Far-fetched physics #2

It must have been within a couple of years of 2005, but in which direction I cannot remember, because that is the year that I triumphantly completed AP Physics under the illumination of Konstantinos Alexakos, a supergiant of a teacher, around whom lesser life events have dwarfed and realigned. With the sponsorship of an adult very dear to me, I acquired a ticketed seat within the belly of the Hayden Planetarium: until that day only the fifth-largest room I had ever been in. In the electric flash I am about to recall, with the help of Tom Hanks’ voice, the planetarium both vaulted to first place… and became the reason I no longer keep such a list.
The silence and darkness swelled and pressed upon my skin. I smiled hard, giddy… my Ticket to a Seat had been upgraded to a Passport to the Universe. No one shivered or squeaked from their seats around me, we all joined imaginary hands and began to shrink. Over the next 15 minutes, the camera zoomed out from the streets of New York to the system of Alpha Centauri, the edges of the Milky Way to the first observed galactic superclusters (I had always thought a bright spot in the sky had to be a star– now it could also be a galaxy), passing, of course, through a whole lot of nothing, so much nothing that even at fictitious speeds exponentially greater than that of light (Alpha Centauri in 3 minutes, Messier 77 in 10, and the Ophiuchus Supercluster in 11), I felt like I was casually floating along, but I was probably tearing the cosmos a new one at every change in direction. Even Tom Hanks didn’t appear disturbed by it all. At the 13 minute mark the camera slowed down, having reached the edge of the observable universe. I looked upon the superclusters– they glowed warmly, forming a strange, recently-discovered web of filaments reaching its threads across hundreds of millions of light years…..
The galaxies dotting the filament in the observable universe.
…I squinted at the image, to stop my eyes from darting along the strings and gaps, looking for something familiar, anything familiar. The camera stopped moving. The cosmos hung there, breathing, glowing, and through my narrowed eyes I suddenly realized I had seen this kind of web before….
Neuron network, via bioedonline.org
I realized they kinda look like neurons.
So what if it goes on forever, and that our universe is just one cell, one very empty atom, hanging on the string of a neuron, side by side with another universe, and another universe next to that, and another, and thousands more, all in a row on the path a flash of electricity takes, illuminating each one in its brief turn along the way like a great teacher does, to a node where it awakens a momentary image, a dot of color, a darkened room, in the memory of another person, a pretty big person, smiling and squinting up at a pretty big sky….?
Like in the ending of Men In Black?

Centers II: Zizek, Aurelius, Hawking

I recently recalled the introductory monologue from the documentary film Zizek! In it the eponymous philosopher and social critic takes a stab at his theory of the universe, arriving swiftly and entertainingly at “love is evil.” The contrarian path he takes to that end is his trademark, and I wanted to put it up to have it pitched against my conclusion on centrality… with Zizek the pessimist, and Ivan the optimist. Both agree that the known universe is unfathomably large, mostly empty, and matter is accidental….

Admittedly, I prefer to wield love as a weapon against nihilistic attitudes. Doesn’t “assuming the mistake,” as Zizek says, also assume opening the door onto moral inclusiveness? I cannot first claim that existence is indeed pointless, and immediately thereafter attempt to separate myself from the same concept by calling it evil. To call it good, on the other hand, agrees with my initial motion to assimilate universal pointlessness, as both of those gestures are inward. Historically it has been more successful to be a giver to others (on any level: civil rights, activism, friendship, collaborative endeavors like building and diplomacy). That is what will make our momentary lives more pleasant, and it actually requires more responsibility and strength than nihilism and constant denial of purpose. I want to believe that my ability to love things— to pick an object out of the infinite universe, to assign it disproportional importance (perhaps a very violent act), and sacrifice an objective point of view— is one of the best things about being human, and will be one of the biggest losses when I die. And while this may seem to be a romantic and intoxicated philosophy, consider Marcus Aurelius, who numerously repeats in his Meditations that life is short, there is no past or future, and that you must exercise your most human faculties while you are able:

Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant; all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed. [III. 10.]

The universe is flux; life is opinion. [IV. 3.]

Do not then consider life a thing of any value. For look at the immensity of time behind thee, and to the time which is before thee, another boundless space. In this infinity then what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations? [IV. 50.]

Bust of Marcus Aurelius. Sculptor unknown.

I think the Stoics got it right. Start with “there is nothing,” but end with “don’t be an asshole.”

Not surprisingly, physicists and theologians have debated their own version of this– in a classically nerdy way– with the advent of the anthropic principle (since the 1960s). The principle looks at the conditions & probability of intelligent life developing to our level– our observations and calculations are getting large enough to entertain that ultra-slim probability. It is one of the contemporary battlegrounds of science vs. religion, once cosmologists suddenly found themselves wading in divine territory. The theory kind of lets us have our cake and eat it too. One the one hand, we are miniscule, arbitrary points in an enormous evolutionary narrative, but on the other we are unique because only in our state are we able to observe and question the nature of the universe…. Stephen Hawking’s approach is most humbling, because it isn’t exclusionist. He supports an idea that is associated with those who are traditionally his moral enemies and doesn’t take sides, on the basic premise that he cannot claim to know everything. His description of it in Chapter 8 of A Brief History Of Time is worth reading.

“While other universes expand too quickly (top) or close before life can evolve (bottom three), our universe (second from the top) seems perfectly poised to support life.”
Image & caption via PBS Online.

Wielding love like Ivan the optimist and Marcus Aurelius the stoic, Hawking is generously inclusive in his worldview, which gives him the upper hand in a universe that keeps revealing new centers to him.

The Center Must Hold

First, Rousseau argued it…. Then Kant laid it out…. Then Nietzsche declared it…. Then Yeats sang it…. Then Picasso painted it…. Then Antonioni shot it…. Then Tschumi built it…. Then Bolano practically drilled it into our heads…. It is the primary motif of modernism. It is the concept of decentralization.
Since the Enlightenment, the shift in our mode of thinking has been gripped by this tendency, and given the above examples we are still in its clutches. However, every tradition must dwindle, as must this one, and what began as a beacon of hope for achieving real equality has turned mostly into a complacent attitude with depleted resources and a history of failures. Why have we been drifting cynically away from the idea of centralized models of us, our cities, or our universe? Why are we allergic to nodes? I am talking about more than the obvious: like Gods, manifestos, hearths, or Parliament Squares. I am talking about the underlying systems that give those things their essence: things like difference, hierarchy, perspective, and representation.
Georges Braque; Bottle and Fishes; 1910.
No privileged points of view– a pictorial egalitarianism.
Cedric Price’s diagram of the evolution of cities– from sheltered & central to dispersed & homogeneous.
Parc de la Villette, Paris; Bernard Tschumi; mid 1980s.
Architectural ‘centers’ become shriveled nodes.
We are living in a desert of centers (a la Baudrillard). That metaphor has two layers. The first is pessimistic, evoking the typical image of a dry, empty, depleted place. Lack of centrality has left us, unregulated, to suck our resources dry and fall victim to our own errors. The second, however, is optimistic, for we can forget that sometimes deserts are as alive as forests. All of the water is just cleverly concealed, and cleverly concentrated. Here, we see that a divide has grown between the size of a thing and the influence of a thing. Centers still exist. They are just harder to spot– physically diminutive, yet containing within them the same concentration of architectural nutrients as they did in their 18th-century ripeness. They have dried up like raisins. The once-prominent nodes of power and influence have shrunk under pressure, and now find themselves sharing space with the smaller players in the political game. On the one hand, it was a great victory of modernism to have achieved such a coup– but on the other, if we are going to close the act of modernism and begin something new, I think we need to welcome centrality back to the cast of heroes.
Picture a strawberry, its seeds set in its red skin like tufts in a pillow. It is strange how evenly spaced they always are, isn’t it?
And looking deeper, after cutting a the berry in half, one notices that each seed has a light streak leading to the center…
Strawberry cross section. via Getty Images.
It occurred to me that strawberries are frozen explosions. Something that previously existed as a dense cluster in the center is now gone– like an empty pocket still bulging after removing its valuable contents too quickly– and what we see and eat are the particles violently displaced by the explosion. We have the seeds: the densest particles which accelerated the fastest out and are on the event horizon of this berry’s physical state, and in between there is the less-dense gas which cooled slower into a homogenous, viscous meat– the pulp of stardust.
If we believe in explosions (we certainly continue to love bombs), we must also believe in centers. The 21st century, with precious hindsight, will continue the work of the 20th without falling into its ideological, postmodern traps– principally that of denying the universe a center. Frames of reference must be established, vectors must be normalized, in order to make things like Deleuze’s rhizome, universal healthcare, and a global financial market become sustainable models for daily life.
Copernicus’s heliocentric model, early 16th century.
The current multiverse model.
If science, and physics in particular, were any role model for our conception of order in the world, then it is simply that we seem to find new centers, further and further out (and further and further in). Once we decide that the number of centers is infinite, it then merely becomes a question of selecting the right node at the right scale and with the right reach for one’s purposes. As I look upon my own echeveria, the other succulents, my persian rug, and Charlotte, I cannot help but think of centrality’s graces. If I am to love something, I need to dedicate to it an amount of attention that is completely disproportional to its size in the multiverse. Central models, in conjunction with egalitarian ones, can allow us to experiment with an infinity of worldviews and come away equally humbled and empowered.

A Contorted Universe

The universe may be much more contorted than we think.
Denis and I were walking out of AP physics, exchanging, bug-eyed, our newest theories on the makeup of the cosmos. That day, the class had done a review of Newtonian physics– the crux of which, it was concluded, lies not in gravity or the three laws, but in momentum. Momentum is really the best way to describe an object in motion, because it takes into account its velocity and its mass, and furthermore, it turns out that the laws of conservation which rule so humbly over classical physics are most concerned with conservation of momentum.
So hang on a minute, Denis says. If momentum gets conserved, the same should be for all other vector quantities, right? A physical quantity which is dimensionally simpler than momentum is work: work is the product of force and distance (ie, when I apply force X on something over distance Y). It is in many senses equivalent to energy. We all know about the conservation of energy– then work must also be preserved, correct? That is: not just the motion and mass of objects, but the forces exerted on them, by them, and among them must also add up to zero. This includes something as basic as displacement. I tell him what I read about Descartes proposing a preservation of motion (in conjunction with the larger theory of conatus, the perpetual tendency for things to preserve and improve themselves) long before momentum became the status quo– in a general sense, there is always the assumption that across all dimensions, the universe must be a zero-sum entity. Denis lifts his textbook. “So let’s start with basics. If I lift this kilogram one meter up, that means that somewhere out there in the universe, one kilogram has just been moved down. If I turn 180 degrees clockwise, somewhere out in the universe, 60 kg has been rotated counterclockwise.”
The universe is on a tightrope. Every twitch in the assumed space/time medium (whatever medium it is– as long as we agree that it’s fluid and continuous) must be compensated elsewhere. We’ve all experimented with this in swivel chairs: putting our feet up, then strategically flailing our arms in one direction so that the chair may move in the other.
All I asked for was a simple frikkin’ universe!
We began presuming that the universe is a fluid body of stuff contorting itself endlessly as it aims to balance the displacement of mass inside, as if to maintain its balance or bearings in the grander cosmos it itself is floating in. Like a person on a swivel chair, or floating in water. This, applied to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, gives us quite a different picture than the happily simplified cubicle used to illustrate the entropy of particles moving about within a system, constantly creeping towards equilibrium.

With this relationship established, Denis and I agree that it opens up a new model for investigation– a model that uses relativity to swap frames of reference. Instead of the above illustration, where the universe is a static reference and the particles within it are moving, we might try to imagine the particles staying still, while the body of the system moves about to maintain equilibrium.
An elegant instance of this phenomenon could be what is called Quantum entanglement, and what Japanese physicists recently learned about the laws of conservation (and how they can have exceptions).


Be it all in my head or in fact actually widespread, I need to share this mini exposé on the meaning of potential energy, and its implications. I can thank Konstantinos Alexakos for tuning my brain to these frequencies.
As taught in high school, potential energy is maybe misconstrued as ACTUAL energy, something substantive, a FORM of energy that is characterized by latency. It is understood to have an inverse relationship with kinetic energy.
BUT, what if potential energy is not that at all? What if, if I lift a ball a few feet above a tabletop, I am not GIVING it potential energy per se, but I am CREATING THE POSSIBILITY for it to acquire kinetic energy? That is, if I were to let it go and it were to fall to the table, the MAXIMUM (kinetic) energy it could acquire would be X.
Suddenly, potential energy ceases to be defined as a form of energy, and kinetic energy just becomes “energy”.
This is related, through one key metaphor, to the famous slinky drop experiment, which, in short, concludes that at the atomic scale, everything is completely unaware of everything BEYOND its IMMEDIATE surroundings. The bottom of the slinky, though linked to the top, and part of the same object, has no idea what’s about to happen until the very moment the atoms directly above it strike it with the force of gravity. It still “thinks” that the professor is holding it up from the balcony. If this is true of all things at all scales, then how does the potential / kinetic model continue to hold water? Say we were to place the aforementioned ball in an elevator. Its potential energy will increase as the elevator ascends. How is it possible that the ball is AWARE of the distance it could fall? It disagrees with the slinky model regarding how much we assume the atoms of each object KNOW about their surroundings.
So, this area of defining energy is governed by the existence of a gravitational force, and only applies when there is vertical motion. The potential / kinetic energy dualism does not address horizontal motion. Can’t this same ball, (which is perfectly designed to ROLL) have a whole ton of potential energy even when it’s resting on the table, because there is the possibility that I will give it a hard push, filling it with kinetic energy, sending it rolling away?
So the real magic happens when we focus away from the object in question, and onto its environment. The only way to determine accurately an object’s potential and kinetic energy is to determine a FRAME OF REFERENCE. The ball will gain X kinetic energy if it’s dropped from a ten-story building. BUT if I mention there is a 100-foot deep hole dug in the ground at the foot of the building, its potential changes. And what if this ball were to continue falling to the center of the Earth? Completely different potential. And so on. This has been one of the great revelations of relativity, and, even earlier, thermodynamics: FRAME OF REFERENCE is the real key to determining things like the passage of time, momentum, or the expulsion / absorption of energy.
This helps me think of potential energy, and POTENTIAL in general, in a whole new way. I now see it unrestricted by kinetic energy. I see it not in a harmonious, limited deadlock with kinetic energy, but existing in its own realm entirely, independent of it, one separated from it by time, one that constantly changes and is more governed by the rules of POSSIBILITY and FRAME OF REFERENCE (and therefore, chance as well) than a corresponding X of kinetic energy.
“Unlock your potential.”
This phrase gets used a lot, and I want to address it especially in the instances it applies to the development and maturation of people. We always get told we have great potential, that we must learn to unearth and bring to action, to “results”, or to something tangible by others. In other words, they want us to change our potential (energy) to kinetic (energy). But, given the above precept, the relationship between the two is not so simplistic. Somehow we can be led to believe that each of us is born with some precise amount, X, of potential, which can translate, under the right circumstances, into exactly the same amount, X, of maturation or success– but no more. We are led to believe that X is a constant throughout our lives based on various genetic or home-nurtured factors– but in fact it is more accurate to imagine your “potential” as something in constant flux, depending on your current position in life, changing as you change. If I were to attempt a more concrete definition, a sign of one’s potential at any moment may correspond to how comfortable you are or how challenging your current emploi is. The more challenging your work is, the more there is to learn, the more your potential is. The smartest and most opportunistic of us are able to keep pushing ourselves, or in other words, keep their POTENTIAL high. Again, it is about focusing away from yourself and attempting to regulate your circumstances.
Never to settle with a completed set of tasks, with any salary, with any amount of accrued knowledge, with any foresight– that is the way to go about fulfilling one’s potential. One should never consider one’s potential fulfilled– potential exists precisely because it can never be fulfilled. But it should always be chased. How fast the ball rolls down the table depends only on how hard you can imagine kicking it.
Above: Potential as affected by only your immediate surroundings; and potential as affected by the anticipation of future circumstances.