>> Thursday, January 30, 2014
Joel Klebenoff has an amusing little blog called Stuff and Nonsense I never miss when I'm actually paying attention to blogging. His last post was right up my alley, discussing some of his favorite imponderables and the headaches he got as a result when he tried to wrap his mind around them. I really enjoyed it (I usually do).
I also liked my comment on it so much I'm reproducing much of it here because, although I think science is important and used every day, that doesn't mean every aspect is really useful or even necessary to waste brain cells on every day. (Note, comment will likely make more sense if you read the post linked previously first - Just sayin')
So, here's something on your imponderables.
The key element to wrapping your mind around infinities is, well, you can't because there's nothing we can compare in our lives that is infinite. Even air and water have boundaries. In addition to that, infinities, while endless, come in different sizes. There are an infinite number of even positive whole numbers There are twice as many positive whole numbers (since we're including the infinite set of odd numbers). There are twice as many whole numbers (positive and negative) than just the positive numbers. Since there are an infinite number of REAL numbers between 0 and 1, that argues that are an infinity squared number of real numbers since there's an infinity between each whole number.
If your head exploded, here's a towel. You might want to mop that up.
The thing is it doesn't matter. The infinity of numbers is only of interest to theoretic math geeks who like to ponder that stuff for entertainment - it doesn't serve much practical purpose except screwing up the occasional computer program (as in asking a computer to calculate something infinite and locking out all other functions while it tries - there are ways around it but it used to be fairly common).
Pondering the size of the universe - that, too, isn't really important except to astronomers and astrophysicists who live for crap like that and have bets going on who can find the coolest shit the furthest out. No one REALLY knows if it's infinite. If there were nothing beyond the limits that we can see, how would we know? And, given that we haven't even been back to the moon in thirty years, I don't think we'll be setting forth for the bounds of the universe any time soon. Would it be cool to know what the extents of the universe are, to know how all this began, what other planets and sun and celestial bodies are out there? Sure, but it isn't likely to make much dent in most people's lives, not likely to change how they go about life or even the electronic toys they play with.
As for the multiverse hypotheses, well, there are certainly reputable scientists that espouse the multiverse concept, but plenty of others that think it's nonsense. The problem isn't lack of intelligence but lack of data and a whole field of physics (quantum physics) that doesn't follow our understanding of classical physics in behavior. Given the tiny masses and speeds and whatnot of quantum particles, getting a bead on what they're actually doing and why is a Sisyphusian task (yes, I made that word up). Heisenberg even codified the limits of how much we could know about a particle (and what we lost by knowing it). We've done enough quantum work to make some practical use of it (bombs, reactors, X-rays, etc), but why it does what it does differently than regular mass is still a head-scratcher.
String theory, the multiverse theory, a few others, are all intended to bring quantum physics back into the fold of crap we understand, usually by way of math that no one, possibly the people writing it, understand. And none of it is going to be remotely practical until such time as we have some data we can use to determine which theory, if any, is correct and some practical purpose to use it for. Because, right now, we don't. It's important to realize that science was and is not just limited by intellect, but, more importantly, by the data available. Great minds came up with flawed theories based on misleading or inaccurate data (Aristotle). As our observation and measurement methods improved, we could refine, refute and build new theories and science progressed. Quantum physics is severely limited right now because we are trying to understand particles we can't directly observe going at speeds we didn't think were possible. And we don't know what that means. We have guesses, but they're speculation more than theories.
And that brings us to special relativity, some of which we've been able to verify and some not so much, but it's also based on the notion that nothing goes faster than the speed of light, which we take as a given because we've never seen anything go faster than the speed of light. But then, you wouldn't, would you? It's an interesting theory with some aspects demonstrably true but I'm skeptical of any aspect you can't back with hard data. And some aspects of the theory we can't back with hard data but just the lack of contradictory data, which ain't the same thing.
But, again, none of that matters in the practical day to day. We have no practical method for going anywhere near the speed of light and it doesn't have much use for most of us in our daily lives.
(If you want to see a demonstration by use in fiction that might help you wrap your mind around the theory, I suggest "Double Star" by Robert Heinlein.)
Note that, just because some science is quite esoteric doesn't mean science has no use. Most of us take advantage of several centuries of science and advancements every day. And science continues to help, from warning of unusual weather patterns (that can either be taken with deadly seriousness or scoffed at by politicos) to providing health benefits unheard of even a hundred years ago.
As for going off to find imponderables to trouble my sleep, don't need it. I have children and, believe me, they're imponderable enough.