A Mole’s Tale

Chilly days are always good for a family trip to the science museum. Sis is interested in the newly unearthed dinosaur bones, but Teena streaks for the Space Sciences gallery. “Look, Uncle Sy, it’s a Mars rover. No, wait — it doesn’t have wheels — it’s a lander!”

Artist’s depiction of InSight — credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

A nearby museum docent catches that. “Good observing, young lady. You’re right, it’s NASA’s Insight lander. It touched down on Mars last Thanksgiving Day. While you were having turkey and dressing, we were having a party over here.”

“Is this the real one? How’d you get it back?”

“No, it’s just a model, but it’s full-size, 19½ feet across. We’re never going to get the real one back — those little bitty landing rockets you see around the electronics compartment are too small to get it off the planet.”

“Tronics compartment? You mean the pretty gold box underneath the flat part? Why’d they make it gold?”

“That gold is just the outside layer of a dozen layers of Mylar insulation. It helped to keep the computers in there cool during the super-hot minutes when the lander was coming down through Mars atmosphere. The insulation also keeps the electronics warm during the cold martian night. A thin gold coating on the outermost layer reflects the bad part of sunlight that would crumble the Mylar.”

“Computers like Mommie’s laptop? I don’t see any screens.”

“They don’t need any. No-one’s on Mars to look at them. The instructions all come in from Earth by radio.”

Sis is getting into it. “Look, Sweetie, the platform in the middle’s about the same size as our kitchen table.”

“Yeah, but it’s got butterfly wings. A flying kitchen table, whee!”

“Those wings are solar panels. They turn sunlight into the electricity Insight needs to run things and keep warm. They make enough power for three households here on Earth.”

“What’s the cake box about?”

SEIS —
Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure

“Cake box?”

“Yeah, down there on the floor.”

“Ah. That’s for … have you ever experienced an earthquake?”

“Yes! Suddenly all the dishes in the cupboard went BANG! It was weird but then everything was fine.”

“I’m glad. OK, an earthquake is when vibrations travel through the Earth. Vibrations can happen on Mars, too, but they’re called…”

“Marsquakes! Ha, that’s funny!”

“Mm-hm. Well, that ‘cake box’ is something called a seismometer. It’s an extremely sensitive microphone that listens for even the faintest vibrations. When scientists were testing the real seismometer in Boulder, Colorado it recorded a steady pulse … pulse … pulse … that they finally traced back to ocean waves striking the coast of California, 1200 miles away. Insight took it to Mars and now it’s listening for marsquakes. It’s already heard a couple dozen. They’ve given the scientists lots of new information about Mars’ crust and insides.”

“Like an X-ray?”

“Just like that. We’ll be able to tell if the planet’s middle is molten–“

“Hot lava! Hot lava!”

“Maybe. Earth has a lot of underground lava, but we think that Mars has cooled off and possibly doesn’t have any. That other device on the ground is supposed to help find out.”

HP3 — Heat Flow and
Physical Properties Package

“It looks like The Little Engine That Could.”

“It does, a little, but this one maybe can’t. We’re still waiting to see. That chimney-looking part held The Mole, a big hollow spike with something like a thermometer at its pointy tip. Inside The Mole there’s a hammer arrangement. The idea was that the hammer would bang The Mole 15 feet into the ground so we could take the planet’s temperature.”

“Did the banging work?”

“It started to, but The Mole got stuck only a foot down. The engineers have been working and working, trying different ways to get it down where we want it but so far it’s still stuck.”

“Aww, poor Mole.”

TWINS – Temperature
and Wind for InSight

“Yes. But there’s another neat instrument up on the platform. Here, I’ll shine my laser pointer at it. See the grey thingy?”

“Uh-huh.”

“That’s a weather station for temperature and wind. You can check its readings on the internet. Here, my phone’s browser’s already set to mars.nasa.gov/insight/weather. Can you read the high and low temperatures?”

“Way below zero! Wow, Mars is chilly! I’d need a nice, warm spacesuit there.”

“For sure.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Seesaw to The Stars

I look around the playground. “Where’s the seesaw, Teena?”

“They took it away. That’s good ’cause I hated that thing!”

“Why’s that, Sweetie?”

“I never could play right on it. Almost never. Sometimes there’d be a kid my size on the other end and that worked OK, but a lot of times a big kid got on the other end and bounced me up in the air. The first time I even fell off and they laughed.”

“Well, I can understand that. I’m sure you’ve been nicer than that to the littler kids.”

“Uh-huh, except for Bratty Brian, but he liked it when I bounced him. He called it ‘going to the Moon’.”

“I can understand that, too. If things go just right you come off your seat and float like an astronaut for a moment. I bet he held onto the handles tight.”

“Yeah, I just wasn’t ready for it the first time.”

“Y’know, there’s another way that Brian’s bounces were like a rocket trip to somewhere. They went through the same phases of acceleration and deceleration.”

“Uncle Sy, you know you’re not allowed to use words like that around me without ‘splaining them.”

“Mmm, they both have to do with changing speed. Suppose you’re standing still. Your speed is zero, right? When you start moving your speed isn’t zero any more and we say you’ve accelerated. When you slow down again we say you’re decelerating. Make sense?”

“So when Bratty Brian gets on the low end of the seesaw he’s zero. When I squinch down at my end he accelerates –“

“Right, that’s like the boost phase of a rocket trip.”

“… And when he’s floating at the very top –“

“Like astronauts when they’re coasting, sort of but not really.”

“… And then they decelerate when they land. Bratty Brian did, too. I guess deceleration is like acceleration backwards. But why such fancy words?”

“No-one paid much attention to acceleration until Mr Newton did. He changed Physics forever when he said that all accelerations involve a force of some kind. That thought led him to the whole idea of gravity as a force. Ever since then, when physicists see something being accelerated they look for the force that caused it and then they look for what generated the force. That’s how we learned about electromagnetism and the forces that hold atoms together and even dark matter which is ultra-mysterious.”

“Ooo, I love mysteries! What did Mr Newton tell us about this one?”

“Nothing, directly, but his laws gave us a clue about what to look for. Tell me what forces were in play during Brian’s ‘moon flight’.”

“Let’s see. He accelerated up and then he accelerated down. I guess while he was on the seesaw seat at the beginning the up-acceleration came from an up-force from his end of the board. And the down-acceleration came from gravity’s force. But the gravity force is there all along, isn’t it?”

“Good point. What made the difference is that your initial force was greater than gravity’s so Brian went up. When your force stopped, gravity’s force was all that mattered so Brian came back down again.”

“So it’s like a tug-of-war, first I won then gravity won.”

“Exactly. Now how about the forces when you were on the merry-go-round?”

“OK. Gravity’s always there so it was pulling down on me. The merry-go-round was pushing up?”

“Absolutely. A lot of people think that’s weird, but whatever we stand on pushes up exactly as hard as gravity pulls us down. Otherwise we’d sink into the ground or fly off into space. What about other forces?”

“Oh, yeah, Mr Newton’s outward force pushed me off until … holding the handles made the inward force to keep me on!”

“Nice job! Now think about a galaxy, millions of stars orbiting around like on a merry-go-round. They feel an outward force like you did, and they feel an inward force from gravity so they all stay together instead of flying apart. But…”

“But?”

“Mr Newton’s rules tell us how much gravity the stars need to stay together. The astronomers tell us that there aren’t enough stars to make that much gravity. Dark matter supplies the extra.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Conversation of Momentum

Teena bounces out of the sandbox, races over to the playground’s little merry-go-round and shoves it into motion. “Come help turn this, Uncle Sy, I wanna go fast!” She leaps onto the moving wheel and of course she promptly falls off. The good news is that she rolls with the fall like I taught her to do.

“Why can’t I stay on, Uncle Sy?”

“What’s your new favorite word again?”

“Mmmo-MMENN-tumm. But that had to do with swings.”

“Swings and lots of other stuff, including merry-go-rounds and even why you should roll with the fall. Which, by the way, you did very well and I’m glad about that because we don’t want you getting hurt on the playground.”

“Well, it does hurt a little on my elbow, see?”

“Let me look … ah, no bleeding, things only bend where they’re supposed to … I think no damage done but you can ask your Mommie to kiss it if it still hurts when we get home. But you wanted to know why you fell off so let’s go back to the sandbox to figure that out.”

<scamper!> “I beat you here!”

“Of course you did. OK, let’s draw a big arc and pretend that’s looking down on part of the merry-go-round. I’ll add some lines for the spokes and handles. Now I’ll add some dots and arrows to show what I saw from over here. See, the merry-go-round is turning like this curvy arrow shows. You started at this dot and jumped onto this dot which moved along and then you fell off over here. Poor Teena. So you and your momentum mostly went left-to-right.”

“But that’s not what happened, Uncle Sy. Here, I’ll draw it. I jumped on but something tried to push me off and then I did fall off and then I rolled. Poor me. Hey, my arm doesn’t hurt any more!”

“How about that? I’ve often found that thinking about something else makes hurts go away. So what do you think was trying to push you off? I’ll give you a hint with these extra arrows on the arc.”

“That looks like Mr Newton’s new directions, the in-and-out direction and the going-around one. Oh! I fell off along the in-and-out direction! Like I was a planet and the Sun wasn’t holding me in my orbit! Is that what happened, I had out-momentum?”

“Good thinking, Teena. Mr Newton would say that you got that momentum from a force in the out-direction. He’d also say that if you want to stand steady you need all the forces around you to balance each other. What does that tell you about what you need to do to stay on the merry-go-round?”

“I need an in-direction force … Hah, that’s what I did wrong! I jumped on but I didn’t grab the handles.”

“Lesson learned. Good.”

“But what about the rolling?”

“Well, in general when you fall it’s nearly always good to roll the way your body’s spinning and only try to slow it down. People who put out an arm or leg to stop a fall often stress it and and maybe even tear or break something.”

“That’s what you’ve told me. But what made me spin?”

“One of Mr Newton’s basic principles was a rule called ‘Conservation of Momentum.’ It says that you can transfer momentum from one thing to another but you can’t create it or destroy it. There are some important exceptions but it’s a pretty good rule for the cases he studied. Your adventure was one of them. Look back at the picture I drew. You’d built up a lot of going-around momentum from pushing the merry-go-round to get it started. You still had momentum in that direction when you fell off. Sure enough, that’s the direction you rolled.”

“Is that the ‘Conversation of Energy’ thing that you and Mommie were talking about?”

“Conservation. It’s not the same but it’s closely related.”

“Why does it even work?”

“Ah, that’s such a deep question that most physicists don’t even think about it. Like gravity, Mr Newton described what inertia and momentum do, but not how they work. Einstein explained gravity, but I’m not convinced that we understand mass yet.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Momentous Occasion

<creak> Teena’s enjoying her new-found power in the swings. “Hey, Uncle Sy? <creak> Why doesn’t the Earth fall into the Sun?”

“What in the world got you thinking about that on such a lovely day?”

“The Sun gets in my eyes when I swing forward <creak> and that reminded me of the time we saw the eclipse <creak> and that reminded of how the planets and moons are all floating in space <creak> and the Sun’s gravity’s holding them together but if <creak> the Sun’s pulling on us why don’t we just fall in?” <creak>

“An excellent question, young lady. Isaac Newton thought about it long and hard back when he was inventing Physics.”

“Isaac Newton? Is he the one with all the hair and a long, skinny nose and William Tell shot an arrow off his head?”

“Well, you’ve described his picture, but you’ve mixed up two different stories. William Tell’s apple story was hundreds of years before Newton. Isaac’s apple story had the fruit falling onto his head, not being shot off of it. That apple got him thinking about gravity and how Earth’s gravity pulling on the apple was like the Sun’s gravity pulling on the planets. When he was done explaining planet orbits, he’d also explained how your swing works.”

“My swing works like a planet? No, my swing goes back and forth, but planets go round and round.”

“Jump down and we can draw pictures over there in the sandbox.”

<thump!! scamper!> “I beat you here!”

“Of course you did. OK, what’s your new M-word?”

“Mmmo-MMENN-tummm!”

“Right. Mr Newton’s Law of Inertia is about momentum. It says that things go in a straight line unless something interferes. It’s momentum that keeps your swing going.”

“B-u-u-t, I wasn’t going in a straight line, I was going in part of a circle.”

“Good observing, Teena, that’s exactly right. Mr Newton’s trick was that a really small piece of a circle looks like a straight line. Look here. I’ll draw a circle … and inside it I’ll put a triangle… and between them I’ll put a hexagon — see how it has an extra point halfway between each of the triangle’s points? — and up top I’ll put the top part of whatever has 12 sides. See how the 12-thing’s sides are almost on the circle?”

“Ooo, that’s pretty! Can we do that with a square, too?”

“Sure. Here’s the circle … and the square … and an octagon … and a 16-thing. See, that’s even closer to being a circle.”

“Ha-ha — ‘octagon’ — that’s like ‘octopus’.”

“For good reason. An octopus has eight arms and an octagon has eight sides. ‘Octo-‘ means ‘eight.’ So anyway, Mr Newton realized that his momentum law would apply to something moving along that tiny straight line on a circle. But then he had another idea — you can move in two directions at once so you can have momentum in two directions at once.”

“That’s silly, Uncle Sy. There’s only one of me so I can’t move in two directions at once.”

“Can you move North?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Can you move East?”

“Sure.”

“Can you move Northeast?”

“Oh … does that count as two?”

“It can for some situations, like planets in orbit or you swinging on a swing. You move side-to-side and up-and-down at the same time, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“When you’re at either end of the trip and as far up as you can get, you stop for that little moment and you have no momentum. When you’re at the bottom, you’ve got a lot of side-to-side momentum across the ground. Anywhere in between, you’ve got up-down momentum and side-to-side momentum. One kind turns into the other and back again.”

“So complicated.”

“Well, it is. Newton simplified things with revised directions — one’s in-or-out from the center, the other’s the going-around angle. Each has its own momentum. The swing’s ropes don’t change length so your in-out momentum is always zero. Your angle-momentum is what keeps you going past your swing’s bottom point. Planets don’t have much in-out momentum, either — they stay about their favorite distance from the Sun.”

“Earth’s angle-momentum is why we don’t fall in?”

“Yep, we’ve got so much that we’re always falling past the Sun.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Swinging into Physics

A gorgeous Spring day, perfect for taking my 7-year-old niece to the park. We politely say “Hello” to the geese and then head to the playground. Of course she runs straight to the swing set. “Help me onto the high one, Uncle Sy!”

“Why that one, Teena? Your feet won’t reach the ground and you won’t be able to kick the ground to get going.”

“The high one goes faster,”

“How do you know that?”

“I saw some kids have races and the kid on the high swing always did more back-and-forths. Sometimes it was a big kid, sometimes a little kid but they always went faster.”

“Good observing, Sweetie. OK, upsy-daisy — there you are.”

“Now give me pushes.”

“I’m not doing all the work. Tell you what, I’ll give you a start-up shove and then you pump to keep swinging.”

“But I don’t know how!”

“When you’re going forward, lean way back and put your feet up as high as you can. Then when you’re going backward, do the opposite — lean forward and bend your knees way back. Now <hnnnhh!> try it.

<creak … creak> “Hey, I’m doing it! Wheee!”

<creak> “Good job, you’re an expert now.”

“How’s it work, Uncle Sy?”

“It’s a dance between kinetic energy, potential energy and momentum.”

“I’m just a little kid, Uncle Sy, I don’t know what any of those things are.”

“Mmm… Energy is what makes things move or change. You know your toy robot? What happens when its batteries run down?”

“It stops working, silly, until Mommie puts its battery in the charger overnight and then it works again.”

“Right. Your robot needs energy to move. The charger stores energy in the battery. Stored energy is called potential which is like ‘maybe,’ because it’s not actually making something happen. When the robot gets its full-up battery back and you press its GO button, the robot can move around and that’s kinetic energy. ‘Kinetic’ is another word for ‘moving.'”

“So when I’m running around that’s kinetic energy and when I get tired and fall asleep I’m recharging my potential energy?”

“Exactly. You’re almost as smart as your Mommie.”

“An’ when I’m on the swing and it’s moving, that’s kinetic.”

“You’ve got part of it. Watch what’s happening while you swing. Are you always moving?”

<creak … creak> “Ye-e—no! Between when I swing up and when I come down, I stop for just a teeny moment at the top. And I stop again between backing up and going forward. Is that when I’m potential?”

“Sort of, except it’s not you, it’s your swinging-energy that’s all potential at the top. Away from the top you turn potential energy into kinetic energy, going faster and faster until you’re at the bottom. That’s when you go fastest because all your potential energy has become kinetic energy. As you move up from the bottom you slow down because you’re turning your kinetic energy back into potential energy.”

<creak> “Back and forth, potential to kinetic to potential, <creak> over and over. Wheee! Mommie would say I’m recycling!”

“Yes, she would.”

<creak> “Hey, Uncle Sy, how come I don’t stop at the bottom when I’m all out of potential?”

“Ah. What’s your favorite kind of word?”

M-words! I love M-words! Like ‘murmuration‘ and ‘marbles.'”

“Well, I’ve got another one for you — momentum.”

“Oh, that’s yummy — mmmo-MMMENN-tummmm. What’s it mean?”

“It’s about how things that are moving in a straight line keep moving along that line unless something else interferes. Or something that’s standing still will just stay there until something gives it momentum. When we first sat you in the swing you didn’t go anywhere, did you?”

“No, ’cause my toes don’t reach down to the ground and I can’t kick to get myself started.”

“That would have been one way to get some momentum going. When I gave you that push, that’s another way.”

“Or I could wear a jet-pack like Tony Stark. Boy, that’d give me a LOT of momentum!”

“Way too much. You’d wrap the swing ropes round the bar and you’d be stuck up there. Anyway, when you swing past the bottom, momentum is what keeps you going upward.”

“Yay, momentum!” <creak>

~~ Rich Olcott

Schroeder’s Magic Kittycat

“Bedtime, Teena.”

“Aw, Mommie, I had another question for Uncle Sy.  And I’m not sleepy yet anyhow.”

“Well, if we’re just sitting here relaxing, I suppose.  Sy, make your answer as boring as possible.”

“You know me better than that, Sis, but I’ll try.  What’s your question, Teena?”

“You said something once about quantum and Schroeder’s famous kittycat.  Why is it famous?  If it’s quantum it must be a very, very small cat.  Is it magic?”

“???… Oh, Schrödinger’s Cat.  It’s a pretend cat, not a real one, but it’s famous because it’s both asleep and awake.”

“I see what you did there, Sy.”

“Yeah, Sis, but it’s for a good cause, right?”

“But Uncle Sy, how can you tell?  Sometimes Tommie our kittycat looks sound asleep but he’s not really because he can hear when Mommie opens the cat-food can.”

“Schrödinger’s Cat is special.  Whenever he’s awake his eyes are wide open and whenever he’s asleep his eyes are shut.  And he’s in a box.”

“Tommie loves to sit in boxes.”

“Schrödinger’s Cat’s box is sealed tight.  You can’t see into it.”

“So how do you know whether he’s asleep?”

“That was Mr Schrödinger’s point.  We can’t know, so we have to suppose it’s both.  Many people have made jokes about that.  Mr. Schrödinger said the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics is ridiculous and his cat story was his way of proving that.  The cat doesn’t even have to be quantum-small and the story still works.”

“How could it be halfway?  Either his eyes are open or they’re … wait, sometimes Tommie squints, is that it?”

“Nice try, but no.  Do you remember when we were looking at the bird murmuration and I asked you to point to its middle?”

“Oh, yes, and it was making a beautiful spiral.  Mommie, you should have seen it!”

“Were there any birds right at its middle?”

“Um, no-o.  All around the middle but not right there.”

“Birds to the left, birds to the right, but no birds in the middle.  But if I’d I asked you to point to the place where the birds were, you’d’ve pointed to the middle.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You see how that’s like Mr Schrödinger’s cat’s situation?  It’s really asleep or maybe it’s really awake, but if we’re asked for just one answer we’d have to say ‘halfway between.’  Which is silly just like Mr Schrödinger said — by the usual quantum calculation we’d have to consider his cat to be half awake.  That was part of the long argument between Mr Einstein and the other scientist.”

“Wait, Sy, I didn’t hear that part of you two’s conversation on the porch.  What argument was that?”

“This was Einstein’s big debate with Niels Bohr.  Bohr maintained that all we could ever know about the quantum world are the probabilities the calculations yielded.  Einstein held that the probabilities had to result from processes taking place in some underlying reality.  Cat reality here, which we can resolve by opening the box, but the same issue applies across the board at the quantum level.  The problem’s more general than it appears, because much the same issue appears any time you can have a mixture of two or more states.  Are you asleep yet, Sweetie?”

“Nnn, kp tkng.”

“OK.  Entanglement, for instance.  Pretty much the same logic that Schrödinger disparaged can also apply to quantum particles on different paths through space.  Fire off any process that emits a pair of particles, photons for instance.  The wave function that describes both of them together persists through time so if you measure a property for one of them, say polarization direction, you know what that property is for the other one without traveling to measure it.  So far, so good.  What drove Einstein to deplore the whole theory is that the first particle instantaneously notifies the other one that it’s been measured.  That goes directly counter to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity which says that communication can’t go any faster than the speed of light.  Aaand I think she’s asleep.”

“Nice job, Sy, I’ll put her to bed.  We may discuss entanglement sometime.  G’night, Sy.”

“G’night, Sis.  Let me know the next time you do that meatloaf recipe.”

Cat emerging from murmuration~~ Rich Olcott

Stairway to A Rainbow

“OK, Teena, can you guess why I had you put those different things on different steps?”

“Oh, another game of Which of these things aren’t the same!  I love those!  So we’ve got a marble on one step; a tennis ball, a yo-yo and a ring-toss ring on the second step; and a softball and a ring-in-a-ring on the third step.”Shapes on steps

“Don’t forget we’re pretending the softball is hollow with a ping-pong ball floating in its middle.”

“I didn’t forget, Uncle Sy.  Uh… everything’s round, so that can’t be it.  Wait, there’s round-like-a-ball and round-like-a-donut, but we’ve got donut-thingies on two steps. … Oh!  The marble doesn’t have any empty places inside, the tennis ball has one and the softball has two.  Is that it?  But the other things don’t fit.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t fair with you ’cause I didn’t tell you about another rule.  See how yo-yo and donut shapes have a pinch-in-the-middle?  We call that a node and it counts as one empty place.”

“Wait, we forgot about the way-far-away empty place.  That counts for all of them, too, right?”

“Good remembering, that’s absolutely right.  It’s a node, too.”

<dancing about, singing>  “Then I know the answer, I know the answer!  The step number is the number of empty places, um, nodes.  The marble on the first step has one.  The tennis ball and the yo-yo and the ring on the second step have two, and the third-step things have three.  See that, Mommie?”

“Very good, Sweetie.  So what’s that got to do with colors, Sy?”

“Suppose we’re looking at a murmuration —”

“My lovely, lovely new word —”

“Yes, Teena.  Suppose for some reason we’d put a big hunk of bird food up on a tall pole.  Birds would fly to make a tight ball around the top of that pole.  Which of Teena’s toys would it look like?”

“Like that marble.”

“That’s right, no node in the middle.  Now suppose we want to get the birds away from the pole.  What could we do and what would the murmuration look like?”

“Set off a firecracker in the middle.  BOOM and all the birds fly away!”

“If they all fly the same distance, which toy would that look like?”

“The tennis ball!  BOOM and a tennis ball shape!  BOOM!”

“Settle down, Sweetie.  I suppose someone could make noise at the foot of the pole…. That would make a half-dumbbell shape as the birds fly upward.”

“Right on, Sis.  One more possibility — we could send a noisy drone to fly circles above the pole.”

“The birds would make a bigger circle between the drone’s orbit and the ground.  Oh!  Your donut shape.”

“Each way, the murmuration changes to a shape with one additional node and we go up a step.  And when we stop annoying the birds?”

“They fly right back to the food.  Ah, I see where you’re going.  They form that ball shape again and we have fewer nodes.  Now, about the colors…”

“Teena, do you think a murmuration could have half a node?”

“No, that’d be silly.”

“Absolutely right.  There’s no in-between step on the stairway, and there’s no in-between shape in an atom.”

“Wait, you mean that whenever an atom goes from a, say 2-node shape to a 3-node shape, that’s the famous quantum jump?”

“Yup, and the jump-down is, too.  Teena, let’s put all the toys back in your toy box and try an experiment.”

“OK … done!”

“Good job.  Now get up on the second step and jump down to the first one.  Make it a loud jump.”

“Sy!”

“Just this once, Sis, for demonstration purposes.”

“OK, just this once, Teena, and never again!”

“Yay!” <THUMP>

“So what’s that prove?”

“That energy is released when you go down a step or allow a murmuration to fill in an empty space.  Teena’s jump released sound energy.  Atoms release light energy when their charge cloud — ‘scuse me, Teena, quantum murmuration — goes to a shape with fewer nodes.  And the amount of energy for each different node-count change is always the same.”

“I think I see where you’re headed.  Each different jump makes a different color?”

“Sis, you’re as smart as I’ve always said you are.”

Murmuration concentric 2

~~ Rich Olcott

The Shapes of Fuzziness

Egg murmuration 1“That was a most excellent meat loaf, Sis.  Flavor balance was perfect.”

“Glad you liked it, Sy.  Mom’s recipe, of course, with the onion soup mix.”

“Yeah, but there was an extra tang in there.”

“Hah, you caught that!  I threw in some sweet pickle relish to brighten it some.”

“Mommy, Uncle Sy told me about quantum thingies and how they hide behind barriers and shoot rainbows at us.”

Sis gives me that What now? look so I must defend myself.  “Whoa, Teena, that’s not even close to what I said.”

“I know, Uncle Sy, but it’s more fun this way.  Little thingies going, ‘Pew! Pew! Pew!’

“Hey, get me out of trouble with your Mom, here.  What did I say really?”

<sigh> “Everything’s made of these teeny-weeny quantum thingies, smaller even than a water-bear egg — so small — and they have to obey quantum rules.  One of the rules is, um, if a lot of them get together to make a big thing, the big thing has to follow big-thing rules even though the little things follow quantum rules.”

“Nicely put, Sweetie.”

“And sometimes the quantum thingies act like waves and sometimes they act like real things and no-one knows how they do that.  And, uh, something about barriers making forbidden places that colors come out of and I’m mixed up about that.”

“Excellent summary, young lady.  That deserves an extra —” <sharp look from Sis who has a firm ‘No rewarding with food!‘ policy> “— chase around the block the next time we go scootering.”

“Yay!  But can you unconfuse me about the forbidden areas and colors?”

“Well, I can try.  Tell you what, bring your toy box over by the stairway, OK?  We’ll pick it all up when we’re done, Sis, I promise.  Ready, Teena?”

“Ready!”

“OK, put your biggest marble on the bottom step. Yes, it is pretty.  Now put a tennis ball and that dumbbell-shaped thing on the second step.  Oh, it’s a yo-yo?  Cool.  And that ring-toss ring, put it on the second step, too.  Now for the third step.  Put the softball there and … umm … take some of those Legos and make a little ring inside a big ring.  Thanks, Sis, just half a cup.  Ready, Teena?”

“Just a sec… ready!”

“Perfect.  Oh, Teena, you forgot to tell Mommy about the murmuration.”

“Oh, she’s seen them.  You know, Mommie, thousands of birds flying in a big flock and they have rules so they keep together but not too close and they make big pictures in the sky.”

“Yes, I have, sweetheart, but what does that have to do with quantum, Sy?”

“How would you describe their shapes?”

“Oh, they make spirals, and swirls… I’ve seen balls and cones and doughnuts and wide flowing sheets, and other shapes we simply don’t have names for.”

“These shapes on the stairs are the first few letters in science’s alphabet for describing complex shapes like atoms.  It’s like spelling a word.  That ball on the first step is solid.  The tennis ball is a hollow shell.  Pretend the softball is hollow, too, with a hollow ping-pong ball at its center.  If you pretend that each of these is a murmuration, Teena, does that make you think of anything?”

“Mmm..  There aren’t any birds flying outside of the marble, or outside or inside of the tennis ball.  And I guess there aren’t any flying between the layers in the ping-softball.  Are those forbidden areas?”

“C’mere for a high-five!  That’s exactly where I’m going with this.  The marble has one forbidden region infinitely far away.  The tennis ball has that one plus a second one at its middle.  The softball-ping-pong combo has three and so on.  We can describe any spherical fuzziness by mixing together shapes like that.”Combining shapes

“So what about the rings and that dumbbell yo-yo?”

“That’s the start of our alphabet for fuzziness that isn’t perfectly round.  Math has given us a toolkit of spheres, dumbbells, rings and fancier figures that can describe any atom.  Plain and fancy dumbbells stretch the shape out, rings bulge its equator, and so on.  Quantum scientists use the shapes to describe atoms and molecules.”

“Why the stairsteps?”

“What about my colors?”

~ Rich Olcott

Only A Bird in A Quantum Cage

“What’s another quantum rule, Uncle Sy?”

“Uhh…  Oh, look what the birds are doing now, Teena — flying back and forth between those two fields.”murmuration dipole 1“I think one side looks like a whale jumping out of the water, and the other side looks like the tail end of a buffalo or something.”

“Well, I can’t argue with that.  Look, though — the murmuration’s acting like it’s caught between two barriers of some kind.  That reminds me of another rule.  When you’re one of those tiny quantum things, it matters if you’re caught between barriers.”

“I’d want to be free so I could go wherever I want to.”

“Freedom’s nice for people but it must be boring for quantum things.  The rule says that a particle that doesn’t have any barriers just goes in a straight line forever and ever.  No stopping for lunch, never anyone to talk to, just traveling on and on.”

“Yeah, that’d be boring, all right.  What’s the rule say for when there’s barriers?”

“It depends on the barriers, what their shapes are and how far apart they are.  The general situation, though, is that there’s usually some forbidden regions, places where the particle can’t go.”

“Oooo, forbidden.  So spooky.  What happens to the particles who go there anyway?  Does something catch them and do bad things to them?”

“You’ve been watching too many horror movies.  No doing bad things but no trying to go into a forbidden area anyway.  Physics particles don’t have choice in the matter — they just can’t enter those places.  Almost can’t.”

“I heard ‘almost.’  Are you being sneaky?”

“No, just trying to keep things simple.  There’s something called ‘tunneling,’ where a particle that’s on one side of a barrier can sometimes somehow get to the other side of the barrier without going through it.  It’s one of the big puzzles in quantum mechanics.”

“Can’t it climb over, like I climb over fences?  (Shh, don’t tell Mommy.)”

“I suspect she already knows, Mommies are good at that, and I’m sure she’s praying that you’re being careful about which fences to climb and how you do it.”

“I am.  I only climb friendly fences that don’t have angry dogs behind them.”

“Good strategy, I feel better now.”

“If quantum thingies are even smaller than water-bear eggs, what do you make the barriers out of?”

“People don’t make the barriers, they’re just there, part of how the Universe works.  Um… Those little blocks you have that push each other away or pull together depending on how you point them…?”

“My rainbow blocks!  I love them.  Sometimes it’s hard to build something with them because you have to set one in a space just right or it’ll jump out.”

“Mm-hm.  Well, that push-or-pull force is called magnetism, and some of the barriers are made of that.”

“But that’s not a real thing!”

“Not something you can pick up, no, but the quantum things feel it and that’s what counts.  If the Universe didn’t have magnetism and forces related to it, we wouldn’t have rocks or stars or us.”

“I guess I’m happy that the barriers give quantum thingies places they can’t go.”

‘Just to make things more complicated, a lot of the forbidden places aren’t even where the barriers are.”

“Huh?”

“Like I said, it depends on the shape of the barriers.  If you’ve got two that face each other, there could be a forbidden place maybe in the middle, or two forbidden places a third of the way from each side, or three or four, all the way up.  And here’s a weird case that’s really important.  Ready to stretch your brain?”

“Just a minute … NNGGGGGH!  OK, I’m ready.”

“For an atom one of those barriers is infinitely far away.”

Infinitely??!?  My brain doesn’t stretch that far!”

“How about really, really far and let it go at that?  Anyway, atom barriers give us colors.”

“Now my head hurts.”

“Oh dear, better let your brain unstretch.  Hey look, the birds are flying off to roost in the woods ’cause it’s getting dark.  And it smells like your Mommy’s got dinner ready.  Time to go inside.”

“Mommy, can Uncle Sy stay for dinner with us?”

~~ Rich Olcott

 

What Are Quantum Birds Made Of?

“Do quantum thingies follow the same rules that birds do, Uncle Sy?”

“Mostly not, Teena.  Some quantum rules are simple, others are complicated and many are weird.”

“Tell me a simple one and a weird one.”

“Hm… the Principle of Correspondence is simple.  It says if you’ve got a lot of quantum things acting together, the whole mishmash acts by the same rules that a regular-sized thing that size would follow.  If all those birds flew in every direction there’s no flock to talk about, but if they fly by flock rules we can talk about how wind affects the flock’s motion.”

“It’s a murmuration, Uncle Sy.”

“Correction noted, Sweetie.”

“Now tell me a weird one.”

“There’s the rule that a quantum thing acts like it’s in a specific place when you look at it but it’s spread out when you’re not looking.”

“Kittie does that!  She’s never where you look for her.”

“Mm, that’s kind of in the other direction.  We see quantum particles in specific somewheres, not specific nowheres.  The rule is called wave-particle duality and people have been trying to figure out how it works for a hundred years.  Let’s try this.  Put your thumb and forefinger up to your eye and look between them at the blue sky.  Hold your fingers very close together but don’t let them touch.  What do you see?”

“Ooo, there’s stripes in between!  It looks like my finger’s going right into my thumb, but I can feel they’re not touching.  Hey, it works with my other fingers, too, but it hurts if I try it with my pinkie.”

“Then don’t do it with your pinkie, silly.  The stripes are called ‘interference’ and only waves do that.  You’ve watched how water waves go up and down, right?”

“Sure!”

“When the high part of one wave meets the low part of another wave, what happens?”

“I guess high and low make middle.”

“Good guess, that’s exactly right.  That little teeny space between your fingers lets through only certain waves.  You see light where the highs and lows are, dark where the waves middle out.”

“So light’s made out of waves, huh?”

“Well, except that scientists have done lots of experiments where light behaves like it’s made out of little particles called photons.  The funny thing is, light always acts like a wave when it’s traveling from one place to another, but at both ends of the trip it always acts like photons.  That’s the big mystery — how does it do that?”

“You know how it works, don’tcha, Uncle Sy?”

“Only kinda sorta, Teena.  I think it has to do with the idea of big things made out of little things made out of littler things.  Einstein — wait, you know who Einstein was, right?”

“He was the famous scientist with the big hair.”

“That’s right.  He and another scientist had a big debate over 80 years ago.  The other scientist said that when quantum things make patterns, like those stripes you’re looking at, the patterns are all we can know about them.  Einstein said that there has to be something deeper down that drives the patterns.”

“Who won the debate?”

“At the time most people thought that the other man had, but philosophies change.  Since that time lots of people have followed Einstein’s thinking.  Some of the theories are pretty silly, I think, but I’m betting on birds made out of birds.”

“That’s silly, too, Uncle Sy.”

“Maybe, maybe not, we’ll see some day.  It starts with what you might call ‘the smallness quantum,’ though it’s also called ‘the Planck length‘ after Mr Planck who helped invent quantum mechanics.  The Planck length is awesomely small.  It’s as much smaller than us as we are smaller than the whole universe.”

“But there’s lots of things bigger than we are.”

“Exactly.  We’re smaller than whales, they’re smaller than planets, planets are smaller than suns, and galaxies, and on up.  But we don’t know near as many size scales in the other direction – us and bacteria and atoms and protons and that’s about it.  I think there’s plenty of room down there for structures and chaos we’ve not thought of yet.”

“Like birds in murmurations.”

“Mm-hmm.”Bird made out of birds 1

~~ Rich Olcott