A Proof of Pan-Dimensional Travel


I’m getting married in a couple of months that entails a honeymoon that me and the future missus are planning on spending on the north shore of Lake Superior. A lovely town called Grand Marais. There are bike trails in the area, so, rather than rent bicycles there, we decided to bring our own bikes. This made a bike rack for the old Buick a necessity.

As luck would have it, we received one as a gift recently. While trying to decide whether to install it immediately–the only upside being the pleasure of being seen as the type of people who have a bike rack on the car–or wait till later, I noticed the above label which so intrigued me that I snapped the picture you are now glancing up at with my cellphone.

In case you’re not up on your French or Spanish (or English), the three sentences are informing you of where the rack itself was manufactured. Presumably, if you speak English, it was manufactured in the good old US of A. If you speak Spanish, however, then you be under the impression that it was manufactured in Mexico. But the French could only assume that it was manufactured in China.

To imagine that this exact bike rack’s place of manufacture is wholly dependent on the language that you speak is absurd. So there must be another explanation. I see two possibilities.

On the one hand, perhaps someone screwed up. It’s entirely possible that the person who designed the label got mixed up and the copy-editor didn’t catch the error. Or, what seems more likely, is that the factory that built this bike rack actually exists in some sort of pocket dimension, outside of our objective reality, that happens to have openings into our reality in the US, Mexico, and China. I just find it so unlikely that someone missed this obvious error on the packaging, that this is the only logical conclusion.

The question is, if this company has independently developed the technology to build factories in pocket dimensions, why aren’t they marketing that instead of just building bike racks. The question almost answers itself. They did not, in fact, build the factory. They happened to stumble upon the open rifts to another dimension accidentally and there was already a bike-rack factory there. Perhaps left there by an ancient civilization that had developed dimensional travel technology and presumably enjoyed taking their bicycles with them when they went on road trips.

So all at once, this label is proof of the existence of pocket dimensions, the possibility of accessing them, and the past existence of a great and mighty civilization capable of dimensional travel that, for one reason or another, has long since disappeared without so much as a trace.

Take that, causality.

Why Fusion Power Isn’t Happening


In 1961, Kennedy said, “Hey, Russia. We saw your Sputnik, and that was cool. But hey, guess what? We’re going to put a dude on the moon. That’s right. That moon.”

And we did. In 1969, Neil Armstrong ambulated in a way that was at once small and giant, once again proving that distance is dependent on perception–without a doubt the most important discovery of the Apollo missions.

So that’s why things like this are really frustrating. Why is it that this so complicated? I would really like it if someone could explain to me why it takes fifteen years to build a nuclear reactor, when Wal-Mart can throw up a store in seven weeks? Is it a question of money? They’ve got the design already. What is it that costs so much?

We used to be able to set a goal and meet it. What went wrong? Is it a matter of money? Motivation? Are we simply not smart enough?

What is this barrier that’s preventing us from cranking out a working tokamak in six months? The design and the technology exist today. If it’s a problem of motivation, perhaps it’s that we don’t have anybody with a forceful enough personality to come out and say, “Here’s how shit’s going down, so listen up.” We need an Alexander. We need a Genghis. We need a freaking Kennedy. And none of the old, red-faced, boring Kennedys. We need the young Kennedy who told us we could land on the moon. Nuclear fusion should be a walk in the park by comparison. I had high hopes for Obama. I’m not seeing the results that I want, but I haven’t given up on him. Yet.

We know that there’s an astonishing amount of money locked up in hydrogen. The math is solid and so is the physics. It’s a given. It’s clean energy. It solves almost all of the energy problems that currently plague us. It’s as abundant as stray cats in Rome.

The deputy director of the project says, “you really need to know whether the major components work. It’s absolutely clear that this is the right approach.” I’m not so sure. But I can see a couple of different perspectives.

It’s entirely likely that this is a situation where we have too many hands in the pot. It’s great to see an international project that brings people together into a unified goal. But when that goal is just a huge, inefficient money sink, then it’s not serving anyone’s needs. My problem is the fact that this is actually something that we need. This needs to happen or we’re all screwed. Fifteen years is too long to wait for a solution to our budding energy crisis. We need it like yesterday.

Maybe it wasn’t Kennedy that was our motivator. Maybe it was the Russians. It was a threat that the Russians were going to beat us to the moon that really kicked the space race into high gear. What we need is the new millennium’s Russia. Terrorism is obviously not it because they’re not strong enough, not pervasive enough, and nobody really takes them seriously. There’s no palpable fear. We need a threat the size of Russia during the Cold War to drive us toward what we’re actually capable of. Alien invasion, maybe?

Perhaps the guy is right. Maybe the fusion project actually is too big to complete without the kind of bureaucratic machine behind this one. If that’s the case, then I have my doubts about whether we’re capable of such a feat. I mean, look at the Large Hadron Collider. It was proposed and approved in 1995. Fourteen years ago, we decided to build it. That means that it was theoretically possible for us to build it fifteen years ago. This means that technology has not improved in that time. It was beset by problems and delays and other nonsense and despite the fact that it was successfully activated, it broke pretty much right away.

If we extrapolate that out, assume that the same level of ineptitude is likely to plague this fusion project, there’s very little hope that this thing will be operational until 2050, far too late to solve any of our energy problems.

Our only option, as far as I can see, is to not hold our breaths on this one. Our current attitude toward goal-setting is pretty loose. In the 60’s we set goals and we met them. We don’t really do that so much anymore. Multiple sources of energy are going to be needed to fill the gaping hole left when oil prices get too high. Solar, wind, and possibly good old fashioned nuclear fission. Fusion is probably going to remain a pipe dream for some time yet.


The Phlogiston: Not Quite Vindicated


Phlogiston Theory was an attempt, in the 17th century to rectify a problem in the practice of alchemy. You see, the Greeks believed that there were four elements in nature: earth, air, fire, and water. But when all you have is these four elements and everything in nature is comprised of only these four substances, then how to you explain wood burning and metal rusting? What process is taking place?

Phlogiston Theory throws out air and fire and then states that everything that is combustible contains another element called phlogiston that is liberated during combustion or oxidation. At the time it made perfect sense. When wood burns, it grows smaller and the flames might look like something released from within the wood, and when iron rusts, it crumbles into dust, possibly after having lost whatever held it together in the first place.

Phlogsiton is a massless, colorless, odorless, (etc.) substance. It is a substance completely without identifying qualities. And we know how scientists love things without qualities. It’s a lovely theory because at its outset, it is very tricky to disprove. It took over a hundred years to dethrone it as the dominant theory of combustion. Today we know, of course, that combustion is rapid oxidation of a flammable material and that rust or corrosion is a slower version of the same natural process. In Phlogiston Theory, the fact that iron oxide is heavier than pure iron was reconciled by positing that phlogiston has negative mass!

Hilarious, I know. But is it really so unreasonable?

In the most recent (double!) issue of Analog Magazine, Dr. Don Lincoln speaks out about the ludicrous controversy surrounding the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). His purpose is largely to allay fears that it’s going to destroy the world and generate some interest in the new, tasty bits of knowledge that it might allow us to discover. Throughout the article, he goes into some pretty serious depth about theoretical particle physics and what we know, what we don’t know, what we think we know, and what we want to know about it. In particular, he focuses on two things: the Higgs Boson and gravitons.

I’ll be getting back to phlogiston in a moment, so bear with me.

As you are possibly, there are four forces acting in the universe: the strong, the weak, electromagnetism, and gravity. Since we know that there is a particle associated with the first three (and the strongest) forces, it is theorized that there is a fourth particle called a graviton that is associated with the gravitational force. Now, since gravity is the problem child of the four forces, with very little resemblance to any of its associates, we are bound by the principles of science to test the royal crap out of the theory in an attempt to prove it wrong.

But it’s not so easy.

What I’m saying is, we have to entertain the possibility that the graviton is a phlogiston, which we might, for the moment, define as “something that we make up in order to fill a gap in our current understanding of some subject.”

So how does a phlogiston differ from a hypothesis?

Even more “phlogistic” than the graviton is the Higgs Boson. If it exists, we can pat ourselves on the back for unifying the weak force and electromagnetism (electroweak). In fact, the current Standard Model of particle physics depends on its existence. It’s entirely possible that we are, in essence, making it up to explain the way the world works. Granted, these hypotheses and theories are based on tremendous mountains of verified evidence and extrapolated outward from them, there is still a lot that we don’t know about the world and it’s very possible that whole other models could be constructed that would fit our current data.

Who knows? When the LHC is activated later this year, it might generate data that would topple the Standard Model completely. It seems unlikely, but it’s entirely possible. The point is, the Higgs Boson might not be a phlogiston much longer now that we can actually test it.

Perhaps the most phlogistic of all theories (aside from Phlogiston Theory) is String Theory, and it has to be one of my all time favorites. I ate Brian Green’e book like a hobo eats pork’n’beans! It’s a marvelous theory. “Elegant” is perhaps the best word for it and if the world has any sense of artfulness (think Oscar Wilde, here), then String Theory has to be correct. But is it?

As a side note, it’s interesting how the Higgs Boson theory, the newer theories of gravity, and String Theory all seem to predict extra dimensions.

Anyway, I don’t necessarily mean to say that all theories are phlogistic until they have evidence to support them. Some are definitely going to be more phlogistic than others. Some, like String Theory, are likely to remain phlogistons until we can find some way of observing something tinier than the tiniest thing the human mind can conceive.

In the end, what we must understand about Phlogiston Theory, as a bit of science history, is that it was actually quite reasonable at the time. We must remember that European scientific inquiry for much of the Middle Ages was based on the assumption that the Greeks had got it right. Suddenly, the four elements idea wasn’t holding up, which meant that they were being questioned for the first time since Aristotle. Johann Becher, the scientist who first posited Phlogiston Theory, was engaging in a profoundly scientific act: he posed a hypothesis. Granted, he lacked follow-through, like attempting to test the hypothesis through experimentation, but he revised the Standard Model of the day and, since most philosophers were rationalists (he was, after all, a contemporary of Descartes), experimentation wasn’t necessarily required for a theory to become accepted. In point of fact, while it was technically possible at the time to test the theory, the techniques simply hadn’t been devised yet to test it.

The thing to take home: phlogiston was disproved a lot quicker than the Greeks’ four elements.

So let’s re-define a phlogiston thusly: a theory composed to fill a gap in understanding that is not yet possible to test thoroughly.

And let’s not judge Phlogiston Theory too harshly, because honestly, it was an improvement, but also because we might be assuming a hefty handful of phlogistic nonsense ourselves. Stay skeptical, but continue to indulge the occasional case of whimsy, because you never know just where the solution to some problem might appear. At least phlogiston got people thinking again.

Credit for pointing out Phlogiston Theory to me is owed to my friend, Jessymandias.


Two Billion Years From Now

You know, climate change is a problem. I once heard an argument against the burning of fossil fuels on the grounds that Earth would become like Venus. And we all know what sort of place Venus is. It’s interesting to think that Mars and Venus are completely opposite in terms of climate and atmospheric conditions, though an article in this month’s Scientific American points out that it’s possible that Mars’s rarefied atmosphere and Venus’s CO2 insulated greenhouse might have been created by some very similar processes. At the very least, they are both the result of a net loss of gases from their respective atmospheres. The crazy thing the article points out is that eventually Earth is more likely to end up like Venus than Mars. A scorching desert with rivers of molten lead.

Did you know that our atmosphere leaks three kilograms of hydrogen each second? It’s the lightest gas and so it concentrates in the upper atmosphere and just sort of evaporates off, disappearing into space. I did some further research and discovered that all atmospheres are constantly evaporating. Even the Sun is losing mass constantly. Ever consider what the solar wind might consist of? It’s material that’s being ejected off the surface of the sun. Our sun will lose probably .01 percent of its mass from evaporation throughout its main sequence, but there are larger suns that slough off some forty percent of their mass just from generating solar wind.

What I mean to say is, the universe is always in a constant state of flux. Everything is changing constantly. It’s the only thing that’s constant. In accordance with the second law of thermodynamics, that flux always tends towards a greater state of disorder or less potential energy.

Let’s say we stopped belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What would happen? Slowly, over time–about a billion years–the sun is going to get brighter as its main sequence continues. This means that water vapor will not condense and rain back to the Earth’s surface as readily. This will allow that water vapor to decay into hydrogen and oxygen under the force of a brighter sun’s ultraviolet radiation. After another billion years, our oceans will have all dried up and our atmosphere will have a much higher concentration carbon dioxide as hydrogen and oxygen leach off into the ether. Earth becomes another Venus. And that’s it. Earth is finished. Two billion years.

This came as something of a shock to me. I’ve always thought that life on Earth was dependent on the sun continuing to give off energy, feeding our biological economy. I never considered the possibility that the sun itself might be our undoing. I had never thought about our own atmosphere backfiring on us. The sun’s main sequence will last another seven billion years. That’s a lot of time. But if Earth is only habitable for another two, we’ve essentially got a third of that to…what?

I always thought it would be possible that humans might still exist on Earth in three billion years when the Milky Way crashes into Andromeda. I always thought there was a remote possibility (depending, of course, on our own ability to wise up). But there is no such possibility. Two billion years is a very small amount of time, cosmically speaking. But even beyond that event, what is there? Perhaps we find other habitable planets and generate the necessary technology to colonize them?

If the universe is expanding–which may or may not be the case–the second law of thermodynamics means that eventually the entire universe will be cold, lifeless, and dark. When? In a trillion years, our local galaxy cluster will have merged into one huge galaxy. Another trillion years later (again, continuing to assume the existence of dark energy), all other galaxies will have red shifted to the such an extent that they will no longer be detectable.

Star formation ceases at around 100 trillion years.

Slowly, all matter in the universe will be absorbed into black holes. But even black holes do not last forever. Slowly they decay. 10100 years from now, the last of the black holes will have evaporated to nothing, the tiny particles that they kicked off having dispersed throughout the eternity of space. Then comes the Dark Era.

And this is the thing that gets me. There is going to be crazy shit happening in the universe so long after our two billion years is up, and Earth won’t be here. At least, there won’t be anything worth calling life on Earth to experience it. All we have is these two billion years. So what do we do? It would be nice if we could do as much in that two billion years as possible.

I could turn this into a stump speech for renewable resources, etc. But you’ve heard it all before. I just wanted to put some shit into perspective.

Further reading: Humans Hell Bent on Mass Suicide


Build a Better Tool


One of the biggest evolutionary advantages that humans possess is our ability to use tools. Of course, we’re not the only species to use tools and in some cases, we’re not even the most dexterous with the tools that we do use. However, it seems to the be the case that we are alone in all the animal kingdom when it comes to the extent to which we refine our tools. The ability to use old tools to make better tools is one of our key advantages.

We don’t have claws and teeth worth a damn, so we make knives, swords, and guns. We’re not, on the average, as strong as a tiger, but our weapons and machines make us stronger. Nietzsche said that this was our capacity for simulation (a.k.a. lying). But that’s not what I wanted to talk about today. I merely wanted to illustrate how our tool making and, in particular, our tool refining, is responsible for so much of what we know about the world and, by proxy, what we are able to do in the world.

Imagine what it must have been like to be Galileo. The current accepted cosmic model shows Earth at the center of everything. the vast majority of the sky is utterly stationary (the stars), but there are a few objects that move. The Greeks compared them with the gods. The Romans called one in particular Jupiter. There’s Galileo, using a telescope that he built, taking a gander at Jupiter. What does he see? Three tiny “stars” dwarfed by Jupiter but very close to it. Imagine what the next few days must have been like for him? Night after night, observing these three stars and seeing them move and even disappear. How would you explain it, if everything is supposed to orbit the Earth? Imagine how his heart raced when the only logical hypothesis formed in his mind. Heresy, but true! They orbit Jupiter!

The reason that the Copernican Model of the solar system did not meet immediate success is the fact that his observations were based on measurements only infinitesimally better than those that confirmed a geo-centric solar system. His conclusion was radical because it flew in the face of everything that the Church held dear, but also because it was actually only a little bit better. For it to be politically viable, for the Church to accept it (no matter if scientists agree), you need a damn sight more positive proof than that. Look at the theory of evolution. That’s been demonstrated time and again, but it’s not proof enough for religious folks. It seems that often what it takes is one piece of irrefutable evidence to sway the skeptical. A smoking gun.

The problem, of course, is that there isn’t always one of those just lying around. Just ask a forensics expert.

Instead, what science relies on is a slow and steady progression, a refinement of technique and technology. The tools become incrementally more sophisticated, the measurements just a tiny bit more accurate and over time we are able to construct a picture of what the universe looks like. Galileo saw with this telescope things that we had no way of knowing existed. They might as well not have existed until Galileo spotted them. Not only that, but he was able to make more accurate observations in support of the Copernican Model than Copernicus which is why he, and not Copernicus, is the “Father of Modern Science.”

The strides he made in observational astronomy were monumental. But they pale in comparison to the things we’ve been seeing lately. Two stories caught my eye today. The first is directly related to this idea of incrementally more sensitive equipment. We’ve mapped the background radiation from our perspective. We have an idea of what the universe looked like when it was very, very young. But what will we see if we increase the resolution? As it turns out, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation might have a fingerprint of sorts embedded in it. Ripples in space-time, kicked up during the Big Bang, might have left a residual polarization in the cosmic radiation. We haven’t had tools sensitive enough to detect this hypothesized “B-mode polarization” yet, but perhaps now we do. And it will change, ever so slightly, our understanding of the early (the first trillionth of a trillionth of a second) universe.

Also on the micro scale, we have accurately measured the atomic mass of some isotopes of certain rare elements. More accurately, scientists have measured the nuclear masses of four specific rare elements. Rare elements like these are difficult to measure because they are rare and because when you do finally get your hands on some, they decay much too quickly to get accurate measurements. But through the use of our ability to continually refine our techniques and build more and more sensitive equipment, scientists have done what might have seemed impossible in Galileo’s day.

I like the quote from the project lead: “As an analogue, think of a scale precise enough to see how your weight changes when you pluck just one hair out of your head.”

How are such subtle changes in mass important? It depends on who you are. The thing is, in the world of science, smaller and smaller changes have bigger and bigger consequences. If some fundamental universal constant–for example, c, the speed of light–were different be as little as a tenth of a percent, the entire nature of the universe would be different. But it also has intrinsic value. The ability to accurately model the universe, to really see, in as much detail as possible, the mechanisms that power the universe, is remarkable and, when it comes down to it, it’s really all that sets us apart from chimps.