or, "The 'Ever-so-Cocksure' (but incomplete and very short) List of Impossible Things"
Nov 2013 -Dale Alan Bryant
Writing science can be fun (honest!)--but there are times when it can be a royal pain in the neck. At any rate, I only write about topics I don't have to research--things I am already familiar with. There are two reasons for this; the first, is that I'm inherently lazy so I don't want to bother with all the fuss of fact--checking. The second is that, I don't feel it would be fair to the reader if the author he or she is reading really doesn't know what he's talking about. I would like things to be this way, always.
In reality, I end up checking dates anyway and at least some facts. This is especially true for astronomy - and its related sciences: astrophysics, astrobiology, radio astronomy, etc. Those sciences are moving ahead so fast that things are subject to change daily as refinements are made.
Moreover, there is one aspect of writing that I won't give myself a break on and that's proper punctuation. There is almost no good reason for punctuation that is misleading--and no excuse whatsoever for poor punctuation. A sentence is a thought. Thoughts are "ideas" with very specific meaning and feeling; here's a really good example: "A woman without her man is nothing." Now read it again: "A woman, without her man, is nothing." Now one more time: "A woman: without her, man is nothing." See the difference just a colon, comma and some italics can make? Three entirely different meanings. The first and last examples are 180 degrees from each other.
Now, I did mention that there was almost no good reason for improper punctuation, meaning that there are times when my sentences are seemingly unnecessarily too long or that I could have been more efficient by cutting a word or two here or there or by at least adding a few commas so that the reader can catch her breath now and then... whew!... see what I mean?... ahh, but I have even other reasons for doing this (you might not like 'em, but I have 'em!)
Like times when I want the reader to spend a little longer assimilating a point, so I'll not end the sentence, just yet, with a period, but, rather extend it with commas, semi--colons or dashes instead. Other times, I need the reader to only briefly link two or three ideas so that she can see a relationship before continuing any further. Yet even other times, a scientific idea can be a real challenge to try to explain in plain English. It can be very satisfying to break some idea down until it can't be reduced any further, but the sentence that explains it might run on a bit. This can't be helped; it's either that or start throwing in some rather obscure or vague math expressions, that may - or may not - get the point across faster, or more thoroughly. Consequently, many of my sentences become, perhaps, a bit complex--but, hopefully, not too tedious.
So, I've got all kinds of excuses for my writing but, mainly, I'd like to see the reader to get some enjoyment out of it and, maybe, at the same time, learn something previously unfamiliar along the way -- and with that, I offer you the following...
Last night, I was thinking about the significance of cosmic distances and the time it can take to cross them (alright, alright, so my social life is a bit dull!) Anyway, it is one thing to know that the distance to the nearest star - other than the sun - (yes, it is a star--a type 'G2 yellow dwarf'), is 4.2 light-years, and with the name Proxima Centauri, one of three stars in the triple-star system Alpha Centauri--by the way, our sun's proper name is Sol (pronounced "soul"). It is quite another thing to realize that, at 26,000mph, the fastest speed yet attained by man, via a Saturn-V booster just before trans-lunar insertion, it would take 116,000 years to get there. That equates to 1,560 lifetimes--LIFETIMES--(assuming a lifetime to be that of the average American male, at 76 years). That is an absurdly long time, considering that you and I haven't even experienced one lifetime yet (nothing implied here). And 26,000mph is no stroll in the park either; that breaks down to 433 miles per minute, or, 7 miles per second--roughly the distance from here to the geographic center of Martha's Vineyard--in the time it takes you to count from one to two!
You might wonder how man can possibly tolerate traveling at such speeds. Well, speed may be "of the essence", as the saying goes (or does it?) but it is of no consequence, whatsoever. You see, the concept of "speed" is relative--it only exists comparatively; in the case of the traveler(s) in the Saturn-V booster, the traveler's measured speed of 26,000mph is that speed as determined by--and relative to--a stationary observer on Earth. But, to two astronauts seated side-by-side, traveling on the same rocket, each one sees the other as being perfectly stationary. Can both cases be true? Indeed, BOTH are true. This is what Albert Einstein showed (and had the proof to back it up) in his theories of Relativity (there were two: Special Relativity (1905) and General Relativity (1915). There is no, one, absolute or privileged reference point anywhere in the physical universe. During an event, taking place anywhere, its properties can only be determined by - and again are relative to - some other event in some other place (an event is defined as any given incident or experience where a given interval (time) and its given position in space (location) intersect). Law--enforcement agencies are very much aware of the inconsistencies in the reported times and locations of incidents by different persons as witnessed from different positions. Only in rare cases do any two witnesses agree on all aspects of an event witnessed by both. Though the reasons for any disagreement are as much psychological, as they are physical, it is still Relativity at work--differing opinions caused by differing perspectives, values, etc., real or imagined.
To a statistician here on Earth, that Saturn-V booster and its two passengers is traveling very, very fast. But to a photon (a particle of light that can only travel at the speed of light - never faster or slower - or 186,282.3976 miles per second, in vacuum), that same rocket and its passengers is traveling at a dreadfully slow 0.000037% of the speed of light--crawling along! Well, that's the reason human beings can tolerate such a velocity--or any other velocity, for that matter. The problem for any being built of flesh and bones is 'acceleration'. The average man can only withstand 8 or 9 g's of acceleration (one 'g' is the force of one Earth gravity) for periods of just a few seconds, before losing consciousness. Acceleration is different from velocity. An acceleration is a change--whether an increase or decrease--in speed, whereas, velocity is a measure of constant and unvarying speed. For these same reasons, nothing can ever be measured as being absolutely stationary (Stationary?--compared to what?) One thing is stationary only as can be compared to some other thing - that believes it is moving. When you walk down the sidewalk, is it you or is it the Earth rolling from under your feet that is doing the "moving"? Believe it or not--and this is what gives Relativity its notoriety for being "counter-intuitive"--there is no way of determining that one is moving and the other is not and, in reality, it isn't one way or the other. Try to prove otherwise--it cannot be done (Einstein went on to prove this via some pretty heavy-duty equations you'd rather not mess with, take my word for it.)
And the quaint, little notion that "all things are possible" is just that--a quaint, little notion; it is impossible to square the circle--and always will be. No matter how hard anyone tries to do it, it will never be done. Interestingly, there are things that, while inherently impossible, are still able to be imagined, even visualized--while still others cannot be. Here are a few examples that include both (don't bother trying to 'prove' these situations otherwise; it's already been tried. If, however, you should succeed in doing just that--NOTIFY ME IMMEDIATELY!!!):
*Achieving temperatures colder than 'absolute zero'
*Going slower than 'stop'
*Trying to imagine a 'new' primary color
*Imagining a time longer ago than '15 billion years'
and just to break up the monotony –
*Folding any piece of paper in half more than seven times (go ahead and try it!)
Of these three interesting--but impossible--scenarios, the first two are closely related. The temperature of an object is determined by its molecular motion. All parts of a molecule vibrate (atoms and their constituent parts, e.g., electrons, neutrons, protons, etc.) All molecules exhibit this atomic motion, known as "Brownian" motion. What is Brownian motion? You just had to ask...
Refusing to open a new can of worms here, I'll just give you the universally accepted answer--Brownian motion is the residual kinetic energy (heat), or, shock left over from the Big Bang event and the reason that the entire observable, measurable universe stands at 3.5 degrees Kelvin above 'absolute zero'. O.K. - back to the temperature-vibration relationship. Temperature is an artifact and measure of this Brownian motion--though it might make more sense to think of it as being the other way around, temperature affecting speed (go ahead, I'll let you off the hook for the moment.) Anyway, the faster the motion or vibration of a molecule--from whatever has caused a change--let's not go there--the higher the temperature of the molecule; the slower the motion, the lower the temperature. At the temperature known as absolute zero, all molecular motion has ceased and the object has reached -459F (-273K Kelvin). You couldn't get that temperature one little degree colder--even if you packed freezers inside of freezers inside of other, still bigger freezers. Even if you used 'smoke and mirror' technology, it just wouldn't work (although, I have a friend whom I believe could pull it off if he really wanted to!) In other words, there is no such thing as "-460F"--because there is no such thing as going slower than 'stop'. Our first and second impossible scenarios are, very neatly, mutually exclusive.
Interestingly enough, there doesn't seem to be a similar rule that "officially" applies at the other end of the thermometer. At least, I'm not aware of there ever having been any kind of discussion on a condition that would prohibit further increase in temperature from some "universal maximum". But, it seems to me that a sensible place to start would be the "speed of light limitation" as it applies to the speed of vibration of elementary particles as just discussed. Absolute zero is the point where maximum entropy in a system is reached; i.e., all order in the system concerned has disintegrated and only chaos exists in the system. I guess the question from here would be, "What is the point of "minimum" entropy called and what goes on there?..." Well, I haven't got the foggiest notion; this in an area I am totally unfamiliar with so I don't know the first thing about it and could only speculate--time to crack a few books!...
The solution to the third scenario is simple enough; the reason you can't imagine a 'new' primary color is because there isn't one! All colors are some combination of red, yellow and blue. Black and white aren't colors per se; white is the presence of all colors and black is the absence of all colors. In between is gray, which is a measure of 'luminance'. Color is a measure of 'hue'.
The next to last entry on our "ever-so-cock-sure" (but incomplete and very short) list of impossible things: 'A time longer ago than 15 billion years'. Put another way, there is no such thing as something being older than 14.5 billion years old. There is excellent evidence to support this but it has yet to be proven. The reason for the statement however, is because everything, it is believed--including 'time' itself--came into being 14.5 billion years ago. Before that--which there is no such thing as, remember--no dimensions whatsoever existed, including the fourth dimension, 'time' (the other three being, of course, height, width and depth.)
Last, but not least (perhaps even foremost), no piece of paper – however long or thin (try it, even with toilet paper!) can be folded in half more than seven times.
Some things (like our universe – and the toilet paper) must be allowed to be unintelligible--and probably best left that way. Is truth really stranger than fiction?--you bet!