watched this video:

Suddenly the quantum physics experiment started to make a lot of sense to me.

Duncan Lou Who doesn’t know, the way we humans do, that he’s a crippled mutt. That’s how he’s able to enjoy life the way he does. By the way, have you noticed that the other dogs don’t stare at him?

It’s we who cannot fully understand reality and sometimes pretend it doesn’t even exist.

PS
I must add here that because the cogs act like levers the handlebar is a lot easier to move than on a normal bike. This compounds the difficulty even further.

For the eco-friendly multi-millionaire. (NanoFlowcell)

OK, this is not a technology blog.
And yet. As an engineer I have a ‘natural knack’ for this kind of things.

Where most people see a really beautiful car I see a huge breakthrough in energy storage.

These guys at NanoFlowcell AG have invented a technology that stores electric energy in two tanks filled with a ‘salty’ solution. The way I see it very soon, as soon as prices will make sense, each of us will have a solar panel mounted on the roof and a device in our basement that will store the electricity produced during the day into those two liquids developed by NanoFlowcell AG so that we’ll be able to light up the house (and refill the car) when we come home in the evening.

Nice job guys!

“Although the Big Bang singularity arises directly and unavoidably from the mathematics of general relativity, some scientists see it as problematic because the math can explain only what happened immediately after—not at or before—the singularity.”

Ever since Man became aware of the world around him he tried to find explanations for each and every individual occurrence that  grabbed his attention.
Eventually he became aware of the various links that exist between ‘things’ so he started to look for a ‘theory of everything’.
Right now Man seems stuck in the middle of the road.
I’ll assume the presumptuousness of my proposal but what about getting out of this sink hole by giving up mathematics as the main tool of investigation into the matter?
After all mathematics is nothing but just another language. A special kind of language, OK – a lot more precise than all the others, but still a language – nothing but another medium for rational thinking. And just as it happens in any medium/language, nothing can be expressed in that medium before it has been ‘grappled’ with the mind.
Of course that I don’t propose to give up mathematics altogether, that would be both ludicrous and absolutely inefficient.
The problem with our over-dependency on mathematics is that we no longer think first in words/concepts and then translate those into mathematical equations for verification but proceed the other-way around. We first ‘do our math’ and only then try to describe with words whatever imaginary place we have arrived at by using calculus. Doesn’t make much sense, does it? Specially if one looks at it from this angle…
So what do we know about this so called Big Bang?
– Planck says that things cannot be divided further than 1 quantum.
– Heisenberg says that we cannot calculate anything with absolute precision.
– Einstein says that everything is tied together – ‘relative’ to each other.
– Stephen Hawking demonstrated – using calculus, of course – practically the same thing as Einstein when he convinced us that black holes are not exactly one way highways to nowhere. The implication of what Hawking says being that the ‘known’ Universe is somehow encapsulated towards the rear and has only one ‘open side’, the one that faces towards the ‘future’ – whatever that means.
And we still look desperately for a precise description of what happened during and even before the ground/moment 0… Really?!?
How about adopting a more practical attitude and accepting that each level of organization implies a certain amount of “in-determination”, the equivalent of those demonstrated by Heisenberg for the sub-atomic ‘world’ and by Schrodinger for ‘cats’ in general?
Maybe this way it would be easier for us to accept not only that we’ll never be able to find out what existed before the ‘Big Bang’ (if anything even imaginable in our terms) but also that it would be absolutely useless – my hunch being that we cannot ‘go back’ completely through a ‘layer’ of in-determination. A plastic analogy would be that we can see through a soap bubble but we cannot actually cross it and a more scientific one that Hawking taught us how to calculate what happens inside a black hole but never advised us to go there and check for ourselves…

And now, that we have reached this point, here is my scenario for what happened during … call it what you like.

At first there was nothing. No space, no time, no matter/energy of any kind.
‘Nothing’ in the sense that everything that existed – and that still exists – was so ‘indiscriminate’ as to be completely uniform. The pure bred scientists would use ‘congruous to itself’ to describe this state. Amorphous would be a very weak term for what I have in mind.
White light is a very pointy thing while pitch black is a lot more than its opposite. Light creates shadows, black creates opportunities. There can be ‘nothing’ between a light source and the observer while absolutely everything can hide in the dark.
That was that existed ‘before’. An immense ‘black nothing’.
Everything started/changed when the first ‘symmetry’ crashed in shatters – and who really cares about the ‘why’ of the matter since there was, by definition, no possible cause for anything, for nothing existed yet? I don’t know which symmetry and, again, I don’t really care. For me it is enough that from then on the continuous nothing became divided into ‘quanta’ that started to simultaneously aggregate furiously among themselves and disperse wildly.
The aggregation process gave birth to what we now call ‘things’ (mater, energy) while the ‘dispersion’ gave birth to both space and time.

Coming back to where we started from – ‘math can explain only what happened…’ – I must remind you that math cannot explain anything. Only people can do that, including through the use of ‘math’.
http://phys.org/news/2015-02-big-quantum-equation-universe.html#jCp
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