Too Many Schrödingers

Cathleen takes back control of the conference software. “Thanks, Jim. OK, the final contestant in our online Crazy Theories contest is the winner of our last face-to-face event where she told us why Spock and horseshoe crabs both have green blood. You’re up, Amanda.”

“Thanks, and hello out there. I can’t believe Jim and I are both talking about parallel universes. It’s almost like we’re thinking in parallel, right?”

<Jim’s mic is muted so he makes gagging motions>

“We need some prep work before I can talk about the Multiverse. I’m gonna start with this heat map of North America at a particular time. Hot in the Texas panhandle, cool in British Columbia, no surprise. You can do a lot with a heat map — pick a latitude and longitude, it tells you the relative temperature. Do some arithmetic on the all numbers and you can get average temperature, highs and lows, front strength in degrees per mile, lots of stuff like that.

“You build this kind of map by doing a lot of individual measurements. If you’re lucky you can summarize those measurements with a function, a compact mathematical expression that does the same job — pick a latitude and longitude, it tells you the value. Three nice things about functions — they take up a lot less space than a map, you can use straightforward mathematical operations on them so getting statistics is less work than with a map, and you can form superpositions by adding functions together.”

Cathleen interrupts. “Amanda, there’s a question in the chat box. ‘Can you give an example of superposition?’

“Sure. You can superpose simple sine‑wave functions to describe chords for sound waves or blended colors for light waves, for instance.

“Now when we get to really small‑scale thingies, we need quantum calculations. The question is, what do quantum calculations tell us? That’s been argued about for a hundred years because the values they generate are iffy superpositions. Twenty percent of this, eighty percent of that. Everybody’s heard of that poor cat in Schrödinger’s box.

“Many researchers say the quantum values are relative probabilities for observing different results in an experiment — but most of them carefully avoid worrying about why the answers aren’t always the same. Einstein wanted to know what Bohr was averaging over to get his averages. Bohr said it doesn’t matter, the percentages are the only things we can know about the system and it’s useless to speculate further.

“Hugh Everett thought bigger. He suggested that the correct quantum function for an observation should include experiment and experimenter. He took that a step further by showing that a proper quantum function would need to include anyone watching the experimenter and so on. In fact, he proposed, maybe there’s just one quantum function for the entire Universe. That would have some interesting implications.

“Remember Schrödinger’s catbox with two possible experimental results? Everett would say that his universal quantum function contains a superposition of two component sub-functions — happy Schrödinger with a live kitty and sad Schrödinger with a disposal problem. Each Schrödinger would be quite certain that he’d seen the definite result of a purely random operation. Two Schrödingers in parallel universes going forward.

“But in fact there’d be way more than two. When Schrödinger’s eye absorbs a photon, or maybe doesn’t, that generates another pair of universes. So do the quantum events that occur as his nerve cells fire, or don’t. Each Schrödinger moves into the future embedded in a dense bundle of parallel universes.”

Cathleen interrupts. “Another question. ‘What about conservation of mass?‘”

“Good question, whoever asked that. Everett doesn’t address that explicitly in his thesis, but I think he assumed the usual superposition math. That always includes a fix‑up step so that the sum of all the pieces adds up to unity. Half a Schrödinger mass on one track and half on the other. Even as each of them splits again and again and again the total is still only one Schrödinger‑mass. There’s other interpretation — each Schrödinger’s universe would be independent of the others so there’s no summing‑up to generate a conservation‑of‑mass problem. Your choice.

“Everett traded quantum weirdness for a weird Universe. Not much of a trade-off, I think.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Worlds Enough And Time Reversed

Cathleen unmutes her mic. “Thanks, Kareem. Our next Crazy Theory presentation is from one of my Cosmology students, Jim.”

“Thanks, Cathleen. Y’all have probably heard about how Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics don’t play well together. Unfortunately, people have mixed the two of them together with Cosmology to spawn lots of Crazy Theories about parallel universes. I’m going to give you a quick look at a couple of them. Fasten your seat belt, you’ll need it.

“The first theory depends on the idea that the Universe is infinitely large and we can only see part of it. Everything we can see — stars, galaxies, the Cosmic Microwave Background — they all live in this sphere that’s 93 billion lightyears across. We call it our Observable Universe. Are there stars and galaxies beyond the sphere? Almost certainly, but their light hasn’t been in flight long enough to reach us. By the same token, light from the Milky Way hasn’t traveled far enough to reach anyone outside our sphere.

“Now suppose there’s an alien astronomer circling a star that’s 93 billion lightyears away from us. It’s in the middle of its observable universe just like we’re in the middle of ours. And maybe there’s another observable universe 93 billion lightyears beyond that, and so on to infinity. Oh, by the way, it’s the same in every direction so there could be an infinite number of locally-observable universes. They’re all in the same space, the same laws of physics rule everywhere, it’s just that they’re too far apart to see each other.

“The next step is a leap. With an infinite number of observable universes all following the same physical laws, probability says that each observable universe has to have twins virtually identical to it except for location. There could be many other people exactly like you, out there billions of lightyears away in various directions, sitting in front of their screens or jogging or whatever. Anything you might do, somewhere out there there’s at least one of you doing that. Or maybe a mirror image of you. Lots of yous in lots of parallel observable universes.”

“I don’t like that theory, on two grounds. First, there’s no way to test it so it’s not science. Second, I think it plays fast and loose with the notion of infinity. There’s a big difference between ‘the Universe is large beyond anything we can measure‘ and ‘the Universe is infinite‘. If you’ve been reading Sy Moire’s stuff you’ve probably seen his axiom that if your theory contains an infinity, you’ve left out physics that would stop that. Right, Cathleen?”

Cathleen unmutes her mic. “That quote’s good, Jim.”

“Thanks, so’s the axiom. So that’s one parallel universe theory. OK, here’s another one and it doesn’t depend on infinities. The pop‑science press blared excitement about time‑reversal evidence from the ANITA experiment in Antarctica. Unfortunately, the evidence isn’t anywhere as exciting as the reporting has been.

“The story starts with neutrinos, those nearly massless particles that are emitted during many sub‑atomic reactions. ANITA is one kind of neutrino detector. It’s an array of radio receivers dangling from a helium‑filled balloon 23 miles up. The receivers are designed to pick up the radio waves created when a high‑energy neutrino interacts with glacier ice, which doesn’t happen often. Most of the neutrinos come in from outer space and tell us about solar and stellar activity. However, ANITA detected two events, so‑called ‘anomalies,’ that the scientists can’t yet explain and that’s where things went nuts.

“Almost as soon as the ANITA team sent out word of the anomalies, over three dozen papers were published with hypotheses to account for them. One paper said maybe the anomalies could be interpreted as a clue to one of Cosmology’s long‑standing questions — why aren’t there as many antiprotons as protons? A whole gang of hypotheses suggest ways that maybe something in the Big Bang directed protons into our Universe and antiprotons into a mirror universe just like ours except charges and spacetime are inverted with time running backwards. There’s a tall stack of maybes in there but the New York Post and its pop‑sci allies went straight for the Bizarro parallel universe conclusion. Me, I’m waiting for more data.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Smart Dinosaurs?

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here, what can I do for you while staying six feet away?”

“Hi, Sy, this is Cathleen. you’re invited to to an experiment.”

“What sort of experiment?”

“You’ve been to a few of our ‘Crazy Theory’ events. We can’t do those now, of course, but we’re trying it online. Interested?”

“Sounds like fun. Email me the details and I’ll dial in.”

“Hi, everyone, welcome to our first-ever online ‘Crazy Theories’ seminar. I’m afraid it’ll be a bit different from our traditional affairs. Everyone but the presenter’s on mute so don’t bother shouting encouragement or booing. Any spitballs or wadded-up paper napkins you throw you get to clean up. As always at the end we’ll take a vote to award the Ceremonial Broom for the craziest theory. Type your questions and comments in the chat box; we’ll get to them after the presenter finishes. Everybody got all that? OK, our first presenter is from my Planetology class. Go ahead, Kareem.”

“Hey, everybody. I’m Kareem and my Crazy Theory isn’t mine, personally, but it’s the one that got me into Planetology class. Its was in this science fiction novel I read a couple of years ago. The story’s complicated and has a lot of science that I didn’t understand, but the part that caught my imagination was his idea that what killed off the dinosaurs was smart dinosaurs.”

<consults notes>

“A little history first. In the late 1970s two scientists named Alvarez discovered that all around the Earth there’s a thin layer of soil with more than ten times the normal amount of an element called iridium. They found that the layer was 66 million years old, which just matched the end of the Cretaceous Era when the last of the dinosaurs died off. They knew that some meteorites have a lot of iridium so in 1980 they suggested that a meteor strike must have done the deed.

“That idea was so controversial that John McLoughlin came up with his own explanation and based his book on it. He supposed that about 66 million years ago evolution produced intelligent dinosaurs that took over the planet the way that we humans have in our time. They weren’t huge like T‑rex but they were big enough to use Triceratops as draft and meat animals and smart enough to develop lots of iridium‑based technology like we use copper. Anyway, they got into a world war and that was what wiped everything out and left behind the traces of iridium.”

<gulps down soda>

“McLaughlin’s book came out in 1988. Since than we’ve learned that the Alvarez guys were basically right although there was some other stuff going on, too. But the book got me thinking that maybe there could have been a world‑wide civilization and the only things left after 66 million years were bones and this trace of a metal they used. Humans have only been around for like a hundred thousand years and we’ve only been doing metals big‑time for a few hundred which is teeny compared to a million years. A paleontologist wouldn’t even be able to detect a time period that small. So my Crazy Theory is, maybe there were smart dinosaurs or something and we just haven’t found evidence for them.”


“Ever since then I’ve kept an eye out for publications about what a vanished civilization might leave behind for us to discover. In this book Weisman lays out survival times for our civilization’s stuff — plastic, houses, roads and so on. Pretty much everything but Mount Rushmore and the Chunnel will have dissolved or eroded away much sooner than a million years. Really readable if you want more details.”

<more soda>

“I also found a paper, ‘The Silurian Hypothesis,’ that took a more technical approach. Their big library research project pulled results from scores of geologic isotope analysis and fossil survey reports looking for ancient times that resemble Earth’s sudden change since the start of the Industrial Age — climate, species declines, whatever. They found about a dozen, but as they said, ‘the known unique markers might not be indicative, while the (perhaps) more expected markers are not sufficient.’ In other words, my Crazy Theory might be crazy. Or maybe not.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Joke Time

<Note to reader — Doing a little Spring cleaning. Here’s a collection of short takes to lighten your mood in these trying times…>

Dark Matter and Dark Energy walked into a bar. No-one noticed.

A baffled young student of Chemistry
Got their enthalpy mixed with their entropy.
         ”Thy’re surely confusing me
         And evilly abusing me
With their Gibbs and their Helmholz free energy.”

Elliptical definitions are even less informative than circular definitions. That’s why politicians prefer them.

There’s an old and well-established (but good-natured) rivalry between major segments of humanity’s Science enterprise. A Mathematician might proclaim that

  • Mathematics is the Queen of the Sciences.
  • Physics is noisy Mathematics.
  • Chemistry is smelly Physics.
  • Biology is squishy Chemistry.
  • Psychology is congealed Biology.
  • Sociology is imprecise Psychology.
  • Archaeology is dusty Sociology.
  • Paleontology is unfocused Archaeology.
  • Geology is Paleontology that you’ve stubbed your toe on.

whereas Chemists would point to the typical number of objects in a study

  • Chemistry — 6×1023
  • Cell biology — 106 to 109
  • Astronomy — between 8 and a trillion, depending on specialty
  • Whole-body Biology — dozens to hundreds
  • Physics has trouble when there are more than 3
  • Cosmology — one.

Statistics are what we used before we had computer graphics.

Paleontologists have announced the discovery of a previously unknown fossil homid, Homo eructus, also known as “Spitting Man.” The body had been interred along with a copious supply of status goods — shell and polished-stone necklaces, a blade weapon, etc., but also unexpectedly numerous containers of chewing tobacco and a tin cup, hence the species name.

I’d like to thank whoever thought up this call-and-response…
         TIME TRAVEL!

One friend says that coconuts are mammals because they have fur and give milk. Another friend maintains that they’re shellfish. She writes, “Wikipedia says shellfish are ‘exoskeleton-bearing aquatic invertebrates used as food‘. Their husk is the exoskeleton, they’re obviously invertebrates because they have no spine, and they’re aquatic when floating in water or blended into cocktails.”

If the human body is the result of Intelligent Design, how come it’s impossible to reach that itchy spot in the middle of one’s back?

Combining my physics studies and my observations as a museum docent I’ve concluded that there are three ultimate speeds in the Universe
 * the speed of sound
 * the speed of light
 * the speed of a toddler when your back is turned.

The letter “A” is common in English, but you can count from zero to nine-hundred ninety-nine without encountering an “A“. On the other hand, the letter “Z” is uncommon but in Zero it’s at the head of the number line. If you want to cover something from A to Z, you have to count backwards.

Speaking of “Z,” “zero” is the only formal number word that contains a “z.” “Zillion” and “bazillion” don’t count.

I had a really good walk-off line, but that was at 3:00 am and it’s gone.
Dang, I hate it when that happens.
Don’t forget to tip the wait staff.

~~ Rich Olcott

The Decade Isn’t Over Yet

My father was a man of firmly held opinions, although he would be quick to say they were conclusions. Trained as a physicist, he lived a career in chemistry because in the Depression you took what you could get. Never hesitating to carry his sciences into the public forum, he wrote many Letters to The Editor on topics from the chemical hazards of powering automobile air bags with sodium azide, to the optimal size of a wine glass, to the historical connection between Hitler’s Navy sowing the North Sea with mines and the rise of industrial vitamin D production in the US.

He once suggested that the best location for highly radioactive nuclear waste would be the already-radioactive Chernobyl reserve in the thenSoviet Ukraine. Obvious when you think about it, except for the geopolitical part.

Dad enjoyed tweaking the bureaucrats. When he mustered out of the Navy at the end of WWII, he was given a letter stating that because of his extensive top-secret radar know-how, he was to hold himself in readiness should the nation have to call him back to duty. Many years later and in his eighties, he wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy. In it he said that his technical skills had deteriorated over the decades and therefore he requested relief from the obligation. He never told me whether or not he’d heard back.

A frequent target of his disdain was the herd of natural foods enthusiasts who abhor “ingesting chemicals.” “We are made of chemicals.” he wrote. “The only thing that is free of chemicals is a perfect vacuum.” He held that the phrase “organic salt” is an oxymoron when applied to any preparation of sodium chloride. I can only imagine his reaction to the displays that advertise gluten-free water.

Dad and I worked on different aspects of the Y2K Problem. From mid-1996 through the first month of January 2000 I and lots of other IT colleagues spent most of our working hours making sure that the wheels of our society wouldn’t grind to a halt because the various gears failed to mesh properly. All that work worked, but because we were successful the rest of society decided Y2K had been no big deal. If only they knew.

Meanwhile, my Dad had a different Y2K concern. He expressed it in this note which appeared in multiple publications:

To The Editor:
 There seems to be friction about naming the final year of the current century and/or the first year of the next decade.
 Those who affirm that 2001 is the beginning of the new century are absolutely correct. There was no year 0.
 Also, there is a substantial group who want to celebrate the year 2000.
 OK, the year twenty-naught-naught is the end of the present decade, century, millennium. We can and should have celebrations for the end of world wars, the end of holocausts, the end of homelessness, the end (hopefully) of drugs, reckless driving, etc.
 Even 1999 has been headlined. Let it be the year of preparation for the next two celebratory years. Those who want to capitalize on the final year of the present decade and the first year of the coming century can use 1999 for planning, organizing and even rehearsing the functions anticipated.
 The three-year spectacle will satisfy a substantial majority of those who seem to be unhappily vocal, one way or the other. Let’s make peace.

  • 1999: On your marks.
  • 2000: Get set.
  • 2001: Go.

~~ Irwin Olcott

Just to show how firmly he held to his calendrical conclusion — despite a medical condition that would have felled a less-determined man, Dad held on until Jan 10, 2001 because he wanted to live into the 21st Century. His initials, “I.O.,” drew his attention on the number ten. We in the family think that’s why he stayed with us until the tenth of the month, although there was some mention of waiting that long for tax purposes. Knowing him, it could have been some of both.

In my opinion, Dad had the right of it. The year 2020 will not be the start of the 21st Century’s second third decade, it will be the end of its first second. May the year and the following ones go well with you.

~~ Rich Olcott

Eyes on The Size

An excellent Fall day, perfect for a brisk walk around the park’s goose-governed lake. Suddenly there’s a goose-like yawp behind me. “Hey Moire, wait up, I got a question!”

“Afternoon, Mr Feder. What’s your question today?”

“You know how the Moon’s huge just after it gets over the horizon but then it gets small? How do they make it do that?”

“Well, ‘they’ is you, Mr Feder, except that nothing physically changes.”

“Whaddaya mean, I seen it change size every time there’s a full moon.”

“That’s what it looks like, but think it through. We’re here in the Midwest, two hours away from your folks back home in Fort Lee. Back when you lived there, did the Moon ever suddenly grow and then shrink when it was two hours up into the sky?”

“Um, no, just at the horizon. So you’re saying it’s one of them optical delusions?”

“Something like that. Here, I’ve got a video on Old Reliable. See how the disk stays the same size but it looks bigger in comparison to the railroad tracks? Your brain expects the tracks to be parallel lines despite the perspective, right, so it compensates by thinking the Moon must be wider when it’s next to them. In the real world you’ve looking at the Moon past trees or buildings, but the false perspective principle applies whether the horizon’s relatively close or far away.”

“Whaddaya mean, close or far horizon? It’s the edge of how far I can see and that’s always the same.”

“Oh, hardly, Mr Feder. You ever visit the Empire State Building’s observation deck?”


“How about deep-sea fishing, out of sight of land?”

“Aw, that’s a blast, when you hook one of those big guys and you’re –“

“I’m sure you enjoyed it, but did you look around while you were waiting for a strike?”

“Yeah, nothin’ else to do but yammer and drink beer.”

“Mm-hm. So could you see as far from the boat’s deck as you could from the building’s deck?”

“Hey, you’re right. A lot farther from high up. They say on a clear day you can see 80 miles from the Empire State Building — nowhere near that from the boat, believe me. ‘S why they put those decks up there, I guess. How far up do I gotta be to see the whole world, I wonder.”

“Quick answer is, infinitely far away.”

“Wait, those astronauts got that ‘Blue Marble’ picture from the Moon and it showed the whole day side.”

“Take a closer look someday. It shows Antarctica but essentially nothing north of the 45th parallel. The limit’s set by the points on the planet where lines from your eye just graze the planet’s surface. The astronauts in this LEM, for instance, are about an Earth-radius away. They’d be able to see the Atlantic Ocean and a little bit of Brazil, but neither of the poles and no part of the USA.”

“Gimme a sec … yeah, I see how that works. So that ‘how high up you are‘ thing keeps going all the way out into space. There’s probably some complicated formula for it, right?”

“Not that complicated, just d=(h²+2Rh), where h is your height above the surface and R is the radius of the planet you’re looking at. Plug in the numbers and d gives you your distance to the horizon. For that LEM, for example, h is one Earth radius and R is one radius, so those straight lines are 3=1.73 Earth radii long.”

“How about the line on top of the ocean?”

“That’s a little more complicated.” <more tapping on Old Reliable> “Says here that line stretches exactly one-third of the Earth’s circumference.”

“You can do that with other planets?”

“Sure. Mars, for instance. It has the tallest volcano in the Solar System, Olympus Mons. Depending on where you’re measuring from it’s about 22 kilometers high. I’ll put that into the formula with Mars’ radius, 3389 kilometers, and … OK, if you’re standing on top, your horizon is 387 kilometers away. That’s like looking halfway across France. Mars’ big canyon Vallis Marinaris has 7-kilometer cliffs. There are places where the opposite wall is way beyond the cliff-top’s 96-mile horizon.”

“That beats the Empire State Building.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Through The Looking Glass, Darkly

The Acme Building is quiet on summer evenings.  I was in my office, using the silence to catch up on paperwork.  Suddenly I heard a fizzing sound.  Naturally I looked around.  She was leaning against the door frame.

White satin looked good on her, and she looked good in it.  A voice like molten silver — “Hello, Mr Moire.”White satin and chessboard 1

“Hello yourself.  What can I do for you?”

“I’m open to suggestions, but first you can help me find myself.”

“Excuse me, but you’re right here.  And besides, who are you?”

“Not where I am but when I am.  Anne.”

“You said it right the first time.”

“No, no, my name is Anne.  At the moment.  I think.  Oh, it’s so confusing when your memory works in circles but not very well.  Do you have the time?”

“Well, I was busy, but you’re here and much more interesting.”

“No, I mean, what time is it?”

I showed her my desk clock — date, time, even the phase of the moon.

“Half past gibbous already?  Oh, bread-and-butter…”

“Wait — circles?  Time’s one-dimensional.  Clock readings increase or decrease, they don’t go sideways.”

“You don’t know Time as well as I do, Mr Moire.  It’s a lot more complicated than that.  Time can be triangular, haven’t you noticed?”

“Can’t say as I have.”

“That paperwork you’re working on, are you near a deadline?”


“And given that expanse of time, you feel free to permit distractions.  There are so many distractions.”

“You’re very distracting.”

“Thank you, I guess.  But suppose you had an important deadline coming up tomorrow.   That broad flow of possibilities at the beginning of the project has narrowed to just two — finish or don’t finish.  Your Time has closed in until you.”

“So you’re saying we can think of Time as two-dimensional.  The second dimension being…?”

“I don’t know.  I just go there.  That’s the problem.”

“Hmm… When you do, do you feel like you’re turning left or right?”

“No turning or moving forward or backward.  Generally I have to … umm… ‘push’ like I’m going uphill, but that only works if there’s a ‘being pushed’ when I get past that.  Otherwise I’m back where I started, whatever that means.”

“What do you see?  What changes during the episode?”

“Little things. <brief fizzing sound.  She … flickered.>  Like ‘over there’ you’re wearing a bright green T-shirt instead of what you’re wearing here.  And you’re using pen-and-paper instead of that laptop.  Green doesn’t suit you.”

“I know, which is why there’s nothing green in my wardrobe, here.  But that gives me an idea.  Did you always have to ‘push’ to get ‘over there’?”


“Fine.  OK, I’m going to flip this coin.  While it’s in the air, ‘push’ just lightly and come back to tell me which way the coin fell.”

<fizzing> “Heads.”

“It’s tails here.  OK, we’re going to do that again but this time ‘push’ much harder.”

<louder fizzing> “That was weird.  Your coin rolled off the desk and landed on edge in a crack in the floor so it’s not heads or tails.”

“AaaHAH!”Coins 1


“Your ‘over theres’ have different levels of probability than ‘over here.’  They’re different realities.  Actually, I’ll bet you travel across ranges of probability.  Or tunnel through them, maybe.  That’d why you have to ‘push’ to get past something that’s less probable in order to get to something that’s more probable.  Like getting past a reality where the coin can just hang in the air or fly apart.”

“I’ve done that.  Once I sneezed while ‘pushing’ and wound up sitting at a tea party where the cream and sugar just refused to stir into the tea.  When I ‘pushed’ from there I practically fell into a coffee shop where the coffee was well-behaved.”

“Case closed.  Now I can answer your question.  Spacewise, you’re in my office on the twelfth floor.  Timewise, I just showed you my clock.  As for which reality, you’re in one with a very high probability because, well, you’re here.”

“So provincial.  Oh, Mr Moire, how little you know.” <fizzing>

On the 12th floor of the Acme Building, high above the city, one man still tries to answer the Universe’s persistent questions — Sy Moire, Physics Eye.

~~ Rich Olcott

Goldilocks Zone and The Three Gazillion Bears

“Tell me a bedtime story, Uncle Sy.”

“OK, Teena, what kind of story?”

“One with bears in it.  Nice bears.”

“Hmm…  How about ‘Goldilocks Zone and The Three Gazillion Bears’?”

“Gazillion?  Is that what kind of a bear they are?”

“No, that’s a number word.  It means ‘more than you could ever hope to count.’  Like a million but way way more.”

“But if you can’t count them, how do you know there are three times that many?”

“You’ll see, have patience.”

“Little girls don’t have patience, Uncle Sy, I wanna hear the story.  Wait, water bears?”

“Mm-hm, they’re a different kind of bear.”

“What’s different about them, and what do they do with water?  I bet they swim.”

“Why yes, they do.  In fact, they spend most of their time in water or at least being wet.  Another thing that’s special about them is that they’re tiny, about the size of the smallest dot you can see on your Mommy’s computer screen here.”
waterbear 1“If they’re so small, why are they called bears?”

“Take a look.  Doesn’t she look kind of like a nice bear?”

“She’s got too many legs.”

“She’s got just the right number for water bears.”

“And she’s green.”

“Well, yes, but the picture’s kind of pretend and doesn’t show proper colors.  She’s so small she’s almost transparent.  She eats particles of algae and such, so maybe in real life she might be sort of green.”

“I like the way she’s smiling.  She reminds me of …  the fat man in the Laurel-n-Hardy movie you showed me last Saturday.”

“Oliver Hardy?  Yeah, I can see that.  Except the smiley bit is actually a wrinkle.  Her mouth is the round thing that looks like a nose.”

“That’s silly.  If her nose is her mouth how can she breathe?”

“Through her skin.  Animals can do that if they’re very small.”

“How else is she different?”

“Well, her kind’s one of Earth’s oldest animals.  Scientists have found water bear fossils over 500 million years old, twice as old as the oldest dinosaur.”

“Older than dinosaurs!”

“But the big thing and the big puzzle is, they’re amazingly rugged little beasties.  They live all over the world — high on mountaintops, at the bottom of the sea, next to ice at the South Pole and next to boiling hot springs.  In experiments, water bears have survived doses of chemicals and radiation that would kill most other creatures.  Astronauts on the ISS even exposed dried-out water bears to the vacuum of space.  The little guys just got happy-active again when they were brought back inside and dunked in some water.”

“What’s the puzzle?”

“Why are they so tough?  They make special molecules that protect them against dehydration and radiation and toxins even though they live in wet environments that don’t get irradiated and rarely get poisoned.  Fish and insects that evolved in lightless caves stopped using energy to make eyes they don’t need.  Why or even how have water bears held onto all that specialized protective DNA for hundreds of millions of years?”

“Does anybody know the answer?”

“Nope.  Some people have guessed that because water bears can survive exposure to space, maybe they came to Earth from another planet somewhere.  Maybe some advanced civilization sprayed water bears out into the Universe to spread life around.  Doesn’t that sound spooky?”

“Ooohh, yeah.  I like that.  Water bears from space!”

“But it gets better.  Maybe there’s different kinds of water bears for different kinds of planets.  That’s where Goldilocks Zones come in.  What did Goldilocks say about the porridge?”

“This bowl’s too hot and this bowl’s too cold, but this bowl is j-u-s-t right!”Water bears and planet“Yup, and that’s one way astronomers can classify planets.  Earth’s in the Goldilocks Zone for liquid water, essential for life as we know it.  Saturn’s moon Titan might support some other kind of life in its cold hydrocarbon seas.  If that’s the case, there’d be a much colder Goldilocks Zone for that kind of life.  Maybe there’s another, hotter Goldilocks Zone for life that’s happy in molten silica.  And maybe there’s water bears designed for each kind of Goldilocks Zone.”

“Mommy, Uncle Sy’s being silly again.”

“Nighty-night, Teena-girl.  Sweet dreams.”


~~ Rich Olcott

A Defective Story

It was an interesting knock at my office door — aggressive but feminine, with a hint of desperation.

“C’mon in, the door’s open.”

She wore a business suit that must have cost a month’s rent.  It fit her like it had been sewn on, and she had all the right sizes.  There was a button missing from the left sleeve.  On the other hand her left lapel bore a Star Trek badge, Security Section.

“What can I do for you, Miss…?”

“My name’s Victoria Baird, Mr Moire.  I’m CEO of ADastra, ‘media relations for the stars.’  I’ve been reading your posts, put two and two together, and thought I’d better drop in.”

“Well, it’s nice to know I’ve got readers.  Which posts caught your attention?”

“Several of them, but mostly this one,” pointing to a Web page on her smartphone.  It was my Breathing Space video.  “You show how gravitational waves fluctuate as they polarize local space.  They induce varying curvatures in different directions.  Curved space is mass, Mr Moire, but this curvature moves at lightspeed.  Hadn’t you noticed that?”

“It crossed my mind, yes, but when I thought about surfing a gravitational wave like ocean surfers do, I realized you’d have to get up to the wave’s speed to ride it.”

Spock’s Jellyfish starcraft,
as seen in the 2009 Star Trek film
(image from the video by Rob Morey)

“There’s more.  Are you familiar with that one-man starcraft that Ambassador Spock used in the 2009 Star Trek film?  The ship with the rotating after-section?”

“I did see ‘Baby Star Trek,’ yes.”

“Did you know that the starcraft’s official design designation is Jellyfish?”

“No, I hadn’t heard that.”

“Well, it is.  And you’ve written about Earth jellyfish, haven’t you, Mr Moire, and how their propulsion system is so efficient?”

I was getting a little tired of her aggressive questions, so I challenged her with one of my own.  “And you see a connection?”

“I do, and that’s why you have to help me, Mr Moire.  Can I trust you?”

“Secrets are my business, Miss Baird.  Uncovering them or covering them up, it’s all the same to me.”

“Maybe I need to let my hair down.”  She removed her cloche cap and her pointed ears sprang free.  “I need you to get me back to my crew.”

“Can’t you just call them on that communicator badge?”

“This is costume jewelry.  The spectrum here on Earth is so crowded that my real badge is useless at long range.  I’ve been looking for subtle signals in the media.  I thought your posts were just such a signal … but I can see you’re a local.”

“Guilty as charged.  I take it the connection you saw resembled the signal you sought?”

“Yes.  You’ve published two of the essential principles of the LaForge Drive.  The first was your displays of spatial curvature in motion.  The second was your description of how jellyfish move by stepping along a ladder of seawater vortices.

jellyfish-2“That’s what the LaForge Drive does, Mr Moire.  The counter-rotating blades are an osmium-hassium alloy, the densest substance known, and under tremendous compression.  Together their mass creates a complex pilot wave in the gravity field.  The spacecraft surfs on that waveform the way a jellyfish surfs on the eddies it creates.

“The wave’s phase velocity exceeds lightspeed by some enormous factor we’ve never been able to measure.  In fact, I’m here on Earth because I was on a research cruise to find if there’s a limit.  We … ran into a problem and I’m part of an away team sent to procure … something we need.”

“That trope’s been done to death, Miss Baird.  And besides, that design wouldn’t be practical.  What’s your real story?”

“What do you mean it’s not practical?”

“You can’t steer.  Pilot waves follow the most intense local spatial curvature, which means the craft will always home like a torpedo on the nearest large mass.”

Suddenly that badge chirped.  “We’ve recovered the detonator, Lieutenant.  Have you kept him from looking out the window?”

“Yes, his eyes have been on me the whole time.  Ready for beam-up.  Goodbye, Mr Moire, that was fun.”

Her form began to shimmer, twinkle … and disappeared.

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Calvin And Hobbes And i

Hobbes 2I so miss Calvin and Hobbes, the wondrous, joyful comic strip that cartoonist Bill Watterson gave us between 1985 and 1995.  Hobbes was a stuffed toy tiger — except that 6-year-old Calvin saw him as a walking, talking man-sized tiger with a sarcastic sense of humor.

So many things in life and physics are like Hobbes — they depend on how you look at them.  As we saw earlier, a fictitious force disappears when viewed from the right frame of reference.  There’s that particle/wave duality thing that Duc de Broglie “blessed” us with.  And polarized light.

In an earlier post I mentioned that light is polar, in the sense that a single photon’s electric field acts to vibrate an electron (pole-to-pole) within a single plane.
wavesIn this video, orange, green and blue electromagnetic fields shine in from one side of the box onto its floor.  Each color’s field is polar because it “lives” in only one plane.  However, the beam as a whole is unpolarized because different components of the total field direct recipient electrons into different planes giving zero net polarization.  The Sun and most other familiar light sources emit unpolarized light.

When sunlight bounces at a low angle off a surface, say paint on a car body or water at the beach, energy in a field that is directed perpendicular to the surface is absorbed and turned into heat energy.  (Yeah, I’m skipping over a semester’s-worth of Optics class, but bear with me.)  In the video, that’s the orange wave.

At the same time, fields parallel to the surface are reflected.  That’s what happens to the blue wave.

Suppose a wave is somewhere in between parallel and perpendicular, like the green wave.  No surprise, the vertical part of its energy is absorbed and the horizontal part adds to the reflection intensity.  That’s why the video shows the outgoing blue wave with a wider swing than its incoming precursor had.

The net effect of all this is that low-angle reflected light is polarized and generally more intense than the incident light that induced it.  We call that “glare.”  Polarizing sunglasses can help by selectively blocking horizontally-polarized electric fields reflected from water, streets, and that *@%*# car in front of me.

David Jessop’s brilliant depiction of plane and circularly polarized light

Things can get more complicated. The waves in the first video are all in synch — their peaks and valleys match up (mostly). But suppose an x-directed field and a y-directed field are headed along the same course.  Depending on how they match up, the two can combine to produce a field driving electrons along the x-direction, the y-direction, or in clockwise or counterclockwise circles.  Check the red line in this video — RHC and LHC depict the circularly polarized light that sci-fi writers sometimes invoke when they need a gimmick.

Physicists have several ways to describe such a situation mathematically.  I’ve already used the first, which goes back 380 years to René Descartes and the Cartesian x, y,… coordinate system he planted the seed for.  We’ve become so familiar with it that reading a graph is like reading words.  Sometimes easier.

In Cartesian coordinates we write x– and y-coordinates as separate functions of time t:
x = f1(t)
y = f2(t)
where each f could be something like 0.7·t2-1.3·t+π/4 or whatever.  Then for each t-value we graph a point where the vertical line at the calculated x intersects the horizontal line at the calculated y.

But we can simplify that with a couple of conventions.  Write √(-1) as i, and say that i-numbers run along the y-axis.  With those conventions we can write our two functions in a single line:
x + i y = f1(t) + i f2(t)
One line is better than two when you’re trying to keep track of a big calculation.

But people have a long-running hang-up that’s part theory and part psychology.  When Bombelli introduced these complex numbers back in the 16th century, mathematicians complained that you can’t pile up i thingies.  Descartes and others simply couldn’t accept the notion, called the numbers “imaginary,” and the term stuck.

Which is why Hobbes the way Calvin sees him is on the imaginary axis.

~~ Rich Olcott