Just for grins, here's some poop on science and why some of it doesn't matter.

>> 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.


  • Roy

    Nope, all that stuff is way over my head, so I don't even think about contemplating it. When faced with imponderables, I think of C.G. Jung's statement in his forward to Richard Wilhelm's translation of the I Ching: "The less one thinks about the theory of the I Ching, the more soundly one sleeps."

  • Stephanie Barr

    And that's totally cool. There's plenty of stuff we need to address day to day. No sense driving ourselves nuts for no reason unless one finds it entertaining.

  • Anonymous

    Even if the 'data' are abundant, it means little if collection and comprehension are deficient.  A billion variants of color mean nothing to a blind person.  Our human senses are pathetically limited and the machines we build to capture data, though potentially better, are still limited by their design, programming, operation (which are all to some extent limited by the humans creating the machines).

    Maybe there's some really cool stuff going on and we'll never be able to know it.  A thousand years ago, we had no concept of microorganisms, let alone the role they played in disease, etc.  People made up all sorts of theories, often religious, to explain life's issues.  Here there be dragons.

    I doubt it's much different today.  We've progressed but just enough to know there's likely so much more we don't know and may never understand.  Could be there are "ghosts" or "angels" surrounding us that are really intergalactic time travelers watching our primitive development as a science experiment?  Sometimes intervening (for science or entertainment)? Our ability to imagine, to fill in the void of potentially harmful ignorance, is important to survival instincts and our mental health.  And it can be entertaining.

    We'll keep plugging away at the vast mountain of ignorance but may never see what's on the other side.  It is what it is.  And I'm totally cool with that.  I used to be quite the intellectual, fascinated by such queries.  As I age, I find more and more that I'm satisfied just looking for simple pleasures, the jars of honey all around us.  Oh, bother.

    Mike H.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I agree, Mike H. Those limitations, and overcoming them with new breakthroughs, new ways and means of measuring, etc. are a large portion of how science progresses. Anyone who thinks we're running out of knowledge to be discovered is desperately underinformed.

    And that's what's so cool about it.

  • Relax Max

    An electric car, though small, is still mostly impractical due to it's limited range, which in turn is caused mostly by it's heavy battery. I think. If the battery were instead put on a small trailer pulled behind the car, would the energy needed be less, more, or the same as carrying the battery in the back of the car? I mean, would the car be able to travel farther, less far, or the same distance? I suppose this is a question about carrying vs towing something. I know I would rather pull a heavy load behind me in a wagon rather than carry it on my shoulder. But I am not a machine, so that's probably not relevant. Assume the battery weighs 227.296185 Kg. and the ultra lightweight trailer weighs 1,470,000 grains. What else would one need to know in order to compute the difference in energy to carry vs energy to tow? Dunno.

    Did you know Tesla is currently installing a network of charging stations across the country? One on the outskirts of the town I live in. I think they are assuming 150 miles between charger stations. I may be wrong. Maybe it can go farther.

    Ok, this isn't really a question about mind-boggling large numbers. Unless you are counting the electrons used. Or unless you convert the distance traveled to links.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Relax Max, they say it's impractical because you can't go 400 miles on a single charge. Which makes it impractical for like 8.2% of us 95% of the time (since most of us travel less than 50 miles a day most days). If you don't have a job or situation where you fill you tank up daily or every other day, you're probably fine. Telsa has a range of 200-310 mi depending on which battery you have (and whose stats you want to believe). Ikea has charging stations at the parking lot and dedicated spots for electric cars, even here in oil central. [It should be noted that the people who leased electric cars when they were available begged and pleaded to be able to keep them (yes, paying for them) when the lease was up but were not allowed. Just sayin') But I digress.

    From a physics sense, moving an object, even a heavy object, along without changing height. Of course, from a practicality standpoint, of course, that's not true. But the question you're asking isn't easy to answer. Friction on the road is an issue with loading (mass requires energy to accelerate and decelerate) and it doesn't in theory matter if it's dragging behind or in the car (Practically speaking center of gravity can have an effect, it's likely small with all the other factors here). But friction also HELPS you by letting your tires grip the road and propel you forward. NO friction, no forward movement.

    You also change your handling characteristics having the weight behind, probably for the worse. You've changed a single body kinematics problem into a two body problem with at least on degree of freedom, drastically increasing the complexity of control. If you're experienced in this, you might have no issues, but others of us would find it irksome, especially in the freak winter storms. (Extra mass in the car also to help you grip the road, especially when it's icy or wet). Plus, the trailer will add appreciably to air resistance changing what is likely an aerodynamic vehicle into something with all the air resistance of a pickup (which tends to terrible for wind resistance).

    Part of the problem is that many of the batteries they first wanted to use were still lead acid and heavy as hell. Lithium ion are lighter and have much better power density but the big powerful ones tend to have issues when charging and exploding lithium ion batteries are like having a bomb in the car. Clever circuitry can help with that, but it's a non-trivial exercise to build big safe LiION batteries. Silver zinc and nickel metal hydride don't have the same energy density and have been reliably recharged, but often have either limits on the number of reliable recharges, limited shelf life and other issues like corrosion. And many are mind-bogglingly expensive (here in the Rocket Science business, batteries are a huge deal).

    Wait, what was the question?

  • Relax Max


    I'll take that as a "not enough difference to matter" answer.

    Speaking of friction, did you know that's why railroad tracks and wheels are made of steel? Well, one of the reasons anyway.

    I suppose you did...

  • Stephanie Barr

    I don't know that I "knew" that though I wouldn't be surprised.

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