Google Knows I’m Thinking About Quantum Physics

Ever since my Schrödinger’s cat post last week, I’ve had quantum physics on the brain.  Some Google algorithm must’ve deduced this somehow, because suddenly YouTube started recommending videos like this one:

If quantum physics is a subject you’re interested in, and if you don’t mind sitting through a little math (not a lot of math, just a little), then this video is worth your time.  It’s a demonstration of a quantum physics experiment you can do at home.

Yes, you read that correctly.  You can do a quantum physics experiment at home!

Sciency Words: Schrödinger’s Cat

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

SCHRÖDINGER’S CAT

Quantum physics has a mascot: a cat.  Specifically, it’s a cat that is somehow, almost magically, both dead and alive at the same time.  Does that sound weird?  Confusing?  It should.  This simultaneously living and dead cat has come to represent everything that makes quantum physics such a weird and confusing subject.

I’m not going to go into the details of how quantum mechanics works because A) I don’t have the math skills to do that properly and B) even if I did, it’s way too big a topic to cover in one blog post.  For the purposes of a Sciency Words post, it’s enough for you to know this: based on a strict interpretation of quantum mechanics, you would be forced to conclude that nothing is real unless it is being observed.

If you find that hard to accept, you’re not alone.  Many of the scientists who came up with quantum mechanics couldn’t accept it.  In 1935, German physicist Erwin Schrödinger—a man who’d received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to quantum theory—had had enough, and he published this article titled “The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics.”

Don’t let that stolid title fool you.  Schrödinger was mad.  I’d characterize his article as an angry rant about everything wrong with quantum mechanics, or at least everything that was wrong with the strict interpretation of quantum mechanics.  That strict interpretation was becoming increasingly popular among Schrödinger’s colleagues, and it remains very popular among physicists today.

It was in the middle of this angry rant that Schrödinger first presented his now famous cat-in-a-box paradox.  Schrödinger first describes a killing contraption worthy of a James Bond villain.  A radioactive isotope is placed in a box.  A Geiger counter is rigged to trigger a hammer, which will smash a flask of hydrocyanic acid if the Geiger counter detects radioactive decay.  Lastly, a cat is placed in the box.  The box is sealed up so that no one can observe what’s happening inside, and it’s left undisturbed for one hour.

There’s a fifty-fifty chance that that radioactive isotope will decay before the hour is up.  Therefore, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the cat will die.  So until we open the box and make an observation, a strict interpretation of quantum mechanics would have us believe the isotope simultaneously has and has not decayed.  The Geiger counter simultaneously has and has not gone off, and the cat simultaneously is and is not dead.

Schrödinger’s cat was meant to demonstrate that a strict interpretation of quantum mechanics leads to nonsensical conclusions. “The rejection of realism has logical consequences,” Schrödinger warns us.

No one has ever tried this experiment with an actual cat (I hope), but according to this article from Quanta Magazine, the Schrödinger’s cat phenomenon can and does happen in real life.  Quantum mechanics is weird.  It’s confusing.  It defies common sense.  But as author John Gribbin writes in his cleverly titled book In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat:

Common sense has already been tested as a guide to quantum reality and been found wanting.  The one sure thing we know about the quantum world is not to trust our common sense and only believe things we can see directly or detect unambiguously with our instruments.

Beware Wishful Thinking: A Science Lesson

This may seem like a contradiction. Astrobiologists are actively searching for alien life.  It’s their job.  And yet whenever new evidence of alien life is presented, astrobiologists are the first and most vocal skeptics about it.  If your job is to search for alien life, why would you be so quick to doubt any evidence that alien life actually exists?

This goes back to the famous “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” line from Carl Sagan, or the whole proof beyond a reasonable doubt thing I kept saying during my recent A to Z series on the search for alien life.  Astrobiologists very much do want to find alien life.  They’re eager to find it.  Perhaps a little too eager.

And thus, astrobiologists have to be careful.  They have to be extra skeptical, because they have to be on guard against their own wishful thinking.

And really, this is not only true in the field of astrobiology; it’s true of science in general.  And frankly, it’s a valuable lesson for us all, even if you’re not a scientist.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve really wanted to believe something.  I’ve really wanted to believe that some girl likes me, or that I’ve put my money in sound investments, or that I’ve voted for the right people.  And when you really want to believe something, you’ll latch onto whatever flimsy evidence you can find to prove to yourself that it’s true.

Astrobiologists know this.  Scientists know this (or at least they’re supposed to).  And I think it’s good advice for us all to live by.  The more you want to believe something, the more you should question and doubt it.  Always, always, always be on guard against your own wishful thinking.

Wisdom of Gattaca: Measuring Human Potential

I recently spent a whole month researching and writing about aliens.  For a science fiction writer like me, learning about astrobiology—the scientific search for and eventual study of alien life—is an immensely valuable source of inspiration.  However, there is more to Sci-Fi than aliens and outer space.

I think I always knew this on some level, but the first movie to really make me understand it was Gattaca.  Growing up with Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who, I thought I had a pretty good feel for what science fiction was all about. While Gattaca didn’t totally break the mold (it does have spaceships, after all), it stretched the limits of the genre as I understood it at the time.

It was also a movie that raised a lot of questions and did not always supply the audience with easy answers.  Take this scene where the Mission Director at Gattaca talks about “a new measuring stick” for human potential.

Mission Director: We have to ensure that people are meeting their potential.

Police Detective: And exceeding it?

M.D.: No one exceeds his potential.

P.D.: If he did?

M.D.: It would simply mean that we did not accurately gauge his potential in the first place.

I really don’t want to agree with the Mission Director’s point.  I’m pretty sure, given the overall themes Gattaca explores, that the movie doesn’t want me to agree with him.  And yet it’s really hard to argue against the Mission Director’s logic here.

You can’t really “turn it up to eleven.”  You can’t really “give 110%,” because that’s just not how percentages work.  People may underestimate you.  You may underestimate yourself.  But you do have limits.  You can’t do more than you’re capable of doing, you can’t achieve more than you’re able to achieve… can you?

So I don’t really know how I feel about this exchange of dialogue, except that maybe the Mission Director’s logic started from a faulty premise.  Maybe the very idea of “a new measuring stick” for human potential is wrong.  Maybe human potential isn’t a thing that can be measured at all.  Maybe it’s not a quantifiable thing, at least not in the way the Mission Director presumes that it is.

But I don’t know.  Have you seen this movie?  Do you agree with what the Mission Director is saying?  Do you disagree? Let me know in the comments!

A to Z Reflections

You don’t really understand something until you can explain it to somebody else.  There are lots and lots of quotes out there to that effect, sometimes attributed (or misattributed) to Einstein, sometimes attributed (or misattributed) to other great scientists.  Regardless of where all those quotes really came from, that sentiment has long been the guiding philosophy of this blog.

For this year’s A to Z Challenge, my theme was the scientific search for alien life.  Obviously I’ve written about that topic before, many times over, but I still felt a bit shaky in my knowledge.  So I wanted to dive deep into the science of astrobiology and the closely related field of SETI.  I wanted to double check the things I thought I already knew, and of course I wanted to add to that knowledge.

Writing those 26 blog posts was the final step, the final test. Have I learned this stuff well enough to explain it clearly and concisely?  I suppose only you, dear reader, can be the judge of that. But based on the responses I’ve gotten so far and the conversations I’ve been having with people in the comments, I feel like I must’ve done a decent enough job.

With this year’s A to Z Challenge now behind me, I certainly feel more confident talking about astrobiology and SETI than I did before. More importantly, I feel a whole lot more comfortable incorporating what I’ve learned into my science fiction. After all, I started this blog with one purpose in mind: to force myself to do the kind of research that, in my opinion, a science fiction writer ought to do.

If any of you came away from my A to Z series feeling like you learned something, or even if you just have a newfound sense of wonder for the stars—for all the things that might be out there in the cosmos—I consider that a bonus.  Thank you for reading, and thank you especially to those of you who commented.

On Monday, I’ll be back to my regular blogging schedule.

#IWSG: Alphaburn Out

Welcome to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer, and if you feel in anyway insecure about your writing life, click here to learn more about this awesome group!

Umm, hi.  This is James’s muse.  My writer is… unavailable for writing today, so I’m just going to take care of writing this post myself.

The good news is that my writer finished the A to Z Challenge. His theme was the scientific search for alien life.  My writer has always been laser-focused on writing science fiction—he’s not interested in writing anything else—so it should be obvious why he wanted to dedicate so much time and effort to this topic.

My role in all this was, of course, to feed my writer inspiration.  But it’s also my job to help my writer manage his time and to give him that vital push to keep going when he needs it.  And getting through those last few letters of the alphabet… my writer needed a lot of help with that.  I had to push him really hard, and I had to make him give everything he’s got.

So now my writer’s kind of burned out.  He’ll probably need a few days off before he gets back to his regular writing routine.  Muses should not do this to their writers on a regular basis, but in this case I’d say it was worth it.  And whenever my writer wakes up from his nap, I’m pretty sure he’d agree with me.

Sciency Words A to Z: The Zero-One-Infinity Rule

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, Z is for:

THE ZERO-ONE-INFINITY RULE

All month, we’ve been talking about astrobiology, SETI, and the possibility that we are not alone in the universe.  I’d like to end this series with a prediction for the future, and conveniently my prediction is related to a Z-word: the zero-one-infinity rule.

The zero-one-infinity rule was originally created by Dutch computer scientist Willem Louis Van Der Poel.  For the purposes of computer programming, the rule has to do with how many times a user is allowed to do a thing (whatever that thing might be).

It makes sense for a user to never be allowed to do a certain thing (zero), or it makes sense for a user to do a thing only once (one).  But if you’re going to allow a user to do a thing more than once, you may as well let the user do that thing as many times as the user wants.  As a rule of thumb, the zero-one-infinity rule means there’s no reason to impose arbitrary limits on what users can do.

The zero-one-infinity rule has been adapted to many other scientific fields, including the field of astrobiology.  How many places can life exist in the universe?

  • Zero: the universe might not allow life to exist at all.  Of course we already know this isn’t  true, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
  • One: the universe might only allow life to develop once.  In this view, Earth is a crazy exception, a one-time fluke in a universe that otherwise does not allow life to exist.
  • Infinity: the universe allows life to exist anywhere and everywhere it can.  Life might still be rare in this view, but there are no arbitrary limits imposed on life.

I remember in the 80’s and early 90’s there were a lot of people (including one of my science teachers) who honestly believed our Solar System might be unique.  No other star except our Sun was known to have planets. Maybe that was because there were no other stars with planets.  In short, our Solar System was a “one” in the zero-one-infinity rule.

Then in 1992, astronomers announced the discovery of the first known exoplanets—planets orbiting a star other than our Sun. At the time, we still had no idea just how many exoplanets we might find, but if the universe had allowed two solar systems to form, why not three?  Why not a dozen, or a thousand, or a million?  As soon as the case for “one” crumbled, the possibilities were suddenly limitless.

I predict the same thing will happen when we finally discover alien life.  Maybe it will be microorganisms on Mars, or sea monsters on Europa, or ham radio enthusiasts in the constellation Sagittarius.  It won’t matter which kind of life we find, specifically. Any alien life will do.

In this special edition of Time Magazine, there’s a brief mention of the zero-one-infinity rule.  In that article, NASA scientist Chris McKay sums up the whole field of astrobiology by saying, “So what we’re searching for is two.”  Because once we know that life developed on not one but two worlds… why not three?  Why not a dozen, or a million?  The possibilities will be truly limitless.

Sciency Words A to Z: Young Surface

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, Y is for:

YOUNG SURFACE

Imagine a nice, smooth, clean sheet of asphalt: a parking lot, maybe, with no cracks or potholes or blemishes of any kind.  Just looking at it, you would know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that this asphalt had been laid down recently. It’s new.  It is, in effect, a young surface.

In much the same way, planetary scientists can look at the surface of a planet or moon and infer, with a reasonable degree of certainty, how young or old that surface must be.  Look at the Moon or Mercury; they’re covered in craters, showing that their surfaces must be very, very old.  Or look at Mars, where some regions are more heavily cratered than others, implying (intriguingly) that some surfaces are relatively old and some are relatively young.

And then there’s Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa may be covered in weird, orangey-red cracks, and it may have a few other orangey-red blemishes, but overall it’s surprisingly smooth, and there are very few craters.  This makes Europa look a whole lot younger than it actually is.  In fact, Europa is said to have the youngest-looking surface in the whole Solar System.

Europa’s surface is made of ice, specifically water ice.  This is not so uncommon for a moon in the outer Solar System.  It’s so cold out there that water behaves like a kind of rock.

But unlike most other icy moons, Europa must be doing something to get rid of old, crater-y surface ice and replace it with new, clean, smooth ice.  And once you really start thinking of water as a kind of rock, you might be able to guess what Europa’s doing.  As stated in this paper from Nature Geoscience: “[…] Europa may be the only Solar System body other than Earth to exhibit a system of plate tectonics.”

Except unlike Earth’s techtonic plates, which float atop a layer of magma (liquid rock), Europa’s plates would be floating atop “magma” that is actually liquid water—twice as much liquid water as we have here on Earth, according to some calculations.

And while liquid water may or may not be necessary for life, we do have good reason to suspect that any place that has liquid water might also have life.  Personally, based on everything else I’ve learned about Europa, I’d be more surprised if we didn’t find something living there.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, I have a prediction for the future.

Sciency Words A to Z: Xerophile

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, X is for:

XEROPHILE

You can’t have life without water.  Everybody knows that, right?  Right?  Well, apparently there are some microorganisms on this planet who didn’t get the memo.

The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the most un-Earth-like environments on Earth.  It is severely dry.  It almost never rains there, and even when it does it’s a pathetic trickle. And it’s been like this for over a hundred millions years, making the Atacama Desert the oldest continuously arid region in the world.

At this point, the Atacama Desert has been so dry for so long that, chemically speaking, it has more in common with the surface of Mars. Most notably, in my opinion, the toxic perchlorate salts found on Mars are also present in the Atacama—0.4 to 0.6 wt% for Mars compared to 0.3 to 0.6 wt% for the Atacama, according to this article.  A near perfect match!

It was once thought the sands of the Atacama Desert were sterile, and experiments on soil samples seemed to prove it.  However, thanks to “improved extraction protocols,” we now know better.  As reported in this paper, titled “Bacterial diversity in hyperarid Atacama Desert soils,” it seems a great many bacterial species have found their way into the Atacama and adapted to the harsh environment.

In general, organisms that can survive in extreme conditions are known as extremophiles.  The term applies especially well to organisms that actually thrive in environments that should kill them.  There are many subcategories of extremophile, such as:

  • Thermophiles: organisms that love extreme heat.
  • Barophiles: organisms that love extreme pressure.
  • Acidophiles: organisms that love acid.
  • Halophiles: organisms that love salt.

Any organism that can survive in the Atacama Desert would be considered a xerophile, which comes from a Greek word meaning dryness.  They’d also probably be halophiles, given the presence of those perchlorate salts.  As noted in this article: “Xerophilic organisms are often also halophilic, some of them occurring in hypersaline solutions.”

So what does all this mean for our chances of finding life on Mars?  I think that should be obvious.  However, it’s worth noting that even xerophiles require some water.  Remember, even in the Atacama Desert it rains a little. Fortunately for any xerophiles who might be eeking out an existence on Mars, there seem to be a few rare trickles of water there too.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, have you seen Europa, the moon of Jupiter?  She looks a whole lot younger than she really is.  So what’s her secret?

Sciency Words A to Z: Wow! Signal

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, W is for:

THE WOW! SIGNAL

There’s a ton of radio noise in space, coming from stars and nebulae and black holes and so forth.  There’s so much radio noise that it can easily drown out the relatively weak radio and television broadcasts that might be coming from a planet like Earth.

So if aliens want to talk to us, they’re going to have to send a much stronger transmission, something that will come through loud and clear over all that other space noise.  And in 1977, astronomers at Ohio State University picked up exactly that kind of signal.

As the story goes, Ohio State was conducting a SETI search with their “Big Ear” radio telescope.  The telescope recorded electromagnetic emissions coming from space, reporting the strength of those emissions on a scale from 0 to 9. If Big Ear happened to pick up anything stronger than a 9, it represented that with a letter—A represented a 10, B represented 11, and so forth.

On the morning of August 18, 1977, astronomer Jerry Ehman was reviewing Big Ear’s latest data when he saw a bunch of large numbers, and even a few letters.  Famously, Ehman circled those letters and numbers and wrote one word next to them: Wow!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Appropriately, this is now known as “the Wow! Signal” (the exclamation point is usually included in the name).

In one sense, the Wow! Signal is exactly what SETI scientists were hoping to find.  Even the radio frequency—approximately 1420 megahertz—was consistent with expectations.  In this 1959 paper, physicists Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison singled out 1420 MHz as the frequency extraterrestrials were most likely to use.

But in another sense, the Wow! Signal was not what we wanted it to be, because it only happened one time, and it has never repeated since. Despite many follow-up searches of the constellation Sagittarius (like this one or this one), where the Wow! Signal originated from, we’ve never picked up a signal like it again.

As I’ve said several times this month, in our search for alien life, we have to hold ourselves to the same standards as a court of law: proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Wow! Signal very well might have been aliens… it might have been anything… and that’s the problem.  Unless and until we pick up the Wow! Signal again, we can’t prove one way of another what it was.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, you can’t have life without water.  Or can you?