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.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Five meteorites? And one insurance company?

This is the page I found this story at, and let's ask about the probability of this event occurring in the form of a Fermi question. First... we hand the question over to someone with more of a grasp on astrophysics than me. The next step is getting them to actually start working on the question without just saying that it's zero. For now I'm going to have to say it's a non-zero probability, speaking if this event were to occur while the Earth is still in about the shape and size it is now, give or take a few percentage points. A meteor shower wouldn't surprise me terribly about this happening, but it would almost certainly take a large and rare one, speaking on the stellar scale here or maybe even in a very small portion of the galaxy. Now, to have five hits in six months occur in the same spot, earns some speculation. Apparently, University of Belgrade experts have confirmed the rocks to be, indeed, meteorites. I haven't found any scrutiny or research about these findings yet. This story hinges on the confirmation of these scientists, and according to Fox at,2933,349628,00.html , there hasn't been independent confirmation. In fact, the former site will say that the U of B confirmed it flat out, but the latter said that they were only told that by the man, and that no confirmation has come up.

Though I'm sure it's possible and done, I wonder how many people get their houses protected from meteorite strikes around the world. It happens, and the meteorites aren't very friendly with whatever they hit. The Earth is hit with plenty a day, but the vast majority aren't really noticed by us. Every so often a little, visible one might hit and maybe someone will notice. Then the ones that really are decently sized boulders smack the Earth and they don't even have to blow up something valuable, the noise and explosion is usually interesting enough. Meteorites big enough to cause serious damage come down every so often, but not exactly frequently. They don't usually score direct hits on densely populated areas either. It's kind of difficult to discuss meteorite safety in depth for me right now; "How to Avoid Being Stricken by a Meteorite" doesn't look plausible enough right now and if you aren't hit directly, my idea of safety is to move away from ground zero quickly. Now, if one were hit by a meteorite and wounded, that would be a much more complex situation. One probably involving some serious first aid and a speedy trip to the hospital, if that were to occur. The probability of these events is very small, and being subject to the wrath of space rock is about as random as it gets with natural disasters-- of the people who say most accidents aren't accidents, the unfortunate occurrences that aren't accidents will almost invariably involve something that wasn't originally on the planet. With this information, I support the study of potentially dangerous meteor showers approaching and the study of larger, lone meteors that could do much more on their own.

I also support staring out into space every so often, because maybe you'll see something and be very famous the next day. If you have to dive out of the way and your friend gets a video of it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Just sit back, and work like crazy.

I'm pretty sure I've made it clear we don't know much about what we're doing yet. The massive complexity of what we have now (the shuttle) isn't working too well right now. Should we just wait? That's a good question. The thing is, will we be able to advance space technology while not being in space? This is also a good question. One aspect against could be that some form of motivation would be lost by not being in space. People and robots wouldn't actually go into space except for things that we don't already understand in depth and we need at least somewhat (mostly satellite communications and observation). However, trying things out on Earth could very well be a lot cheaper. If we can figure out how to accurately test space apparatus on Earth would probably be far less expensive than sending it into space and then testing it, where we can hardly see a thing. If something went wrong, then we'd be hard-pressed to figure out what that even was. The sheer degree of complexity involved when it comes to working with things that are 10000+ kilometers away and in almost total vacuum is incredible, simply because robots are extremely difficult to observe and repair, while to get a human presence requires super-complex life support just for the people to go, never mind the constraints to maneuvering while in an area with virtually no matter and a highly variable hell storm of cosmic radiation. If experimenting in an Earthbound environment is tricky because we have to simulate extremely low gravity and near-complete vacuum with background radiation is expensive, in addition to the subject of experiment having to monitor itself where it cannot take intervention from us. Maybe backing out temporarily is something worth considering, but until we can make the Earth a viable area of experiment, space is the only available option. Now, if only we had a better idea of how gravity worked, and how to mess with it...