Momentous Monday: Questions that plague us

This is the first in a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know!

From March 2020, three days into first COVID-19 lockdown, before we knew the extent the plague would reach or how long the lockdowns and social distancing would last.

It can easily be argued that Europe conquered the Americas not through armed assault, but via unintended biological warfare. While Christopher Columbus and those who came after arrived in the New World with plants, animals, and diseases, it’s the latter category that had the most profound effect.

This transfer of things between the Old World and New has been dubbed The Columbian Exchange, Thanks to the European habit starting the next century of stealing Africans to enslave, diseases from that continent were also imported to the Americas.

Of course, in Europe and Africa, everyone had had time to be exposed to all of these things: measles, smallpox, mumps, typhus, whooping cough, malaria, and yellow fever. As a result, they either killed off a large number of children before six, or left survivors with natural immunity.

Influenza, aka flu, was the one exception that no one became immune to because that virus kept mutating and evolving as well.

Depending upon the area, the death rates of Native Americans were anywhere from 50 to 99 percent of the population. And they didn’t really send as many diseases back as they were “gifted with” by us, although Columbus’ men did bring syphilis home to Europe thanks to their habit of fucking sheep,

Of course, conquest through infection and violence is nothing new, as the 1997 book Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jared Diamond posits.

Nothing will freak out a human population faster than a deadly disease, especially one that just won’t go away, and the plague, aka The Black Death, regularly decimated Europe for three hundred years. It had a profound effect on art during its reign, which stretched all the way through the Renaissance and on into the Age of Reason.

But one of the positive side effects of that last visit of the plague to London in 1665 is that it lead to the Annus Mirabilis, or “year of wonders” for one Isaac Newton, a 23-year-old (when it started) mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.

Just like many students are experiencing right now, his university shut down in the summer of 1865 to protect everyone from the plague, and so Newton self-isolated in his home in Woolsthorpe for a year and a half, where he came up with his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.

He basically kick-started modern physics. His ideas on optics would lead directly to quantum physics, and his ideas on gravitation would inspire Einstein to come up with his general and special theories of relativity.

Meanwhile, calculus gave everyone the tool they would need to deal with all of the very complicated equations that would lead to and be born from the above mentioned subjects.

And if Isaac Newton hadn’t been forced to shelter in place and stay at home for eighteen months, this might have never happened, or only happened much later, and in that case, you might not even have the internet on which to read this article.

In case you didn’t realize it, communicating with satellites — which relay a lot of internet traffic — and using GPS to find you both rely on quantum physics because these systems are based on such precise timing that relativistic effects do come into play. Clocks on satellites in orbit run at a different rate than clocks down here, and we need to do the math to account for it.

Plus we never would have been able to stick those satellites into the right orbits at the right velocities in the first place without knowing how gravity works, and without the formulae to do all the necessary calculations.

There’s a modern example of a terrible pandemic ultimately leading to a greater good, though, and it’s this. America and a lot of the western world would not have same-sex marriages or such great advances in LGBTQ+ rights without the AIDS crisis that emerged in 1981.

AIDS and the thing that causes it, HIV, are actually a perfect match for the terms you’ve been hearing lately. “Novel coronavirus” is the thing that causes it, or HIV. But neither one becomes a serious problem until a person develops the condition because of it, either COVID-19 or AIDS.

But getting back to how the AIDS crisis advanced gay rights, it began because the federal government ignored the problem for too long and people died. Hm. Sound familiar? And, as I mentioned above, nothing will make people flip their shit like a life-threatening disease, especially one that seems to be an incurable pandemic.

And so the gay community got down to business and organized, and groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation took to the streets and got loud and proud. In 1987 in San Francisco (one of the places hardest hit by AIDS), the NAMES Project began creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, commemorating all of the people who died of the disease.

And a funny thing happened going into the 90s. All of a sudden, gay characters started to be represented in a positive light in mainstream media. And then gay performers started to come out — Scott Thompson of The Kids in the Hall fame being one of the early notable examples, long before Ellen did.

Around the time Thompson came out, of course, a famous straight person, Magic Johnson, announced in 1991 that he was HIV positive, and that’s when people who were not part of the LGBTQ+ community freaked the fuck out.

Note, though, that Magic is still alive today. Why? Because when he made his announcement, straight people got all up on that shit and figured out ways to reduce viral loads and extend lifespans and turn AIDS into a not death sentence, like it used to be almost 30 years ago.

And almost 40 years after the crisis started, we seem to have finally created a generation of young people (whatever we’re calling the ones born from about 1995 to now) who are not homo- or transphobic, really aren’t into labels, and don’t try to define their sexualities or genders in binary terms in the first place.

On the one hand, it’s terrible that it took the deaths of millions of people to finally get to this point. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, this current pandemic will inspire a similar kind of activism that might just lead to all kinds of positives we cannot even predict right now, but by 2040 or 2050 will be blatantly obvious.

Stay safe, stay at home, wash your hands a lot, and figure out your own “Woolsthorpe Thing.” Who knows. In 2320, your name could be enshrined in all of human culture for so many things.

Wednesday Wonders: Fooled by famous frauds and fakes

I think we’ve heard enough fake cries of “fake news” over things that are true, but here are five times in the past that people just made things up and pawned them off as real.

The Mechanical Turk

In 1769, Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungray, invited her trusted servant, Wolfgang von Kempelen, to a magic show. Von Kempelen knew his physics, mechanics, and hydraulics. The empress wanted to see what he’d make of a stage illusionist.

In short, he was not impressed, and said so in front of the court, claiming that he could create a better illusion. The empress accepted his offer and gave him six months off to try.

In 1770, he returned with his results: An automaton that played chess. It was in the form of a wooden figure seated behind a cabinet with three doors in front and a drawer in the bottom. In presenting it, von Kempelen would open the left door to show the complicated clockwork inside, then open a back door and shine a lantern through it to show that there was nothing else there.

When he opened the other two doors, it revealed an almost empty compartment with a velvet pillow in it. This he placed under the automaton’s left arm. The chess board and pieces came out of the drawer, and once a challenger stepped forward, von Kempelen turned a crank on the side to start it up, and the game was afoot.

Called the Mechanical Turk, it was good, and regularly defeated human opponents, including Benjamin Franklin.  and Napoleon Bonaparte — although Napoleon is reported to have tried to cheat, to which the Turk did not respond well.

Neither its creator nor second owner and promoter revealed its secrets during the machine’s lifetime, and it was destroyed by a fire in 1854. Although many people assumed that it was actually operated by a human and was not a machine, playing against it did inspire Charles Babbage to begin work on his difference engine, the mechanical precursor to the modern computer.

In the present day, a designer and builder of stage illusions built a replica of the Turk based on the original plans, and watching it in action is definitely uncanny.

Moon-bats and Martians!

This is actually a twofer. First, in August 1835, the New York Sun ran a six part series on discoveries made by the astronomer John Herschel on the Moon. The problem: The press flat out made it all up, reporting all kinds of fantastical creatures Herschel had allegedly seen and written about, including everything from unicorns to flying bat-people, all thanks to the marvel of the fabulous new telescope he had created. When Herschel found out about it, he was not pleased.

The flipside of this came sixty years later in 1895, when the astronomer Percival Lowell first published about the “canals of Mars,” which were believed to be channels of water that ran into the many oceans on the planet.

In reality, they were just an optical illusion created by the lack of power of telescopes of the time. This didn’t stop Lowell, though, and he went on in the early 19th century to write books that postulated the existence of life on Mars.

Of course, Lowell was not trying to perpetrate a fraud. He just had the habit of seeing what he wanted to see, so it was more self-delusion than anything else.

The Cardiff Giant

This would be Cardiff. The one in New York, not the capital of Wales. The year is 1869. The “giant” was a petrified 10-foot-tall man that had been dug up on a farm belonging to William C. “Stub” Newell. People came from all around to see it, and that did not stop when Newell started charging fifty cents a head to have a look. That’s the equivalent of about ten bucks today.

The statue was actually created by George Hull, who was a cousin of Newell’s. An atheist, Hull had gotten into an argument with a Methodist minister who said that everything in the Bible had to be taken literally. Since the Bible said that there had been giants in those days, Hull decided to give him one, and expose the gullibility of religious types at the same time.

Cardiff, after all, wasn’t very far from where Joseph Smith had first started the Mormon religion, and that sort of thing was not at all uncommon in the area during the so-called Second Great Awakening.

Although a huge hit with the public to the point that P.T. Barnum created his own fake giant, the Chicago Tribune eventually published an exposé with confessions from the stonemasons. That didn’t seem to make one bit of difference to the public, who still flocked to see the statues. Hull and his investors made a fortune off of the whole adventure.

Piltdown Man

Less innocuous was a hoax that actually sent a couple of generations of anthropologists and evolutionists down the wrong path in tracing the ancestry of humans. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claimed to have discovered the fossilized remains of a hitherto unknown human species in Piltdown, Sussex, England.

The key part was that while the skull had a human-like cranium, it had an ape-like mandible, or lower jaw. In other words, having traits of both species, it could easily have been the long-sought “missing link,” a transitional form that provides the evolutionary bridge between two species.

The first so-called missing link, Java Man, had been discovered twenty years prior to Dawson’s. Unlike Dawson’s Piltdown Man, Java Man, now known as homo erectus, has been accepted as a legitimate transitional form between ape and man.

Dawson’s downfall came after the discovery of more transitional forms and improved testing methods that authenticated many of these. When researchers finally turned their attention back to the original Piltdown Man fossils, they determined that the skull was only about 500 years old, the jaw, only a few decades. Both had been stained to simulate age.

In 1953, they published their findings, which were reported in Time magazine, but the damage had been done, setting back anthropological studies, because more recent, legitimate discoveries were doubted because they conflicted with the fake evidence.

It seems likely that Dawson was the sole hoaxer. What was his motive? Most likely, he wanted to be nominated to the archaeological Royal Society, but hadn’t yet because of a lack of significant findings.

In 1913, he was nominated because of Piltdown, proving yet again that it’s possible for a fraud to profit — if they’re white and connected.

Vaccines and autism

We’re still feeling the repercussions of this fraud, which was first perpetrated in 1998 by a researcher named Andrew Wakefield. This was when he published results of studies he carried out which, he said, showed an undeniable link between childhood vaccinations, particularly measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism.

In Wakefield’s world, “undeniable link” meant “cause and effect,” and a whole bunch of parents proceeded to lose their minds over the whole thing. We’re still dealing with the fallout from it today, with diseases like measles and whopping cough — which should have been eradicated — suddenly causing mini-epidemics.

Eventually, when they could not be replicated, it came out that Wakefield had flat-out falsified his results, and his papers and findings were withdrawn and repudiated by medical journals.

What was his motive for falsifying information without any regard for the lives he endangered? Oh, the usual motive. Money. He had failed to disclose that his studies “had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.”

But, as with Piltdown Man, we’re still seeing the effects and feeling the damage a generation later, especially during COVID. This is why now, more than ever, we need to rely on actual scientific findings that have been replicated through peer review instead of rumors, myths, or memes.

(Re)facing the music

Face-morphing technology in videos is older than you think, and has been popular since forever.

For some reason, face morphing in music videos really took off, and the whole thing was launched with Michael Jackson’s video for Black or White in 1991. If you’re a 90s kid, you remember a good solid decade of music videos using face-morphing left and right.

Hell, I remember at the time picking up a face-morphing app in the five dollar bin at Fry’s, and although it ran slow as shit on my PC at the time, it did the job and morphed faces and, luckily, it never got killed by the “Oops, Windows isn’t backward compatible with this” problem, so it runs fast as hell now. Well, whenever I last used it, and it’s been a hot minute.

If you’ve never worked with the software, it basically goes like this. You load two photos, the before and after. Then, you mark out reference points on the first photo.

These are generally single dots marking common facial landmarks: inside and outside of each eye, likewise the eyebrows and mouth, bridge of the nose, outside and inside of the nostrils, top and bottom of where the ear hits the face, major landmarks along the hairline, and otherwise places where there are major changes of angle.

Next, you play connect the dots, at first in general, but then it becomes a game of triangles. If you’re patient enough and do it right, you wind up with a first image that is pretty closely mapped with a bunch of little triangles.

Meanwhile, this entire time, your software has been plopping that same mapping onto the second image. But, at least with the software I was working with then (and this may have changed) it only plops those points relative to the boundaries of the image, and not the features in it.

Oh yeah — first essential step in the process: Start with two images of identical dimensions, and faces placed about the same way in each.

The next step in the morph is to painstakingly drag each of the points overlaid on the second image to its corresponding face part. Depending upon how detailed you were in the first image, this can take a long, long time. At least the resizing of all those triangles happens automatically.

When you think you’ve got it, click the magic button, and the first image should morph into the second, based on the other parameters you gave it, which are mostly screen rate.

And that’s just for a still image. For a music video, repeat that for however many seconds any particular transition takes, times 24 frames per second. Ouch!

I think this will give you a greater appreciation of what Jackson’s producers did.

However… this was only the first computerized attempt at the effect in a music video. Six years earlier in 1985, the English duo Godley & Creme (one half of 10cc so… 5cc?) released their video Cry, and their face morphing effect is full-on analog. They didn’t have the advantage of powerful (or even wimpy) computers back then. Oh, sure, they had pulled off kind of early CGI effects for TRON in 1982, but those simple graphics were nowhere near good enough to swap faces.

So Godley & Crème did it the old fashioned way, and anyone who has ever worked in old school video production (or has nerded out over the firing up the Death Star firing moments in Episode IV) will know the term “Grass Valley Switcher.”

Basically, it was a mechanical device that could take the input from two or more video sources, as well as provide its own video input in the form of color fields and masks, and then swap them back and forth or transition one to the other.

And this is what they did in their music video for Cry.

Although, to be fair, they did it brilliantly because they were careful in their choices. Some of their transitions are fades from image A to B, while others are wipes, top down or bottom up. It all depended upon how well the images matched.

In 2017, the group Elbow did an intentional homage to this video using the same technique well into the digital age — and with a nod from Benedict Cumberbatch, with their song Gentle Storm.

And now we come to 2020. See, all of those face morphing videos from 1991 through the early 2000s still required humans to sit down and mark out the face parts and those triangles and whatnot, so it was a painstaking process.

And then, this happens…

These face morphs were created by a neural network that basically looked at the mouth parts and listened to the syllables of the song, and then kind of sort of found other faces and phonemes that matched, and then yanked them all together.

The most disturbing part of it, I think, is how damn good it is compared to all of the other versions. Turn off the sound or don’t understand the language, and it takes Jackson’s message from Black or White into the stratosphere.

Note, though, that this song is from a band named for its lead singer, Lil’ Coin (translated from Russian) and the song itself is about crime and corruption in Russia in the 1990s, titled Everytime. So… without cultural context, the reason for the morphing is ambiguous.

But it’s still an interesting note that 35 years after Godley & Crème first did the music video face morph, it’s still a popular technique with artists. And, honestly, if we don’t limit it to faces or moving media, it’s a hell of a lot older than that. As soon as humans figured out that they could exploit a difference in point of view, they began making images change before our eyes.

Sometimes, that’s a good thing artistically. Other times, when the changes are less benevolent, it’s a bad thing. It’s especially disturbing that AI is getting into the game, and Lil’ Coin’s video is not necessarily a good sign.

Oh, sure, a good music video, but I can’t help but think that it was just a test launch in what is going to become a long, nasty, and ultimately unwinnable cyber war.

After all… how can any of you prove that this article wasn’t created by AI? Without asking me the right questions, you can’t. So there you go.

Image: (CC BY-SA 2.0) Edward Webb

Research everything, believe nothing

If you want your fiction and science fiction to be believable, look to reality first.

This will probably surprise no one who reads this blog regularly, but most of my fiction writing falls into one of two categories: stories based on real people or true events, and hard science fiction. I’m also a big fan of both historical and scientific accuracy, so I’ve developed the habit of fact-checking and researching the crap out of my fictional work.

It may not matter to a lot of people, of course, but if I see a glaring anachronism in a supposedly historically-based film or watch as they pull the magic element of Madeitupium out as a plot device in order to defy the laws of physics, then I will get pulled right out of the story.

A good case in point is the ridiculous dance scene in The Favourite. And it’s not just because the choreography on display would never have happened in the time period — the music is all wrong, too, in terms of instrumentation as well as certain chord progressions that wouldn’t have happened at the time, on top of not following the rigid rules of Baroque music of the era. But the even more egregious error in the film is that a central plot point is based on a bit of libel that was spread about Queen Anne to discredit her, but which is not true. If you want to learn more, it’s in this link, but spoilers, sweetie, as River Song would say. (By the way, apparently the costumes weren’t all that accurate, either.)

On the science fiction side, something like the finale of the 2009 Star Trek reboot just has me laughing my ass off  because almost everything about it is wrong for so many reasons in a franchise that otherwise at least tries to get the science right. Note: I’m also a huge Star Wars nerd, but I’m very forgiving of any science being ignored there because these were never anything other than fantasy films. It’s the same thing with Harry Potter. I’m not going to fault the science there, because no one ever claimed that any existed. Although some of the rules of magic seem to have become a bit… stretchy over the years.

But… where do I start with what that Star Trek film got wrong? The idea of “red matter” is a good place to begin. Sorry, but what does that even mean? There is only one element that is naturally red, and that’s bromine. Other elements might be mined from red-colored ore, like mercury is from cinnabar, but otherwise, nope. So far when it comes to matter, we have demonstrated five and postulated six forms: Bose-Einstein condensate, which is what happens when matter gets so cold that a bunch of atoms basically fuse into one super nucleus within an electron cloud; solid, which you’re probably pretty familiar with; liquid, see above; gas, ditto; and plasma, which is a gas that is so hot that it ionizes or basically becomes the opposite of the coldest form, with a cloud of super-electrons surrounding a very jittery bunch of spread-out nuclei. The one form we have postulated but haven’t found yet is dark matter, which is designed to explain certain observations we’ve made about gravitational effects within and between galaxies.

(There are actually a lot more forms of matter than these, but you can go read about them yourself if you’re interested.)

Which brings me to the other gigantic and egregious cock-up from the Star Trek film. This supposed “red matter” is able to turn anything into a black hole. It does it to a planet early in the film, and to a spaceship near the end. Okay, so that means that “red matter” is incredibly dense with a strong gravitational pull, but if that’s the case, then a neutron star could accomplish the same, sort of. It’s one step above a black hole — an object that is so compressed by gravity that it is basically a ball of solid neutrons with a cloud of electrons quivering all through and around it. Neutrons are one of two particles found in the nucleus of atoms, the other being protons. It’s just that the gravitational pressure at this point is so strong that it mushes all of the protons together enough to turn them into neutrons, too.

But the only way you’re going to turn a neutron star into a black hole is to slam it into another neutron star. Throw it against a planet or a spaceship, and all you’ll wind up with is a very flat and radioactive object that was not previously a neutron star.

That’s still not the most egregious error, though. The film subscribes to the “black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners” myth, and that’s just not true at all. Here’s a question for you: What would happen to all of the planets in our solar system if the sun suddenly turned into a black hole?

  1. They’d all get sucked in.
  2. They’d all stay where they were.

Bad science in movies tells us that “A” is the answer, but nope. If the sun turned into a black hole right this second, all of the planets would remain in orbit because the gravitational attraction of the sun wouldn’t change. Well, not quite true. If anything, it might lessen slightly because of the mass given up as energy in the creation of the black hole. So, if anything, the planets might start to creep into slightly more distant orbits.

The real negative effect wouldn’t be the black hole per se. Rather, it would be the sudden loss of thermal energy, which would turn all of the planets into balls of ice, along with the possible and likely blast of high-powered radiation that would explode from the sun’s equator and generally cut a swath through most of the plane in which all of the planets orbit.

Or, in other words, we wouldn’t get sucked into the black hole. Rather, our planet and all the others would probably be scrubbed of most or all life by the burst of gamma and X-rays that would be the birthing burp of the new black hole at the center of the solar system. After that, within a few months or years, our planet would be as cold and desolate as Pluto and all the other dwarf planets way out in the sticks. Even Mercury would be too cold to host life. Give it a couple million years, and who knows how far out the planets and moons and asteroids and comets would have drifted.

Why is this? Because nature is big on conserving things, one of them being force. Now, not all forces are conservative — and, in science, that word just means “keeping things the same.” (Okay, in politics, too.) You might be familiar with the concept that energy cannot be created or destroyed, which is a sort of general start on the matter, but also an over-simplification because — surprise, energy is a non-conservative force.

Then there’s gravity and momentum, and both of those are incredibly conservative forces. And, oddly enough, one of the things that gravity creates is momentum. To put it in naïve terms, if you’re swinging a ball on a string, the path that ball follows is the momentum. The string is gravity. But the two are connected, and this is what we call a vector. Gravity pulls one way, momentum moves another, and the relationship between the two defines the path the ball follows.

Because gravity is an attractive force, increasing it shortens the string. But since the momentum remains the same, shortening the string reduces the circumference that the ball follows. And if the ball is covering a shorter path in the same time, this means that it’s moving more slowly.

A really dumbed-down version (so I can understand it too!) is this: if G is the force of gravity and p is the momentum of the ball, and G is a constant but p is conserved once given, then the only factor that makes any difference is distance, i.e. the length of the string.

Ooh. Guess what? This is exactly what Newton came up with when he postulated his universal law of gravitation — and he has not yet been proven wrong. So if your planet starts out one Astronomical Unit away from the Sun, which weighs one solar mass, and is moving in orbit at rate X counterclockwise around the Sun, when said star foops into a black hole its mass, and hence its gravitational attraction doesn’t change (beyond mass loss due to conversion to energy), and ergo… nope. You’re not getting sucked in.

Oh. Forgot that other often confused bit. Conservation of energy. Yes, that’s a thing, but the one big thing it does not mean is that we have some kind of eternal souls or life forces or whatever, because energy is not information. Sorry!

The other detail is that most forms of energy are non-conservative, even if energy itself is conserved, and that is because energy can be converted. Ever strike a match? Congrats. You’ve just turned friction into thermal energy. Ever hit the brakes on your car? You’ve just turned friction into kinetic energy — and converted momentum into thermal energy, but don’t tell gravity that!

In case you’re wondering: No, you really can’t turn gravity into energy, you can only use it to produce energy, since no gravity goes away in the process. For example, drop a rock on a seesaw, it’ll launch something into the air, but do nothing to the total gravitational power of Earth. Drop a rock on your foot, and you’ll probably curse up a blue streak. The air molecules launched out of your mouth by your tirade will actually propagate but still fall to ground eventually subject to Earth’s gravity. And, in either case, you had to counteract gravity in order to lift that rock to its starting point, so the net balance when it dropped from A to B was exactly zero.

And it’s rabbit holes and research like this piece that makes me keep doing it for everything, although sometimes I really wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. When it comes to history, there’s a story that an Oscar-winning playwright friend of likes to mine tell and that I like to share. He wrote a play about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a group of  Japanese-Americans in WWII who were given a choice: Go fight for America in Europe, or go to our concentration camps. (Funny, none of my German ancestors were ever faced with the decision, “Go fight for America in Asia, or go to your concentration camps. Grrrr. But I do digress.)

Anyway… after one of the developmental readings of this play, he told me about a conversation he’d overheard from a couple of college kids in the lobby during intermission (this being about a decade ago): “Why were there American soldiers in Italy in World War II?”

And this is exactly why it is as important as hell to keep the history (and science) accurate. And these are things we need to fight for. Care about your kids? Your grandkids? Then here you go. Language. Science. The Arts. History. Life Skills. Politics. Sex Ed. This is what we need to be teaching our kids, with a healthy dose of, “Yeah, we’re kind of trying, but if you see the cracks in our façades, then please jump on, because it’s the only way your eldies will ever learn either.”

So… free education here. Questions accepted. No tuition charged. And if you want the media you’re eating up corrected, just ask.

Image: Doubting Thomas by Guercino (1591 – 1666), public domain.

Wednesday Wonders: Red-blooded? Not necessarily

You may think that all animals have red blood, but this is far from the case. The possible colors cover the spectrum. Let’s take a tour of that rainbow.

Previously, I wrote about various foods that aren’t actually their original natural colors for various reasons. These include cherries, oranges, margarine, wasabi, and Blue Curaçao. Now, I’m going to go for the flip side of that one.

When I ask, “What color is blood?” I’d guess that your immediate answer would be “red.” And if you’re a member of certain species, then that is true, those species being humans and most vertebrates.

But that’s not true of every species at all. It depends entirely upon chemistry.

Red

So, if you’re red-blooded, what does it really mean? It has nothing to do with courage, valor, patriotism, or any of those silly attributes. What? Goldfish have red blood. So do dogs and cats. But why is that the case?

It’s simple. Well, it’s actually ultimately complicated, but all you need to really know is that the hemoglobin in our blood, which is the molecule that binds to oxygen and circulates it through our body, contains an iron molecule at the center of a ring structure.

This is what allows your red blood cells to circulate oxygen, out from your lungs, around your body, and back again as carbon dioxide.

If you’re wondering, “Okay, why red? I can’t see oxygen in the air,” think about this. Have you ever seen rust? What color is it? And what is rust? Oxidized iron.

In the body, in reality, the blood in the lungs starts out bright red and winds up a duller and more rust-like color by the time it comes back. But it’s red because of that iron.

But blood doesn’t necessarily need to use iron.

Yellow

Swap the iron out for the metal vanadium, and you get yellow blood, which is found, for example, in beetles and sea cucumbers. Surprise, though: vanadium does nothing to circulate oxygen, so its presence is still a mystery.

Green

While you might associate green blood with a certain popular Star Trek character, one human did surprise surgeons by bleeding green during surgery, although that was due to a medication he was taking rather than alien origins.

Otherwise, it’s really not normal for humans. But there are a few species of lizard that are very green on the inside and, ironically, it’s due to the same chemical that our bodies produce as a waste-product of red blood cell death, but which would kill us if it built up to levels that would actually turn our blood green.

That chemical is biliverdin, which is filtered out by human livers as quickly as possible via conversion to bilirubin.

It’s not such a problem for these species of lizards discovered in New Guinea, which have levels of biliverdin more than twenty-times that ever seen in a human.

Blue

Figuratively, “blue blood” refers to a member of the noble class. The English expression is actually a direct translation of the Spanish sangre azul, and it came from the noble classes of Spain wanting to distinguish themselves from the darker skinned Moorish invaders.

The nobles of Spain claimed descent from the Visigoths, who were actually Germanic and when one has paler skin, the veins that show through their skin appear blue, hence the term. Although, keep in mind that while veins may appear blue, the blood in them actually isn’t.

It’s just a trick of light and refraction, much the same way that our Sun is actually white, but our atmosphere makes it look yellow and, in turn, makes the sky appear blue.

If you want to find real blue blood, you’ll have to seek out certain octopodes, crustaceans, snails and spiders, which are all related. Instead of hemoglobin to transport oxygen, they use hemocyanin, and you can see the clue in the name: cyan is a particular shade of blue.

Instead of iron, hemocyanin uses copper as the oxygen-binding element. When copper oxidizes, it doesn’t rust. Rather, it corrodes, so while corroded copper picks up a green patina, when it carries oxygen in blood, it imparts a blue color.

One of the most famous blue animal bloods came from horseshoe crabs, who until recently were harvested in order to collect their blood because it could be used to test for bacteria, contamination, and toxins during the manufacture of any medicine or medical device intended to go inside of a human.

While the blood harvesting isn’t intended to harm the animals, many of them were still dying in the process, so scientists finally switched to an artificial substitute.

Purple

Finally, we come to the blood color that Romans would have considered the most noble, but find it mostly in lowly worms. These animals use the molecule hemerythrin to transport oxygen, which has two molecules of iron. Before it’s oxygenated, it’s transparent. Once it’s oxygenated, it turns light purple, almost violet.

So there’s a rainbow tour of blood, proving that we have plenty of “alien” biology already here on Earth, as well as that the simplest of molecular changes can make a huge difference in a surface appearance.

Image via (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Wonderous Wednesday: 5 Things that are older than you think

A lot of our current technology seems surprisingly new. The iPhone is only about fourteen years old, for example, although the first Blackberry, a more primitive form of smart phone, came out in 1999. The first actual smart phone, IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, was introduced in 1992 but not available to consumers until 1994. That was also the year that the internet started to really take off with people outside of universities or the government, although public connections to it had been available as early as 1989 (remember Compuserve, anyone?), and the first experimental internet nodes were connected in 1969.

Of course, to go from room-sized computers communicating via acoustic modems along wires to handheld supercomputers sending their signals wirelessly via satellite took some evolution and development of existing technology. Your microwave oven has a lot more computing power than the system that helped us land on the moon, for example. But the roots of many of our modern inventions go back a lot further than you might think. Here are five examples.

Alarm clock

As a concept, alarm clocks go back to the ancient Greeks, frequently involving water clocks. These were designed to wake people up before dawn, in Plato’s case to make it to class on time, which started at daybreak; later, they woke monks in order to pray before sunrise.

From the late middle ages, church towers became town alarm clocks, with the bells set to strike at one particular hour per day, and personal alarm clocks first appeared in 15th-century Europe. The first American alarm clock was made by Levi Hutchins in 1787, but he only made it for himself since, like Plato, he got up before dawn. Antoine Redier of France was the first to patent a mechanical alarm clock, in 1847. Because of a lack of production during WWII due to the appropriation of metal and machine shops to the war effort (and the breakdown of older clocks during the war) they became one of the first consumer items to be mass-produced just before the war ended. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating history of alarm clocks that’s worth a look.

Fax machine

Although it’s pretty much a dead technology now, it was the height of high tech in offices in the 80s and 90s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a fax machine that isn’t part of the built-in hardware of a multi-purpose networked printer nowadays, and that’s only because it’s such a cheap legacy to include. But it might surprise you to know that the prototypical fax machine, originally an “Electric Printing Telegraph,” dates back to 1843.

Basically, as soon as humans figured out how to send signals down telegraph wires, they started to figure out how to encode images — and you can bet that the second image ever sent in that way was a dirty picture. Or a cat photo.

Still, it took until 1964 for Xerox to finally figure out how to use this technology over phone lines and create the Xerox LDX. The scanner/printer combo was available to rent for $800 a month — the equivalent of around $6,500 today — and it could transmit pages at a blazing 8 per minute. The second generation fax machine only weighed 46 lbs and could send a letter-sized document in only six minutes, or ten page per hour. Whoot — progress!

You can actually see one of the Electric Printing Telegraphs in action in the 1948 movie Call Northside 777, in which it plays a pivotal role in sending a photograph cross-country in order to exonerate an accused man.

In case you’re wondering, the title of the film refers to a telephone number from back in the days before what was originally called “all digit dialing.” Up until then, telephone exchanges (what we now call prefixes) were identified by the first two letters of a word, and then another digit or two or three. (Once upon a time, in some areas of the US, phone numbers only had five digits.) So NOrthside 777 would resolve itself to 667-77, with 667 being the prefix. This system started to end in 1958, and a lot of people didn’t like that.

Of course, with the advent of cell phones, prefixes and even area codes have become pretty meaningless, since people tend to keep the number they had in their home town regardless of where they move to, and a “long distance call” is mostly a dead concept now as well, which is probably a good thing.

CGI

When do you suppose the first computer animation appeared on film? You may have heard that the original 2D computer generated imagery (CGI) used in a movie was in 1973 in the original film Westworld, inspiration for the recent TV series. Using very primitive equipment, the visual effects designers simulated pixilation of actual footage in order to show us the POV of the robotic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner. It turned out to be a revolutionary effort.

The first 3D CGI happened to be in this film’s sequel, Futureworld in 1976, where the effect was used to create the image of a rotating 3D robot head. However, the first ever CGI sequence was actually made in… 1961. Called Rendering of a planned highway, it was created by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology on what was then the fastest computer in the world, the BESK, driven by vacuum tubes. It’s an interesting effort for the time, but the results are rather disappointing.

Microwave oven

If you’re a Millennial, then microwave ovens have pretty much always been a standard accessory in your kitchen, but home versions don’t predate your birth by much. Sales began in the late 1960s. By 1972 Litton had introduced microwave ovens as kitchen appliances. They cost the equivalent of about $2,400 today. As demand went up, prices fell. Nowadays, you can get a small, basic microwave for under $50.

But would it surprise you to learn that the first microwave ovens were created just after World War II? In fact, they were the direct result of it, due to a sudden lack of demand for magnetrons, the devices used by the military to generate radar in the microwave range. Not wanting to lose the market, their manufacturers began to look for new uses for the tubes. The idea of using radio waves to cook food went back to 1933, but those devices were never developed.

Around 1946, engineers accidentally realized that the microwaves coming from these devices could cook food, and voìla! In 1947, the technology was developed, although only for commercial use, since the devices were taller than an average man, weighed 750 lbs and cost the equivalent of $56,000 today. It took 20 years for the first home model, the Radarange, to be introduced for the mere sum of $12,000 of today’s dollars.

Music video

Conventional wisdom says that the first music video to ever air went out on August 1, 1981 on MTV, and it was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It was the first to air on MTV, but the concept of putting visuals to rock music as a marketing tool goes back a lot farther than that.

Artists and labels were making promotional films for their songs back at almost the beginning of the 1960s, with the Beatles a prominent example. Before these, though, was the Scopitone, a jukebox that could play films in sync with music popular from the late 1950s to mid-1960s, and their predecessor was the Panoram, a similar concept popular in the 1940s which played short programs called Soundies.

However, these programs played on a continuous loop, so you couldn’t chose your song. Soundies were produced until 1946, which brings us to the real predecessor of music videos: Vitaphone Shorts, produced by Warner Bros. as sound began to come to film. Some of these featured musical acts and were essentially miniature musicals themselves. They weren’t shot on video, but they introduced the concept all the same. Here, you can watch a particularly fun example from 1935 in 3-strip Technicolor that also features cameos by various stars of the era in a very loose story.

Do you know of any things that are actually a lot older than people think? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: Jake von Slatt

Momentous Monday: Weird random facts

Six random facts from science for you to enjoy, argue about, and share.

Here are a few interesting facts to ponder — things that might not seem possible, but which are true.

Which planet, on average, is closest to the Earth?

You’re probably inclined to say either Venus or Mars, going by the simple logic that in the order of orbits, Venus is #2, Earth is #3, and Mars is #4. You might also have remembered that the distance between each successive orbit follows a formula, meaning that, by definition, Venus has got to be closer to Earth than Mars.

This makes sense because each successive orbit is larger than the previous by an increasing ratio that is similar to the Fibonacci sequence,  although it’s hardly exact. It does mean, though, that Earth is closer to Venus than it is to Mars and it naturally follows that it’s closer to Venus than it is to Mercury.

But the question included “on average,” and if we take that into account, then the planet closest to the Earth is… Mercury. in fact, Mercury is the closest to every planet in the solar system, on average, period.

The simple reason for this is that Mercury’s orbital period is so short — a “year” on Mercury is only a smidgen under 88 days, meaning that it orbits the sun 4.15 times (on average) for every orbit that the Earth makes. Meanwhile, Venus only goes around 1.63 times for every Earth year.

This adds up, because Mercury is on the same side of the Sun as we are for a lot longer than Venus, and when Venus, or any planet, is on the far side, its distance from us is basically double the orbit plus the diameter of the Sun.

This is obvious if we really simplify the numbers. Let’s just randomly designate the distances by orbit: Mercury = 1, Venus = 2, Earth = 3, and Mars = 5.

When Mercury and Earth are in alignment on the same side of the Sun, the net distance is 2 (from 3-1). For Venus, it’s 1, and for Mars it’s 2. But put the planets on the other side, and the formula changes to 2O+Sol, or twice the orbital distance plus the diameter of the Sun, so the new figures are:

Mars: 2(5-3)+Sol = 4+Sol

Venus: 2(3-2)+Sol = 2+Sol

Mercury: 2(3-1)+Sol = 4+Sol

We can eliminate the +Sol from each equation since they all cancel out, and this might make it look like Venus is still the closest, but those orbital periods make a big difference, because Mercury spends a lot more time on the near side of the Sun to us than Venus does.

If we look at the averages, because Mercury gets more time in our neighborhood, in the long run it averages out to be the closest planet to Earth — but the formula holds true for every other planet in the Solar System.

Are there more stars in the universe or atoms in a human being?

Using 70 kilos as an average human weight, the answer to this one is rather simple, and the winner outnumbers the loser by a ration of 7 million to 1.

A human body has approximately 7 octillion atoms in it, and most of those are hydrogen, since we are mostly water, and there are two hydrogen atoms per oxygen atom in each molecule of water. The universe has approximately 1 sextillion stars in it and, not surprisingly, most of the universe is also made of hydrogen.

That’s kind of remarkable when you think about it, because hydrogen is the lightest of all of the elements and the simplest of atoms, made of one negatively charged electron and one positively charged proton. Yes, there are variations, or isotopes, with some neutrons slipped in there.

These neutrons are what make so-called “heavy water” so important in nuclear reactions, but chemically they make no difference, since those reactions only rely on the electron and proton.

Now, as to the answer on whether humans have more atoms or the universe has more stars, you may have already guessed it if you remember your STI and/or Greek counting prefixes. “Octillion” comes from the number 8, and refers to a number in the thousands with 8 groups of three zeroes after it. “sextillion” comes from six, and refers to a number in the thousands with 6 groups of zeroes after it.

Since the human body has about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in it while the universe only has 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, humans win, with 7 million atoms per person for every star.

What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly became a black hole?

Gravitationally, nothing, unless the Sun lost a little mass in the process, in which case we’d drift a bit farther out in our orbit.

Otherwise, though, Earth would get very cold and dark and, depending on the orientation of things, we might or might not get blasted by intense gamma radiation that would scrub the planet clean of all life and its atmosphere.

We wouldn’t be able to see the Moon or planets anymore, just the stars, and we’d freeze to death pretty quickly but don’t worry — the Sun is too small to ever become a black hole.

People have this impression that black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners that suck up everything that gets near them, but that’s not the case. They’re really just a matter of shoving ten pounds of gravity in a one-pound sack. Okay, maybe more like a hundred tons in a knee sock.

But the point is, the gravitational pull of that black hole is going to be no greater than the pull of the original object, and you have to get a lot closer, physically, before you hit the point where you can no longer escape.

Does my phone have more power than the Apollo 11 computer, and could it land me on the Moon?

Yes… and no. All of our phones have more computational power than a computer the size of a warehouse in 1969, and they can do amazing things. However, they would need very specialized apps in order to be able to do the kinds of calculations needed to adjust velocities and trajectories precisely on the way to the Moon, second to second.

Google Maps won’t do that because we don’t have GPS that works off-Earth. Your phone would have to be able to spot the Moon and either Earth or Sun, plus another star or two, all visually, calculate the angles between them, then keep track of them and use that to calculate velocity and direction.

At the same time, your phone would also have to interface simultaneously with 150 onboard devices and run five to seven programs at once. In case you hadn’t noticed, phones and computers don’t really multitask anymore. They stopped doing that when systems became fast enough to just pick up where it left off when you switched windows, so that it just looks like that other program was running in the background the whole time.

The onboard computer on Apollo 11 was still a lot bigger than computers today, at 70 lbs (32 kgs), but it did the job and, because of the elegant way in which the code was written, it only required a grand total of… 2 kilobytes of memory, which is about 2,000 characters.

Yes, the actual code written for it was a lot bigger, but that 2Kb was working memory, and that was what was so elegant about it. The software itself was stored in static memory, which was literally woven by hand.

No, really. It was even called “rope memory.” This essentially created an incredibly complicated addressing system where the intersection of a particular pair of wires indicates the location of a single bit of data.

Touchtone phones worked on this same principal for years, and your phone and computer keyboards still work this way to this day. In fact, this two-point address scheme is still what makes your touch screens work as well.

It’s still mind-boggling to realize that not only did this computer somehow manage to do all of its runtime stuff in only 2Kb of memory, but that they had conceived of the idea of virtual runtime environments even then, so that they were able to run those five to seven programs at once, in such a small space.

What makes water so special?

The very short version is this: if water didn’t expand when it froze, life on Earth would not be possible and we’d probably be an ice-ball planet.

Water molecules have an interesting property. Made up of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, the hydrogen atoms naturally attach to the oxygen at 120° angles. Well, basically, since the whole thing is ultimately defined by the electron field around it in which we can only determine the likelihood of an electron’s location.

But it does give water these properties: When it’s a gas, the molecules bump into and spin off of each other. When it’s a liquid, they flow around each other. However, as the temperature lowers, a funny thing happens. Those hydrogen atoms in the molecules start to line up — remember, a sphere has 360° around it — and so as the water molecules slow down (i.e. as the temperature drops) the molecules line up and lock together and begin to create a crystal lattice.

You can see it large scale in a snow-flake, with its six-sided symmetry, but down on the molecular level what’s really happening is that the molecules are actually forming rigid structures and pushing themselves apart as they align.

And so… as liquid water turns into ice, it expands, and this is good for us (but bad for the Titanic) for one very big reason. It reduces the density of ice, so that it floats in water. If it didn’t, we’d be screwed, because ice would sink, wind up on the bottom, and then tend to never thaw when winter ended.

Eventually, entire lakes, rivers, and seas would completely freeze over, removing liquid water at first from our aquifers and, eventually, from our atmosphere. The Earth would become one vast desert, and the reflection of sunlight because of all that ice would just add to the runaway freezing.

Is time travel possible?

The short answer is “probably not,” at least not to the past, although time travel to the future is technically possible through things like suspended animation — as in if you travel more slowly than everyone else, you’ll objectively get to the future faster.

But your real question is, “Can I jump into a time machine and visit another era?” And the answer is this: “Sure, if you figure out how to actually travel in time, go for it, but you’ll need to figure out how to travel in space as well. Or, at the very least, do complicated equations that would have blown the circuits out of those first NASA computers.

Example: Marty McFly abandons all common sense, and jumps into the crazy old man’s time machine even as he’s being gunned down by terrorists. Marty guns it, the car hits 88 miles an hour, and suddenly Hill Valley and the Twin Pines mall vanish…

And the car is drifting somewhere in interstellar space. Since it’s not pressurized, Marty very quickly dies, alone and billions of miles away from Earth. End of movie, and the trilogy never exists.

What?

That’s because everything in the universe constantly moves. You may think that all of those atoms in your body don’t move at all, but that’s not true at all. The ones that are part of organs or tissues or the like may seem to be stuck in place, but they are constantly vibrating as they react with neighboring atoms. This is why you’re not a frozen block of ice.

The universe has two speed limits — the fastest you can go and the slowest you can go. If you have any mass at all, no matter how small, you can never reach the speed of light, or C. If you have no mass, you can only ever travel at C — which isn’t all that weird when you think about it.

Meanwhile, the bottom speed limit of the universe is motionless, which is defined as Absolute 0, or 0ºKelvin (-273.15ºC or -459.67ºF). Nothing can reach this temperature, because it would mean that it would have absolutely no motion at all.

The problem is that if something is not moving at all, we know its precise location. And, if we know its location, we cannot know its exact momentum. This is the core of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and, obviously, if an object is completely motionless, then we know both its location and its momentum.

As it turns out, molecules have a very clever way of hiding themselves when they get close to 0ºK. they turn into a fifth state of matter called a Bose-Einstein Condensate. In this case, suspecting that we’re about to figure out where they are, all of the atoms being reduced in temperature suddenly give up their angular momentum gladly. At the same time, they all kind of smear into a indeterminate blob, so that we have no idea where any single atom in the group is.

And… problem solved. Okay, the atoms aren’t thinking at all while this is happening. It’s just a result of the change in velocity that dictates which property is going to be hidden. But just as you can’t accelerate mass past the universal speed limit, you can’t slam the brakes on mass and bring it to a complete stop.

Note that I have no idea whether the Bose-Einstein thing affects photons, since photons do have momentum and spin, but by virtue of having no mass probably also have no real location, especially because (just a guess) they still move at the same speed at 0ºK.

Photons are tricksey fuckerses.

But despite all of that, okay. Let’s assume that time travel is possible. Marty hops in that DeLorean, travels back 30 years and, assuming that time travel is legit, he’s still not going to be in the same place on Earth because gravity isn’t going to work that way either.

Gravity is a very long range force, and it’s very strong on cosmic scales, but it’s absolutely not on quantum scales, and this may actually be the reason that it’s been so hard to reconcile classical physics with the quantum.

Look at it this way. Why do “flat-earthers” exist? Because, from their very limited perspective living on the face of the planet, the place really does look flat.

Even if you march their sorry asses to the beach and make them watch as giant cargo ships rise above and vanish below the horizon, they still won’t buy it.

You need to take them up and beyond so that they can actually see the curve and experience the gravity and all of that. I mean, after all, even if you circumnavigate the globe by boat, plane, train, automobile, or whatever, it’s still going to seem flat to you without that heightened experience.

So… how does gravity affect space time? It bends it. Or, in other words, gravity takes “flat” space time and curves it. And on a human scale, this is really easy to experience. Toss a ball into the air and watch it fall. It’s not going to land in quite the same place.

But on the quantum scale? Nope. Everything there would appear “flat” as well, because any bend of space that gravity might create would be totally imperceptible to particles so small.

So the force that would normally hold Marty and the DeLorean onto the ground on Earth and keep him in Hill Valley become totally irrelevant when you start to fuck with the quantum shiz that would be necessary for time travel.

The DeLorean pops out from here but is no longer bound to Earth or anything else by gravity, since it’s skidding gleefully through time but not limited by velocity — as in it will never travel faster than light, but does so by following an alternate path through space that, nevertheless, will still land it at the target date and place on the particular world it departed from.

In the Universe at large, that time and date 30 years ago in Hill Valley is exactly where it was in the 30 years ago of the place Marty left, which means he’s at least 22 billion miles away from the solar system, with the Earth itself some smaller increment nearer or farther.

It definitely doe not include the about 19 billion kilometers that the entire Milky Way Galaxy has moved toward the Great Attractor between the constellations of Leo and Virgo. Without that DeLorean being able to do some very complicated math and some space travel as well, it’s going to be a very short trip to the past, and no coming back to the future

image source: Mrmw, (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Wonders: Let’s get dark (Part 2)

Last week in Part 1, I looked at failed scientific hypotheses, the scientific method, and how Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity hold up and yet are completely incompatible with each other, mainly because one explains gravity very well but nothing on the quantum level, and the other is the opposite. Here’s the rest of the why of that. Cheers!

May the force(s) be with you

In physics, there are four fundamental forces. They are gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force. We’ve already met gravity, which works with enormous masses across great distances but doesn’t seem to really have much effect in the sub-atomic realm.

The electromagnetic force, mediated by electrons and photons, seems to work on both a macro and micro level. It gives us electricity, lightning, and a sense of touch — all rather large phenomena quite visible in the quotidian world. On a subatomic level, it gives us friction and holds solid objects together, among other things.

An ice cube, for example, is just the electromagnetic force acting on water below a certain temperature. The electromagnetic force is also why you don’t just fall through the floor.

The weak nuclear force facilitates one kind of subatomic particle changing into another via the exchange of Bosons. This force is essential for powering the fusion that keeps stars alive, as well as transforming one kind of particle into another.

Finally, there’s the strong nuclear force, which is responsible for keeping the fundamental particles that keep atoms together. It bonds the quarks to create protons and neutrons, then bonds those to create atomic nuclei, to which the electromagnetic force attracts elections, creating elements.

Now, here’s the funny thing. In theory, the strong nuclear force is much, much stronger than the force of gravity — if its force is set at 1, then gravity is 6×10-39. However, there’s a catch. Gravity’s effective range is infinite, while that of the strong nuclear force is only 10-15 meters.

This is the basic stalemate between Einstein’s Theories of Relativity and quantum physics. The former explains the gravitational force very well, but doesn’t do that with the others. The latter explains the other three, but really has dick-all that can explain the former.

It’s kind of like the ultimate Nerd-Fight Cage Match, really.

Is it elementary?

I find it kind of interesting that modern physics settled on four forces, though (and four dimensions, but I’m not bringing that into it) when the ancient world settled on four “elements.”

This was long before any kind of theory of atoms, but by the age of Alchemists, who sought the holy grail of turning lead into gold long before anyone even realized that the only way to do that was via nuclear fusion, the prevailing wisdom was this.

There were only four “elements.” They were earth, fire, air, and water. This four-split in human culture, at least of the Western European kind, became so prominent that it was ridiculous.

How many suits in a deck of cards? How many Gospels? How many cardinal directions on the compass?

And don’t forget those famous Elizabethan “humors” that you probably learned about in high school: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic.

Finally, how many limbs do we have, not counting our heads?

Somehow, this tetrapartite symbolism crept into Western culture and while the initial concepts about which elements actually existed are laughably wrong, let’s take a look at those naïve assumptions one more time, and map them onto modern physics.

Alchemists’ elements: Earth, fire, air, water

Elizabethan humours: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic

Physics forces: Gravity, electromagnetic force, weak force, strong force

In at least the first and the last cases, it’s a game of “one of these things is not like the others.” Earth — which you can think of as soil or dirt or the planet itself — is solid matter. The other three are plasma, gas, and liquid.

Likewise, gravity seems to be a force created by the existence of matter, but unlike the others has no apparent particle that transmits it.

Little trouble in big bang

The idea that the universe began with a so-called “big bang” started with Edwin Hubble, the person, when he proved that the universe was expanding in all directions.

It followed that if the universe was expanding now, it had to have started expanding at some point in the past, and rewinding the clock indicated that the entire universe had been a single point 13 or 14 billion years previously.

So much for the idea of the universe being created in six days in 4004 BCE.

But this led to all sorts of logical questions. What caused the Big Bang? What came before it? And how did everything we know in the universe come into being in that instant and after, since all the energy and matter we’d ever have to work with had to have been generated at that point?

The other big question: How will the universe end? Will the expansion continue forever, eventually slowing down and stopping as entropy reaches a maximum, leaving the place cold, dark, and empty? Or did that first bang only give a sufficient kick to reach a certain point before the whole thing started to contract again, eventually returning to that initial point, slamming everything together into a Big Crunch that would recreate the original singularity?

In 1998, Hubble the Telescope did its namesake proud by throwing a wrench into things.

A little push

It turned out that the expansion of the universe was not slowing down or reversing at all. No — it was accelerating, meaning that not only might it never reverse or stop, it might just keep on going forever.

But this brought up the biggest and still unanswered question: What was causing the acceleration?

If we continue with the explosion analogy for the creation of the universe — which isn’t really that accurate, since the Big Bang happened everywhere at once — there’s no way to account for the acceleration without adding some outside factor.

But imagine this scenario. You launch a firework into the air and it blows up like it’s supposed to, sending its colorful pyrotechnics and sparks outward in a short series of multi-colored showers that make the crowd ooh and aah.

Now, when you designed the firework, it was meant to be a five second air-burst at a safe height of 200 meters, expanding to a maximum diameter of maybe 110 meters if you launched a 20-centimeter shell.

After all, all of the mass and energy that would ever exist in that explosion was packed into that shell before launch; before the Big Bang.

But then, your shell gets up there, and not only does it hit its intended 110 meter burst size before five seconds, but it keeps on going and growing, gradually expanding faster than the initial 22 meter-per-second growth rate — and it never stops expanding.

This is kind of what the universe appears to be doing.

The universe has lost your luggage

Other discoveries indicated that galaxies were acting like they had a lot more mass than they should have, or that we were able to observe because of their rotation. This led to the postulation of the concept of dark matter.

Meanwhile, the accelerating expansion of the universe led to various hypotheses, including the idea of dark energy.

By the way, please keep in mind that the terms “dark matter” and “dark energy” really should not be taken literally. They’re placeholders to indicate two things. The “dark” part just says that we cannot detect them. The “matter” and “energy” parts just tell us that, at the moment, we’re looking for force carrier — i.e. particle/wave thingie — and a specific force.

It’s like the term “dark saber” in The Mandalorian. George Lucas just needed to pull something out of his ass to justify a light saber that was black — hence, technically, not involving light at all.

</nerd>

The takeaway here, though, is that dark matter seems to be pulling on galaxies to affect their spin, while dark energy seems to be pushing on the universe to speed up its expansion.

The real scary part of this though, is that the fallout of these two ideas is that less than 5% of our universe is made up of the familiar matter and energy that we know.

None of the dark energy hypotheses has been tested yet, although I lean towards modified gravity, or MOND concepts myself, since these truly seek to reconcile the two theories of relativity and unite the fundamental forces at last.

Ether frolic II

My problem with the idea of dark energy and dark matter is that they could just be this generation’s ether and phlogiston. Maybe the acceleration of expansion is an error in the original measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Or maybe something about the inflationary period created an artefact that only makes it look like acceleration is expanding when it’s not.

There was a very long period after the Big Bang, called the Cosmic Dark Ages, before stars or galaxies even formed. This may have been when Dark Matter arose — or it may just be an era we can’t really peer through because fusion had not lit up the cosmos.

Finally, we cannot really discount universal inflation, which is when everything expanded much faster than the speed of light. This was possible because nothing was moving that fast. It was space itself that ballooned, so that anything that moved with it was moving at the same speed as space relatively — i.e., it was stationary, so no violations at all.

But, since space-time seems to be the macro-fabric that gravity acts on instantaneously but in an attractive and not repulsive manner, could inflation and not the dark ages actually have been the period when whatever dark energy might exist was created?

Could this also be how gravity got separated forever from the other forces? Who knows? However, since gravity also apparently has no particle that transmits its force, it also has no anti-particle, at least that we know of.

Finding a particle for it would probably lead directly to solving the dark energy problem, since gravity’s anti-particle would be the particle transmitting dark… well, at that point, it would probably just become anti-gravity.

One other mind-fuck in the basket. As noted previously, we have confirmed the existence of gravity waves, which ripple through space-time on a super-macro scale. But if gravity waves do exist, is there a way to observe them that will show their particle nature as well?

Because if we manage to pull off that trick, well then… Special and General Relativity are going to need to get a room.

Image Source, European Space Agency, licensed under (CC 4.0) International

Stupid Excel tricks #1: INDEX and MATCH

Enter the matrix… math

There is an entire class of functions in Excel that take things to a whole new level, and they are called matrices. Maybe you ran across this in math in school and have forgotten, maybe not, but the idea with a matrix is that it takes one grid of numbers of X x Y dimensions and uses operators to manipulate it using another grid of numbers that may or may not have the same dimensions.

The great part is that to use these functions in Excel, you don’t need to know any of that. Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s exactly like using a cookbook. Plug in the ingredients as specified, voila, the dish pops out the other end.

Maybe you’ve used the functions VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP, or maybe not, but they can be useful if you want to match exactly one criteria in a table and if the data you’re looking up is somewhere to the right of that criteria. So it’s perfect if you have something like a unique account number on the far left and want to use that to look up a name or phone number to the right of it:

=VLOOKUP(M2,$A1:$L556,6,FALSE)

This tells Excel to take the value in cell M2, compare it to all of the values in column A of the named range, then look up the value in the sixth column counting from the column defined in the second variable (in this case, F) where the first column is equal to M2. “FALSE” just means to use an exact match, whereas “TRUE” would mean to use an approximate match.

Again, this is great if you’re searching something with unique values in both places — there is only one account number, and only one data point associated with it.

Now what if you have multiple entries for the same person with different account numbers, or multiple sizes and colors of a product with differing prices, or you need to search on more than one data point in different columns, or your table was set up with the criteria you want to use somewhere to the right of the data points you’re searching?

Welcome, matrix functions! These are two nested commands that work miracles together. The first is INDEX, and what it basically does is point to a column with data that you’re going to pull stuff from, then follow that up with the criteria you’re going to use to do that. You can see the difference from the LOOKUP functions right off the bat, because those start with the single data point you’re going to use to search the data. The INDEX function starts with the place you’re going to get the answer from.

The MATCH function is the matrix math, and it allows you to specify multiple criteria matched to different columns in the source data. The nice part about it is that you can have as many different criteria as you need — first name, last name, account number; size, gender, color, style; title, author, binding, edition; and so on. And each of these can point to any particular bit of data you need — monthly cost, price, location, phone number, address, and so on. Any bit of data in the table can be found this way.

If you want to put a physical analogy on it, it’s this. LOOKUP functions are a librarian with a sliding ladder that moves horizontally or can be climbed vertically. But the way it works is that they first move it or climb it in the direction you specify until it hits the target word. Then, it slides or climbs the other direction however many rows or columns you specified, and has now targeted exactly one cell with the answer. Oh — and it can only move to the right or down from that initial search cell.

On the other hand, think of INDEX and MATCH as a whole bunch of librarians who have set out all over the same bookcases, but are simultaneously searching the rows and columns, and calling back and forth to each other to indicate what bits they’ve found that match.

If you work with any kind of inventory or any data sets where people’s info is broken down (as it should be) into separate first and last names and account identifiers, then you need to know these functions, because they will save you a ton of time. And the basic way they work is like this:

INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0))

(Note: All column and row designations here are arbitrary and made up, so they don’t matter.)

That might look complicated, but it’s not. Let’s break it down. The first part, referring to the E column is the “Where” of the formula. That is, this is the column you’re pulling your data from. For example, if you want to use size, color, and style to find price, then this would be whatever column has the price data in it.

Next, we nest the MATCH function, and this lets INDEX know that what comes next will be the instructions it needs. The “1,” inside the parenthesis is a flag for MATCH, telling it to return one value. After that, each nested thing — and you can have as many as you need — follows the form “Single cell to look at equals column to search.” So, as seen here, for example, in the search data, column W might be the first name, and cell W2 is the cell corresponding to what we’re looking at. Meanwhile, column C in the target data includes first names, so what we’re saying is “Look for the single value of W2 down the entire column of C1 to C1405. The dollar signs are there to lock it as a fixed range.

All of the other parentheticals here follow the same pattern. Maybe X is the column for last name in the source and D is where the last names are in the target; and AA is account number, as is J.

The two other interesting things to note in building matrix equations: The single cell and the column are joined by an equals sign, not a comma, and this is important because, without it, your formula will break. What this tells Excel is that whatever the matrix pulls out of single cell must equal what’s in the column at that point.

The other thing to notice is that between the searches within parentheses, there aren’t commas, but rather asterisks, *, which indicate multiplication, and this is the heart of Matrix math.

What this tells the formula is to take the results of the first thingie, apply those criteria and pass it along to the second. In other words, if the first evaluation turned up nothing, that is mathematically a zero, and so it would quash anything coming from the second and third functions. On the other hand, if it comes up as a one, then whatever the second formula turns up will stay if there’s a one, dump if not, and then pass on to the third, fourth, etc..

Lather, rinse, repeat, for as many steps down the process you’ve created. A false result or zero at any point in the matrix math will kill it and result in nil. Meanwhile, as long as the tests keep turning up positives, what will fall out of the ass end of it is the honest legit “This data is the true data.”

Funny how that works, isn’t it? The only other trick you need to remember is that after you’ve entered this formula, you need to close it out by hitting Ctrl-Shift-Enter to let Excel know it’s a matrix formula. Then, if you want to copy it, you can’t use the usual Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V. Instead, you have to highlight the column with the formula at the top, then hit Ctrl-D. Voila… the whole thing duplicates down the column — which is what the “D” in the command stands for. To do the same thing across a row, the command is Ctrl-R, which you could think of as “repeat” or “replicate.”

And there you have it — a way to search multiple criteria in a row in order to find a specific data point in a table. You’re welcome.

But there’s more! One very important trick I’ve learned is how to avoid getting the dreaded “N/A#” in your results, because that totally breaks any summation you’re doing on the data. So I add an extra layer to the whole thing with a combination of the IF() and ISERROR() formulas.

This can make the thing really long, but worth it. I suggest entering the short INDEX formula first, make sure it’s working, and then use F2 to edit the cell, highlight everything and hit CTRL-C. Next, add “IF(ISERROR(” before the existing formula, move your cursor to the end, close out the ISERROR with a right parenthesis, “)”, then add comma, 0 (zero), and hit Ctrl-V to paste a copy of the original formal at the end. Close that with a final right paren.
The whole thing looks like this:

IF(ISERROR(INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0))),0,INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0)))

Sure, it gets a little long, but the advantage will be that if what you’re looking for isn’t in the source data, you’ll get a nice zero instead of an error message. And if you’re searching a text field, like size or name, then use “” instead of 0 after the ISERROR to get a blank cell.

Wednesday Wonders: Baby, it’s cold inside

A hundred and ten years ago, in 1911, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes made an interesting discovery while futzing around with very low temperatures. It’s a discovery that will lead to many modern innovations that affect us just over a century later.

Strange things happen as the temperature drops toward absolute zero, which is basically the temperature equivalent of the speed of light in a vacuum (C) being the velocity limit for anything with mass. Oh, we’ve gotten really close to absolute zero — within nanokelvins — and in theory we could get really close to the speed of light, although that would take ridiculous amounts of energy.

But… where matter can’t be is right at these two figures: Exactly absolute zero, or exactly C. There’s nothing in the equations, though, that say that objects with mass cannot move faster than the speed of light or be colder than absolute zero.

Practically speaking, it would require infinite energy to jump from 99.99999% to 100.00001% of C, so that’s not possible, but scientists in Germany think they may have achieved temperatures below absolute zero.

Of course, these create weird situations like negative temperatures in an absolute sense, and not just as measured. That is, while we can say that it’s 24 below zero outside, that really isn’t a negative temperature by strict definition. It’s just a temperature that’s negative on the scale we’re using.

Remember: 1º on the Kelvin scale is actually –457.87ºF.

These kinds of negative temperatures are actually below that absolute physical limit, and so they represent thermal energy that behaves the opposite as temperatures above absolute zero. And, in all likelihood, an object moving faster than light would also travel backwards in time thanks to the time dilation effect being reversed.

These, though, are theoretical arguments. What we do know is that things get weird as the temperature drops. At a few nanokelvin, the only energy left in the system is quantum, and so these strange effects take over on a massive scale, pun intended.

The key here is that as atoms lose energy and cool down, they stop moving as much, eventually reaching a point where they’re just sitting there. But… there’s a principle in physics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that there is a fundamental limit to the precision with which you can measure two connected properties of any particle.

For example, if you measure position precisely, you can’t measure momentum with much accuracy, and vice versa. The sharper one measurement is, the fuzzier the other one becomes. Not to get too deep into the science of it, but there are two classes of elementary particle, Fermions and bosons.

Fermions are elitists, and when they’re in a bunch, they don’t like to occupy the same quantum energy state. Electrons are totally fermions, which is why that whole concept of an atom as electrons neatly orbiting a nucleus like planets orbit the Sun is only a metaphor and very inaccurate.

Each electron in an atom occupies a different quantum energy state, which is why there’s the concept of electron “shells” filling up, but the location of each electron is not a unique point that changes over time. It’s a statistical probability of a particular electron being in a particular place at any given time, and so the “shape” of those shells can vary from a sphere to two squashed and joined spheres to distended ovoid shapes, and so on.

Bosons, on the other hand, are egalitarians, don’t mind sharing the same quantum energy state. In fact, they love to do it. This leads to a very interesting form of matter known as a Bose-Einstein Condensate.

Basically, at a low enough temperature, a bunch of atoms can suddenly coalesce into a single quantum particle with the same energy state and even become visible to a regular microscope.

Why? Because when we stop their movement, we can measure their momentum at near zero. Therefore, our ability to measure where they are becomes very inaccurate. It’s like the fermions all gather together and then balloon up into one entity in order to hide their individual locations.

This would be the equivalent of a bunch of people preventing GPS tracking of each of them by leaving their phones in one room and then all of them heading out in opposite directions in a big circle. Or sphere, if they can manage that.

The discovery that Onnes made in 1911 is related to this phenomenon. In his case, he dipped a solid mercury wire into liquid helium at 4.2 degrees Kelvin and discovered that all electrical resistance went away. That is, he discovered a property of matter known as superconductivity.

The same principle and the low temperature led to the electromagnetic force interacting in a different way — fermions meet bosons under extreme conditions, and electric and magnetic sort of separate, or at least keep themselves at arm’s length, as it were.

This can lead to all sorts of interesting effects, like levitation.

This is the technology taking maglev trains to the next level. But superconductivity is also used in things like medical imaging devices, motors, generators, transformers, and computer parts.

But the holy grail of the field is finding the so-called “room temperature” superconductor. All right. In some ways, “room temperature” is a bit of a misnomer, and the warmest superconductor yet found has a transition temperature of –23ºC. But a more promising substance could be a superconductor at 53ºC. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it requires ridiculously high atmospheric pressures to do it — in the range of a million or more times the pressure at sea level.

Oh, well.

Of course, the U.S. Navy did file a patent for a “room remperature” superconductor just over two years ago, but it’s not clear from the patent whether they used the “Not 0ºK” definition of room temperature or the popular press definition of about 77ºF.

It makes sense, though, that barring low temperature, some other extreme would be needed to achieve the effect. Nature just seems to work like that, whether it’s extremely low temperatures or very high pressures required to create superconductivity, or the extreme gravity and energy conversion required to create that other holy grail so beloved of alchemy: transmutation of matter, specifically turning lead into gold.

Ah, yes. If those alchemists only knew that every star was constantly transmuting elements every second of every day strictly through the power of enormous gravity and pressure — hydrogen to helium and so on, right down to iron — then who knows. One of them might have managed fusion centuries ago.

Okay, not likely. But just over a century ago, superconductivity was discovered, and it’s been changing the world ever since. Happy 110th anniversary!

%d bloggers like this: