On hubris and climate change.

On hubris and climate change.

Recently, a local science teacher sent me an essay written by a climate change skeptic.

Well, okay. I figured that I could skim the essay, look over the data, and briefly explain what the author’s errors were. After all, it’s really important to help teachers understand this topic, because they’re training our next generation of citizens.

And I thought to myself, how hard can this be? After all, I’m a scientist. I felt unconcerned that I’ve never read research papers about climate science before, and that it’s been years since I’ve worked through the sort of differential equations you need for even basic fluid mechanics calculations, and that I’ve never run any simulations on oceanic heat transfer or glacier melting.


Since then, I’ve read a fair bit about climate science. I’ll be honest: I didn’t go through the math. All I did was read the papers and look over the processed data.

This is lazy, I know. I’m sorry. But my kids are at home. At the moment, this is the best I’ve got.


Prominent climate change skeptic Richard Lindzen, an emeritus professor of meteorology, recently delivered a lecture to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I wholeheartedly agreed with Lindzen when he stressed that the science behind climate change is really, really complicated.

Former senator and Secretary of State John F. Kerry is typical when he stated, with reference to greenhouse warming, ‘I know sometimes I can remember from when I was in high school and college, some aspects of chemistry or physics can be tough. But this is not tough. This is simple. Kids at the earliest age can understand this.’

As you have seen, the greenhouse effect is not all that simple. Only remarkably brilliant kids would understand it. Given Kerry’s subsequent description of climate and its underlying physics, it was clear that he was not up to the task.


Climate science is tricky. In a moment, I’ll try to explain why it’s so tricky.

When people make predictions about what’s going to happen if the average global temperature rises by half a degree – or one degree, or two – their predictions are probably incorrect.

My assumption that I could skim through somebody’s essay and breezily explain away the errors was incredibly arrogant. I was a fool, I tell you! A fool!

But my arrogance pales in comparison to the hubris of climate change skeptics. Once I started learning about climate science, I realized how maddeningly difficult it is.

Lindzen, who should know better, has instead made brash claims:

So there you have it. An implausible conjecture backed by false evidence and repeated incessantly has become politically correct ‘knowledge,’ and is used to promote the overturn of industrial civilization. What we will be leaving our grandchildren is not a planet damaged by industrial progress, but a record of unfathomable silliness as well as a landscape degraded by rusting wind farms and decaying solar panel arrays.

There is at least one positive aspect to the present situation. None of the proposed policies will have much impact on greenhouse gases. Thus we will continue to benefit from the one thing that can be clearly attributed to elevated carbon dioxide: namely, its effective role as a plant fertilizer, and reducer of the drought vulnerability of plants.

Meanwhile, the IPCC is claiming that we need to prevent another 0.5ºC of warming, although the 1ºC that has occurred so far has been accompanied by the greatest increase in human welfare in history.


So. What aspects of climate science can we understand, and what’s too hard?

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Our planet gets energy from the sun. The sun is a giant ball of thermonuclear fire, spewing electromagnetic radiation. When these photons reach Earth, they’re relatively high energy – with wavelengths mostly in the visible spectrum – and they’re all traveling in the same direction.

What we do – “we” here referring to all the inhabitants of our planet, including the rocks and plants and other animals and us – is absorb a small number of well-organized, high-energy photons, and then release a larger number of ill-organized, low-energy photons. This is favorable according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. We’re making chaos.

And here’s the greenhouse effect: if the high-energy photons from the sun can pass through our atmosphere, but then the low-energy photons that we release get absorbed, we (as a planet) will retain more of the sun’s energy. Our planet heats up.


And, in defense of former senator John Kerry, this is something that a kid can understand. My children are four and six, and this summer we’re going to build a solar oven out of a pane of glass and a cardboard box. (After all, we need stuff to do while all the camps are closed.)

If we fill our air with more carbon dioxide, which lets the sun’s high-energy photons in but then won’t let our low-energy photons out, the planet should heat up, right? What’s the hard part?

Well, the problem – the reason why climate science is too difficult for humans to predict, even with the most powerful computers at our command – is that there are many feedback loops involved.

Some of these are “negative feedback loops” – although atmospheric carbon dioxide causes us to absorb more energy from the sun, various mechanisms can buffer us from a rise in temperature. For example, warm air can hold more water vapor, leading to more cloud formation, which will reflect more sunlight back into space. If the sun’s high-energy photons can’t reach us, the warming stops.

And some are “positive feedback loops” – as we absorb extra energy from the sun, which causes the planet to heat up a little, various mechanisms can cause us to absorb even more energy in the future, and then the planet will heat up a lot. This may be what happened on Venus. The planet Venus may have been habitable, a long long time ago, but then runaway climate change led to the formation of a thick layer of smog, and now it’s broiling, with sulfuric acid drizzling from the sky.

On Earth, an example of a positive feedback loop would be the melting of polar ice caps. As polar ice melts, it reflects less light, so our planet absorbs more of the sun’s energy. Heat made the ice melt in the first place, but then, once the ice has melted, we heat up even more.

And it turns out that there are a huge number of different positive and negative feedback loops. After all, our planet is really big!

For instance, the essay I was sent included graphs of ice core data suggesting that, in the ancient past, changes in average global temperatures may have preceded changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Frank Brown Cloud holding demo ice core.
Holding a demo ice core like my spouse uses in her classroom. The real ones drilled from glaciers are several miles long! I haven’t spent enough time at the gym to lift those.

But this is just another feedback loop. In the past, there was no mechanism for carbon dioxide to pour into our atmosphere before temperatures rose – dinosaurs didn’t invent internal combustion engines. This is the first time on Earth when carbon dioxide levels could rise before temperatures, and we don’t know yet what the effect will be.

Extra carbon dioxide will probably cause an increase in temperature, but a planet’s climate is really complicated. We have huge quantities of poorly mixed water (otherwise known as oceans). Our topography is jagged, interspersed with valleys and mountains. There are huge forests (only some of which are on fire). The air is turbulent.

We might find that temperatures are buffered more than we thought. The ocean might act like a giant heat sink.

Or then again, the ocean might warm up, accelerate polar ice loss by lapping at the undersides of glaciers, and magnify the changes.

The mathematics underlying fluid mechanics and heat transfer within an enormous, inhomogeneous system are so complex that it’s almost impossible to say. Nobody knows how much detail you’d need to put into a simulation to get accurate results – all we know for sure is that we can’t simulate the world with as much detail as actually exists. All our models are approximations. Some of them contradict each other.

With my admittedly limited understanding, I don’t think anybody knows enough to assert with confidence whether our climate will exhibit either buffered or switch-like behavior. Maybe we can muck about without hurting much. Or we might bring about our own doom with a tiny mistake.


Our planet’s climate is so complex that you could make a similar argument – we really don’t know whether we’re going to be buffered from future changes, or whether we’re at the precipice of doom – no matter what evidence we obtain.

Maybe sea levels start rising – well, perhaps that will somehow reduce the further heating of our planet. Maybe we get more horrible tropical storms – well, perhaps they’re linked to a greater density of sunlight-reflecting clouds.

Maybe things seem to be changing fast for a little while, but then we enter another stable state.

Or, insidiously, maybe it will seem like we’re in a well-buffered system – pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere without seeing much harm – until, suddenly, we tip over the edge. We often see that sort of behavior from positive feedback loops. Nothing seems to happen, for a while, then everything changes at once. That’s how cooperative binding of oxygen to hemoglobin works in your body.

Another problem is that climate change will probably happen on a very different rhythm from our lives. Weather happens on timescales that we can understand. A decade of droughts. Two years of tropical storms. A few hard winters, or hot summers. But climate happens over hundreds or thousands of years. Most of the time, it changes more slowly than we’d notice.

A two degree shift in average global temperatures, spread out over a few decades? That’s bad, but it’s boring. Which was the main focus of Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather.

History not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become history. With regard to the fate of our planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound problem. As the marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”

Climate science doesn’t fit our culture. Especially not now, when the pressures of surveillance capitalism have forced even the New York Times to run like an advertising company. They earn more from news that gets clicks. Stories need to be sensational. Yes, they run stories about climate change. For these, the polar bears need to be dying, now, and there needs to be an evil villain like Exon lurking in the shadows.

Nobody wants to click on a story explaining that we, collectively, have made and are making a whole lot of small shabby decisions that will cause grizzly bears and polar bears to re-mix and de-speciate.

I got bored even typing that sentence.


Life is incredibly robust.

Our planet has swung through many extremes of temperature. At times, it’s been much hotter than it is now. At times, it was much colder. And life has marched on.

The human species is much less robust than life itself, though. Our kind has flourished for only a brief twinkling of time, during which our climate has been quite stable and mild. A small change could drive us to extinction. An even smaller change could cause our nations to collapse.

Disrupt our food supply – which could happen with just a few years of bad weather, let alone climate change – and there will be war.


So. I tried to learn about climate change, focusing on the work of skeptics. And in the end, I partly agreed with the skeptics:

I agree that climate science is too complicated for anyone to understand.

I appreciate that people are trying. I had fun learning about ice cores, atmospheric modeling, energy absorption, and the like. Well, sometimes I was having fun. I also gave myself several headaches along the way. But also, my kids were being wild. They’ve been home from school for three months now! I was probably on the precipice of headaches before I even began.

Here’s where I disagree with the skeptics, though: given that climate science is too complicated for us to understand – and given that we know that small changes in average temperature can make the world a much worse place to live – why would be blithely continue to perturb our climate in an unprecedented way?

Maybe things will be fine. Yay buffers! Or maybe we’ll reduce the carrying capacity of the planet Earth from a few billion humans to a few million, dooming most of our kind.

I know, I know – eventually our universe will dwindle into heat death, so our species is terminal anyway. We will go extinct. It’s guaranteed.

I still think it would be neat if our great-great-grandchilden were out there among the stars. At least for a little while.

Or even, if they stay here on Earth, it’s nice to imagine them living on a comfortable planet with lots of beautiful trees, and interesting animals to see.


Also, I’m biased.

After all, what are the things that you’re supposed to do if you want to reduce your carbon emissions?

Eat fewer animal products. Live in a smaller home. Drive less. Fly less. Buy less stuff.

Those are all things that I’d recommend to most Americans, for ethical and philosophical reasons, even if we weren’t concerned about climate change. So for me, personally, I don’t need to see much proof that we’ll ruin our climate unless we do these things. I think we should be doing them anyway.

Instead, I think the burden of proof should fall to the people hawking Big Macs. I’d want them to show that a world full of CAFO-raised cows won’t cause climate change, won’t propagate antibiotic resistant bacteria, won’t condemn billions of conscious beings to a torturous existence.

The world is complex. We’re going to err.

I’d rather err on the side of kindness.

On bias.

On bias.

At the beginning of our poetry class, back when the county jail was still admitting volunteers, two men read some poems they’d written together. 

The first was a love poem – the gist was that any relationship that could survive a partner’s incarceration could probably survive anything. 

The second was a poem about living in a trailer park:

If you’re looking for drugs – not just grass –

Depends where you look, you’ll pro’lly find glass

Pitbulls in the back

Nine times outta ten you’re already in a trap

As it happens, I already knew that one of the authors had a pack of five chihuahuas that road around town in his backpack.  After they finished reading, I mentioned the dogs.

The other guy answered: “Well, yeah, he has those chihuahuas, but I’ve got two pitpulls.”

After we finished talking about their poems, they had a question for me:

“Hey, so you’re a scientist, right?  Cause I heard there’s like this planet where diamonds rain from the sky.  Do you know anything about that?”

I said it sounded ridiculous.  I was imagining walking through a field and suddenly getting hit on the head by a diamond.  Like a really hard hailstone.

Whenever hail falls, my children dart outside to eat ice.  But a fallen diamond would break your teeth.  Doesn’t melt in your mouth or your hand!

During class, we spent a while talking about how diamonds form.  Under extremely high pressure, the hydrogen atoms in an organic molecule can be displaced by carbon-carbon bonds.  There are a few different shapes that work for a molecule made entirely of carbon.  You can have all the atoms in a flat sheet, which we call graphite.  The atoms can form spheres, which we can buckeyballs.  A length of graphite can wrap between the two round caps of a buckeyball.  Or you can have the atoms in a tetrahedral lattice – a diamond.

If you squeeze carbon atoms under really high pressure, you can turn any of the other shapes into diamonds.  Diamonds are the most stable form.  You can make diamonds just by compressing natural gas.

“This pencil, the part it writes with is graphite,” I said.  “If you were strong enough, you could squeeze it until it was a diamond.  But I don’t think they’d fall like rain.”


I was wrong.  I was biased about what planets should look like – I live on a small, rocky ball with a thin atmosphere, very different from the gas giants that broil like miniature stars – and biased, unfortunately, against the people who wind up in jail.  I study chemistry, I big expert!

Obviously, there are many occasions when the other people in class know things that I do not.  About poetry, chemistry, and physics.


Since 1981, computer models have shown that the extreme heat and pressure deep inside Neptune was likely to create diamonds.  If I’d ever taken an astronomy course – or had borrowed library books about our solar system when I was growing up, instead of reading the same book about Godzilla movies over and over – I could have known this, too.

The sky on Neptune is very different from the sky on Earth.  Our air hugs us with a pressure of about fifteen pounds per square inch.  Deep inside the clouds of Neptune, though, the air would squeeze you six million times tighter.  Needless to say, you’d be crushed.  Parts of you might compress into diamond. 

Temperature is a measure of how fast molecules are moving.  Hot air bumps into you more often than cold air, and each collision is a little harder.

Deep in the clouds of Neptune, the gravity is so strong that air molecules accelerate dangerously fast between every collision.  This means the air is really, really hot – thousands of degrees.  Any parts of you that weren’t being compressed into diamond would melt, or wisp away into the broiling clouds.

The high temperature means there’s plenty of energy available for chemical reactions, so molecules can adopt their most stable configurations even if there is a high “activation barrier.” 

An activation barrier is like a wall that separates a thing from what it wants.  Maybe you’d like to eat breakfast but dread the thought of leaving your warm bed – that’s an activation barrier, too.  We could make the activation barrier lower by yanking your blankets off, which makes your current circumstance worse.  Or we could increase your odds of overcoming the activation barrier by pumping you full of caffeine.  With more jittery energy, maybe you’d get up on your own. 

The second strategy – caffeine! – is roughly what happens when you raise the temperature of a chemical reaction.  Carbon is very stable once it becomes a diamond, but it’s difficult for methane to slough off the warm security of all those bonds to hydrogen atoms.

After methane on Neptune is compressed to form a diamond, the diamond will fall.  A diamond is more dense than the air around it.  But the diamond won’t hit the ground like hail, because there’s no ground beneath the hot dense sky of Neptune.  Instead the rocky core seems to be covered by a superheated ocean – well above its boiling point, but still not evaporating because the liquid is kept in place by dense clouds.  Roughly the same way an Instant Pot uses high pressure to cook food in superheated water.

When the diamonds splash into this ocean, they melt.


In class that day, I hadn’t yet researched Neptune’s atmosphere. I was mostly scribbling crude schematics of crystal structures. I explained how to read a phase diagram.  We talked about diamond mining and the technology used to create synthetics.

I claimed, incorrectly, that diamonds weren’t likely to fall from the sky.

One of the guys shook his head.

“I mean, yeah, that sounds all smart and all, but I swear I heard this thing about diamond rain.  Can you look it up before next week?”

The guys in jail can pay to use iPads – at a rate of five or ten cents per minute – but they have very limited access to the Internet.  There’s one un-blocked application with some scientific lectures, but that’s very different from being allowed to learn what you want.

So I agreed.  It sounded ridiculous to me, but I jotted “SKY DIAMONDS?” and promised to do some research.


The next week, I was ready to deliver my big mea culpa.  But when I got there, we were missing one of the guys who’d been invested in our discussion.  I asked about him.

“Yeah, he’s not coming back,” said the guy sitting next to me.  “Somebody said he was a cho-mo.”

“Oh,” I said, grimacing.  “He went to seg?”

“Yeah,” said the guy, nodding. We left unsaid that this man probably got the shit kicked out of him first.  If somebody convincingly claims that you’re locked up on a child molestation case, bad things happen.  In prison, you might get murdered by a gang looking to bolster their reputation – because child molesters have such a toxic reputation, there are less likely to be reprisals.  And even a county jail can be a violent place.

After the first fight, the guy who got beaten up will usually choose to go to seg.  Segregation, or solitary confinement, is known to cause permanent brain damage – people suffer from depression, anxiety, and hallucinations.  But staying in a cell block with thirty people who want to kick the shit out of you is likely to lead to brain damage, too.

Solitary confinement might be the less bad of two terrible options.

Despite his bias, the guy I was talking to offered a little sympathy.

“It’s rough,” he said.  “But them’s the politics of the place.”

On the Golden Record.

On the Golden Record.

I have yet to master the art of pillow talk.  The other night, after my spouse and I turned off our bedside reading lights — at a time when a more reasonable soul might murmur a sultry something or whisper sweet dreams — I said:

“The Golden Record was a terrible idea!”

Apropos of nothing!  Seriously, what is wrong with my brain?

Luckily, instead of sighing, or pretending to be asleep (as a normal person might have done), my spouse continued the conversation.

“What, Carl Sagan’s?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s terrible.”

“Well, nobody’s going to find it, but that’s not really the point.”

My spouse was alluding to the fact that our universe is really, really big.  We launched the Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1972, and it has traveled something like 13 billion miles since then.

13 billion miles sounds pretty impressive!  But miles are not very practical units for describing outer space.  13 billion miles is the same distance as 0.002 light years.  Our galaxy is a flat disc of stars, approximately 1,000 light years  thick and 100,000 light years across.  Compared to those distances, the Golden Record may as well still be here on Earth.

And it’s not as though finding the Golden Record would be the easiest way for an extraterrestrial intelligence to learn of our existence.  The Golden Record is traveling slowly and is trapped inside a small spacecraft.  Our television and radio broadcasts move much faster, and they’ve been radiating in a ever-growing sphere for decades.

Still, I argued.

“They probably won’t find it, but isn’t it a bad idea to send a message that you are hoping won’t be found?  Either no one sees it, and so it’s a waste, or else they do find it, and that’s worse, because then we’re doomed … “


“Right?  I mean, maybe it’s silly to extrapolate from human history to predict what an alien species might do.  But in human history … in prehistory, even … it seems like every time a voyaging people found a stationary culture, it ended in disaster for the people who weren’t traveling.”

“Every time?”

Homo sapiens traveled north and found the Neanderthal.  The Neanderthal died.  We traveled east and found the Denisovians.  Denisovians died.  Chinese people displaced the native Taiwanese, Europeans wrecked havoc all through North and South America.”

Given that it was bedtime, and all our lights were off, I definitely shouldn’t have been raising my voice. 

“About the only example I can think of where the voyagers were eventually driven away was the Vikings in Greenland.  Inuits lived there before, during, and after some twenty generations of Viking occupation.  But, really, the Inuits won through luck.  The Vikings pretty much refused to eat fish.  Hmm, we’re big strong Vikings, we eat sheep!  Well, Greenland’s not for grazing, so the sheep all died, and then the Vikings starved.  Not that they had to.  They could’ve switched to eating fish, just like their neighbors.  But they were too proud.  And then dead.”

My bedtime tirade wasn’t an accurate description of the Inuit diet – a lot of their calories came from seals and whales, which are generally considered less palatable than fish, and also rather more difficult to catch.

In recent years, some archaeologists have begun to argue that it wasn’t the Vikings’ fault that they all died.  I’m sure it’s sheer coincidence that many of these contemporary Viking apologists are of vaguely Norse descent.  Their theory is the Greenland Vikings had a stable civilization but were doomed by climate change. A huge volcano erupted half the world away — the whole planet cooled. Life was miserable for everyone. Greenland’s Vikings were abandoned by the mainland, which meant they lost their major trading partner. 

These archaeologists claim that small farmers switched their diet early on, and that only the wealthiest of Greenland’s Vikings continued to raise cows and sheep until the end.

In any case, the Vikings died.  Their conquest failed.  But other times, voyagers brought devastation to stationary cultures.

The movie Independence Day had it wrong.  The encounter wouldn’t have ended with Homo sapiens celebrating.  If an extraterrestrial species was so technologically advanced that they could reach our planet, they would simply extract whatever resources they needed before moving along to harvest yet another insufficiently advanced world.

We should expect extraterrestrials to show the same forbearance toward us that a chimpanzee shows toward ants – chimpanzees are more clever than ants, and chimps use sticks to dig up anthills for food.  Homo sapiens are more clever than chimpanzees, and we’ve harried chimps to extinction, cutting down their forests because we wanted wood.

An extraterrestrial species that was able to travel to our planet within a single individual’s lifetime would be more clever than us, and if they needed to extract something from our world, we’d be powerless to stop them.

“But the Golden Record was never really about aliens,” my spouse said.  “It was about us.  Whether we would change, if we knew we might have guests.”

That makes sense – given that my spouse and I are always exhausted, our home fluctuates between live-ably messy and an absolute disaster depending on how long it’s been since we’ve had grown-up friends over. 

“If the goal is togetherness, though,” I said, “aren’t there better ways?  Especially since a lot of people don’t even know about the Golden Record.”

“I still teach about it!”

“Yeah, but I mentioned the Golden Record in jail, and nobody knew what I was talking about.  And, even then, is that the best we can do?  The tiny chance of visitors sometime in the next few billion years?  I mean, shouldn’t we be working on climate change, a global wealth tax, guaranteed basic income, wealth transfers to preserve natural wonders like the Serengeti or the Amazon Rain Forest?”

“Sure, I like having the Rain Forest.”

The Amazon rain forest. Image by the Center for International Forestry Research on Flickr.

“So we should pay for it!  But, right, I think those plans would do more than launching a recording of laughter.  And none of those plans has the risk that we’d lure the cause of our own extinction.”

My spouse sighed.  “Don’t we have a rule about not talking about human extinction at bedtime?”

“Do we?  I thought it was just that I couldn’t talk about thermodynamic heat death of the universe.”

“No, it was more than that.  No collapse of civilization as we know it, no heat death, nothing about the lifespan of our star.  Not right when I’m trying to fall asleep.”


“It’s okay.  I still love you.  I just wish you hadn’t said all that at bedtime.”

“Well, I wish they hadn’t launched the Golden Record.”

It’s true that the risk is low.  But why risk the Earth’s destruction at all when there are better plans available?

That’s what I was thinking while I fell asleep.  As it happens, I wound up answering my own question.  One virtue of the Golden Record is that it invites us to imagine Earth being destroyed – marauding aliens could learn our address and then come to stamp us out.

That’s a sad thought.  So perhaps we should do what we can to protect the Earth.  And not just from those unlikely marauders – maybe we should protect Earth from ourselves.

Otherwise we, as an entire species, will seem far more foolish than Greenland’s Vikings.  Hmm, we’re big strong Americans, we eat sheep!  We fly airplane, we buy new big screen TV, we stream video from satellite!

What can you say about a people who refuse to change their culture in the face of absolute calamity?

On meditation and the birth of the universe.

On meditation and the birth of the universe.

This is part of a series of essays prepared to discuss in jail.

Our bodies are chaos engines. 

In our nearby environment, we produce order.  We form new memories.  We build things.  We might have sex and create new life.  From chaos, structure.

As we create local order, though, we radiate disorder into the universe. 

The laws of physics work equally well whether time is moving forward or backward.  The only reason we experience time as flowing forward is that the universe is progressing from order into chaos.

In the beginning, everything was homogeneous.  The same stuff was present everywhere.  Now, some regions of the universe are different from others.  One location contains our star; another location, our planet.  Each of our bodies is very different from the space around us.

This current arrangement is more disorderly than the early universe, but less so than what our universe will one day become.  Life is only possible during this intermediate time, when we are able to eat structure and excrete chaos. 

Hubble peers into a stellar nursery. Image courtesy of NASA Marshall Space Flight on Flickr.

Sunlight shines on our planet – a steady stream of high-energy photons all pointed in the same direction.  Sunshine is orderly.  But then plants eat sunshine and carbon dioxide to grow.  Animals eat the plants.  As we live, we radiate heat – low-energy photons that spill from our bodies in all directions.

The planet Earth, with all its life, acts like one big chaos engine.  We absorb photons from the sun, lower their energy, increase their number, and scatter them.

We’ll continue until we can’t.


Our universe is mostly filled with empty space. 

But empty space does not stay empty.  Einstein’s famous equation, E equals M C squared, describes the chance that stuff will suddenly pop into existence.  This happens whenever a region of space gathers too much energy.

Empty space typically has a “vacuum energy” of one billionth of a joule per cubic meter.  An empty void the size of our planet would have about as much energy as a teaspoon of sugar.  Which doesn’t seem like much.  But even a billionth of a joule is thousands of times higher than the energy needed to summon electrons into being.

And there are times when a particular patch of vacuum has even more energy than that.


According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, time and energy can’t be defined simultaneously.  Precision in time causes energy to spread – the energy becomes both lower and higher than you expected.

In practice, the vacuum energy of a particular region of space will seem to waver.  Energy is blurry, shimmering over time.

There are moments when even the smallest spaces have more than enough energy to create new particles.

Objects usually appear in pairs: a particle and its anti-particle.  Anti-matter is exactly like regular matter except that each particle has an opposite charge.  In our world, protons are positive and electrons are negative, but an anti-proton is negative and an anti-electron is positive.

If a particle and its anti-particle find each other, they explode.

When pairs of particles appear, they suck up energy.  Vacuum energy is stored inside them.  Then the particles waffle through space until they find and destroy each other.  Energy is returned to the void.

This constant exchange is like the universe breathing.  Inhale: the universe dims, a particle and anti-particle appear.  Exhale: they explode.


Our universe is expanding.  Not only are stars and galaxies flying away from each other in space, but also empty space itself is growing.  The larger a patch of nothingness, the faster it will grow.  In a stroke of blandness, astronomers named the force powering this growth “dark energy.”

Long ago, our universe grew even faster than it does today.  Within each small fraction of a second, our universe doubled in size.  Tiny regions of space careened apart billions of times faster than the speed of light.

This sudden growth was extremely improbable.  For this process to begin, the energy of a small space had to be very, very large.  But the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle claims that – if we wait long enough – energy can take on any possible value.  Before the big bang, our universe had a nearly infinite time to wait.

After that blip, our universe expanded so quickly because the vacuum of space was perched temporarily in a high-energy “metastable” state.  Technically balanced, but warily.  Like a pencil standing on its tip.  Left alone, it might stay there forever, but the smallest breath of air would cause this pencil to teeter and fall.

Similarly, a tiny nudge caused our universe to tumble back to its expected energy.  A truly stable vacuum.  The world we know today was born – still growing, but slowly.


During the time of rapid expansion, empty vacuum had so much energy that particles stampeded into existence.  The world churned with particles, all so hot that they zipped through space at nearly the speed of light. 

For some inexplicable reason, for every billion pairs of matter and anti-matter, one extra particle of matter appeared.  When matter and anti-matter began to find each other and explode, this billionth extra bit remained.

This small surplus formed all of stars in the sky.  The planets.  Ourselves.


Meditation is like blinking.  You close your eyes, time passes, then you open your eyes again.  Meditation is like a blink where more time passes.

But more is different.


Our early universe was filled with the smallest possible particles.  Quarks, electrons, and photons.  Because their energy was so high, they moved too fast to join together.  Their brilliant glow filled the sky, obscuring our view of anything that had happened before.

As our universe expanded, it cooled.  Particles slowed down.  Three quarks and an electron can join to form an atom of hydrogen.  Two hydrogen atoms can join to form hydrogen gas.  And as you combine more and more particles together, your creations can be very different from a hot glowing gas.  You can form molecules, cells, animals, societies.


When a cloud of gas is big enough, its own gravity can pull everything inward.  The cloud becomes more and more dense until nuclear fusion begins, releasing energy just like a nuclear bomb.  These explosions keep the cloud from shrinking further.

The cloud has become a star.

Nuclear fusion occurs because atoms in the center of the cloud are squooshed too close together.  They merge: a few small atoms become one big atom.  If you compared their weights – four hydrogens at the start, one helium at the finish – you’d find that a tiny speck of matter had disappeared.  And so, according to E equals M C squared, it released a blinding burst of energy.

The largest hydrogen bomb detonated on Earth was 50 megatons – the Kuz’kina Mat tested in Russia in October, 1961.  It produced a mushroom cloud ten times the height of Mount Everest.  This test explosion destroyed houses hundreds of miles away.

The fireball of Tsar Bomba, the Kuz’kina Mat.

Every second, our sun produces twenty billion times more energy than this largest Earth-side blast.


Eventually, our sun will run out of fuel.  Our sun shines because it turns hydrogen into helium, but it is too light to compress helium into any heavier atoms.  Our sun has burned for about four billion years, and it will probably survive for another five billion more.  Then the steady inferno of nuclear explosions will end.

When a star exhausts its fuel, gravity finally overcomes the resistance of the internal explosions.  The star shrinks.  It might crumple into nothingness, becoming a black hole.  Or it might go supernova – recoiling like a compressed spring that slips from your hand – and scatter its heavy atoms across the universe.

Planets are formed from the stray viscera of early stars.

Supernova remains. Image by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton.


Our universe began with only hydrogen gas.  Every type of heavier atom – carbon, oxygen, iron, plutonium – was made by nuclear explosions inside the early stars.

When a condensing cloud contains both hydrogen gas and particulates of heavy atoms, the heavy atoms create clumps that sweep through the cloud far from its center.  Satellites, orbiting the star.  Planets.

Nothing more complicated than atoms can form inside stars.  It’s too hot – the belly of our sun is over twenty million degrees.  Molecules would be instantly torn apart.  But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded planets – are peaceful places compared to stars.

Molecules are long chains of atoms.  Like atoms, molecules are made from combinations of quarks and electrons.  The material is the same – but there’s more of it.

More is different.

Some atoms have an effect on our bodies.  If you inhale high concentrations of oxygen – an atom with eight protons – you’ll feel euphoric and dizzy.  If you drink water laced with lithium – an atom with three protons – your brain might become more stable.

But the physiological effects of atoms are crude compared to molecules.  String fifty-three atoms together in just the right shape – a combination of two oxygens, twenty-one carbons, and thirty hydrogens – and you’ll have tetrahydrocannibol.  String forty-nine atoms together in just the right shape – one oxygen, three nitrogens, twenty carbons, and twenty-five hydrogens – and you’ll have lysergic acid diethylamide.

The effects of these molecules are very different from the effects of their constituent parts.  You’d never predict what THC feels like after inhaling a mix of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen gas.


An amino acid is comparable in scale to THC or LSD, but our bodies aren’t really made of amino acids.  We’re built from proteins – anywhere from a few dozen to tens of thousands of amino acids linked together.  Proteins are so large that they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes.  THC has its effect because some proteins in your brain are shaped like catcher’s mitts, and the cannibinoid nestles snuggly in the pocket of the glove.

Molecules the size of proteins can make copies of themselves.  The first life-like molecules on Earth were long strands of ribonucleic acid – RNA.  A strand of RNA can replicate as it floats through water.  RNA acts as a catalyst – it speeds up the reactions that form other molecules, including more RNA.

Eventually, some strands of RNA isolated themselves inside bubbles of soap.  Then the RNA could horde – when a particular sequence of RNA catalyzed reactions, no other RNA would benefit from the molecules it made.  The earliest cells were bubbles that could make more bubbles.

Cells can swim.  They eat.  They live and die.  Even single-celled bacteria have sex: they glom together, build small channels linking their insides to each other, and swap DNA.

But with more cells, you can make creatures like us.


Consciousness is an emergent property.  With a sufficient number of neuron cells connected to each other, a brain is able to think and plan and feel.  In humans, 90 billion neuron cells direct the movements of a 30-trillion-cell meat machine.

Humans are such dexterous clever creatures that we were able to discover the origin of our universe.  We’ve dissected ourselves so thoroughly that we’ve seen the workings of cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.

But a single human animal, in isolation, never could have learned that much.

Individual humans are clever, but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you need more humans.  Grouped together, we are qualitatively different.  The wooden technologies of Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, bear little resemblance to the vaulted core of a particle accelerator.

English writing uses just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form several hundred thousand different words, and these can be combined to form an infinite number of different ideas.

More is different.  The alphabet alone couldn’t give anyone insight into the story of your life.


Meditation is like a blink where more time passes, but the effect is very different.

Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories.  Before Jesus began his ministry, he meditated for 40 days in the Judaean Desert – his mind’s eye saw all the world’s kingdoms prostrate before him, but he rejected that power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity. 

Before Buddha began his ministry, he meditated for 49 days beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering. 

Before Odin began his ministry, he meditated for 9 days while hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil, the world tree – Odin felt that he died, was reborn, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering beneath him. 

The god Shiva meditated in graveyards, smearing himself with crematory ash.

At its extreme, meditation is purportedly psychedelic.  Meditation can induce brain states that are indistinguishable from LSD trips when visualized by MRI.  Meditation isolates the brain from its surroundings, and isolation can trigger hallucination.

Researchers have found that meditation can boost our moods, attentiveness, cognitive flexibility, and creativity.  Our brains are plastic – changeable.  We can alter the way we experience the world.  Many of our thoughts are the result of habit.  Meditation helps us change those habits.  Any condition that is rooted in our brain – like depression, insomnia, chronic pain, or addiction – can be helped with meditation.

To meditate, we have to sit, close our eyes, and attempt not to think.  This is strikingly difficult.  Our brains want to be engaged.  After a few minutes, most people experience a nagging sense that we’re wasting time.

But meditation gives our minds a chance to re-organize.  To structure ourselves.  And structure is the property that allows more of something to become different.  Squirrels don’t form complex societies – a population of a hundred squirrels will behave similarly to a population of a million or a billion.  Humans form complex webs of social interactions – as our numbers grew through history, societies changed in dramatic ways.

Before there was structure, our entire universe was a hot soup of quarks and electrons, screaming through the sky.  Here on Earth, these same particles can be organized into rocks, or chemicals, or squirrels, or us.  How we compose ourselves is everything.


The easiest form of meditation uses mantras – this is sometimes called “transcendental meditation” by self-appointed gurus who charge people thousands of dollars to participate in retreats.  Each attendee is given a “personalized” mantra, a short word or phrase to intone silently with every breath.  The instructors dole mantras based on a chart, and each is Sanskrit.  They’re meaningless syllables to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.

Any two-syllable word or phrase should work equally well, but you’re best off carving something uplifting into your brain.  “Make peace” or “all one” sound trite but are probably more beneficial than “more hate.”  The Sanskrit phrase “sat nam” is a popular choice, which translates as “truth name” or more colloquially as “to know the true nature of things.”

The particular mantra you choose matters less than the habit – whichever phrase you choose, you should use it for every practice.  Because meditation involves sitting motionless for longer than we’re typically accustomed, most people begin by briefly stretching.  Then sit comfortably.  Close your eyes.  As you breathe in, silently think the first syllable of your chosen phrase.  As you breathe out, think the second.

Repeating a mantra helps to crowd out other thoughts, as well as distractions from your environment.  Your mind might wander – if you catch yourself, just try to get back to repeating your chosen phrase.  No one does it perfectly, but practice makes better.  When a meditation instructor’s students worried that their practice wasn’t good enough, he told them that “even on a shallow dive, you still get wet.”

In a quiet space, you might take a breath every three to six seconds.  In a noisy room, you might need to breathe every second, thinking the mantra faster to block out external sound.  The phrase is a tool to temporarily isolate your mind from the world.

Most scientific studies recommend you meditate for twenty minutes at a time, once or twice a day, each and every day.  It’s not easy to carve out this much time from our daily routines.  Still, some is better than nothing.  Glance at a clock before you close your eyes, and again after you open them.  Eventually, your mind will begin to recognize the passage of time.  After a few weeks of practice, your body might adopt the approximate rhythm of twenty minutes.

Although meditation often feels pointless during the first week of practice, there’s a difference between dabbling and a habit.  Routine meditation leads to benefits that a single experience won’t.

More is different.

On translation and quantum mechanics.

On translation and quantum mechanics.

We have many ways to express ideas.  In this essay, I’ll attempt to convey my thoughts with English words.  Although this is the only metaphoric language that I know well, humans employ several thousand others – among these there may be several that could convey my ideas more clearly.

The distinct features of a language can change the way ideas feel

Perry Link writes that,

In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ______?”  I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense.

Anyone who knows two languages well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.

Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.”  Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.”  On the other hand, you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.

There is no perfect way to translate an idea from Chinese words into English words, nor the other way around.  In Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, Eliot Weinberger reviews several English reconstructions of a short, seductively simple Chinese poem.  The English variants feel very different from one another – each accentuates certain virtues of the original; by necessity, each also neglects others.

Visual appearances can’t be perfectly described with any metaphoric language.  I could write about a photograph, and maybe my impression would be interesting – the boy’s arms are turned outward, such that his hands would convey a gesture of welcome if not for his grenade, grimace, and fingers curled into a claw – but you’d probably rather see the picture.

Here’s Diane Arbus’s “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.” 

This isn’t to say that an image can’t be translated.  The version posted above is a translation.  The original image, created by light striking a photosensitive film, has been translated into a matrix of numbers.  Your computer reads these numbers and translates them back into an image.  If you enlarge this translation, your eyes will detect its numerical pixelation.

For this image, a matrix of numbers is a more useful translation than a paragraph of my words would be. 

From a tutorial on computer vision prepared by Amy Jin & Vivian Chiang at Stanford.

Different forms of communication – words, pictures, numbers, gestures, sounds – are better suited to convey different ideas.  The easiest way to teach organic chemistry is through the use of pictures – simple diagrams often suffice.  But I sometimes worked with students who weren’t very visual learners, and then I’d have to think of words or mathematical descriptions that could represent the same ideas.

Science magazine sponsors an annual contest called “Dance Your Ph.D.,” and although it might sound silly – can someone understand your research after watching human bodies move? – the contest evokes an important idea about translation.  There are many ways to convey any idea.  Research journals now incorporate a combination of words, equations, images, and video. 

Plant-soil feedbacks after severe tornado damage: Dance Your PhD 2014 from atinytornado on Vimeo.

A kinetic, three-dimensional dance might be better than words to explain a particular research topic.  When I talked about my graduate research in membrane trafficking, I always gesticulated profusely.

My spouse coached our local high school’s Science Olympiad team, preparing students for the “Write It Do It” contest.  In this competition, teams of two students collaborate – one student looks at an object and describes it, the other student reads that description and attempts to recreate the original object.  Crucially, the rules prohibit students from incorporating diagrams into their instructions.  The mandate to use words – and only words – makes “Write It Do It” devilishly tricky.

I love words, but they’re not the tools best suited for all ideas. 

If you’re curious about quantum mechanics, Beyond Weird by Philip Ball is a nice book.  Ball describes a wide variety of scientific principles in a very precise way – Ball’s language is more nuanced and exact than most researchers’.  Feynman would talk about what photons want, and when I worked in a laboratory that studied the electronic structure of laser-aligned gas clouds, buckyballs, and DNA, we’d sometimes anthropomorphize the behavior of electrons to get our thoughts across.  Ball broaches no such sloppiness.

Unfortunately, Ball combines linguistic exactitude with a dismissal of other ways of conveying information.  Ball claims that any scientific idea that doesn’t translate well into English is an insufficient description of the world:

When physicists exhort us to not get hung up on all-too-human words, we have a right to resist.  Language is the only vehicle we have for constructing and conveying meaning: for talking about our universe.  Relationships between numbers are no substitute.  Science deserves more than that.

By way of example, Ball gives a translation of Hugh Everette’s “many worlds” theory, points out the flaws in his own translated version, and then argues that these flaws undermine the theory.

To be fair, I think the “many worlds” theory is no good.  This is the belief that each “observation” – which means any event that links the states of various components of a system such that each component will evolve with restrictions on its future behavior (e.g. if you shine a light on a small object, photons will either pass by or hit it, which restricts where the object may be later) – causes a bifurcation of our universe.  A world would exist where a photon gets absorbed by an atom; another world exists where the atom is localized slightly to the side and the photon speeds blithely by.

The benefit of the “many worlds” interpretation is that physics can be seen as deterministic, not random.  Events only seem random because the consciousness that our present mind evolves into can inhabit only one of the many future worlds.

The drawback of the “many worlds” interpretation is that it presupposes granularity in our universe – physical space would have to be pixelated like computer images. Otherwise every interaction between two air molecules would presage the creation of infinite worlds.

If our world was granular, every interaction between two air molecules would still summon an absurd quantity of independent worlds, but mere absurdity doesn’t invalidate a theory.  There’s no reason why our universe should be structured in a way that’s easy for human brains to comprehend.  Without granularity, though, the “many worlds” theory is impossible, and we have no reason to think that granularity is a reasonable assumption.

It’s more parsimonious to assume that sometimes random things happen.  To believe that our God, although He doesn’t exist, rolls marbles.

(This is a bad joke, wrought by my own persnickety exactitude with words.  Stephen Hawking said, “God does play dice with the universe.  All the evidence points to him being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every possible equation.”  But dice are granular.  With a D20, you can’t roll pi.  So the only way for God to avoid inadvertently pixelating His creation is to use infinite-sided dice, i.e. marbles.)

Image of dice by Diacritica on Wikimedia images.

Some physicists have argued that, although our words clearly fail when we attempt to describe the innermost workings of the universe, numbers should suffice.  Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Math is the language of the universe.  So the more equations you know, the more you can converse with the cosmos.

Indeed, equations often seem to provide accurate descriptions of the way the world works.  But something’s wrong with our numbers.  Even mathematics falls short when we try to converse with the cosmos.

Our numbers are granular.  The universe doesn’t seem to be.

Irrational numbers didn’t bother me much when I was first studying mathematics.  Irrational numbers are things like the square root of two, which can only be expressed in decimal notation by using an infinite patternless series of digits.  Our numbers can’t even express the square root of two!

Similarly, our numbers can’t quite express the electronic structure of oxygen.  We can solve “two body problems,” but we typically can’t give a solution for “three body problems” – we have to rely on approximations when we analyze any circumstance in which there are three or more objects, like several planets orbiting a star, or several electrons surrounding a nucleus.

Oxygen is.  These molecules exist.  They move through our world and interact with their surroundings.  They behave precisely.  But we can’t express their precise behavior with numbers.  The problem isn’t due to any technical shortcoming in our computers – it’s that, if our universe isn’t granular, each oxygen behaves with infinite precision, and our numbers can only be used to express a finite degree of detail.

Using numbers, we can provide a very good translation, but never an exact replica.  So what hope do our words have?

The idea that we should be able to express all the workings of our universe in English – or even with numbers – reminds me of that old quote: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”  We humans exist through an unlikely quirk, a strange series of events.  And that’s wonderful!  You can feel pleasure.  You can walk out into the sunshine.  Isn’t it marvelous?  Evolution could have produced self-replicating objects that were just as successful as us without those objects ever feeling anything.  Rapacious hunger beasts could have been sufficient.  (Indeed, that’s how many of us act at times.)

But you can feel joy, and love, and happiness.  Capitalize on that!

And, yes, it’s thrilling to delve into the secrets of our universe.  But there’s no a priori reason to expect that these secrets should be expressible in the languages we’ve invented.

On the water-fueled car.

On the water-fueled car.

“I heard there was, like, a car that runs on water … “

“Dude, no, there’ve been, like, six of them.  But oil companies bought all the patents.”

A lot of the people who attend my poetry class in jail believe in freaky conspiracy theories.  Somebody started telling me that the plots of various Berenstain Bears books are different from when he was a child, which is evidence that the universe bifurcated and that he’s now trapped in an alternate timeline from the path he was on before …

old hat(New printings of some Berenstain Bears books really are different.  Take Old Hat New Hat, a charming story about shopping and satisfaction: after the protagonist realizes that he prefers the old, beat-up hat he already owns to any of the newer, fancier models, a harried salesperson reacts with a mix of disgust and disbelieve.  This scene has been excised from the board book version that you could buy today.  Can’t have anything that tarnishes the joy of consumerism!)

I’ve written about conspiracy theories previously, but I think it’s worth re-iterating, in the interest of fairness, that the men in jail are correct when they assume that vast numbers of people are “breathing together” against them.  Politicians, judges, police, corporate CEOs and more have cooperated to build a world in which men like my students are locked away.  Not too long ago, it would have been fairly easy for them to carve out a meaningful existence, but advances in automation, the ease of international shipping, and changes to tax policy have dismantled the opportunities of the past.

Which means that I often find myself seriously debating misinterpretations of Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” theory (described midway through my essay, “Ashes”), or Biblical prophecies, or Jung-like burblings of the collective unconsciousness.

Or, last week, the existence of water cars.

In 2012, government officials from Pakistan announced that a local scientist had invented a process for using water as fuel.  At the time, I was still running a webcomic – one week’s Evil Dave vs. Regular Dave focused on news of the invention.


When scientists argue that a water-powered car can’t exist, they typically reference the Second Law of Thermodynamics (also discussed in “Ashes”).  The Second Law asserts that extremely unlikely events occur so rarely that you can safely assume their probability to be zero.

If something is disallowed by the Second Law, there’s nothing actually preventing it from happening.  For an oversimplified example, imagine there are 10 molecules of a gas randomly whizzing about inside a box.  The Second Law says that all 10 will never be traveling in the exact same direction at the same time.  If they were, you’d get energy from nothing.  They might all strike the north-facing wall at the same time, causing the box to move, instead of an equal number hitting the northern and southern facing walls.

But, just like flipping eight coins and seeing them all land heads, sometimes the above scenario will occur.  It violates the Second Law, and it can happen.  Perpetual motion machines can exist.  They are just very, very rare.  (Imagine a fraction where the denominator is a one followed by as many zeros as you could write before you die.  That number will be bigger than the chance of a water-fueled car working for even several seconds.)

When chemists talk about fuel, they think about diagrams that look roughly like this:


The y axis on this graph is energy, and the x axis is mostly meaningless – here it’s labeled “reaction coordinate,” but you wouldn’t be so far off if you just think of it as time.

For a gasoline powered car, the term “reactants” refers to octane and oxygen.  Combined, these have a higher amount of energy stored in their chemical bonds than an equivalent mass of the “products,” carbon dioxide and water, so you can release energy through combustion.  The released energy moves your car forward.

And there’s a hill in the middle.  This is generally called the “activation barrier” of the reaction.  Basically, the universe thinks it’s a good idea to turn octane and oxygen into CO2 and H2O … but the universe is lazy.  Left to its own devices, it can’t be bothered.  Which is good – because this reaction has a high activation barrier, we rarely explode while refueling at the gas station.

Your car uses a battery to provide the energy needed to start this process, after which the energy of the first reaction can be used to activate the next.  The net result is that you’re soon cruising the highway with nary a care, dribbling water from your tailpipe, pumping carbon into the air.

(Your car also uses a “catalyst” – this component doesn’t change how much energy you’ll extract per molecule of octane, but it lowers the height of the activation barrier, which makes it easier for the car to start.  Maybe you’ve heard the term “cold fusion.”  If we could harness a reaction combining hydrogen molecules to form helium, that would be a great source of power.  Hydrogen fusion is what our sun uses.  This reaction chucks out a lot of energy and has non-toxic byproducts.

But the “cold” part of “cold fusion” refers to the fact that, without a catalyst, this reaction has an extremely steep activation barrier.  It works on the sun because hydrogen molecules are crammed together at high temperature and pressure.  Something like millions of degrees.  I personally get all sweaty and miserable at 80 degrees, and am liable to burn myself when futzing about near an oven at 500 degrees … I’d prefer not to drive a 1,000,000 degree hydrogen-fusion-powered automobile.)

Seriously, I would not want this to be happening beneath the hood of the family ride.

With any fuel source, you can guess at its workings by comparing the energy of its inputs and outputs.  Octane and oxygen have high chemical energies, carbon dioxide and water have lower energies, so that’s why your car goes forward.  Our planet, too, can be viewed as a simple machine.  High frequency (blue-ish) light streams toward us from the sun, then something happens here that increases the order of molecules on Earth, after which we release a bunch of low-frequency (red-ish) light.

(We release low-frequency “infrared” light as body heat – night vision goggles work by detecting this.)

Our planet is an order-creating machine fueled by changing the color of photons from the sun.

A water-fueled car is impractical because other molecules that contain hydrogen and oxygen have higher chemical energy than an equivalent mass of water.  There’s no energy available for you to siphon away into movement.

If you were worried that major oil companies are conspiring against you by hiding the existence of water-fueled cars, you can breathe a sigh of relief.  But don’t let yourself get too complacent, because these companies really are conspiring against you.  They’re trying to starve your children.

On Vaughan & Staples’s ‘Saga’ and parenting metaphors.

On Vaughan & Staples’s ‘Saga’ and parenting metaphors.

I’m reasonably well-versed with small stuff.  I’ve studied quantum mechanics, spent two years researching electronic structure, that sort of thing.  I imagine that I’m about as comfortable as I’ll ever be with the incomprehensible probabilistic weirdness that underlies reality.

But although I helped teach introductory calculus-based physics, I’ve never learned about big things.  I took no geometry in college, and most big physics, I assume, is about transferring equations into spaces that aren’t flat.  The basic principle seems straightforward – you substitute variables, like if you’re trying to estimate prices in another country and keep plugging in the exchange rate – but I’ve never sat down and worked through the equations myself.

There’s only so much physics you can understand without chugging through the math.  Our numbers don’t quite describe the world – they can’t exactly express quantities like pi, or the solutions to most three-body problems – but they do a better job than our words.

gravity.pngStill, some excellent pop-science books on gravity have been published recently.  My favorite of these was On Gravity by A. Zee – it’s quite short, and has everything I assume you’d want from a book like this: bad humor, lucid prose, excellent pacing.  Zee has clearly had a lot of practice teaching this material to beginners, and his expertise shines through.

Near the end of the book, Zee introduces black holes – gravity at its weirdest.  Gravity becomes stronger as the distance between objects decreases – it follows an “inverse square law.”

If our moon was closer to Earth, the tides would be more extreme.  To give yourself a sense of the behavior of inverse square laws, you can play with some magnets.  When two magnets are far apart, it seems as though neither cares about the existence of the other, but slide them together and suddenly the force gets so strong that they’ll leap through the air to clank together.

But because each magnet takes up space, there’s a limit to how close they can get.  Once you hear them clank, the attractive magnetic force is being opposed by a repulsive electrostatic force – this same repulsion gives us the illusion that our world is composed of solid objects and keeps you from falling through your chair.

Gravity is much weaker than magnetism, though.  A bar magnet can have a strong magnetic field but will have an imperceptible amount of gravity.  It’s too small.

A big object like our sun is different.  Gravity pulls everything together toward the center.  At the same time, a constant flurry of nuclear explosions pushes everything apart.  These forces are balanced, so our sun has a constant size, pouring life-enabling radiation into the great void of space (of which our planet intercepts a teensy tiny bit).

But if a big object had much more mass than our sun, it might tug itself together so ardently that not even nuclear explosions could counterbalance its collapse.  It would become … well, nobody knows.  The ultra-dense soup of mass at the center of a black hole might be stranger than we’ve guessed.  All we know for certain is that there is a boundary line inside of which the force of gravity becomes so strong that not even light could possibly escape.

Satellites work because they fall toward Earth with the same curvature as the ground below – if they were going faster, they’d spiral outward and away, and if they were going slower, they’d spiral inward and crash.  The “event horizon” of a black hole is where gravity becomes so strong that even light will be tugged so hard that it’ll spiral inward.  So there’s almost certainly nothing there, right at the “edge” of the black hole as we perceive it.  Just the point of no return.

If your friends encounter a black hole, they’re gone.  Not even Morse-code messages could escape.

(Sure, sure, there’s “Hawking radiation,” quantum weirdness that causes a black hole to shrink, but this is caused by new blips in the fabric of reality and so can’t carry information away.)


The plot of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, revolves around a Romeo & Juliet-esque romance in the middle of intergalactic war, but most of the comic is about parenting.  K read the entire series in two days, bawling several times, and then ran from the bedroom frantic to demand the next volume (unfortunately for her, Vaughan & Staples haven’t yet finished the series).

Saga is masterfully well-done, and there are many lovely metaphors for a child’s development.

For instance, the loss of a child’s beloved caretaker – babysitters, daycare workers, and teachers do great quantities of oft under-appreciated work.  In Saga, the child and her first babysitter are linked through the spirit, and when the caretaker moves on, the child feels physical pain from the separation.


A hairless beast named “Lying Cat” can understand human language and denounces every untruth spoken in its present – allowing for a lovely corrective to a child’s perception that she is to blame for the traumas inflicted upon her.

lying cat from Saga

Perhaps my favorite metaphor in Saga depicts the risk of falling into a black hole.  Like all intergalactic travelers, they have to be careful – in Saga, a black hole is called a “timesuck” and it’s depicted as a developing baby.


My favorite scene in the film Interstellar depicts the nightmarish weirdness of relativistic time.  A massive planet seems perfectly habitable, but its huge gravitational field meant that the years’ worth of “Everything’s okay!” signals had all been sent within minutes of a scout’s arrival.  The planet was actually so dangerous that the scout couldn’t survive a full day, but decades would have passed on Earth before anyone understood the risk.

Gravity eats time.

So do babies.  A child is born and the new parents might disappear from the world.  They used to volunteer, socialize, have interests and hobbies … then, nothing.

They fell into the timesuck.

On love and physics.

On love and physics.

Portrait of Max from 812 Magazine.

I recently attended a singer-songwriter’s performance with my buddy Max.  I have difficulty sitting still, so I’d brought paper and some markers to draw horrible cartoons while we listened.

After the show, Max and I caught up.  We briefly mentioned our work (he is building things; I am alternating between typing, reading children’s books, and spraying down my popsicle-sticky kids with a hose) and started hashing philosophy.  Max digs the old stuff – he’s currently reading Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, which speculates on both the existence of atoms and reasons why we are conscious.

I told him once that K won’t let me talk about free will at parties, so Max often goads me into it.  He’s always loved the image of K hovering with a flyswatter, waiting for me to broach her ire by describing the experiment that would disprove the existence of free will.  “We can’t do it yet, but if a non-destructive brain scan at sufficient molecular accuracy … “ SWAT!

Hugh-EverettI described Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum wave-function collapse – the idea that with every coin-flip, the universe splits into two and time keeps marching on with the coin having landed both heads and tails.  A lot of physicists like dispensing with probability and randomness.  Not me – I think the world needs a little chaos.  Even if our choices were totally unpredictable, we might not have free will, but if the universe was predictable, sensible and orderly, then we definitely wouldn’t be free.

If you feel like you have free will, that’s almost the same as having it – but how free would you feel if researchers could strap you into a scanner and predict your fate more impeccably than any fortuneteller?

And then, because Max and I always bring up Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus when we discuss the meaning of life, we had to talk about the experiment that would let you prove Everett’s theory (but only to yourself).  I’ve written about this previously, in an essay on my father-in-law and the science of resurrection, but the shorthand description of the experiment is “quantum-mechanical suicide.”

If every coin flip created a new world, and inside one your consciousness would be extinguished before you learned the result of the flip, then you could only consciously perceive yourself as experiencing the other outcome.  Someone could flip a coin hundreds of times and you’d always see it landing heads, if the you inside every tails world was instantly ablated.

I was scribbling out diagrams, jotting numbers, and drawing an experimental apparatus with a research subject exploding into flames.  Max leaned back, folded his arms over his chest, and mused, “But what I want to know is where love comes into it.”

I added a few more jagged flames, then set down my pen.

Photo by Shena Pamela on Flickr.

Look, I’m a clever dude.  I’ve always been good at math, despite having taken very few math classes.  I’m well read, hard working, and adept at solving puzzles.  But I was never the best with emotions.  Before I had kids, nobody would’ve mistaken me for any sort of love expert.

I stuttered a little, then described quantum entanglement (also referred to as “spooky action at a distance” – Jim Holt wrote a lovely essay for the New York Review of Books about it).  Particles that are linked stay linked.

Max shook his head.  We both knew that wasn’t really love.

But I’m a cold, rational scientist.  Max trusts his intuition that something mystical is happening in the world.  What kind of explanation might satisfy us both?

So we tried again.  The world is real.  There is, as best we can tell, a single, objective reality surrounding us.  But our consciousness has no access to that world.

In reality, the computer I’m typing this essay on is composed of mostly empty space.  Electrons flit blurrily around atomic nuclei – when I reach toward the keys, electrons in my fingertips are repelled, giving me the illusion that the computer is solid.  One by one receptors in the cone cells of my eyes interact with incident photons, letting me believe that I am constantly seeing a room full of smooth, hard surfaces.  My consciousness gobbles sensory data and creates a representation of the world.

And it’s within those representations that we live.  Some philosophers question why humans are conscious.  Others speculate that iPhones have consciousness as well.  Just like us, a modern telephone integrates a wide variety of external perceptions into its conception of the world.

In any case, because we live within our perception of the world, as opposed to the world per se, love really does change the universe.  By opening ourselves up to the world, we suddenly find ourselves to be inside a different world.  A physicist might not notice the difference after you let yourself love – but that physicist isn’t inside your head.  A physicist’s truth is not always the truth that matters.

Which I am very grateful to Max for teaching me.

Header image from The Scientific Cartoonist.

On the history of time travel.

On the history of time travel.

From the beginning, artists understood that time travel either denies humans free will or else creates absurd paradoxes.

This conundrum arises whenever an object or information is allowed to travel backward through time.  Traveling forward is perfectly logical – after all, it’s little different from a big sleep, or being shunted into an isolation cell.  The world moves on but you do not… except for the steady depredations of age and the neurological damage that solitary confinement inevitably causes.

A lurch forward is no big deal.

But backward?

oedipusConsider one of the earlier time travel stories, the myth of Oedipus.  King Laius receives a prophecy foretelling doom.  He strives to create a paradox – using information from the future to prevent that future, in this case by offing his son – but fails.  This story falls into the “time travel denies humans free will” category.  Try as they might, the characters cannot help but create their tragic future.

James Gleick puts this succinctly in his recent New York Review essay discussing Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.”  Gleick posits the existence of a “Book of Ages,” a tome describing every moment of the past, present, and future.  Could a reader flip to a page describing the current moment and choose to evade the dictates of the book?  In Gleick’s words,

the_red_book_-_liber_novusCan you do that?  Logically, no.  If you accept the premise, the story is unchanging.  Knowledge of the future trumps free will.

(I’m typing this essay on January 18th, and can’t help but note how crappy it is that the final verb in that sentence looks wrong with a lowercase “t.”  Sorry, ‘merica.  I hope you get better soon.)

timetravelGleick is the author of Time Travel: A History, in which he presents a broad survey of the various tales (primarily literature and film) that feature time travel.  In each tale Gleick discusses, time travel either saps free will (a la Oedipus) or else introduces inexplicable paradox (Marty slowly fading in Back to the Future as his parents’ relationship becomes less likely; scraps of the Terminator being used to invent the Terminator; a time-traveling escapee melting into a haggard cripple as his younger self is tortured in Looper.)

It’s not just artists who have fun worrying over these puzzles; over the years, more and more physicists and philosophers have gotten into the act.  Sadly, their ideas are often less well-reasoned than the filmmakers’.  Time Travel includes a long quotation from philosopher John Hospers (“We’re still in a textbook about analytical philosphy, but you can almost hear the author shouting,” Gleick interjects), in which Hospers argues that you can’t travel back in time to build the pyramids because you already know that they were built by someone else, followed by with the brief summary:

All Giza PyramidsAdmit it: you didn’t help build the pyramids.  That’s a fact, but is it a logical fact?  Not every logician finds these syllogisms self-evident.  Some things cannot be proved or disproved by logic.

Gleick uses this moment to introduce Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem (the idea that, in any formal system, we must include unprovable assumptions), whose author, Kurt Godel, also speculated about time travel (from Gleick: If the attention paid to CTCs [closed timelike curve] is disproportionate to their importance or plausibility, Stephen Hawkins knows why: “Scientists working in this field have to disguise their real interest by using technical terms like ‘closed timelike curves’ that are code for time travel.”  And time travel is sexy.  Even for a pathologically shy, borderline paranoid Austrian logician).

Alternatively, Hospers’ strange pyramid argument could’ve been followed by a discussion of Timecrimes [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0480669/], the one paradox-less film in which a character travels backward through time but still has free will (at least, as much free will as you or I have).

But James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History doesn’t mention Timecrimes.  Obviously there are so many stories incorporating time travel that it’d be impossible to discuss them all, but leaving out Timecrimes is a tragedy!  This is the best time travel movie (of the past and present.  I can’t figure out how to make any torrent clients download the time travel movies of the future).

timecrimesTimecrimes is great.  It provides the best analysis of free will inside a sci-fi world of time travel.  But it’s not just for sci-fi nerds – the same ideas help us understand strange-seeming human activities like temporally-incongruous prayer (e.g., praying for the safety of a friend after you’ve already seen on TV that several unidentified people died when her apartment building caught fire.  By the time you kneel, she should either be dead or not.  And yet, we pray).

Timecrimes progresses through three distinct movements.  In the first, the protagonist believes himself to be in a world of time travel as paradox: a physicist has convinced him that with any deviation from the known timeline he might cause himself to cease to exist.  And so he mimics as best he can events that he remembers.  A masked man chased him with a knife, and so he chases his past self.

screenshottimecrimesIn the second movement, the protagonist realizes that the physicist was wrong.  There are no paradoxes, but he seems powerless to change anything.  He watched his wife fall to her death at the end of his first jaunt through time, so he is striving to alter the future… but his every effort fails.  Perhaps he has no free will, no real agency.  After all, he already remembers her death.  His memory exists in the form of a specific pattern of neural connections in his brain, and those neurons will not spontaneously rearrange.  His memory is real.  The future seems set.

But then there is a third movement: this is the reason Timecrimes surpasses all other time travel tales.  The protagonist regains a sense of free will within the constraints imposed by physics.

Yes, he saw his wife die.  How can he make his memory wrong?

Similarly, you’ve already learned that the Egyptians built the pyramids.  I’m pretty confident that none of the history books you’ve perused included a smiling picture of you with the caption “… but they couldn’t have done it without her.”  And yet, if you were to travel back to Egypt, would it really be impossible to help in such a way that no history books (which will be written in the future, but which your past self has already seen) ever report your contributions.

Indeed, an analogous puzzle is set before us every time we act.  Our brains are nothing more than gooey messes of molecules, constrained by the same laws of physics as everything else, so we shouldn’t have free will.  And yet: can we still act as though we do?

We must.  It’s either that or sit around waiting to die.

Because the universe sprung senselessly into existence, birthed by chance fluctuations during the long march of eternity… and then we appeared, billions of years later, through the valueless vagaries of evolution… our actions shouldn’t matter.  But: can we pretend they do?

I try.  We have to try.

On Stephon Alexander’s ‘The Jazz of Physics.’

On Stephon Alexander’s ‘The Jazz of Physics.’

640px-SantaWithKids2014Instead of standing in front of a discount mall Santa and pretending to smile while somebody snaps our photo, my family records an album to send as our holiday card. Usually thirty minutes or so of original music played by family and friends.

The music isn’t always radio quality — though my younger brother, sister-in-law, cousin, uncle, and grandfather are professional musicians, the rest of us are decided amateurs — but we have fun making it.

Eight to ten songs a year, over the course of a decade, eats up a lot of ideas. Some evenings my brother and I would dither after everyone else went to bed. For 2013‘s Curse of the Ratist, our dithering included bowing a bass guitar hung on a wall mount. We aimed a microphone at a picture frame hung from that same wall some seven feet away. 

You can bow a wide variety of objects and get interesting sounds. Violins, sure, but also any saw from the hardware store (which can give very human-like vocal tones), cymbals (these are lovely because they sound like sci-fi UFO landings… but be sure to ask first, because drummers will get upset if your rosin makes their cymbals sticky), the bell of some horns. Friction from the bow starts the object vibrating, and a vibrating object will push and pull at the nearby air, creating a traveling sound wave.

Or friction from a bow might start strings vibrating, which shakes the body of a bass, which shakes the wall it’s hanging from, which shakes a picture frame, which pushes and pulls the air, ready to be amplified by a microphone’s diaphragm. But the basic idea — an object wobbles back and forth to make sound — is the same.

Vibrations underly the workings of many aspects of the world. During college, I worked on a research project for a theoretical physicist who was curious whether residual vibrational energy contributed to DNA strand breaks. I scoff whenever I hear talk about a cure for cancer — “cancer” is an umbrella term to describe the inevitable imperfections that accumulate when you copy something over and over — but it is feasible to reduce the rate at which humans develop cancer. DNA strand breaks are one of the causes.

The research I was doing wasn’t going to save anyone, though. I was modeling a scenario in which electricity flows through the stacked bases as though a strand of DNA were a wire. The excess charge would cause each base it touched to change shape… then, when the charge jumped off, the base would return to its original shape. It would start vibrating. Can that vibrational energy transfer to the phosphate backbone and cause a strand to break?

Um, no. Probably not. After I’d worked on the project for about a year, I finally did a bunch of background reading and realized that our hypothesis was misguided. I was doing fancy calculations to model a process that almost certainly didn’t happen. Oops!

I did learn that it’s better to do research first, then work. Now I spend some two thirds of my work time reading, one third typing. I’d rather not waste another year.

Still, it was reasonable for my professor to think that vibrations would be involved. All matter has a wave-like nature. Vibrations rule the world.

23588787296_52d9799808_zIn The Jazz of Physics, Stephon Alexander likens all vibrations to music. For instance, the nucleation of stars and galaxies from the homogeneous superheated cloud that burst into being in the Big Bang. My preferred analogy for this process is the concept of “snowballing” in game design — a small early advantage gives a player a boost throughout the game, making that player a clear favorite to win.

If you start with a large enough cloud of homogeneous gas — a universe-sized cloud — quantum fluctuations will cause some regions to be slightly more dense than others. These dense regions will then suck in neighboring molecules because they have a little bit of extra gravity. Over time, the inequality will grow: the rich get richer. But, in this case, that’s a good thing. It means galaxies can form.

Alexander’s preferred analogy is to music. He likens the early universe, with its pressure density waves, to an instrument.

And what does the CMB [cosmic background radiation] actually sound like? Some cosmologists have turned the frequencies of the CMB into sound, and though it is not very musical, it is not pure noise either. What is fascinating is there was an original quantum sound, which caused the first primordial vibrations in the plasma [that homogeneous cloud of gas that filled the early universe], and though this sound is categorized as white noise, its beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

I find this analogy to be a stretch. But some of the others Alexander presents are lovely. For instance, his description of the interaction energy between neighboring spins in a magnetic material:

On the other hand, when neighboring spins disagreethere is more interaction energy caused by the tension between the disagreeing spins. One can imagine two people in a discussion. If they agree, there will be less to discuss, less interaction. If they disagree, they will interact more, trying to shift the other’s viewpoint.

I’ll definitely use his analogy the next time I teach this! Alexander found a clever similarity between two concepts, and that similarity will help others understand the idea from physics.

Whereas the analogy between cosmology and music, though clever, doesn’t seem like it’ll help many people learn physics. I know a fair bit about both music theory and physics, and I still struggled at times to follow Alexander’s logic.

I was also sad to see a bit of the physics presented incorrectly. For instance, his explanation of the photoelectric effect, for which Einstein won the Nobel Prize. Alexander writes that, until the early 1900s,

640px-Photoelectric_effect.svgphysicists thought a beam of light was like water coming out of a hose. If the volume of water is increased, the water will have more momentum. The same behavior was expected of light waves. But something different was seen in the photoelectric effect: no matter how intense the light, the same number of electrons came flying out. However, increasing the frequency of the light — essentially, making it bluer — caused the light to hit more electron homeruns. Two conclusions were drawn from this experiment:

1. Depending on the situation, light can behave like either a wave or a particle.

2. The kinetic energy that a beam of light imparts to electrons is related to the frequency of the light and not the intensity.

It’s true that, with low energy light, increasing the intensity won’t change the number of electrons flying out. With low-intensity, low-energy light, zero electrons will be ejected, and with high-intensity, low-energy light, you’ll still get zero. But as long as you’re using the right color of light (i.e., short wavelength), the number of electrons ejected is proportional to intensity. That’s how photomultiplier tubes work.

The kinetic energy that one photon imparts to one electron is a function of the frequency of light. The kinetic energy that a beam of photons imparts to electrons is a function of both the frequency and the intensity of light.

And a few of the supposed parallels between music and physics threw me. Alexander quotes the jazz saxophonist Mark Turner as saying, “When I’m in the middle of a solo, whenever I am most certain of the next note I have to play, the more possibilities open up for the notes that follow.” This is something many people can relate to. Too many options can be daunting. When a few constraints are imposed — guidelines for a project, or musical traditions that identify one note as “making sense” to play next whereas others would not — most people find they can be more creative. When I give the dudes in my writing class a prompt that’s too open-ended, a lot of them stare at their blank sheets of paper without writing anything.

But I have trouble relating the freedom & creativity that a little bit of structure engenders (maybe I should’ve turned this into an analogy about parenting instead) to the uncertainty principle.

Still, it was a fun little book. If you’re somebody who loves both music and physics, you might want to check it out.