There Might Be Bacon At the Other End of the Universe

Made20baconBacon is not something you would normally find at the other end of the universe since there are no pigs there (as far as we know), but there’s a very small, calculable probability that your plate of bacon will disappear and reappear at the opposite end of the universe. While seemingly impossible, the spontaneous disappearance and reappearance of particles happens around you all the time, though usually only to tiny particles like electrons, which is why you don’t see it happening in everyday life. In physics, we call this quantum tunnelling — a concept of quantum mechanics in which the behavior of particles, such as protons, electrons and even smaller ones, are studied.

Technically, anything has the probability of randomly disappearing and reappearing somewhere else, but bacon is more fun to talk about. Unfortunately, the probability of a piece of bacon quantum tunneling somewhere is extremely improbable — every particle that makes up that piece of bacon would have to tunnel to the same place, the same time, and stay in the same organization to still be a piece of bacon when it got there.

The smaller something is, the higher the probability of this quantum tunneling effect successfully taking place. Quantum tunneling is also dependent on distance — the probability is greatest for it to reappear close by where it originally disappeared and gets less probable the farther away from where it disappeared.

It’s more probable that I’ll quantum tunnel to the moon than to the other side of the universe, but this whole concept is a highly improbable event — people don’t go missing one day to eventually reappear on mars.

It’s most probable for a tiny particle, like an electron, to tunnel across a small point in space. This actually happens a lot, and it’s soon going to be a major problem for computers.

Computer circuit boards function through electric currents in transistors. Transistors determine the flow, or non-flow, of these currents, depending on if the transistors are “open” or “closed.” In modern computers, these transistors have gotten smaller, causing the computers themselves to get smaller. The problem is that once these transistors get too small, quantum tunneling will begin to affect the current. Electricity is just the flow of electrons, so if the transistors are too small, the electrons will just tunnel through the transistors even when they are “closed.”

The important thing to take from all this is that there is an extremely microscopic possibility that an alien is questioningly looking at a piece of bacon that disappeared out from under the surprised face of a fat guy here on earth. Science lets me say that truthfully.

How We Started With A BANG And Not A POOF

Courtesy of NASA

Photo courtesy of NASA

The Big Bang is, according to science, how the universe started. You may ask, how did it happen? The Higgs boson may eventually help answer this question, but for now the question I’m going to answer is HOW we know it started with the Big Bang. The theory so far is that the universe started out in a super dense ball of energy and suddenly EXPLODED into universe size in less than a second.

There is a telescope orbiting Earth call the Hubble telescope that is named after Edwin Hubble, an astrophysicist that is well known for figuring out the universe is expanding. This telescope is incredibly powerful and since it is in space it can see much more than the normal earthbound telescope can. The air from our atmosphere can distort any images we may take of the night sky with a telescope on Earth. So a bus-sized hunk of metal flying around the earth at 7.5 kilometers per second (that’s about 17,000 mph) may not seem that important but it is, it’s supposed to be what’s telling us how the universe came to be, and so far it is doing a pretty damn good job.

A discovery that was made using the telescope was that the galaxies around us are moving away from us. This doesn’t mean that the old religions were right saying the Earth is the center of the universe, it means the universe is expanding. The universe is expanding like if you drew the galaxies and stars on a balloon and blew the balloon up, everything gets farther apart. This is evidence for the big bang, the theory of the universe so far is that it expanded rather quickly at the beginning. Continuing with this idea the universe should still be expanding today and that is indeed what is happening.

One of the cooler things the Hubble has done is taking a deep-field picture. Scientists pointed the telescope at the blackest, most darkest and devoid of anything spot they could find in the sky and took a picture. It is so powerful and sensitive to light though that it actually captured more than just empty space. Looking at the picture reveals the universe as it was billions of years ago. This is because light travels at a measurable speed and therefore would take a definite amount of time to get to us. The farther an object is from us the longer it takes for the light to get to us, so knowing that what we are looking at a part of the sky billions of light-years away we can correctly assume that the light we are seeing is billions of years old, meaning we see an image of the universe that long ago.

In that picture though there was still a black background behind the galaxies. This time the black is not just more of the universe we can’t see, it is the edge of the universe. Going off our previous idea that the universe did not exist past that point (we are seeing light from billions of years ago still and the universe is about 13.7 billion years old). This telescope is amazing, it is so powerful that we can use it to not just see far away in space, but actually see backwards in time.

God particle? In physics?!

atlas_cern_big

Photo courtesy of NASA

Smash two particles together at near light speed and you get the god particle, though this is a misleading name for an important particle in physics called the Higgs boson. This particle is important because it is what gives matter mass, otherwise you would not be able to exist. It was recently discovered at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (also known as CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. I interviewed Ritu Linhart, a researcher who was working there at the time of the discovery. Linhart was kind enough to tell me all about what the discovery was and why it is important.

What exactly is this mysterious Higgs boson and field and why is it so important? Linhart gives an example that was used at the facility, imagine a cocktail party where everyone is walking around and just mingling. Now suddenly Madonna walks in, what happens? Everyone is going to head right towards her. Madonna would be an example of the Higgs field, this is like the same thing as a magnetic field attracting something. This higgs field was also proved to exist because of the Higgs boson being found, this is why discovering this particle was so important. Madonna’s field brings everyone together just like the Higgs field gives matter mass.

The CERN scientists discovered the Higgs boson by using a machine called the Large Hadron Collider (pictured above). The LHC pretty much gets one little tiny piece of mass, called a particle, and another one and smashes them together at almost the speed of light, which is about 300 million meters per second or 671 million mph. Just for comparison, that’s about how fast you would have to go to run around the Earth seven times in a single second. It smashes them together by using massive electromagnets that curve the particles around in a circle. The whole machine that they go around is a circular tube underground that is 17 miles around.

The significance of the Higgs boson is that it will help physicists figure out the origin of matter. This in turn will help explain how the universe formed. Further research into this will help us figure out how other things in theoretical physics work too like other particles, and will probably help reveal other secrets of the universe.

All of science is summed up in the fact that we are trying to be able to accurately predict the universe and what it does and eventually getting to the point of being able to control these cosmological powers. We have the power of manipulating electricity for our own needs and we can use the nuclear force at our whim as well. If science can figure out enough about this Higgs boson how it works and affects other things, eventually we may be able to use this to create matter itself. The greatest goal of science, to be able to manipulate the universe.

Cavemen Are Smart Enough To Make Fire, But Are We Smart Enough To Figure It Out?

Illustration by Brendon Lies

Illustration by Brendon Lies

BAM! Lightning hits a tree and a branch falls down on fire, what do you do? Well if you’re a caveman, you poke it. Then you scream in pain, but what if someone dropped something like food in there and then grabbed it and ate it? Well if caveman-you did that, you just invented cooking. Fire is mankind’s greatest discovery, and it seems simple, but it is pretty interesting. Get some wood and a spark and POOF, you get some bright orange stuff that’s extremely hypnotizing and fun to play with and stare at and and… what just me? Well carrying on, it’s so simple and common but how does it really work? If you really think about fire, it’s confusing. It’s orange and sometimes blue, there’s charcoal leftover when theres no more fire, and forget about why the wood slowly disappears. These are all interesting and common questions and here are the answers to some of them.

Why is fire hot?: Fire is hot for the same reason that fire emits light; it’s a byproduct of a chemical reaction. As the wood reaches a certain temperature it releases energy stored in the wood or other substance in a chemical reaction, this causes the fire.This heat is actually infrared light, we humans see light with our eyes, but we have nerve endings in our skin sensitive to infrared light, which is how we feel heat.

Why are there tongues of fire?: Fire moves and licks the air the way it does because of gravity. Earth’s gravity makes hot air rise, this is because hot air is less dense than cool air, and this makes an air current around the flame, drawing it upwards. Fire in zero-gravity actually burns in a sphere because theres no gravity to cause the air to rise.

Why are fires orange and red?: Normally the chemical reaction that causes fire makes the fuel burn a light blue, but it’s different with a wood fire or candle. Wood doesn’t burn completely, that’s why there is charcoal when all the wood is gone. Wood and candles do not burn as pure as gas, for example. Soot and other particles released from the wood is the smoke. These particles burn so hot that they give off light, they burn red hot. These particles burning is what we see as the flames, the colors come from them, not the wood.

Fire is quite the interesting thing and is not as simple as it may seem, though to caveman I think pretty much everything would be much more complicated than it may seem. Thinking about how fire works and how cool it is just shows how even the most simple things in life can be made more complicated but much more interesting when seen through the viewpoint of science.

How To Make a Hole in Space and Time

Illustration by Brendon Lies

Illustration by Brendon Lies

So, punching holes in space. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Hell yeah it sounds like fun. The proper scientific name for this hole in space and time is actually black hole. You can try swinging your fist in the air all you want and as hard as you can, but you’re not going to punch a hole in the fabric of the universe. Usually, you need a perpetually exploding plasma ball floating in space (a star) for that, and a much bigger one than our sun.

Most black holes are formed when the mass of something gets compressed within a certain radius, called a Schwarzschild radius, which is determined by the amount of mass. For the Earth to become a black hole, which it would never do naturally, it would have to be squeezed into a marble the size of your pinky nail … yeah, that’s a lot of mass in one place. At this point, the escape velocity (the velocity needed to escape the object’s gravity) is equal to or greater than the speed of light. Hence, a black hole — no light escapes, so you can not see it, you can only see how it affects everything around it. This compression happens because of a star going supernova, a massive explosion 10 light-years across. Ten light-years. That’s about 16,000 solar systems next to each other. The aftermath is a hole in space and time. A hole
with very interesting properties as well.

Black holes are very weird. So freaking weird that no one believed they existed when a couple of physicists started describing them and their properties. Stephen Hawking even made a $100 bet against their existence … he’s a $100 dollars short now. All black holes have a point of no return — called the event horizon — where its gravity is so strong nothing can escape, not even light. If someone watches you go past this horizon, they will see you stop as soon as you enter it and never go any farther. This is because time literally stops at the event horizon.

One of the most interesting properties of black holes is their possible use for time travel. Something else interesting about them is that they are also theorized to be a possible gateway to other universes. The problem lies in the fact that the singularity, the really crazy physics-makes-no-sense-here part at the center of the black hole, is a point in a non-rotating black hole. This makes it useless to us because we can’t exactly travel through a point, we need something to travel through. We can travel through a ring, not a point. There is a specific kind of black hole called a Kerr black hole where the singularity spins, causing it to stretch into a hollow ring like the one possibly on your finger. The math was worked out by Roy Kerr in 1963.

So, if you’re ever strolling through space and see a stationary black hole, just think, “Damn I can’t go into that one or it will spaghettify me because its singularity is a point not a ring.” That way, your atoms won’t be forcefully squished into each other by the black hole’s immense gravity. This would possibly kill you without you knowing it because your brain will be squashed as well. Yay!