Sunday, April 27, 2008

Pretending to understand theoretical physics

Space and physics at the fundamental level go hand in hand quite nicely when being studied, because what is seen is enormously complex and varied. Earth's conditions are kept in very tight ranges, and it is only because of that that there is so much life. These ranges are small compared to those of other planets, tiny against all of the objects in the solar system, minuscule alongside those of stars and a mere blink once galaxies start getting involved. Nonetheless, we can still observe these through the minute and safe emissions they give off (farther away these effects are incomprehensibly powerful, but Earth isn't threatened by many of these things). Objects, groups, and various other manifestations of the known universe merrily fire off all sorts of types of radiation, and some reach us. Stars and their cousins in various stages of death and birth give off the most informative photons, while other objects merely have some bounce off of them and a few reach us. These objects, like planets, are far dimmer and can't be seen from far away at all. Then we there are things that are very obvious in less of an understood way, mostly through gravitational effects that leave their marks on innocent photons that are never really allowed to behave in a perfectly Euclidean manner when traveling through spacetime. These are often black holes and dark matter. We're pretty sure black holes are there, there's a singularity in the center of the event horizon, they can spin and be magnetically charged, they have temperature, they give off small amounts of radiation, and they have incredible gravitational pulls. It may never be possible to know what's past the event horizon, and we don't have any reasonable explanation for why singularities are possible and what they are, if that's indeed it. Dark matter is even more mysterious because we don't even know if it exists, it's just the best explanation for massive amounts of unaccounted for gravitational influence. The input we get from these is so enigmatic that one would want to go forth and actually study it all up close, getting information only available close-up, instead of trying to figure out exactly what they are based on how they make other objects move.

Humanity is very closely examining protons that are millions and even billions of years old. If we think we're insignificant, well then let's think about how insignificant one photon is. Countless are examined by your eyes staring at the screen, so how many are given off when a star explodes and lights up more brightly than a galaxy? What exactly happens to photons that strike a surface and aren't reflected is still a mystery to me. They are massless particles, bosons, and are really inherent to there being energy in the electromagnetic form. A photon as a unit is created when the energy is released and destroyed when it's stopped, having no mass. They have properties of waves and particles, and if I were to guess at the order of magnitude of their abundance in the universe, my OoM could very well be off by its own OoM. For now I'll say it's in the order of 10^100 to 10^999. If I'm wrong here, that's worse than the cosmological constant error (I can't remember which one-- the one involving massive embarrassment across the scientific community), except that I'm not a physicist. If they're all destroyed as such, then there are a small fraction of the original number still existing. To go for a billionth of a second or ten billion years in some way or another is a very odd life expectancy, to say the least.

Using these ancient photons and the Earth as our labs, we continue to search for knowledge, even if the last few decades haven't yielded much, new methods of observation may eventually lead to something. Some other infinite-range force would be really useful right about now.

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