Joel Klebanoff: Stuff & Nonsense

To worry is to be. To be is to worry.

Imponderables

 There are, to say the absolutely very least, a great many phenomena in the universe that I find to be imponderable; at least not ponderable in any more than purely superficial, meaningful way. Other people may find it possible to not just ponder some of them deeply and meaningfully, but also actually understand them. I don’t.

The following is an infinitesimal sampling—just the top three at the top of my mind now; others may make my top-three list at other times—of what I find imponderable:

The Universe: Infinitely Finite?

The Universe: Infinite or Finite?

The Universe: Infinite or Finite?

Consider the following two statements:

  • The universe is infinite.
  • The universe is finite.

Unless I’m missing something—probably something that involves mysticism and angels performing elaborate, multi-act circus extravaganzas on the head of a pin—one and only one of the above statements is true. Yet I can’t wrap my mind around either of them.

How can anything go on without end? That’s inconceivable to me. If I were to try to visualize something material, such as the universe, rather than just something conceptual, such as angels on pinheads, going on without end, my brain would explode—possibly literally.

Yet, how can the universe be finite? What would happen if you walked to the edge of the universe (or visited the restaurant there1) and then took one more step? Where would you be?

I believe some physicists explain this by saying that space is curved and eventually folds back on itself. Thus, no matter how many steps you take you will stay within that finite space.

Yeah. OK. But I have to move on now because I think I left the stove on and my brain is starting to boil.

The Multiverse: Everything and More

Everything to the Power of Infinity

Everything to the Power of Infinity

Some esteemed physicists postulate that there isn’t just our universe, but a collection of universes—possibly an infinite number of them—making up a multiverse2. How can that be?

I always understood the definition of universe to be, “Everything there is. Absolutely everything.”

A two-universe multiverse, then, is, in essence, everything squared. And a multiverse with an infinite number of universes is everything raised to the power of infinity. A multiverse with more than two, but still a finite number of universes falls somewhere in between.

There are people out there who claim to understand this. Some even claim to be able to come up with formulae that give credence to this hypothesis. I don’t doubt their integrity. And they probably do understand it. And their conjectures may even be spot-on accurate. My only question is, whether the theory is correct or not, what sort of drugs do you have to be on to come up with this sort of hypothesis in the first place?

Time: It’s All Relative

Time: It's All Relative

Time: It’s All Relative

If I come anywhere close to understanding it (a very, very, very long shot, at best), according to Albert Einstein3, if you hopped into a super-duper spaceship, accelerated to close to the speed of light and then spent a couple of years travelling around at that speed, when you returned to earth all of your friends—and all of your enemies, as well as everyone else around at the time you left—would be long dead.

The reason for this is, again according to Einstein, time moves more slowly for a body in motion than for a stationary body. In addition, the faster you travel, the more time slows down.

He didn’t mean this in simply a “time flies when you’re having a good time” or an “a watched pot never boils” sort of way. He didn’t mean that time would simply appear to be going slower. He meant that it would actually run slower for you.

(I believe he, or maybe some other physicist, also said that the strength of gravity has an influence on time, so someone sitting on a large, dense planet would experience time at a different rate than someone out in space, far from anything with a serious gravitational force. But never mind that. The time/velocity relationship alone is mind boggling enough for this near-brainless post.)

According to my almost certainly flawed understanding of what Einstein was saying, if you took a clock with you on your super-duper spaceship voyage and that clock registered not just hours and minutes, but also the date, your clock would be well behind earth-bound clocks when you returned.

This argument follows “naturally” from the apparent fact that the speed of light relative to you is the same even if you are moving relative to the light source. That is counterintuitive and goes against the rules of relative speeds for just about everything other than light.

For example, if you are traveling in a car at a speed of 60 miles per hour and a car behind you is traveling in the same direction at 50 miles per hour, you’re pulling away from him at the speed of 10 miles per hour (60 – 50). But scientists say that’s not how it works for light.

If you were moving away from a light source at 100,000 miles per hour, you would expect that the light would approach you at 670-million miles per hour (the speed of light) minus 100,000 miles per hour, or 570-million miles per hour. But that’s not what happens. The light still approaches you at the full 670-million miles per hour. This has apparently been verified in a few independent experiments by comparing the speed of light from a moving star to that from a stationary star.4

I minimize my use of swearing on this blog because excessive swearing causes ad servers to stop serving ads to the page containing the swearing, but, what the fuck?

Einstein was way, way, way more knowledgeable and intelligent than I am, so I’m inclined to trust him much more than my intuition, but I, and I suspect most of us, have trouble understanding this concept.

But enough about the relative speed of light; let’s get back to the relative speed of time.

Watched pots and having fun notwithstanding, to me, time appears to move at a constant speed and always only in one direction. How can it progress at different rates for people traveling at different speeds? That sounds counterintuitive to me.

Then again, the ability to sit on a large, near-spherical rock that is rotating on its axis and revolving around a star in space and live to tell about it seems counterintuitive to me, but here I am.

And that brings up the question, speed relative to what? You are probably sitting in front of your computer while reading this. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a smartphone or tablet computer, maybe you’re lying down on a comfy couch. Nevertheless, while it might not seem so to you, you’re travelling very, very, very quickly.

The Earth revolves around the sun at a speed of about 67,000 miles per hour. So, while we’re sitting there on our fat (or thin as the case may be) asses or lying on our backs, we’re hurtling through space at a phenomenal rate.

And the Earth doesn’t just revolve around the sun. It also rotates on its axis. So we’re sitting on a giant whirly ride, like those teacups at an amusement park. How fast you’re moving as a result of this rotation depends on how close you are to the Earth’s axis. If you’re standing at a point on the equator, you’re spinning at about 1,000 miles an hour.

Compounding this motion, our solar system is in a spinning galaxy that, in addition to spinning, is also moving through space. I have no idea how quickly our galaxy is spinning and moving forward, but, needless to say, add it all together and we’re—to put it in scientific terms—traveling super, super, super fast.

So, if you were to go up into a space station that remained stationary relative to not just Earth, but to a point in space, would time for the people on Earth, who are, even while sleeping, hurtling through space at a breakneck move more slowly than time for you?

And that raises yet another question. What does “a point in space” even mean when it comes to relative motion? The universe is expanding. Doesn’t that mean that all points in space are in motion?

The deafening boom you heard was my head exploding. Someone please clean up the mess.

So, which phenomena are on your top three-list of imponderables? Are they the same as mine?

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

  1. The Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe, Douglas Adams, Pan Books Ltd, 1980
  2. See The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene (professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University), Alphred A. Knopf, 2011; and other similar books.
  3. If you’re looking for an excellent biography of Albert Einstein, read: Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 2008
  4. Pages 32 and 33 (first paperback edition), The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, Brian Greene, W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
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15 Comments

  1. Big D says:

    I try not to think about things like that. it makes my head hurt.

  2. Yun Yiy says:

    interesting post, joel. the first two are completely unfathomable, the last one, special relativity, i found it “relatively” easy for me to understand. so in my top 3 list, i would replace the 3rd one by human’s “self consciousness”.

    • Wow! You understand special relativity? I am impressed. That probably puts you in a very small segment of the population. It’s a segment that I wish I could say I was in. I’m not. I envy you for that.

      I hadn’t thought about self-consciousness. I’d always just taken it for granted, but I suppose it is quite unique and difficult to account for. Then again, I think that if I put my mind to it I could probably come up with some survival/reproductive advantages to self-consciousness. And if it has those then, given enough time, it’s highly likely to evolve in one or more species. Now, all I have to do is figure out what those advantages are.

      • Yun Yiy says:

        lol… glad i just impressed you! but i only said it’s “relatively easier” for me to understand. i consider i only have a very very basic grasp about the relationship between relative space/time and the absolutely speed of light. i also know, that if the speed of light found not so absolute, the whole special relativity would be thrown over.

        self consciousness has been always the most fascinating phenomenon to me. i always feel like my mind was trapped inside my body, other than it is a consequence of evolution. but i think you are right, we have to look at it from evolutionary perspective. i can hardly think of any advantage of it, but i feel that it almost certainly causes more problems than advantage.

  3. PBScott says:

    I have been able to get my head around the infinite universe, and also the relativity of time, but not the multiverse, I just can’t believe it exists. I believe in microverses and the possibility that our universe is just a particle in a larger universe so large we can never get far away to see it. Interesting stuff, good to spend a bit of time on, but maybe not a lifetime.

    This is a great video that explains the relativity of time:

    • Thanks for that video! Due to a bout of insomnia, I’ve now watched it. It’s absolutely fascinating. It taught me some things I didn’t know. For example, I didn’t know that, due to the different speeds of time under different gravity levels, the clocks in GPS satellites have to be adjusted daily or else our GPS devices down here on earth would become increasingly inaccurate. That’s a bit of a mind bender. Or should I say space-time bender?

      However, the video didn’t help me to truly understand the concepts. I can mouth some (but probably only a small fraction) of the words about space-time and relativity, but can’t truly understand and visualize them. The video, in effect, taught me new words (and the awesomeness of what it discussed made it well worth watching), but didn’t give me the ability to be fully conversant in them.

      (I used “words” metaphorically, as a placeholder for the broader concepts.)

  4. jkweath says:

    So time moves more slowly for a body in motion, huh? No wonder I feel so old at 24, I barely move at all!

    But on a serious note, try imagining a brand new color. Yeah, there’s my imponderable.

  5. Janene says:

    Outside of the whole “what is life all about” questioning, I think you’ve nailed it. The first two imponderables of yours is too huge to wrap my head around, too.

  6. So, here’s something on your imponderables.

    The key element to wrapping your mind around infinities is, well, you can’t because there’s nothing we can compare in our lives that is infinite. Even air and water have boundaries. In addition to that, infinities, while endless, come in different sizes. There are an infinite number of even positive whole numbers There are twice as many positive whole numbers (since we’re including the infinite set of odd numbers). There are twice as many as THAT whole numbers (positive and negative). Since there are an infinite number of REAL numbers between 0 and 1, that argues that are an infinity squared number of real numbers since there’s an infinity between each whole number.

    Here’s a towel. You might want to mop that up.

    The thing is it doesn’t matter. The infinity of numbers is only of interest to theoretic math geeks who like to ponder that stuff for entertainment – it doesn’t serve much practical purpose except screwing up the occasional computer program. The size of the universe – that, too. No one REALLY knows if it’s infinite. If there were nothing beyond the limits that we can see, how would we know? And, given that we haven’t even been back to the moon in thirty years, I don’t think we’ll be setting forth for the bounds of the universe any time soon.

    There are certainly reputable scientists that espouse the multiverse concept, but several more that think it’s nonsense. The problem isn’t lack of intelligence but lack of data and a whole field of physics (quantum physics) that doesn’t follow our understanding of classical physics in behavior. Given the tiny masses and speeds and whatnot of quantum particles, getting a bead on what they’re actually doing and why is a Sisyphusian task (yes, I made that word up). Heisenberg even codified the limits of how much we could know about a particle (and what we lost by knowing it). We’ve done enough quantum work to make some practical use of it (bombs, reactors, etc), but why it does what it does differently than regular mass is still a head-scratcher.

    String theory, the multiverse theory, a few others, are all intended to bring quantum physics back into the fold of shit we understand, usually by way of math that no one, possibly the people writing it, understand. And none of it is going to be remotely practical until such time as we have some data we can use to determine which theory, if any, is correct. Because, right now, we don’t. It’s important to realize that science was not just limited by intellect, but, more importantly, by the data available. Great minds came up with flawed theories based on misleading or inaccurate data (Aristotle). As our observation and measurement methods improved, we could refine, refute and build new theories and science progressed. Quantum physics is severely limited right now because we are trying to understand particles we can’t directly observe going at speeds we didn’t think were possible. And we don’t know what that means. We have guesses, but they’re speculation more than theories.

    And that brings us to special relativity, some of which we’ve been able to verify and some not so much, but it’s also based on the notion that nothing goes faster than the speed of light, which we take as a given because we’ve never seen anything go faster than the speed of light. But then, you wouldn’t, would you? It’s an interesting theory with some aspects demonstrably true but I’m skeptical of any aspect you can’t back with hard data. And some we can’t.

    But, again, none of that matters in the practical day to day. We have no practical method for going anywhere near the speed of light and it doesn’t have much use for most of us, living our ordinary lives.

    But, if you want to see a demonstration by use in fiction that might help you wrap your mind around the theory, I suggest “Double Star” by Robert Heinlein.

    P.S. I don’t need imponderables like these – I have children so there’s plenty I don’t understand day to day.

    P.P.S. You don’t mind if I use much of this comment in my own blog, do you?

    • Stephanie, thanks for all of that. When I wrote this post, yours was the comment that I most expected and looked forward to. Thanks.

      To sum up and grossly oversimplify what you as a confirmation that I understand you: Yes, they’re imponderables, but, as far as our everyday lives are concerned, there’s no reason to care.

      I don’t have kids, so I need additional things to not understand. I’ve found more than enough.

      Of course you can use this comment in your own blog. I am honored that you wrote it here first, but you wrote it. You own it.

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