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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Chemistry at Venus' Cloud Tops

There is a curiosity I keep wondering about concerning the inner solar system’s planet’s atmospheres.  I have often read how Earth’s powerful magnetic field helps to deflect the solar wind and maintain our dense atmosphere.  Mercury, the moon, and Mars have only weak magnetic fields and it is asserted that their little to no atmospheres are the result of the wind ionizing the gasses and then literally stripping them away.

But there was always one obvious exception to this generality:  Venus.  Venus too has no magnetic field but easily possesses the densest atmosphere of the inner worlds, much denser than Earth’s.  Part of this is probably due to the carbon dioxide composition of Venus’ atmosphere; CO2 is a large, heavy molecule that is no doubt easier to retain than Earth-like gasses of oxygen, nitrogen, argon, and water vapor.  Furthermore, the active (though periodic) heavy volcanism on Venus means that this gas is being regularly generated and introduced into the planet’s atmosphere (the early loss of heavy volcanism is probably why the same hasn’t occurred on Mars), perhaps as fast or even faster than the solar wind can strip it away.

But I wonder if there is another reason. Venus is topped by a thick layer of sulfuric acid clouds, which largely (I think) overlays the carbon dioxide nearer the surface.  This layer could act as a shield against incoming electrons and protons from the sun.  Sulfuric acid is a very heavy molecule which would probably fracture into smaller radicals and ions when struck by such particles.  Possible reactions could be:

 H2SO4 + e- ® OH- + HSO3·
 H2SO4 + p+ ® H2O2 + SO22+

If OH- ions are formed they are probably to weak to be helped by Venus’ gravity, but they might recombine with other radicals/ions first.  The other species will probably also hang around long enough to recreate sulfuric acid, while scattering the electrons and protons at lower energies.  Bear in mind, this is probably a very small sampling of the kind of chemistry that occurs at Venus’ cloud levels.  If it is happening then Venus protects its atmosphere with chemistry instead of magnetism.  Similar chemistry could be going on at Saturn’s moon Titan’s cloud tops, although the solar wind is much weaker there.

A Favorite Way of Picturing Deep Time

Portraying geology and geology in terms of "deep time" (essentially goin back to the beginning of Earth and the solar system) isn't easy, but I think this picture does a reasonably good job of it.

Spice, Salt, and Civilizations?

Some years ago a writer I much admire named Jared Diamond wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel, the main premise of which (though it isn't in the title, oddly) is that Eurasian civilizations took off sooner and faster than African or American due to the large number of domesticatable plants and animals living there (e.g., cattle, swine, chickens, wheat and other grains, etc.), which is why Eurasia came to dominate the rest of the world so badly once we developed ocean going vessels.

If we define civilization as the transition from nomadic to settled cultures, there may be another factor, this one concerning food.  The reason uncivilized cultures are nomadic is that food is a constant requirement but, with obvious exceptions like tropical areas, is not plentiful anywhere all year round.  Their is a time of plenty, and a time of -- well, what?  Without means to preserve (many) foods, it's either go hungry or move to new places of plenty.  Hense nomadism.

We take freezing and refrigeration (in technologically modern cultures) as the obvious way to preserve meat, fish, and other perishable food items, but that's only been quite recent (and still is no where near universal).  Prior to cold, the main preservatives used by humans were salt and spices -- even if you went to market everyday such places often had to be kept going by sellers and producers using salt & spices to keep their foods reasonably fresh for their buyers.

I don't know what the archeological evidence here is (which means I'll have to check it), but may I suggest that at least part of what triggered settled behaviors in Homo sapiens was the discovery of substances which can preserve perishable foods for fairly long periods?  At least this makes sense to me.  Nomadism is a brutal way of life, happily abandoned the moment people can do so.  On the go most of the time, carrying all you own with you, over mountain passes and deserts and other nasty places?  In truth, it doesn't even sound romantic.

When you first settle, you're still uncivilized in all other ways.  A stone-age culture that doesn't move about.  Although there are other obvious reasons, perhaps one of the causes of tropical people living "primitive" lives long after the rest of us have abandoned them, is the year-round presence of food.  They're settled because they don't have to move.  And even though many of them do use preservation methods, they're not an absolute essential; you literally can get fresh food every day.

Well.  I suppose I'm not the first person to think of this.  But I haven't seen a book entitled Spice, Salt, and Civilizations, anywhere, by anyone.  So proably not too much has been done with this idea amongst the lay public, and maybe not even among scientists.  If so, I'd love to hear about it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The implications of this picture are either highly disturbing or highly exciting, or both. But they can't be neither.

Some Belated Tricks with Java and Excel VBA


Several years ago, when I was working for Dr. Jean-Claude Bradley at Drexel University, I posted on a number of programming projects on the UsefulChem blog site (http://usefulchem.blogspot.com/).  I recall a flurry of interest in how I got Excel VBA programs to call Java programs and how Java could make Excel spreadsheets.  It’s probably a lot easier now, but here were my tricks below.  First part is how to get VBA to run any software and wait for its completion:
________________________________________
‘Declarations
Private Type PROCESS_INFORMATION
    hProcess As Long
    hThread As Long
    dwProcessId As Long
    dwThread As Long
End Type
Private Type STARTUPINFO
    cb As Long
    lpReserved As String
    lpDesktop As String
    dwX As Long
    dwY As Long
    dwXSize As Long
    dwYSize As Long
    dwXCountChars As Long
    dwYCountChars As Long
    dwFillAttribute As Long
    dwFlags As Long
    wShowWindow As Integer
    cbReserved2 As Long
    lpReserved2 As Long
    hStdInput As Long
    hStdOutput As Long
    hStdError As Long
End Type
Private Declare Function CreateProcess Lib "Kernel32" Alias "CreateProcessA" _
                                 (ByVal lpApplicationName As String, ByVal lpCommandLine As String, _
                                  ByVal lpProcessAttributes As Long, ByVal lpThreadAttributes As Long, _
                                  ByVal bInheritHandles As Long, ByVal dwCreationFlags As Long, _
                                  lpEnvironment As Any, ByVal lpCurrentDirectory As String, _
                                  lpStartupInfo As STARTUPINFO, lpProcessInformation As PROCESS_INFORMATION) As Long
Private Declare Function CloseHandle Lib "Kernel32" (ByVal hObject As Long) As Long
Private Declare Function WaitForSingleObject Lib "Kernel32" _
                                  (ByVal hHandle As Long, ByVal dwMilliseconds As Long) As Long
 ‘The actual function.
Private Function RunWaitApp(lpCommandLine As String, wShowWindow As Integer, bWait As Boolean, _
                            Optional lWaitTime As Long) As Boolean
  Dim sinfo As STARTUPINFO
  Dim pinfo As PROCESS_INFORMATION
  Dim res As Long
  Dim lWait As Long
 
  If bWait Then
    lWait = lWaitTime
  Else
    Shell lpCommandLine, wShowWindow
    RunWaitApp = True
    Exit Function
  End If
 
  sinfo.cb = Len(sinfo)
  sinfo.wShowWindow = wShowWindow
  res = CreateProcess(vbNullString, lpCommandLine, 0, 0, True, &H20, ByVal 0&, vbNullString, sinfo, pinfo)
                 
  If res <> 0 Then
    Do
      res = WaitForSingleObject(pinfo.hProcess, lWait)
    
      If res <> &H102& Then
        Exit Do
      End If
 
      DoEvents
    Loop While True
   
    CloseHandle pinfo.hProcess
    RunWaitApp = True
  Else
    RunWaitApp = False
  End If
End Function
_______________________________________

A bit windy, I know, but you need write the module only once, then copy, paste, and call it wherever needed.

The code to create Excel spreadsheets from within Java then required a special library import, of which I could only find one at the time but am sure now there are many others.  The full code is:
________________________________________

import java.io.*;
import java.util.*;
import org.apache.poi.hssf.usermodel.*; // The special import
 
public class CreateXLS
{
  public static void main(String[] args)
  {

    if (args.length < 1)
    {
      System.out.println("Usage:  java CreateXLS ");
      System.exit(0);
    }

    try
    {
      String saveDirectory = args[0];
      String feedFile = args[1];
      System.out.print("Creating XLS files for items from " + feedFile + " ... ");
      File dd = new File(saveDirectory);
      if (!dd.isDirectory()) dd.mkdir();
      String separator = System.getProperty("file.separator");
      String newLine = System.getProperty("line.separator");
      String tab = "\t";
      FileWriter fw;
      FileOutputStream os;
      HSSFWorkbook wb;
      HSSFSheet sheet;
      HSSFRow row;
      Feed feed = Feed.loadFeed(feedFile);
      ArrayList itemList = feed.getItemList();
      Item item;
      Molecule molecule;
      Field suppliers;
      ArrayList suppliersList;

      for (int i = 0;i < itemList.size();i++)
      {
        item = (Item) itemList.get(i);
        molecule = item.getMolecule();
        fw = new FileWriter(saveDirectory + separator + item.toString() + ".txt");
        os = new FileOutputStream(saveDirectory + separator + item.toString() + ".xls");
        wb = new HSSFWorkbook();
        sheet = wb.createSheet();
        row = sheet.createRow((short) 0);
        row.createCell((short) 0).setCellValue("UC Number:");
        row.createCell((short) 1).setCellValue(item.toString());
        fw.write("UC Number:" + tab + item + newLine);
        row = sheet.createRow((short) 1);
        row.createCell((short) 0).setCellValue("SMILES");
        row.createCell((short) 1).setCellValue(molecule.getSMILES().getFieldContents());
        fw.write("SMILES:" + tab + molecule.getSMILES().getFieldContents() + newLine);
        row = sheet.createRow((short) 2);
        row.createCell((short) 0).setCellValue("InChI:");
        row.createCell((short) 1).setCellValue(molecule.getInChI().getFieldContents());
        fw.write("InChI:" + tab + molecule.getInChI().getFieldContents() + newLine);
        row = sheet.createRow((short) 3);
        row.createCell((short) 0).setCellValue("Image URL:");
        row.createCell((short) 1).setCellValue(molecule.getImageURL().getFieldContents());
        fw.write("Image URL:" + tab + molecule.getImageURL().getFieldContents() + newLine);
        row = sheet.createRow((short) 4);
        row.createCell((short) 0).setCellValue("Substructure Search:");
        row.createCell((short) 1).setCellValue(molecule.getSubStructureSearch().getFieldContents());
        fw.write("Substructure Search:" + tab + molecule.getSubStructureSearch().getFieldContents() + newLine);
        row = sheet.createRow((short) 5);
        row.createCell((short) 0).setCellValue("Item Page:");
        row.createCell((short) 1).setCellValue(molecule.getItemPage().getFieldContents());
        fw.write("Item Page:" + tab + molecule.getItemPage().getFieldContents() + newLine);
        row = sheet.createRow((short) 6);
        row.createCell((short) 0).setCellValue("Canonical MW:");
        row.createCell((short) 1).setCellValue(molecule.getCanonicalMW().getFieldContents());
        fw.write("Canonical MW:" + tab + molecule.getCanonicalMW().getFieldContents() + newLine);
        row = sheet.createRow((short) 7);
        row.createCell((short) 0).setCellValue("Natural MW:");
        row.createCell((short) 1).setCellValue(molecule.getNaturalMW().getFieldContents());
        fw.write("Natural MW:" + tab + molecule.getNaturalMW().getFieldContents() + newLine);
        row = sheet.createRow((short) 8);
        row.createCell((short) 0).setCellValue("Suppliers:");
        fw.write("Suppliers:");

        suppliers = molecule.getSuppliers();
        suppliersList = suppliers.getFieldContentsList();

        if (suppliersList != null)
        {

          for (int j = 0;j < suppliersList.size();j++)
          {
            row.createCell((short) 1).setCellValue((String) suppliersList.get(j));
            row = sheet.createRow((short) (j + 9));
            fw.write(tab + (String) suppliersList.get(j) + newLine);
            row.createCell((short) 0).setCellValue("");
          }

        }

        wb.write(os);
        os.close();
        fw.flush();
        fw.close();
      }

      System.out.println("[ok]");
    }
    catch (Exception e)
    {
      System.out.println("[failed]:  " + e.getMessage());
    }

  }

}

________________________________________

This is all five years after the fact, and much has changed since then, but hopefully someone will find it useful.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Chapter Three -- The Universe as we Don’t See It

I want to take you on a journey.  For me it started quite young, but when at age twelve or thirteen my parents gave me a six-inch Newtonian reflector, it began in earnest.  I am told that my largesse was the result of my sister getting (for a while) a pony, and their was fear I would be envious, but the two events were never connected in my mind and I never remember a trace of envy or resentment toward my sister.  I was just so darn happy to have the telescope.        .

Even in the rather light-polluted suburbia USA we lived in the telescope revealed a marvel of heavenly capital the naked eye never suspected.  We all know there are craters on the moon, but with but 96X magnification I could see them, bright and clear.  And the Galilean satellites of Jupiter.  The rings of Saturn.  And stars beyond stars, nebulae, galaxies – by any professional standards it was just a child’s toy, but what it brought into my backyard most of the greatest philosophers of history could not have dreamt about.

It took me … out there.  Away from this secluded and narrow viewpoint of tiny spot on planet Earth where I stood, toward places hundreds or thousands of years of light speed travel that would have been needed to actually be there in the flesh (not that I would have survived long, but I never thought about that).  It was a Asperger’s child’s vision of paradise, to this day probably the best thing my parents ever did for me.  I was not to become an actual astronomer, but this gift opened that door to me better than anything else.

I’d like to repeat a figure from chapter one:



Figure I. (repeated)

Getting away from our ordinary, Earth-bound existence and planting ourselves somewhere in space – here, a position millions of miles beyond the sun-Earth system – we see already how much our perspective on things have changes.  For one thing, the cause of the seasons, which had baffled us before, becomes obvious.  We also see Earth (and the sun) as spherical objects in space, instead of as flat, infinite surfaces which or may not have boundaries.  If the picture were to be fully fleshed out, we would see other planets too (specifically, the inner world of Mercury and Venus, and the fourth planet Mars; whether Jupiter and/or Saturn would show from here is not as clear).

Whether you realize it or not, I have done something profound to your senses; more precisely, to your brain’s interpretation of reality.  But all I have really done is change your point of view, as my telescope changed mine.  I call it profound, however, because the brilliant insights of Albert Einstein, in the beginnings of the twentieth century, demonstrated that it must be so.

*          *          *

If you have ever taken high school physics, or a general college physics course, you may have discovered that it is, in a very real sense, boring.  It’s boring because you’re not learning anything you hadn’t already intuitively learned by about age two or so.  If you don’t believe that, then watch next time a magic show is performed before a group of toddlers.  They are just as dumb-founded and thrilled seeing the laws of ordinary physics seemingly violated as you or I.  And even a small baby can tell when something is amiss; if you convince it something is in a certain place and then reveal that it isn’t, their eyes will open wide with surprise, and they may even become distressed.

“But that’s just common sense,”  you might be tempted to protest.  Yet what is common sense?  If it were as easy and as obvious as it seems, artificial intelligence would be a snap to accomplish, and would have been years ago.

The fact is, our brains evolved to perceive and “understand” reality in ways necessary for our stone-age ancestors and further back, and thus it is unsurprising that we should possess, even at a very young age, the common-sense concepts we collectively call reality.  Recall what I said about magicians and how they do what they do; they use those “wired-in”, common-sense, laws of physics and manipulate our senses and points of view to cause us to see impossible things.  Like bending a spoon with your fingers, if I may cite a rather common trick by “psychics” – magicians who pawn themselves off as special people with special powers.

What you learn in basic physics course are the details, the precise definitions, and the math behind the ordinary.  And, despite what I said, it isn’t boring at all; I strongly recommend taking such a course (my mother did, and got a B, which somehow didn’t convey to her that she could grasp scientific thinking), perhaps even before reading what’s coming up.

*          *          *

The lesson of the last section, I hope, is that although we possess common-sense intuition about “ordinary” reality – the reality all of us spend all our lives in, a reality within a narrow range of space and time – at the same time evolution could not have bestowed us no gifts about reality outside those strict ranges, because our ancestors never encountered them.  And indeed, it hasn’t.  But until you understand that, it is only natural that you should think the Laws of Physics, as we somewhat pompously and arrogantly call them, will apply everywhere, all the time, across all scales of time and place.

That’s why I started out talking about my childhood telescope, and showing Figure I again.  Even this is not too far a deviation from our hum-drum down on this planet’s lives, but there are some noteworthy differences.  The biggest one may be that the light from the sun or that reflected from Earth will take several minutes to reach our new vantagepoint.  We certainly aren’t used to significant (or any) delays between the time something happens and when we observe it, for light travels – well, it travels faster than anything known in the universe, a full 186,282 miles per second.  That being the case, when a bank of lights at a stadium are turned on, the stadium is full alit “at once” , though it actually takes around a fraction of a millisecond or one thousandth of a second fir this miracle to happen.  Since our brains can’t measure time intervals that short (we’re a tad slow, to tell the truth), this is instantaneously as far as we are concerned.  Indeed, by all common-sense measurements the speed of light is for all practical purposes infinite.

Yet it is in fact not infinite, as our hovering over Figure I. shows.  That light – electromagnetic radiation I should call it, including radio, microwaves, infrared (heat) rays, ultraviolet (black) light, x-rays, and gamma rays – journeys at a specifically defined speed came out of work on electricity and magnetism in the 1800’s, already dents our common sense view of things.  But what comes next tramples it into unrecognizable shards.

I have to backtrack some to explain why.  I’ll ask you to close your eyes (but don’t stop reading!) and imagine the following:  someone else and I are on a rail car, travelling at fifty mph down the track.  We both have baseball mitts (not actually necessary), and one baseball, and we are playing a game of catch between us.  Some kindly passenger (you, as it turns out) on the train is timing how fast we throw, and reports us both hurling the ball at 50 miles per hour, or 73 feet per second.  You can easily calculate this because the rail car is 73 feet long and it takes exactly one second from throw to catch.

Open your eyes again.  That was probably easy to picture before your mind’s eye, I’m certain; we do things like this all the time, if never exactly this.

Okay, close ‘em again, and this time picture yourself on a train platform at a station, watching the train whizz by at fifty mph (it’s an express, and doesn’t stop there).  You can easily look through the car’s windows and watch the game of throw and catch.

Question:  what do you see now?

You are probably already uncertain as to whether you will see the same thing, but if you haven’t quite figured out what you do see, I’ll hand you the answer and then explain it.  Using the same clock, you now see the thrower at the rear of the car throwing, like a top flight major league pitcher, the ball at 73 + 73 = 146 feet in the one second that ticks off your clock, or one hundred mph; while the thrower at the front can accomplish a mere 73 – 73 = 0 feet in that second, or zero mph.

The explanation is that speeds add.  The train is travelling fifty mph forward, and this speed must be added to the rear of car thrower speed and subtracted from the front of car’s thrower’s velocity.  If all the window shades are drawn, however, the passengers have no way of knowing their speed with respect to the station, because we can’t sense constant speed, only acceleration (speeding up, slowing down, or changing direction).  Everything here, keep in your mind, is at constant speeds and directions.  And I’ll wager it doesn’t gall you too much.  You’ve actually witnessed it first hand many times in your life; you know you can’t really say an object is travelling at such and such a speed without specifying the reference point that speed is being measured from.  Ever sat in a motionless train and, while watching another train moving slowly by you, actually sense yourself moving in the opposite direction?  This is why.  Like magic. it confuses your brain again.

Let’s get back to light.  Nineteenth century physicists showed that visible light was in fact an electromagnetic wave, or possibly some kind of particle like a baseball only infinitely tinier, and the speed of that wave was a well-measured 186,282 mps.  The natural question now?  With respect to what point of reference?  The answer is either:  either none, because all the laws of physics up to that point demonstrated that there are no privileged or special points of reference in the universe, that they are all equal; or, despite those laws (and, to their defense, a law of physics is so only because we humans to our meager abilities have been able to estimate it well enough to call it a law, so we can at least bend if not outright break it when needed) their was something called the universal aether, a fluid having no density, no color, no resistance to movement through it (viscosity), indeed no observable properties at all, which permeated all space and actually was stationary in some absolute sense.

A note of personal preference before I go on here.  Lots of books on relativity have lots of pictures of trains and trolleys and clocks and other pertinent things – only natural, as this is what got Einstein thinking about the issues raised here – but I won’t, because if I haven’t presented my concepts in a simple, straightforward enough manner, then I’ve already failed in the main aim of this book.  I assure you, it has nothing to do with my incompetence in drawing pictures  (OK, well it does some).

I’ve given you the two possibilities and, if I have been successful, you are probably up a creek paddleless trying to choose.  How can there be no point of reference for light’s speed; or, alternatively, there is a point, the aether, that has no physical properties that can be observed and measured?  You should be reeling a bit by this point, because by the late 19’th century almost all scientists were reeling trying to answer this seemingly impossible conundrum.  So you are in good company.

I’ve suggested that there are only two solutions to this problem, but, and in fair warning this is where things get strange (but still logical!), a third solution does present itself.  Oh, how I wish I could say I thought of it myself.  No, it took the genius of an Einstein to see what was so unobvious to the rest us.  The third solution is that light is in fact it’s own reference point, and all other speeds must pay homage to it.  It is light, electromagnetic radiation, to which we must bow to and follow it’s rules, however absurd they may seem to us.

Again, an aside before I move on.  The speed of light is so enormous that, compared to it, the differences between the ordinary speeds we encounter (and the 50,000+ mph of space probes and objects, as fast as they seem to us, are still way below light’s 670,000,000 mph, by a factor of ten thousand and more) are so insignificant to render the light speed problem moot.  This is why we never notice it in our lives, or ever imagine it in our minds.  It is certainly not part of our intuitive understanding of physics for it never had to be in our evolutionary history.

*          *          *

I apologize here, for I must lay down some equations for your edification.  They are not really complicated, not unless you’re going to go into full-fledged physics mode, which there is no need to do.  The first equation involves a quantity that you’ve probably heard of, momentum.  It is simply the mass of an object multiplied by its velocity (speed + direction, remember).  Prior to Einstein, and as still presented in all general physics courses today it is:


momentum( or p) = mass(or m) × velocity(or v)

p = mv

Equation I.

This is the equation Newton derived for what, essentially, he called inertia, and so derived the now famous Law of Conservation of Linear Momentum (quite similar to the one for Angular Momentum we’ve already encountered).  Newton derived it assuming that all velocities were relative to some point of reference, even light, although he had little idea what light was or how/how fast it travelled.  Science wasn’t developed well enough in his day, through no fault of his.

In Einstein’s new formulation, the equation of momentum must be modified from p = mv to:

p = gm0v

Equation II.



Where g or gamma (mathematics is all symbolized, even X + Y = Z, so don’t let this throw you), stands for:



Equation III.



The naught (0) on m indicates rest mass, which we’ll come to in a tick, and c means the speed of light.

Again, don’t let any of this get too heavy on you; you should have had all the symbolisms in high school, or can reference them easily.  Anyway, this factoring in of the square root (what ¯ means) of  1 – (v/c)2 to the momentum equation, which remember, applies to all objects, takes into account c (speed of light) being this supreme reference point in the universe we must all be subservient to.  Note something critical here: if v << c, as is the case with all velocities we normally encounter, then (v/c)2 goes to essentially zero, and g just as essentially goes to 1, meaning that gamma is just 1/1 or 1 and drops out of the equation, leaving us with our Newtonian original, except for that lingering naught on m which we’ve let to explain beyond calling it the rest mass. Is there such a thing as a different not at rest mass?

Yes there is, and a little examination of Equation III. should show why.  Imagine we make v very close to c, or even make it equal to c.  Then (v/c)2 becomes just 1, and as 1 - 1 = 0 the bottom half of g becomes infinite, meaning that p becomes infinite too!

Even as v gets closer and closer to c, p grows rapidly.  It is as though all the energy we are throwing into our object to make it go faster and faster end up only increasing its mass as the speed of light is approached.  If we could get to c the mass would be infinite in fact.

The only possible physical interpretation of this is that energy and mass are somehow equivalent, and dumping more of the former onto an object means it also has more of the latter.  The math for that is just hairy enough to excuse us from examining it but the bottom line is the equation we all know and love:  E = m0c2.  The naught after m is, as said, the object’s rest mass; multiplying it by the speed of light squared gives its equivalent in energy, and since c2 is a very large number you will see (as scientists in the 1930’s were beginning to see, the results being Hiroshima and Nagasaki), if you can make the conversation you will release a very large amount of energy indeed.

Other, equally strange phenomena crop up when we move close to the light speed.  Because all observers must find the same value for the this speed, regardless of their reference points, time and space become, well, malleable; it can be different with different observers.

Let’s go back to our baseball throwers in the rail car.  The big difference, instead of throwing baseballs back and forth and each other, each one now has  a laser pointer.  As soon as the light from one pointer reaches the corresponding “catcher”, he in turn flashes his collaborator with his own pointer.

This experiment, as described, may sound absurd.  The laser light travels so fast that it takes only 7.422×10-8 seconds, or 74 billionths of a second, for the light to exit the pointer and reach the other player, still fifty feet away.  Very well then; let’s makes this easier to visualize by making the rail car 186,282 miles long, so that it now takes our full second for the traverse time.  Never mind that this makes the experiment physically impossible (the rail car would stretch around our world over seven times!).  Experiments can, in many cases are, done in our minds; as long as we get the math right and imagine things correctly, this is a perfectly valid approach to the subject.  (Such experiments are called gedanken, a German word meaning literally ”done in thought”).

Do you have the picture in your head, though admittedly it is a bit  tougher this time?  Good.  Next: imagine yourself, as before, the measurer in the rail car, timing how long it takes the laser light to get from pointer to receiver, and back.  Naturally you find this number to be 186,282 mps, just the speed of light.  No surprises there.

Now place yourself on the station again.  You time the laser pulses again, just as you timed the baseball throw before from the platform.  Now, one, crucial, last part of the experiment to stitch into your mind’s eyes:  the rail car is also travelling 186,282 mps pass the station, in the same way as it was travelling 50 mph before.  So:  what do you expect to see?

With the baseballs, we obtained the answer that the speeds were either 50 + 50 = 100 mph for the back of car thrower, or 50 – 50 = 0 mph for the front of car, for now our reference point is the platform at the train station.  Speeds, velocities more precisely, are additive because they depend on the point of reference you are measuring them from.

Amazingly, the result is completely different for the laser pointers and the car travelling at the speed of light!  Recall my statement that the speed of light is its own reference.  This means that its speed is always the same, regardless of any other point of reference.  The platform observer, pocket watch in hand, finds that the laser pointers still fire their light beams at each other at c, just as the car observer does.  Indeed, every observer, wherever he is in space and time, obtains the same values.  There is no adding of speeds, at least not the way it was with baseballs.

If you are trying to make sense of this, and failing, I can tell you why.  You are making the common-sense assumption that space and time are the same for all viewers.  But that is incorrect.  It feels right only because all your experience comes from speeds much below c, and evolution by natural selection has been geared to that.  But our, rather simple, gedanken experiment has shown that both time and space are malleable, and depend on the observer’s state of motion.

Space and time are not flat and absolute.  Special relativity shows this beyond a doubt.  But if they are not flat and absolute, then – what are they?  It was to take Einstein ten more years to work that out, and so much of modern cosmology depends on what he discovered.  It is time to turn to there, the next state:  the general theory of relativity, published in 1916.

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Einstein was a person gifted with deep imagination and insight into nature.  He knew that if he tried to work out his ideas about light and space and time not only with static motion but with accelerated motion as well, he would probably never have succeeded at either.  So he started with static, meaning straight line, constant speed, motion, and in 1905 arrived at his special theory.  It’s special because it specifically excludes all motions which involve changes in speed or direction (collectively known as accelerations), and concentrates purely on static motion.  It was a maneuver which rewarded him with pure gold.  It showed that mass and energy were equivalent, that the speed of light was the ultimate speed in the universe, and perhaps most importantly, that time and space were not flat, abstract constructs, the same for everyone everywhere, but ebbed and flowed depending on different circumstances.  An enormous triumph, which earned him little notice at the time (he was still working at the same Swiss patent office well after publication), and which decidedly did not impress those who bequeathed Nobel Awards (though he did earn one some years later for a different line of work, which we’ll discuss in the next chapter).

Getting back to the theme of this section, special relativity was just that; a special case of relativity at work.  Einstein’s main goal was a general theory of relativity, one which included accelerated motion as well as static.  It was to take him another ten years to grind out the final, so-called field equations for relativity, equations I will not present here, fully confessing I don’t know enough math to do so.

We don’t need to understand that math (few do) to get a decent sense of what general relativity is about.  One of the things Einstein noticed when dealing with accelerated motion was the results were virtually indistinguishable from being in a gravitational field.  Here on Earth, as we would on all mass bodies in the universe, we feel ourselves being pulled downward by some unknown, almost magical force, which we call gravity.  And indeed, if the ground beneath our feet were to give way, we would fall, ever faster and faster, into the resulting abyss, until we were smashed to our deaths by whatever we finally landed on (if the opening goes deep enough, however, we will be incinerated by the heat of Earth’s depths and crushed by the overwhelming pressures first – this all assumes the fall is far enough, of course).

An aside to describe accelerated motion.  Our falling would occur under a force of one g (the gravitational force at Earth’s surface), meaning that we would plunge ever faster downward, at a rate of 32 feet per second per second, or 32fps2.  All this means is that, after the first second, we are travelling at 32 fps, after the second second 64 fps, after the third 96fps, and so on. (All this ignores air friction, which counteracts the acceleration and limits us to 200-300 fps final speed, depending on our orientation.)  Acceleration means a change in velocity, faster or slower (or in a different direction) over time.

All sorts of phenomena call cause accelerated motion.  Take, as I believe Einstein did, an elevator.  If you were sealed inside a windowless elevator somewhere out in deep interstellar space, you would be weightless and float freely all about the car.  Now imagine that some unknown being of prodigious powers attaches a rope to the top of the elevator car, and starts pulling it upward with a force of one g (32fps2, remember).  I think you intuitively sense that you would be slammed onto the floor of the car, and you would be right – though be careful about intuitions!  I ask you a question:  now that you are standing on a floor with a 32fps2 acceleration force trying to pull you downward, what is the difference between this situation and being in an elevator on Earth, at a stopped floor level?  Remember there are no windows, nothing to tell you what is going on outside the elevator except this force pulling you down.

If I tell you basically nothing, you are probably not surprised.  After all, we have all been in elevators, and felt the lurch in our stomachs, and the temporary lightness or heaviness in our bodies as we moved up or down in the car (try this at the Empire State Building or another monster skyscraper  with express elevators if you really want to feel this effect).  The sensation of falling if an elevator plunges down rapidly can be quite unnerving, rather like being on a roller coaster.  I still have dreams about it, once in a while.

So our super being accelerating us at 32fps2 “upwards” (there is no such thing as direction in deep space, remember) feels exactly the same as being on an elevator on Earth, stopped at a specific floor.  The being could even lurch us “upward” at more or less than one g if it really wanted to mimic the effects of the ground-based car.  The point being, you simply could not tell the difference.

Here’s where an Einstein mind works on a different plane than our own.  He made the deduction that, the scenario described above being true, there was no difference, according to the laws of physics, between them.  They are in essence one and the same phenomena.  Like me, I suspect you’ll have to put this book down at this point and chew on this idea.  If there is no difference in the perception of two or more experiences, than physics tells us they are intimately linked by some thread; essentially, they are the same thing.  This most certainly does violate our intuitions, which accounts for the warning I gave before.

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But what is the thread connecting the two?  Einstein finally realized that space and time, and their malleability, had to be brought into the situation to make that thread.  But another, hopefully short, aside on another needed prerequisite is needed here to show how.  You have probably heard of the concept called entropy, though you might (and should be) puzzled as to its exact meaning.  We won’t get into that here, except to say that one meaning is that physical systems are inexorably (actually, probabilistically) drawn to their lowest energy states.  An example is the falling we’ve been talking about; think about the energy, derived from its load of jet fuel, it takes to keep an airliner miles above the ground, or the far greater amount of rocket fuel it takes to put an astronaut on the moon or a robot about the planet Saturn.  Falling things lose energy, which, according to the laws of entropy, is exactly what they should and must do, unless something stops them, like the floor of an elevator car.

The elevator, whether on Earth or in deep space, is providing energy to keep its occupants out of a state of free fall, i.e., what they’d be doing without the forces acting on them, floating about in a zero gravity (g) field.  In both cases we are dealing with acceleration, even for an elevator stationary on Earth’s surface.  What could account for such a curious conundrum?

Space and time.  Spacetime.  Special relativity had indicated that the two were indivisibly connected, and the fertile mind of the Swiss patent clerk finally become modest physics professor worked instinctively along these lines.  If spacetime were a flexible, or curvable, concept that changed as an observer’s reference point changed, then maybe it was more that that:  if was a real thing, and not only real but highly variable depending on perhaps many conditions.  One of those conditions, he realized, was the presence of mass.  He realized that mass objects somehow distorted spacetime, in a way that caused other objects to be attracted toward them.  Using this insight, he finally solved the problem of the cause of gravity, which Newton knew better than to destroy his reputation on solving two hundred years earlier.

To explain how spacetime operates under general relativity I could reproduce a fairly standard picture, chances are you’ve seen, which appears to illustrate it:


Figure IV.


      The grid represents the “curvature” of spacetime about the massive body of the planet Earth.  Although it gives a good feeling for what is going on – you can easily picture objects approaching Earth being drawn in by the curvature of spacetime (the white grid), but the picture works only because Earth is at the bottom of a deep well and we intuitively know that objects near a well will be drawn into it.  What I am objecting to in this picture as that it assumes what it is supposed to be explaining.  It’s not a bad start but it must not be an end to the explanation.  The reader wants to know what is really happening.

If instead of falling downwards the gridlines (representing spacetime, remember) get closer together as they approach Earth, then I believe we have a better picture of why objects fall toward other objects.  Objects cause spacetime to compress, rather than to indent; a very small compression for objects the size of Earth, larger for the size of the sun, and quite large for nasty things like neutron stars and black holes, which compress them into singularities, a place which we won’t cover here.

Recall entropy.  Objects “prefer” to be at the most compressed regions of spacetime because they can lose energy that way and obtain entropy by this particular meaning.  That’s why they’re attracted toward each other, and will either fall into each other or orbit each other, the latter until loss of energy results in an eventual (trillions of years and more for the Earth-sun system, so don’t worry) collision.

If spacetime can curve in one way, it can – at least in theory – curve many ways – and many of the solutions to Einstein’s field equations describe the entire universe as being “closed” (spherically even) or “open”, or “saddle-backed” or plain old flat.  New solutions crop up once every few years or decades, describing how the universe must be or how it will evolve in time, or what phenomena (like black holes) it might reveal.  There is also a “standard” solution, which itself gets itself upgraded once in a while, as the result of new astronomical observations (e.g., that the universe is not only expanding but expanding more and more so, due to something called “dark energy”) and other considerations. .

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I am going to stop here, because if you have been following me reasonably well, then I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do in this chapter.  I wanted to describe for you a field of physics which, although it violates all our common-sense notions about how things behave and why, was within your grasp to at least get a good feel for.  Don’t worry about all the sundry details I’ve left out (though if this has left you hungering for a deeper understanding of relativity, all power to you!); I just wanted to give you a taste for how strange and wonderful reality can be when we drag ourselves away from our evolutionary-derived intuitions.  Again, if I’ve succeeded, than we are ready to talk about what I’ve been setting forth to cover, some chemistry and biology that should be within your understanding as well.  This is where we start on a very new road from the physics of Einstein, to the physics (and chemistry) of the quantum, a field many great minds have contributed to and to which, I think, no one can be designated the creator of.  On to quantum cats.