Hidden Doorways a Reality?


Click on the image to see it full size. I’m working on a new theme for the blog so that I can include larger format images. It might take some time.

This is pretty much exactly what would happen if William Shatner came ’round to tea at the Prime residence.

So I realized today that I have no really good reason for using Optimus Prime as the subject of so many of these comics (if you can call them that). Perhaps it’s that I see him as the sort of ideal outside observer. An alien not of us, but very sympathetic to us. He likes humans in a way that is not patronizing or insincere. He shows us–the inferior race–a kind of respect that is rare between humans.

Prime is the perfect idealist. His most famous quote (from the comics as well as the various Michael Bay films) was, “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.” On the one hand, it’s the sort of magnanimous statement that gives a person shivers, especially when uttered by the always earnest Peter Cullen. But it’s also, when one really deconstructs it, astonishingly prejudiced against beings that are less than sentient. Regardless, I’ve always wanted to identify with Optimus Prime and I respected his sage wisdom (and awesome robot-fu) as a child.

Perhaps I use him in so many comics because I happen to own an Optimus Prime action figure myself, which makes it easy to photograph him from any angle I want. Do you know how hard it is to find a photo of William Shatner in the perfect pose?

The subject of ‘Hidden Portals’ was spawned by a headline that I saw on Science Daily. It’s one of those headlines that really plays tricks on a guy like me. I read something like this and I get really excited. I imagine, of course, teleportation (something that would really put GM out of business). And, thus, that’s the idea that I explored in my art project.

But that’s not exactly what’s going on in the article. In fact, the article is further misleading in that, try as I might, it’s difficult to figure out what, exactly, these researchers actually accomplished. Upon further research into the matter, it turns out that what they have created is not an actual, workable prototype of a hidden doorway, but instead have built a functional conceptual model of a doorway that does not permit electromagnetic waves to pass through it, but would allow other entities (say, a person) to pass through. A mirror that you can walk through.

It’s actually really cool. But this is the thing that’s frustrating about science sometimes. They’ve proved that it’s theoretically possible, but they haven’t actually built it yet. My question is, of course, why the hell not?

It’s a curious thing about science. In fact, it’s the critical difference between science and applied science (i.e. technology). What use has a scientist for technology except as a way of furthering our understanding of the world? They’ve proved that it’s possible to build the doorway. In a sense, it doesn’t matter to the pure researcher that it ever actually gets built. For the pure researcher, actually building the device would only be important if it could be used in further research. This might be an oversimplification of the pure researcher, who is, of course, only human, but the point remains.

Technology, like for instance these new metamaterials involved in the creation of the hidden portal is, essentially, a means to an end. And I don’t mean this lightly. “Means to an end” is a concept that bears considerable weight to a philosopher. Technology is a means to an end. And it is nothing more than that. To a scientist, the end is knowledge and understanding. To everyone else, the end is often creature comfort or experiential. We use technology as a means to the end of enhancing our individual lives or the lives of others. Both are perfectly reasonable ways to use technology.

Without letting this become a lecture on ethics, I think I’d like to bring this whole thing full circle.

I’d like to bring this around to what I find so interesting about Optimus Prime. He is, in a sense, a piece of technology. But he is also a sentient being. He is the ideal exemplar of a higher being that treats lower beings with dignity and respect. He is a piece of technology that doesn’t treat humans as a means to an end. They are an end in themselves. To be treated as an end and not a means. That is the true meaning of “freedom,” folks.

Now, if only someone would build some mirror-portals so that I could buy one.

Freiheit ist nicht frei.

On Rescuing Reporters and Accurate Language in Astronomy


I imagine the recent negotiations to have gone something like this. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I like to imagine that Uncle Bill threatened Kim Jong Il with a Roman spatha.

I for one am glad that Bill Clinton gets a little attention. He gets to be the goddamned hero for once. And you know what? Despite everything that anyone says, the right thing happened. Two innocent women were freed from a very bleak future.

This is vitally important. It is not possible to see this as a bad thing unless you are a terrible person.

So anyway, NASA has released an image that was captured by the Spitzer telescope. I like Spitzer and I am a huge fan of the things that we get to see because of Spitzer. And this new image is not a disappointment. It’s an interesting spiral galaxy with a strange eye-shaped structure at its center. I think the most notable feature, however, is smaller galaxy that appears to caught up in orbit around the larger galaxy’s nucleus. It makes a lot of sense from a physics standpoint. The moon orbits Earth which orbits the sun which orbits our own galactic center. Why not have larger, binary galaxies? All around pretty sweet.

The thing that I wanted to focus on, however, is not the image itself, but rather, the language used to describe the image. And exerpt:

  • “The ring around the black hole is bursting with new star formation. An inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy is causing the ring to light up with new stars.”

I know that I’m not the first person to point this out, but if we want to be perfectly accurate with our language and consider that this galaxy in the image is about 50-million light-years away, shouldn’t the above quotation be phrased more like this:

  • “The ring around the black hole was bursting with new star formation. An inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy was causing the ring to light up with new stars.”

I mean, really. The image is of the state of that galaxy fifty million years ago. I’m not an astronomer, but I am a linguist. When astronomers discuss these things, do they use past-tense language? I’m really curious about this, because it seems to me that by using simpler language to ease communication, then some information is lost in the discussion. By using present tense, you must make the (to be fair, usually accurate) assumption that the reader understands that “is” actually means “was the case fifty million years ago.”

On the one hand, I’m curious about the type of language that professional astronomers use. On the other, I feel like I ought to lobby for the use of accurate language when describing celestial objects like distant galaxies.

Perhaps the most viable solution would be to take Rush Limbaugh, freeze him, stick him in a pod and launch him to that other galaxy so that he can report back to us about what it’s doing. With any luck, we’ll miss and he’ll be lost in the inconceivably vast void between galaxies forever.

Would it be easier to just send him to North Korea where he would be forced to do hard labor for ten years?

Singen Sie mich adieu.

Copernicus Joins the Table


A month or so ago, I talked a little bit about this new element. Well, they’ve finally settled on a name for it. I must say I’m a little disappointed in Professor Hofmann. I know as well as the next guy the contribution that Copernicus made to science and, more importantly, the importance of questioning everything, but this is ridiculous.

I made a perfectly reasonable suggestion that they name the new element after David Carradine–which is well within the rules of the naming these things since he’s, well, dead–and did they listen? Of course not.

I guess that’s just how it goes. You win some, you lose some. But as far as I’m concerned, mainstream chemistry is on notice until they come up with some really cool shit for my brain to absorb.

Welcome to the periodic table copernicium. Don’t pay any attention to Iron. He’s just irritable. If you need any advice, go talk to Hydrogen. He’s been around for a long, long time.

traurig genannt.

Quantum Entanglement Demonstrated in a Mechanical System!


My favorite part about science is the fact that so much of it is, in essence, just for fun. The problem for grant writers must be spinning it so that it sounds like there’s a practical “use-value” for research.

One of the first posts for this blog was about a scene from Also Sprach Zarathustra. Specifically, Nietzsche was making a claim about the value of gold. Now, I had not expected the reaction that this claim would elicit from some of my friends. One friend in particular happens to be a stock trader and professional poker player, a guy who makes his living by understanding the value of money. He argued that gold is not useless because it has exchange-value.

I and other friends argued that there was a fundamental difference between use- and exchange-value. I mean, if gold had a use-value, it wouldn’t be used as currency. Of course, it’s often used today in many industries as a conductor, but that’s beside the point. Nietzsche did not write by electric light, so in his time, the analogy holds, and even to this day, only a tiny percentage of all the gold mined is used for industry. The vast majority of it is locked up in jewelry and hoards.

Of course, the comparison that I was trying to draw at the time relates directly to how scientific research is conducted and the reasons for conducting that research. For instance, a recent discovery has been all over the science news circuit as well as the blogosphere, and it’s kind of a big deal. But the take-away lesson of the story is kind of tricky.

Science always has a sort of “cool factor.” You hear about new a new kind of supernova that was discovered or this new quantum entanglement discovery (links above), and you consume that knowledge immediately. You are joyous. It’s a sort of cathartic experience. I mean, quantum entanglement in a mechanical system! That’s pretty rad, right? But then you ask the average reader of Scientific American what it means in practical terms and you might get a vague answer about quantum computers. Based on this discovery, however, that’s a really long way off. This discovery is cool despite its apparent uselessness. We like this kind of knowledge simply because it’s interesting and satisfies a need deep inside ourselves. A need to know something true about the world that we didn’t know before.

This is why scientists do this kind of research. The scientists working on the project are way more concerned with knowing things than making the world a better place. Or rather, they are trying to make the world a better place through expansion of knowledge because knowledge has an intrinsic value that is not easily defined.

“Hey, dudes, we’ve finally demonstrated quantum entanglement in a mechanical system!”
“Oh, dude, you rock!”
“Yeah, I know right? This is totally sweet in and of itself.”
“Yeah, man, the only thing we’re really interested in is continuing our research in this field!”
“Woo!! Bong rips for all!”

Or something like that. They want more grant money for pure research. But somehow they have to convince the people with the checkbooks that there’s a utilitarian reason for doing this sort of research. Again, some vague claim about computers that are orders of exponentially more powerful, couched in very careful rhetoric that doesn’t actually promise results anytime soon.

I mean, the LHC is the perfect example of this. They’re looking for evidence that the Higgs Boson exists. It might not! And whether it does or not, knowing will be way cooler than not knowing.

Science is not about progress. Science defies progress. Science shatters the myth of progress in many ways, which is why in some situations pure knowledge is not without its consequences. For instance, evolutionary theory defies the very concept of progress.

And so, quantum entanglement has been demonstrated in a mechanical system. This is totally sweet. It has no bearing on our lives, but we are overjoyed to know it. Maybe someday down the road, this knowledge will have use-value, but for the time being, research will continue and we will be happy for it. Because we are so damned curious. Like kittens.


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.