Tuesday, 12 April 2011

IX. Does it Matter?

Brain surgery is not exactly rocket science
“That Mitchell & Webb Look”

As humans we all jump willingly into conclusions. This makes our lives simpler, more automatic, so we think, and we can put all these conclusions into our subconscious so we may use our brainpower on more immediate and presumably important tasks. There is a trade of though… oversights arise.

I am going to talk a bit about the world of formulae, my apologies in advance, and start with the most famous one
E = m x 

Nothing could be simpler than this. It relates energy E with mass m plus a “minor” factor of squaring the speed of light. The speed of light is a mind boggling number:

299,792,458 m/s

If we want to start understanding what that formula implies, a “little” numerical example follows: a mass of 1Kg has an inherent energy of 8.998x1016 joules!! that is the equivalent of three 1,000MW nuclear power plants working for one year, 24 hours a day, or 30 coal/oil power plants, or 300 wind turbine plants… a lot!!! This is the kind of talking awe that arises in intellectualised salon conversations, trivia, playing with numbers, science “accounting” and speculation, with phrases like “3 tonnes of mass, any mass, could solve the entire energy problems of the civilised world”. We also forget that an equivalent phrase was used 300 years ago on terms like "if we could cover America with trees all our energy problems would be solved" forgetting that we are all Easter Islanders and tend to think that our resources are unlimited. With all this talk we are already digressing, as we used words like “mass”, “energy” without understanding what they mean and how they appear in our world, carrying on jumping into conclusions.

The beauty of the equation above is the intrinsic statement that mass and energy are two aspects of the same phenomenon, they can be transmuted one into the other, they are like a butterfly/caterpillar pairing. We have light in one side of the equation and matter on the other side and they are one and the same. There is a little problem though… You know how easy it is to make light, to see it radiating, a flick of a switch and hey presto there is some light, we can generate photons whenever we like in a very simple way. However the other way around is a bit more far fetched. There is no instrument or tool that has been able to “produce” matter consistently. No human endeavour, machinery, contraption, is capable of putting a lot of energy on the left side of the equation and come out with a pack of 1Kg of sugar, flour, iron, etc on the right hand side. Even a simple atom of hydrogen, the building block of the universe!!! (ah ah ah, I could not resist), one paltry proton, cannot be man made. This ignorance leads to the most fantastic fables, fairy tales, told by physicists and astro-physicists regarding how the Universe is made of, and how it was built. We are told stories of enormous pressures, concentrations of matter (to explain the genesis of matter?), in spectacular forges of the Universe, with a Giant like entity (or 4 Elephants and a Turtle) churning out protons that were once light. You hear about the beginnings of gravity, “clouds” of protons that started to accrete, then became so condensed that ignited and became stars, an entire pyrotechnical fantasy! You hear about clouds of “dust” that can be seen in the Milky Way and cover some regions of our galaxy and you don’t even ask… “Dust? What dust? Is this old exploded stars, not born yet stars? And if it is dust what is it made of? Is it more protons/hydrogen? Where did it come from? Can I hoover it?” No one knows!! It’s just good old dust!

Returning to the formula above we can now see that, so far, for all practical purposes, it just works one way and should actually look more like this
m x c² → E
It would be so beautiful if we could use the = sign on a daily basis and explain that it really, really works. However, the matter of matter remains unresolved. Or does it?

This is not over yet, sorry. There is another oversight on that formula. It has nothing to do with the formula itself but the way it is written
Physics has this compulsion to become “mathemacized”. You could think that writing an equality as above (regardless of how discussable the = sign may be) is the same as

2 + 2 = 4 
You read it as “2 plus 2 equals 4!” You assume that this will be the same anywhere in the entire Universe. That is the beauty of Mathematics and numbers. However you cannot say Physically that “E equals mc squared” with the same certainty. You say, using the numerical example above “When we have a mass of one kilogram we can generate energy to the value of 8.998x1016 joules!” or “When m equals one E equals eight point nine nine eight times ten to the power of sixteen joules.” Have you spotted the difference? Read it again… “When m equals one E equals eight point nine nine eight times ten to the power of sixteen joules.”

The difference is the word… “when”. And this makes such a big difference. Even if the formula eventually works both ways, it will ever only work “when”, as there is an inherent causality into its framework, a time constraint, and although this might still look a bit odd to you that is where all the beauty of the Universe, and ours, reside.

The key to unlock the matter of matter may remain undiscoverable for our own good, to protect us from ourselves, because as humans, if we found it, we would "burn" it all as good Easter Islanders we are.

And no, what follows is not Rocket Science but might need a tiny bit of Brain Surgery.

No comments:

Post a Comment

© Copyright Paulo Ferreira 2010 — 2015