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Posts Tagged ‘Cosmology

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim”*…

 

universe

 

What does it mean to be alive? Science, shockingly, still doesn’t have a consensus. For example, is it fair to say that the novel coronavirus now sweeping the world is alive? The short answer is there isn’t one agreed-upon answer — for something so basic, you’d think life would be easier to define.

The first recorded definition of life came from Aristotle in ancient Greece, around 350 BC. He posited that to be alive, something must grow, maintain itself, and reproduce. In contrast, the most well-known modern definition is probably NASA’s, which says living things must be “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.” Take, for example, great apes: given appropriate resources like food and water, the “machinery” of a great ape — its organs and nervous system — regulates itself, keeping the great ape functioning in most conditions. They are also capable of evolution — just look at us. But this isn’t the only accepted definition of life. There are actually over 100 published definitions!

A lot of the debate comes down to the fact that the various fields of science approach the topic quite differently. A geneticist, whose focus is on known organisms and their genomes, will very likely have a different view on what constitutes life than an astrophysicist, who considers a more expansive, universal definition.

But beyond that, most of these definitions of life fall short in another, very subtle way: They are based on the origins of life on our planet. This means our hypotheses for what sentient and conscious aliens look like almost always reflect humankind. You only have to look at a Star Trek episode to see it — humanity likes to make the world in our image, which is partially why in sci-fi and fantasy a lot of the “aliens” look a lot like ourselves. (Okay, and because it’s easier to dress a human up as a humanoid alien)…

Cal Tech scientist (and published poet) Alison Koontz explains why none of the 100 definitions of life we have may be accurate away from “home”: “Our concept of life is too Earth-centric — alien life might look totally different.”

* Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five

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As we confront our chauvinism, we might send speculative birthday greetings to Harlan Jay Ellison; he was born on this date in 1934.  A member (with Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Roger Zelazny) of the American “new wave” science fiction vanguard, Ellison wrote more than 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays, comic book scripts, teleplays, essays, and a wide range of criticism covering literature, film, television, and print media.  Some of his best-known work includes the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever“, his A Boy and His Dog cycle, and his short stories “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman“… for which he won many, many awards, including multiple Hugos, Nebulas, and Edgars.

Ellison is also remembered for his outspoken, sometimes combative personality, of which Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho) said “[Ellison is] the only living organism I know whose natural habitat is hot water.”

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Written by LW

May 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Once we introduce the possibility of applying the quantum principle to the universe, we are forced to consider parallel universes”*…

 

antiverse

 

In the Antarctic, things happen at a glacial pace. Just ask Peter Gorham. For a month at a time, he and his colleagues would watch a giant balloon carrying a collection of antennas float high above the ice, scanning over a million square kilometres of the frozen landscape for evidence of high-energy particles arriving from space.

When the experiment returned to the ground after its first flight, it had nothing to show for itself, bar the odd flash of background noise. It was the same story after the second flight more than a year later.

While the balloon was in the sky for the third time, the researchers decided to go over the past data again, particularly those signals dismissed as noise. It was lucky they did. Examined more carefully, one signal seemed to be the signature of a high-energy particle. But it wasn’t what they were looking for. Moreover, it seemed impossible. Rather than bearing down from above, this particle was exploding out of the ground.

That strange finding was made in 2016. Since then, all sorts of suggestions rooted in known physics have been put forward to account for the perplexing signal, and all have been ruled out. What’s left is shocking in its implications. Explaining this signal requires the existence of a topsy-turvy universe created in the same big bang as our own and existing in parallel with it. In this mirror world, positive is negative, left is right and time runs backwards. It is perhaps the most mind-melting idea ever to have emerged from the Antarctic ice ­­– but it might just be true…

Strange particles observed by an experiment in Antarctica could be evidence of an alternative reality where everything is upside down: “We may have spotted a parallel universe going backwards in time.”

* Michio Kaku

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As we consider our alternatives, we might recall that it was on this date in 1912, in his “Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity,” that Einstein first identified the fourth dimension as time… or so it is widely accepted.  Some physicists believe that Einstein was making a subtler– and much more complicated– suggestion, “x4 = ict”: that the fourth dimension, not “physical” like the other three, but emergent (in a way “understandable” as time) as the fourth dimension expands from the other three at the rate of “c.”

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Written by LW

April 15, 2020 at 1:01 am

“All is Number… Number rules the universe”*…

 

Threes

 

The universe has cooked up all sorts of bizarre and beautiful forms of matter, from blazing stars to purring cats, out of just three basic ingredients. Electrons and two types of quarks, dubbed “up” and “down,” mix in various ways to produce every atom in existence.

But puzzlingly, this family of matter particles—the up quark, down quark, and electron—is not the only one. Physicists have discovered that they make up the first of three successive “generations” of particles, each heavier than the last. The second- and third-generation particles transform into their lighter counterparts too quickly to form exotic cats, but they otherwise behave identically. It’s as if the laws of nature were composed in triplicate. “We don’t know why,” said Heather Logan, a particle physicist at Carleton University.

In the 1970s, when physicists first worked out the standard model of particle physics—the still reigning set of equations describing the known elementary particles and their interactions—they sought some deep principle that would explain why three generations of each type of matter particle exist. No one cracked the code, and the question was largely set aside. Now, though, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg, one of the architects of the standard model, has revived the old puzzle. Weinberg, who is 86 and a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, argued in a recent paper in the journal Physical Review D that an intriguing pattern in the particles’ masses could lead the way forward…

The laws of nature appear to have been composed in triplicate: “Why Do Matter Particles Come in Threes?

* Pythagoras

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As we study structure, we might recall that on this date in 1981, Nature set the world’s record for “Longest Scientific Name” when it published the systematic name for the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of the human mitochondria; it contains 16,569 nucleotide residues and is thus about 207,000 letters long.

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The 16,569 bp long human mitochondrial genome with the protein-coding, ribosomal RNA, and transfer RNA genes

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Written by LW

April 9, 2020 at 1:01 am

“All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it’s pretty damn complicated in the first place”*…

 

UniverseShape_LedeFullWidth

 

When you gaze out at the night sky, space seems to extend forever in all directions. That’s our mental model for the universe, but it’s not necessarily correct. There was a time, after all, when everyone thought the Earth was flat, because our planet’s curvature was too subtle to detect and a spherical Earth was unfathomable.

Today, we know the Earth is shaped like a sphere. But most of us give little thought to the shape of the universe. Just as the sphere offered an alternative to a flat Earth, other three-dimensional shapes offer alternatives to “ordinary” infinite space.

We can ask two separate but interrelated questions about the shape of the universe. One is about its geometry: the fine-grained local measurements of things like angles and areas. The other is about its topology: how these local pieces are stitched together into an overarching shape.

Cosmological evidence suggests that the part of the universe we can see is smooth and homogeneous, at least approximately. The local fabric of space looks much the same at every point and in every direction. Only three geometries fit this description: flat, spherical and hyperbolic…

Alternatives to “ordinary” infinite space: “What Is the Geometry of the Universe?

* Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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As we tinker with topology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1811 that Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for publishing the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism.  Shelley, of course, went on to become a celebrated lyric poet and one of the leaders of the English Romantic movement… one who had a confident (if not to say exalted) sense of his role in society:

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

220px-Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_Clint source

 

“Every why hath a wherefore”*…

 

causalitymain

 

Physicists have started to realise that causality might not be as straightforward as we thought. Instead of cause always preceding effect, effects can sometimes precipitate their causes. And, even more mindbogglingly, both can be true at once. In this version of events, you would be opening the fridge because the butter was already on the table, and your toast would be perfectly golden both before and after you put it in the toaster. You wouldn’t just be making breakfast – your breakfast would also be making you.

Playing fast and loose with causality does more than make for confusing mornings. It could shake physics to its very foundations. No longer having a definite order of events goes against the picture of the universe painted by general relativity, and even hints at a reality beyond quantum mechanics, the best model we have of the subatomic world. Allowing causality to operate in both directions could allow us to combine these two theories into a single framework of quantum gravity, a goal that has eluded us for over a century. The end of causality as we know it …

In everyday life, causes always precede effects.  But new experiments suggests that things might be different when things get very, very tiny: “In the quantum realm, cause doesn’t necessarily come before effect.”

* Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors

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As we get small, we might recall that it was on this date in 1564 that results of the Council of Trent (Concilium Tridentinum) were published, condemning what the Catholic Church deemed to be the heresies of Protestants.  The embodiment of the Counter-Reformation, it established a firm and permanent distinction between the two practices of faith.

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Council of Trent (painting in the Museo del Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Trento)

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Written by LW

January 26, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Oh how wrong we were to think immortality meant never dying”*…

 

quantum-simulation_1024

Quantum simulation (Verresen et al., Nature Physics, 2019)

 

Further (in a fashion) to yesterday’s post…

Nothing lasts forever. Humans, planets, stars, galaxies, maybe even the Universe itself, everything has an expiration date. But things in the quantum realm don’t always follow the rules. Scientists have found that quasiparticles in quantum systems could be effectively immortal.

That doesn’t mean they don’t decay, which is reassuring. But once these quasiparticles have decayed, they are able to reorganise themselves back into existence, possibly ad infinitum.

This seemingly flies right in the face of the second law of thermodynamics, which asserts that entropy in an isolated system can only move in an increasing direction: things can only break down, not build back up again.

Of course, quantum physics can get weird with the rules; but even quantum scientists didn’t know quasiparticles were weird in this particular manner…

Maybe some things are forever.  More at “Scientists Find Evidence a Strange Group of Quantum Particles Are Basically Immortal.”

Read the underlying Nature Physics article, by physicist Ruben Verresen and his team at the Technical University of Munich and the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, here.

* Gerard Way

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As we ponder perpetuity, we might send carefully-deduced birthday greetings to Richard Bevan Braithwaite; he was born on this date in 1900.  A Cambridge don who specialized in the philosophy of science, he focused on the logical features common to all sciences.  Braithwaite was concerned with the impact of science on our beliefs about the world and the appropriate responses to that impact.  He was especially interested in probability (and its applications in decision theory and games theory) and in the statistical sciences.  He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1946 to 1947, and was a Fellow of the British Academy.

It was Braithwaite’s poker that Ludwig Wittgenstein reportedly brandished at Karl Popper during their confrontation at a Moral Sciences Club meeting in Braithwaite’s rooms in King’s College. The implement subsequently disappeared. (See here.)

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“Nothing happens until something moves”*…

 

Universe

 

What determines our fate? To the Stoic Greek philosophers, fate is the external product of divine will, ‘the thread of your destiny’. To transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, it is an inward matter of self-determination, of ‘what a man thinks of himself’. To modern cosmologists, fate is something else entirely: a sweeping, impersonal physical process that can be boiled down into a single, momentous number known as the Hubble Constant.

The Hubble Constant can be defined simply as the rate at which the Universe is expanding, a measure of how quickly the space between galaxies is stretching apart. The slightest interpretation exposes a web of complexity encased within that seeming simplicity, however. Extrapolating the expansion process backward implies that all the galaxies we can observe originated together at some point in the past – emerging from a Big Bang – and that the Universe has a finite age. Extrapolating forward presents two starkly opposed futures, either an endless era of expansion and dissipation or an eventual turnabout that will wipe out the current order and begin the process anew.

That’s a lot of emotional and intellectual weight resting on one small number…

How scientists pinned a single number on all of existence: “Fate of the Universe.”

[Readers might remember that the Big Bang wasn’t always an accepted paradigm— and that on-going research continues to surface challenges.]

* Albert Einstein

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As we center ourselves, we might spare a thought for Kurt Friedrich Gödel; he died on this date in 1978.  A  logician, mathematician, and philosopher, he is considered (along with Aristotle, Alfred Tarski— whose birthday this also is– and Gottlob Frege) to be one of the most important logicians in history.  Gödel had an immense impact upon scientific and philosophical thinking in the 20th century.  He is, perhaps, best remembered for his Incompleteness Theorems, which led to (among other important results) Alan Turing’s insights into computational theory.

Kurt Gödel’s achievement in modern logic is singular and monumental – indeed it is more than a monument, it is a landmark which will remain visible far in space and time. … The subject of logic has certainly completely changed its nature and possibilities with Gödel’s achievement.                  — John von Neumann

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