Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

 
Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Thought Experiment in Probability

You have a bag filled with all the letters in the alphabet. Each time you draw one out, it is instantly replaced so you always have 26 letters to choose from. Your task is simple.

  1. Draw one letter at a time and use those letters to form words.

  2. Each letter, when added to the previous letters must make a word, but you are allowed to create new words with each draw.

  3. Consecutive groups of words must form complete sentences.

  4. You are allowed to add any punctuation you like.

  5. The sentences you form must be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

  6. If at any time you draw a letter that cannot be used to form a word, or a sentence in a word, you must remove all the tiles that formed the last sentence you added to and start that one over again.

  7. You are allowed to repeat sentences as much as needed.

  8. The game is complete when you have produced every sentence in the Encyclopedia Britannica.


The name of this game is "Genetic Evolution as a Sequence of Incremental Changes."

This is NOT a Creationist post, or even an argument against the idea of evolution. It is a simple exercise to demonstrate the sheer magnitude of the problem of accounting for the evolution of complex biochemical processes through small, incremental changes.

Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Creation Mythology

Every culture comes up with a myth about how the world was created. The Mayans have one. American Indians have several. Greeks, Persians, Hindu, Chinese, Japanese, all of them have a rich tradition of creation myths. Each age does its level best to observe the world around it and to devise a story that makes sense of it.

Of course, Christians have their own stories about creation, but I don't want to talk about that right now because I want to spend time with one of the more peculiar myths out there. It stands apart from all the others, both in content and context. You see, it doesn't really explain anything.

It just is.

In the beginning was nothing. And then, for no reason and without cause, there was everything.


Kinda dry, huh?

Let's dress it up a bit.

In the beginning, there was nothing.

No light and no dark.
No hot or cold.
No materials to use for creation; no energy to drive it.
No space and no void, because a void is empty, and with no space, there is nothing to be empty.

No time.
Time is space; space is time.
No space, no time, and no way to change.
Because change occurs over time.
No was. No is.
And certainly no will be.

No here because there was no there.

And then, change.
Occurring where change was impossible.
Nothing became something in a fraction of a fraction of a blink of an eye,
In a segment of time so small as to be unfathomable,
Particularly since there was no time at all.
The endless now became before and after.

No reason. No cause.
Cause and effect cannot exist without time passing.
And there was no time.

But in that one miniscule moment
The moment that did not, could not exist
(Except it must exist)
Nothing became void and void became chaos.
Everything that ever would be came to be,
Including 'ever would be.'

And from the chaos sprang order
Because everything includes order as well as chaos.
Because if you have everything,
You have to have a place to put it.
And time to put it there.


Can any of you guess which culture came up with this creation myth?

"I'll take modern physics for $1000, Alex."



Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Going Backwards in Space

First, we went to the moon. We quit because it got too expensive.

Then we went to low earth orbit. And again, we're quitting because it is too expensive.

We're losing ground folks.

Historically, technology has been driven by two main activities; exploration and conquest.

We just quit exploring.

Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Nuclear Power Primer: Part 3: How Does Radiation Hurt Us and How Much Does it Take?

We've talked about the four types of nuclear radiation, alpha, beta, gamma, and neutron, and where they come from. Now it's time to talk about how they affect the human body.

We'll start with neutron radiation first, because it's really the simplest. First of all, neutron radiation is the only one that impacts the nucleus of the atom. The other three cause damage through ionization of the atom's electrons. To understand neutron radiation, imagine a pool table set for the start of a game. 15 balls are in the middle of the table, with the cue ball set for the break. The cue ball is a free neutron. When the neutron hits the nucleus, one of three things might happen. First, if the cue ball doesn't have enough energy, or hits at the wrong angle, it caroms off, barely disturbing the pack of balls. Second, if the ball has too much energy, it slams through the pack. breaking it up. This is fission, and results in fission products, more free neutrons, and energy. Third, if the ball has just the right amount of energy, it just makes it to the pack and joins in, becoming another neutron in the nucleus. Here is where our analogy breaks down, because many times, when a nucleus gets another neutron, it becomes unstable, and begins to decay, emitting alphas, betas, or gammas. This is called activation, and is one of the trickier problems with neutron irradiation an the physical properties of the irradiated matter can be quite different from the original.

So biologically, neutron irradiation can deposit energy in cell tissues, can break up molecules that might be important to cellular function, like DNA for example, and can activate materials in our bodies, giving off secondary radiation and causing additional damage.

The other three types of radiation are often referred to as ionizing radiation. Remember, an ion is an atom that has gained or lost an electron, making it a charged particle instead of neutral. This charge causes it to ionize other atoms, leading to cellular damage both by the deposit of thermal energy, and through changes in molecular structures. In the cases of alpha and beta radiation, the mechanism is easy to understand. These charged particles, when close to other atoms, either attract or repulse the electrons surrounding them. If the energy is right they can strip those electrons from the atoms, creating new ions. What is not so obvious is how photons cause ionization. They have no charge to attract or repulse electrons, and no mass to knock them loose, so how do they cause ionization?

The answer gets a little bit complicated, but the short answer is that when conditions are right, the photon can give it's energy to the electron, which causes it to move to a higher level. If the energy is enough, it can free the electron completely, causing ionization.

The damage caused by ionization is can be critical. The thermal energy alone can cause damage, similar to a sun burn. The cell heats up and dies. The bigger issue is the long term damage done to cells that survive the initial deposit of energy. Ionization can cause damage to the cells DNA, resulting in mutations that can result in cancerous tumors, dead tissues, and other problems, not to mention the burden on the body in disposing of these wasted tissues.

Radiation sickness is the term we use to describe the immediate damage to body tissues on exposure to radiation, and the longer term illnesses as the body tries to repair the damage.

Gamma and neutron radiation present the biggest problems since, like we discussed earlier, they penetrate the whole body, causing damage everywhere. The distributed nature of the damage makes treatment nearly impossible. The best doctors can do is support the patient and hope that the damage is not so severe that the body can't recover.

So how much is too much?

The standard unit of exposure, or dose, is the rem, or the metric version, the sievert. To convert, not like you'd want to, 1 sievert is equal to 100 rem. The LD50, or the dose expected to kill 50% of the people exposed is roughly 450 rem, or 4.5 sieverts.

And that tells you almost nothing since you don't have anything to compare it to.

Normal background radiation in the US, what we are exposed to everyday from cosmic rays, sunshine, and naturally occurring radiation from sources like radon gas, runs about 0.35 rem per year. If you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, you're gaining an additional dose of roughly 2 rem per year. A full dental x-ray gives you a dose of .004 rem. The occupational limit for exposure to radiation is 5 rem per year. My personal exposure after nearly five years of working in and living on a nuclear reactor was about 0.5 rem.

I feel fine.

So, that should give you a little bit of a feeling for how much radiation exposure it takes to cause significant troubles.

Now that we have a short background on radiation and how it hurts us, we can start to take a look at how it helps us, as in, how it generates power for us. Next, we're going to look at the differences between radioactive decay and nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is where the big power comes from.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

A Nuclear Power Primer: Part 2c: What is Radiation? Particles and Rays

So, we know that radioactive elements are elements with unstable nuclei that decay spontaneously, giving off the energy that once held the nucleus together. Now it's time to talk about the forms that energy takes.

There are four basic types of radiation,
  • alpha
  • beta
  • gamma
  • neutron


An alpha particle consists of a bundle of two protons and two neutrons. This gives it an atomic mass of 4, which makes it very massive as particles go. Also, since it has no associated electrons, it has a positive charge of 2, which makes it relatively highly charged. This combination of high mass and strong charge means that the alpha particle can do a lot of damage in human tissue, so we pay special attention to isotopes that emit alphas when they decay. On the other hand, the high mass and charge means that the alpha particle isn't very mobile. It will only move a few centimeters through the air, and can be stopped by a piece of paper.

Yep, plain old notebook paper can protect you from alpha radiation.

A beta particle looks a lot like an electron. It has the same mass, and the same negative charge, but it comes from the nucleus of the atom, not the electron cloud.

Earlier, we said that the nucleus contains only protons and neutrons, so where does this electron thing come from?

Glad you asked.

If we look very closely at a neutron, we find something unusual. A neutron can become a proton if it gives up an electron. (And an anti-neutrino, but let's not get too complicated here.) It adds up correctly when you think about it. A neutron has no charge, so, if it loses a negatively charged particle, the beta, it will have the same mass and will become positively charged. In other words, a proton. And, since the number of protons determines the type of element, beta decay transforms the element into a different one.

The beta particle can travel a little bit further than the alpha, and requires a bit more shielding to stop it. While they can't penetrate the dead cell layer of our skin, they can irradiate our eyes, but common plastic safety goggles takes care of that threat. However, like alphas, if they can get inside your body, whether by breathing them in or ingesting them, they can cause problems for us, so we use respirators with HEPA filters to prevent that.

The gamma ray is the odd man out. Unlike other forms of radiation, a gamma is not a particle, but a ray. The easiest way to think of it is as a photon of light. If you remember from your science classes, light behaves like a particle sometimes and like a wave sometimes, depending on how we look at it. A gamma ray does the same thing. Like light rays, gammas have specific frequencies, and energy levels. Unlike light, they aren't easily shielded. In fact, to reduce gamma radiation to 10% of it's initial level requires 4 inches of lead or 12 inches of steel.

Gamma radiation penetrates throughout your entire body, and while it won't let you transform into a giant green comic book superhero, it can cause significant damage to your tissues. This is the primary form of radiation that we deal with in the industry, and the only real way to control your exposure is to not be around it. We'll talk more about exposure control later.

The fourth class of radiation, neutron, occurs mostly around nuclear fission; there are relatively few isotopes that decay by emitting a neutron, and most of those actually decay through spontaneous fission. Neutrons are the vital link in the production of nuclear power as they create the chain reactions that allow us to get more power out of a reactor than we put in. We'll discuss the role of neutrons in power generation in a later topic.

The neutron has no charge and a mass of 1 AMU. When it is released during the fission process, it carries a lot of energy. Unlike the other forms of radiation discussed earlier, neutron radiation has the capability of activating previously stable elements, causing them to become radioactive themselves. Neutron radiation can also cause far more damage to living tissue than other types of radiation.

The best way to shield neutron radiation is water, or other hydrogen rich compounds.

So now, if we take everything we've covered, we have a working definition of nuclear radiation. It is the energy given off by the decay of an unstable atom in the form of particles or rays.

Our next topic will cover how radiation causes damage, how much is too much, and how we protect ourselves.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Nuclear Power Primer: Part 2b: What is Radiation? Radioactive Decay

So last time, we talked about the structure of the atom, and where nuclear energy comes from. We finished by describing nuclear energy as the binding energy of the nucleus that is released when the nucleus splits. Today, we're going to talk about how that split happens.

First of all, we need to define our terms. Instead of a list definitions, which will bore you into deep slumber, I'm going to use the words in context so you'll retain them better. When we're talking about splitting a nucleus, we're talking about fission. Fission can occur spontaneously, or we can make it happen. When it happens spontaneously, we call it decay, and elements that fission spontaneously are called radioactive since they naturally emit radiation.

See? Simple!

When we're talking about radioactivity, we're talking about the rate of decay for that element. Each element, and each isotope (remember, an isotope is an element with the normal number of protons, but a different number of neutrons) has it's own decay rate or activity. To make things a little less straight forward, the decay rate is not constant over time, but is affected by the quantity of the isotope as well. The more there is of it, the faster it decays In order to take this rather strange property of radioactivity into account, the decay of an isotope is measured by the time it takes for half of it to decay. For example, Cobalt 60, a radioactive isotope produced in nuclear reactors has a half life of 5.27 years, so if you have 1 pound of it, in 5 years and 14 weeks, you will have half a pound of Cobalt 60, and half a pound of it's decay products, in this case, nickel 60, which is a stable element. In another 5 years 14 weeks, you'll have a quarter pound, and so on.

Now what should be obvious when you think about it, as the amount goes down, and the rate of decay slows down, the energy it gives off goes down as well, which is a good thing, because eventually, the radiation given off decreases to a point where it is low enough not to matter.

So, how does this decay occur?

Well, we talked about how the electrostatic forces that tend to cause the protons to try and scatter are countered by the nuclear force that holds the nucleus together. As we add more protons and neutrons to the nucleus, it gets larger. The electrostatic force gets larger, but the nuclear force gets weaker. Just like gravity, the further you get from the center of the object, the weaker the force becomes. Eventually, you get to a point where the nuclear force is overcome by the electrostatic forces, and the nucleus becomes unstable. The degree of instability determines the activity of the isotope and it's decay rate. (This is a huge simplification of all the forces in play, but it is accurate enough for our purpose here. Naturally occurring radioactive elements have nuclei that are unstable due to their size, and they decay spontaneously.

As you can imagine, isotopes that are highly unstable decay pretty quickly, which means we don't find them in nature because they've all decayed away. On the other hand, isotopes that are barely unstable are going to stick around for awhile, giving up their energy very slowly.

Now when you think about a nuclear fuel, you want one that releases energy fairly quickly so we have a problem; the isotopes that are most abundant are the ones least suited to generate power. We have to come up with a way to make these normally low activity isotopes give off enough activity to be useful.

If you've been paying attention, you already know the answer, but we'll talk more about that later. Next time, we need to talk about the different ways the nucleus can fission and the different types of energy that is released.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Nuclear Power Primer: Part 2: What is Radiation? Energy from the Atom

So, we talked about the general way a nuclear power plant works. The fuel in the reactor heats water to a high temperature. That water is used to make steam, the steam turns a turbine that spins a generator, making electricity. Today, we're going to look more closely at the first stage of that process, the nuclear fuel itself.

First of all, we all learned in science class that everything is made up of atoms, and that atoms are the most basic building blocks of matter. In fact, the greek root for the word atom means indivisible. Well, what we learned was actually wrong; we've now identified more sub atomic particles than atomic particles, and we theorize the existence of many more, but for our purposes, all we really need to talk about is the atom, and the three particles that make it up: the proton, the neutron, and the electron.

The proton is a positively charged particle that has a mass of 1 Atomic Mass Unit (amu). (Roughly 1.66x10-27kg.) It stays in the nucleus of the atom, and the number of protons determines the identity of the atom, what element it is. Hydrogen has one proton, Helium has two, Carbon has 6, and so on.

The neutron has no charge, and also has a mass of 1 amu. When the number of neutrons changes, but the number of protons remains the same, then we have different isotopes of the element. For example, the most abundant form of carbon has 6 protons and 6 neutrons. If two more neutrons are added to the nucleus, then we're dealing with the isotope Carbon-14, a radioactive isotope useful in dating old objects.

Protons and neutrons together make up the nucleus of the atom.

Electrons have a very, very small mass when compared to the proton and neutron, so we usually assume it is zero. It has a negative charge and it flies around the nucleus within a certain distance. That distance is determined by the energy level of the electron, and is a property of the electron we'll discuss in more detail later on. For now, realize that the electron does not orbit the nucleus like a planet, but instead is always within a certain range of the nucleus. An atom normally has the same number of electrons as it has neutrons, resulting in a neutral charge for the atom. If the atom gains or loses electrons, it acquires a negative or positive charge, and is called an ion.

So, the atom has electrons circling a nucleus which is made up of protons and neutrons. So, I have a question for you. What happens when you take two magnets, and hold the same poles together?

They fly apart, right? Well, particles with the same charge do the same thing. When you group a bunch of particles with the same charge together, they try to fly apart.

So, what is holding the nucleus together? It's a bundle of particles with the same charge and particles with no charge. It should fly apart all by itself.

It doesn't because there's another force at work, the nuclear force. (Actually, there are two forces, the strong and the weak nuclear forces, but that's beyond the scope of this post.) The nuclear force acts to hold the nucleus together, and is stronger than the electrostatic repulsion of the similar charges. When an atom splits, the energy that held the nucleus together, the binding energy, is released and that is the energy we call radiation.

The next question is how does this atom split, and that's what we'll address in the next post.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

A Nuclear Power Primer: Part 1 An Overview

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan as they begin the long recovery process after the earthquake/tsunami and deal with the complication of two nuclear power plants that were damaged. And while I share the sympathy expressed by so many others, I realized on my way home from work that here is where I can provide additional information that the MSM doesn't have the time, will, or knowledge to provide, and that is basic understanding of nuclear power, how it works, how the plants work, and a little bit about what is going on in Japan right now.

The purpose of any power plant is to convert energy from the form it is stored in to one that we can use, namely electricity. This is done by using a fuel to generate steam, which turns a turbine and generates electricity. So we're converting the energy from the fuel, to thermal energy, to physical energy, and then to electrical energy.

Coal or gas fired plants use chemical energy; solar generation plants do the same thing, harnessing the sun's thermal energy (PV cells are a different technology; rather than converting the sun's energy to thermal energy, they convert it directly to electric energy. More on those in another article.); wind plants harness physical energy, and a nuclear plant harness the power inside the atom. But all of them convert that energy to thermal energy, then to electrical energy.

The layout of a nuclear power plant is pretty straight forward. The reactor itself is staged inside a primary containment. The primary containment is built to contain any fuel or coolant leaks, preventing exposure to people outside the plant. The reactor is cooled by a constant flow of water. Relatively cool water, a few hundred degrees F, goes into the reactor core, where it is heated up while cooling the core. The hot water then goes to a steam generator, which uses the heat from the coolant to make high pressure steam. This steam then goes through a turbine generator. The steam spins the turbine, which is connected to a generator, making electricity. The steam then passes through a condenser, which cools it back down to water and is sent back to the steam generator.

There are other systems to control the reactor, maintain pressure, and other functions, as well as emergency response systems and emergency cooling systems, and I'll talk about those systems in a little more detail later. For now, the important thing to know is that while the Japanese plants are having problems, so far, the radiation levels and the contamination levels outside the plant are still well within safe limits. Not healthy limits, not optimum limits, and not what the plant designers wanted to see, but not Chernobyl like levels either. This despite the worst earthquake recorded in Japanese history, a 9.0 by the latest estimates, and a tsunami that devastated the nation.

While the situation is still developing, and things could very well get worse, the important thing to know is that we're a couple of days into the crisis, and things are still manageable. I'm not trying to soft-pedal the dangers ahead, or minimize the damage already done to the reactors, just pointing out that the emergency systems are doing a good job of containing the reactors, despite the massive failures due to the quake.

Pretty impressive engineering.

Next, we're going to dig deeper into where the energy in nuclear fuel comes from.



Posted by Rich
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Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Little Perspective Before You Freak Out:  Swine Flu Facts

To date, 263 people have died from the swine flu since the first death two and a half months ago. In that same time period, over 40,000 people in the US have been diagnosed with the disease through doctor or hospital visits, 4800 had to be hospitalized, and it is estimated that over a million people have contracted swine flu, but only felt mild cold symptoms. So if you are exposed to the swine flu virus, you are looking at about a 0.48% chance of being hospitalized, and a 0.026% chance of dying from it.

Looking at it from the other side, you have a 96% chance of never even knowing you had the disease.


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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Just Because It’s Gorgeous

No more words.

Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.



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Monday, June 01, 2009

This is Way Cool.  Laser Fusion

A break from politics for a breakthrough in physics.

Equipment connected to a house-sized sphere can focus 192 laser beams on a small point, generating temperatures and pressures that exist at cores of stars or giant planets.

NIF will be able to create conditions and conduct experiments never before possible on Earth, according to the laboratory.

A fusion reaction triggered by the super laser hitting hydrogen atoms will produce more energy than was required to prompt "ignition," according to NIF director Edward Moses.

"This is the long-sought goal of 'energy gain' that has been the goal of fusion researchers for more than half a century," Moses said.


Theoretical physics is cool, but this is pretty awesome. NOw then, who wants some popcorn?


Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Okay, FIne.  Let’s Talk About the Swine Flu.

First, a few facts from theCenter for Infectious Disease Research And Policy, along with some simple explanations.

This new strain of swine-origin influenza A H1N1 is substantially different from human influenza A H1N1 viruses; therefore, a large proportion of the population might be susceptible to infection and the seasonal influenza vaccine H1N1 strain likely will not provide protection

Calling this the H1N1 virus, as the Obama administration has decreed, is inaccurate, because this virus is not the same as the human H1N1 virus. It also muddies the waters since some will believe that the flu shot they got last year might offer some protection. According to CIDRAP and the CDC, it won't.

Infected persons are assumed to be shedding virus from the day prior to illness onset until resolution of symptoms. Persons with swine-origin influenza A H1N1 virus infection should be considered potentially contagious for up to 7 days following illness onset.

This means that you could be feeling perfectly fine, but be contagious. That makes containment nearly impossible to achieve. We can expect to see cases of this flu spreading for quite awhile yet.

Available data suggest that airborne transmission does not play a major role in the spread of influenza viruses

A mask will only help you if you are close enough, within 3 feet, for an infected person to sneeze or cough on you. And in that case, direct transfer of the virus may still take place. ON the other hands, masks work very well for the already infected person, containing the virus from sneezes etc. So runningdowm to Home Depot for a face mask isn't going to help you, but if it makes you feel better, go for it.

An outbreak of swine-origin influenza was recognized in early 1976 among military personnel at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Thirteen clinical cases occurred with one death; the cause of the outbreak remains unknown, and no exposure to pigs was identified (see References: Gaydos 2006). Retrospective serologic testing subsequently demonstrated that up to 230 soldiers had been infected with the novel virus, which was an H1N1 strain. The outbreak did not spread beyond Fort Dix.

Morbidity and mortality rates are difficult to determine since many cases of the flu go unreported as the symptoms are very mild. Speaking very roughly, morbidity describes the percentage of the population that has the disease while mortality describes the percentage of the affected population that will die from the disease. Without knowing the manning levels at Fort Dix, it's hard to determine morbidity, but out of 230 soldiers known to have been exposed to swine flu, only 13 cases were serious enough to need medical treatment, and only 1 died. That gives us a mortality rate of 0.4%. That sounds comfortingly small; the problem is that the garden variety of flu we battle every year has a mortality rate of somewhere around 0.1% or so, and it still takes out over 50,000 people annually. If the two types of flu are transmitted similarly, as the CDC believes, then we can expect as many as 200,000 deaths in the US from a widespread outbreak of the swine flu, jumping from the eighth to the third leading cause of death, just behind cancer and ahead of stroke.

This brings up the question, How come the mortality numbers from Mexico are so much higher? The answer is simple. They haven't done the testing to discover the hundreds or thousands of people who were exposed but didn't get sick enough to go to the hospital. Consider that if we used the 13 soldiers from Ft. Dix who got sick enough to go to the doctor in our mortality calculation, we'd show a rate of about 7.7%, which is very close to what we are seeing in Mexico right now.


So, let's put this all together. If the current patterns hold true, then the worst case scenario is that 200,000 people die from this flu that wouldn't have died otherwise. Given that 2.5 million people die each year (rough approximation using data from 2005), we're looking at an increase in the US death rate from 0.83% to 0.90%. 3 times as many people will die fron heart disease. 2.5 times as many will die from cancer. Accidents will claim almost half as many. Going another step, 200,000 is the worst case right now; it's very likely that the outbreak will not be as widespread as the standard seasonal flu. Our behavior patterns are different during the warmer months, and our immune systems are under less stress, accounting for the seasonal variations in flu infection rates. I'm guessing that we won't see anywhere near 200,000 deaths from the swine flu in the US. I doubt we'll even reach the seasonal flu number of 50,000. Yes, we need to take action to minimize these numbers, but the panic and hysteria we are seeing from governmental agencies is ridiculous. The swine flu simply isn't that dangerous.

If something changes, if we start seeing infection rates far above what we expect for the seasonal flu, or for some reason the mortality rate spikes, then there will be cause for alarm, but right now, talk of closing borders and shutting down travel and wearing masks in public is fear driven over-reaction.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Hockey Stick Is A Hoax!

I've been posting about global warming for about 6 years or so, using scientific facts and logical analysis to show just how ridiculous Anthropogenic Global Warming actually is.

You first clue should be that Al Gore, a guy who managed to flunk out of divinity school, is the chief proponent of AGW. Al believes that AGW is such a big deal that his mansion in Nashville uses more electricity than most neighborhoods.

Anyway, one of the best visual aids used by the snake oil salesman was the hockey stick graph, which shows global temperatures spiking in the late 20th century. Now we get news that the hockey stick was a hoax.

Scientists massaging data to reach a politically favorable conclusion in order to keep the grant money coming? Say it ain't so!

Isn't it fascinating how completely corrupting government funding is? By the way, the government will now be funding fetal tissue research and abortion.

Sleep well.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Analog Vs Digital:  The True Nature of Reality

We live in a digital world.

Literally.

I'm not just talking about digital watches, mp3 players, CD's, DVDs, Blu-Ray, and the internet; I'm talking about all the way down at the most fundamental level of reality, we live in a digital universe. That idea has some very interesting implications for us in a number of ways, but before we explore those ideas, let's make sure we all know what we're talking about first.

What does "digital" mean? Merriam Webster says:

1: of or relating to the fingers or toes (digital dexterity)
2: done with a finger (a digital rectal examination) (Eeeww.)
3: of, relating to, or using calculation by numerical methods or by discrete units
4: of, relating to, or being data in the form of especially binary digits (digital images) (a digital readout) ; especially : of, relating to, or employing digital communications signals (a digital broadcast) compare analog 2
5: providing a readout in numerical digits (a digital voltmeter)
6: relating to an audio recording method in which sound waves are represented digitally (as on magnetic tape) so that in the recording wow and flutter are eliminated and background noise is reduced
7: electronic (digital devices) ; also : characterized by electronic and especially computerized technology


We're going to go with definition 4 for right now because it comes closest to the physics definition. To help our understanding, let's follow the reference it gives and look up the second definition of "analog."

2 a: of, relating to, or being a mechanism in which data is represented by continuously variable physical quantities


So, what does that mean to you and me? Well, let's look at this picture.
analog-digital1.jpg
Here we have two numbered lines. The bottom one is a digital line going from 1 to 10. Each digit stands alone, and there is nothing in between them. In a digital world, there is no 1.5, only 1 or 2. The top line is analog. You have an infinite number of points between 1 and 2, and between 2 and 3 and so on. Instead of only having ten choices of positions, you have an infinite number of choices. The analog number line is much more powerful than the digital because of its infinite variability.

sine.jpgLet's look at another example, a sine wave. Here again, you see a smoothly varying line with an infinite number of possible points all along the signal. Compare that to the digitized sine wave seen in the next picture.

sample_sine.jpg The gray boxes are a digital representation of the smoothly curving sine wave, and you can see that the discrete nature of the digital representation creates a very jagged wave form. It simply cannot carry the same amount of information that an analog signal can.


For example, we've all heard YouTube videos where it sounds like the microphone is under a raging surf. That roaring echoing noise is the result of digitizing the original audio. Each of those jagged steps in the digital sine wave introduce distortion.

So how does a CD sound so good, if digital introduces so much distortion? Well, let's take a look back at our digital sine wave. The accuracy of our sine wave is directly related to the size of the blocks we use to build it. Bigger blocks, as shown in this drawing digbigsine.jpg will result in a less accurate reproduction of the sine wave. On the other hand, if we make our blocks smaller, we get a much better reproduction of the original wave, as seen in the earlier example. So, when a CD is made, the blocks used to build the sine wave are very small, resulting in a sound that is nearly indistinguishable from the original.


And that begs the question, if we have to work so hard to get our digital signal to equal the original analog in quality, why bother? Stick with the analog. As it turns out, there are some significant advantages to digitizing information like music. Editing and noise reduction become much easier and more effective, and controlling playback quality becomes a snap. The fidelity of the playback is always identical to the recording, a feat no analog system can match.

It turns out that as we look into things, our world is made up of analog systems. Sound is analog. Electromagnetic radiation is analog. Light is analog (sort of, sometimes, but we'll get to that another time.) And that makes sense because as you look around, the world is a continuous place. There are no real gaps between here and there, or between 1:00 and 2:00, or between freezing and boiling temperatures. Everything follows a continuously varying path.

But I started out by saying we live in a digital universe, and that doesn't make sense with what I just said, does it? The truth of the matter is that just as a CD is a digital representation of an analog signal, i.e. music, sounding to our ears nearly identical to the analog original but missing tons of information, our universe may be a digital representation of some far greater reality, looking real to our limited senses but missing tons of information.

What makes me say this? Actually, I'm not the one saying it. Max Planck, Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and others said it first, they just said it in mathematics, not English. Let's start with quantum mechanics and then we'll dig into the really tricky stuff. (How's that for a scary sentence?)

Keeping things very simple, a mathematician named Max Planck noticed that he could predict the energy of a photon by an equation that related its frequency to a constant. This constant had no real physical reason to exist, except that it made the equations work. The fact that it did so told physicists that energy was not transmitted smoothly and in an infinitely variable way, but was broken up into discrete bundles or packets that they called quanta.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Boiled down to its simplest form, quantum mechanics says that energy is not an analog system, but a digital one. Now that doesn't surprise most of us because we have heard this before in high school or college, particularly when we're talking about light particles, AKA photons. But it did surprise the crap out of the physicists who had no idea why energy should be quantized. All they knew was that it worked when they used it, so they set out to figure out why it worked.

Along the way, a guy named Werner Heisenberg made another interesting discovery. He found out that when you get down to things that are smaller than the constant Plank discovered, you could no longer know their position and momentum. Going further, he discovered that it had nothing to do with an inability to measure such small quantities, or an inability to measure one without affecting the other, but that it was a property inherent in sub atomic particles. If their position was known, their momentum was mathematically undefined.

This was called the uncertainty principle, and the fact that it centered round Planck's Constant was no coincidence.

A few years earlier, Einstein had released his theories of relativity, and he realized that there were some fundamental incompatibilities between his theories of the super big and fast and quantum mechanics descriptions of the super small. He was unable to reconcile those incompatibilities, partly because he spent so much time trying to refute quantum mechanics because the implications were so strange. A couple of decades later, some bright boys came up with a startling idea that shows promise in reconciling the quantum world with the relativistic world.

In a way, their idea is derived from the quantum, Again, very simply, the theorized that the reason that energy wwas quantized, and why the Heisenberg uncertainty existed, and that they were all tied to Plank's Constant was that Plank's Constant was actually the smallest anything could be, or put another way, not only is energy quantized, but space is as well. We're used to thinking of moving through space in a smooth, continuous manner, but at the subatomic level, string theory says that, just like our earliest example of ten numbers with no line, we are actually moving from place to place without traveling through the distance between.

OK, that went too far too fast. Let's take it a bit slower. If space is quantized, as string theory suggests, and if we put 0 and Plank's Constant (h) on a number line, it would look like the bottom line in our first drawing. There would be no line between them. And there would be no line between 1h and 2(h). We're back in familiar territory now, aren't we? Because if string theory is correct, then our universe, at its most fundamental level, is not analog at all, but digital.

So, besides being a neat thing to think about, what does this all mean for you and me? Maybe nothing. Maybe a digital universe really is the ultimate answer. But I can't help thinking about all the information we lose when we take an analog signal and digitize it. I can't help but wonder what we're missing in our digital universe that might be present in the analog original, if it exists. I can't help but think that maybe, just maybe, I have some small understanding of Genesis 1:6-7.

Gen 1:6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
Gen 1:7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which [were] under the firmament from the waters which [were] above the firmament: and it was so.


Was God creating a digital copy of the real universe, and preparing it for us? Is the firmament, which God called heaven, the analog original?

I don't know, and science will never answer that particular question.

But it is intriguing.

Posted by Rich
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Saturday, September 27, 2008

It’s All About Your Point of View

A seed pod gets stuck in the coat of a dog. The dog and its pack travel for miles over months until he sheds his winter coat and the seed pod falls off. The pod falls on fertile soil, sprouts, and a plant grows in a new environment. The plant thrives because this new area has no natural predators that feed on it. It displaces native species and soon dominates the landscape in that area.

We call this process natural selection and it is an integral part of evolution.

But replace the dog with a man, and we call it "interfering with Mother Nature's delicate balance.

Piffle.

Right now, well meaning idiots are poisoning streams in the Smokies to kill off the rainbow trout so they can replace it with "native" brook trout. Once the poison has killed off the rainbows, they place baskets of fish into the stream to make sure all the poison is gone. If the fish die, they wait a while longer, and do it again.

This is called environmentalism.

When the stream is safe for fish again, they'll release the brook trout.

So why are environmentalists against evolution?

Posted by Rich
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