Tag Archives: Physics

It’s a Matter of Scale…

Go here, and let your mind be blown. A beautiful illustration of the scale of the universe, from the quantum to the cosmic, in one charming animation.


Simple Mathematics

Inspired by a certain Doctor.

While watching a rerun of a favourite series, I noted that a character states that the Earth rotates at a thousand miles an hour. This piqued my curiosity; how fast am I moving while sitting still? All that is required for this little exercise is rudimentary mathematics, and a good encyclopedia. The circumference of the Earth at the equator is 40,075km, and there are 86,164 seconds in a day, which means we spin right round, baby, right round at about 465 metres per second, or 1,674km/h. Which is pretty damn fast, fast enough to keep water in the sea, dirt on the ground, air neatly fixed just above, and us in between. On the other hand, it’s not that fast when you consider that the land speed record is 1,223km/h; someone has built a car that rockets along almost as quickly as the planet it is driving on spins. Which make you wonder, if it drove in the opposite direction to the rotation, and if it could achieve the same speed, would it actually be stationary?

Lockheed SR-71 in flight (SN 61-7968) 061122-F...

Image via Wikipedia

If you think that’s a laudable feat consider the Blackbird. This is possibly the most mind-bending machine ever made by man, a plane so wonderfully fast it’s gone before you realise it’s there. It set a record for the fastest flying manned vehicle at over 3500km/h; the pilots could fly so fast they could see the dawn twice. If they flew in the opposite direction they might have been able to reverse time and save Lois Lane. Oh no, wait, that requires a cape, never mind.

"The Blue Marble" is a famous photog...

Image via Wikipedia

But wait, there’s more!

So we are spinning around quite quickly on the face of the Earth, but we have managed to build machines which can go even faster. And then I begin to wonder how fast is the Earth itself? Sure it’s spinning on its axis, but it’s also flying through space, sitting softly in the Goldilocks Zone (that’s what it’s called, seriously) between fiery death and freezing death. My mathematical skills are not good enough to play with ellipses, so I’m going to assume a neat circular orbit based on an average distance from the Sun of 150 million km. 2πr x 8742 (hours in a year) giving us 107,807 km/h. Which is pretty damn fast. The Earth is moving faster than the speed of sound, 1,236km/h, a lot bloody faster. Faster even than a speeding bullet, roughly 3,182km/h (M4 Carbine muzzle velocity).

Using infrared images from NASA's Spitzer Spac...

Image via Wikipedia

I had to look the rest up…

So we know how fast the Earth spins, and how fast it is flinging itself through space, but the whole solar system is orbiting the galaxy, which is itself moving at great speed towards something aptly called the Great Attractor. The speed of the first is 792,000km/h, and the second is 3,600,000km/h.  I’m not going to even consider the cumulative speed of all these various factors, I think it would blow my mind. How can we possibly be moving that fast and not notice? It may be due to the fact that it’s all happening in a vacuum over tremendously incomprehensible distances, kind of like how far away aeroplanes appear to fly slowly. Also, someone once said that time and speed and all that jazz are relative. The speed of the Earth that we perceive is relative to the Sun, the Sun to the galaxy, the galaxy to the Attractor. But what about the Universe itself? Thanks to the discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation we have a fixed point in space, the very edge of the observable universe, and in relation to this the whole freaking galaxy is moving at 2,257,200±79,200km/h. Even the variable is hideously fast.

Universe, challenge accepted.

These numbers are ridiculous, they are beyond human comprehension, it’s hard enough to imagine how fast the Blackbird flies, and that’s only a fraction of these numbers. There’s no way we could build a machine that could even come close to these speeds, it would be impossible. Right? Well, yes, if you think big. We could never move a big thing that fast. While gravity is a terribly weak force over short distances (it really is, and you can prove it yourself, jump; if gravity was really strong you’d stick to the Earth, but even flimsy human limbs can defeat it briefly) it is tremendously strong over vast ones, especially when given enough time to get its act together. As luck would have it, gravity just happens to live in the universe, the biggest and oldest thing there is. So of course it can fling galaxies about at mind-boggling speeds with ease, it has had all of time to practice.

But what about a small thing, the smallest things in fact? It turns out we have created a machine which can build up to the galactic speeds achieved by gravity, and surpass them, but on a very small scale; the Large Hadron Collider flings sub-atomic particles at each other at near the speed of light, which is, for comparison, 1,079,250,548km/h. Scientists have built a machine which fires something at a billion kilometres an hour at another thing which is also moving at a billion kilometres an hour. Just to see what happens. How cool is that? One result for this experiment was the setting of a record for high-energy collisions at the combined energy of 7TeV. No, I have no idea what that really means either. Luckily some has worked out the mathematics on this (http://www.physicsforums.com/archive/index.php/t-101327.html). It appears that 1TeV is like having a thousand Little Boys (the Hiroshima atomic bomb) in a bullet. So these scientists fired a bullet packing 3,500 Hiroshima bombs at another bullet which also had 3,500 in it just for kicks. I’m sure some science was done also, but purely as a secondary goal, the primary aim being ‘to be awesome’.

Here we are being flung through space by gravity at roughly 0.2% the speed of light, while we fling atoms at each other at 99.999% the speed of light. We frail creatures, having existed for less than an astronomical instant, have built a machine which can impel particles to speeds beaten only by light, and light can’t be beaten, there’s a law against it. We learned to fly just over a century ago, a few decades ago we were playing golf on the moon, and now we investigate the very fabric of reality. It’s amazing what can be done with mathematics…

Of Steamworks and Magics Obscure.

The religious sometimes declare that atheism is just another new faith, which is completely illogical and wrong. There is, I would argue, wired_science_religiona new religion. If we examine the structures of religion we can find remarkable similarities between it and a thoroughly modern phenomenon which claims to be the alternative.
There are two kinds of faith in any religion; the faith of the internal elite, that is to say, the clergy and hierarchy, and the faith of the common people unto which the elite preach. The former, having invested wholly in the doctrines of their chosen brand of faith, would have a deeper and more complete understanding of the intricacies of their chosen dogma. The latter, who support the former economically by fulfilling the practical necessities of society, possess less comprehensive knowledge of their religion simply due to the fact that they have other things to do with their time. This is one of the reasons why a priesthood would have evolved in the first place; most people simply don’t have the time to appease the gods, so they employ someone else to do it for them. As time went by, the common people became increasingly removed from their gods, the actions and incantations of the priesthood became more arcane, preserving traditions and rites utter in strange, long dead languages that the hoi polloi rarely understood. These masters of the mysterious separated themselves from society, built large establishments to suit their own purposes, into which the public might only grudgingly be allowed, and dressed in strange clothes so the masses could better identify them as being in a position of authority. They continued their studies, becoming ever more obscure and remote from the comprehension of the public they served such that the common people had a very slim grasp of what their priesthood actually did.

Essentially the same is true of science.
Do I hear you scoff? Have you raised a contentious eyebrow? Let me explain.
Science fulfils the role of religion in the modern world in several respects. Science is undoubtedly superior to religion and faith in that it provides tangible, repeatable, comprehensible results and answers. This, sadly, does not matter. When science first came to prominence it was heresy, fundamentally because it was new and unproven to the common man, and due to the fact that it challenged the established order. It gained credence over time as it proved to be far more reliable in producing answers, healing the sick, improving lives, and, regrettably, killing. We have reached a point where children can conduct experiments and learn about rudimentary science in school. Most people never progress beyond these basics, simply because they do not need to. The vast majority of people will never use algebra ever again, they will never contemplate the consequences of special relativity, and they will never need to recall the atomic numbers of elements from the periodic table. This is not due to any inability or lack of intelligence on their part; it is simply not useful information. Science has moved beyond these easily demonstrated facts, and on to far more complicated things. Science has become the purview of an elite, a dedicated cabal of researchers who have become removed from society. This was not by design on behalf of either party, but rather a consequence of necessity. Everyone cannot know everything. Specialist fields grow from the mainstream into obscurity.

The average person may own one or all of the following; a mobile phone, portable electronic music device, personal computer, television, car, or games console. The combustion engine is a concept that is fairly easy to grasp; the quantum mechanics used in the memory of the other electronic devices listed is not. Does anyone really know how each element in a plasma screen TV actually works? No. Nor do they care. This information is not necessary to use the device. A person will flick a switch and simply assume that a light will erupt from the ceiling of a room, not because they grasp the intricacies of the electromagnetic force, but rather due to the fact that they have paid their bills on time. They could care less if incandescent light appeared due to a consequence of electromagnetic resistance, the will of God, or constructive gremlins. It simply works, that is sufficient. The extremes of physics are barely plausible to the uninitiated; quantum mechanics, which allows electrons to pass through solid objects, is often counter-intuitive, and string theory sounds like magic. Religion ‘worked’ for a time where people’s needs were more simple, science works now. Most people don’t care why.

You might think I am being too broad or extreme in my comparison of science with religion. However, this lack of comprehension is increasingly visible. Alternative medicines and pseudo-religious lifestyles frequently claim to work on quantum principles or electromagnetism. Someone who has read and researched physics would sneer at such preposterous nonsense, and the cretins who peddle such wares. But people are convinced, and there seem to be more of them every day. The terminology of science has been set free in the world, and it is used by fraudsters to convince the credulous, who accept what they are told because the required knowledge is unavailable to them, is too complex to be understood without serious research, or is inconvenient. People place their faith in science to answer questions, just as they have in religion. They see scientists either as cartoon villains bent on destroying the world and God, or as disengaged academics who don’t know how the real world actually works. The backlash against of the ever-increasing complexity of science has led people either back into the arms of organised religion, or pseudo-scientific, naturalistic mumbo-jumbo.

We live in a world of escalating complexity. Science will become more and more removed from the understanding of the public at large. This would not really be an issue if we lived in world inhabited solely by rational people. The religious elite will argue with the educated echelons of the scientific community hoping to win over the masses to their respective cause. Science will argue accuracy, results, and material products, while religion will proclaim truth, revelation, and spiritual salvation. Most people will not care so long as their cars keep working, the lights remain on, and daemons do not walk the Earth. They expect science to find cures for diseases, reverse global warming, and make their lives more comfortable. They do not care how, they simply have faith that it will. If anyone believed that religion could achieve any of these goals better than science they would defend it. If magic did the trick, if it cured cancer, most people would be happy at that, and not require any further explanation. Science has become a new faith, an ill understood and obscure branch of learning with its own highly educated, and often detached, adherents who exist in a world not readily accessible to a confused and easily misled public. They ponder the meaning of life and the complexities of reality, the question the nature of the universe and our position in it. Which is not unlike what theologians have done for centuries, it’s just that scientists are better at it. Not that anyone really cares, they are too busy celebrating the cults of film and pop idols, joining fashionable sects of sports or online communities, and stimulating the economy by purchasing every spiritual or material fad that is revealed to us by the market as if it were the next messiah. Science makes no claim to be a faith, it does not desire to be bound by the dogma of religion, yet the reality is that, in the minds of masses, it may have essentially become tantamount to that which it opposes.