The Shape of Things

29 October 2004

Nick came into the office Wednesday morning, his head filled with ideas. He does this sometimes.

“I didn’t get much sleep last night,” he said.

“Up late playing Everquest?” I asked. Nick is always up late playing Everquest. He’s addicted. He’s a muckety-muck in an Everquest guild (“The Happy Travelers“). He maintains a web forum. He prints copious notes on the game.

“No,” he said. “Suprisingly enough, I stopped playing about ten and read a book. I picked up the new book from Brian Greene, and I read it until midnight. But I couldn’t fall asleep. I just lay there for several hours thinking about the shape of the universe. It’s amazing.”

Nick set his coffee on my desk. This was going to be a long one. “Did you know that other galaxies are moving away from us faster than the speed of light? They’re moving apart due to the swelling of space, a result of the Big Bang. They’re traveling faster than the speed of light because the speed of light only applies to things traveling through space; the galaxies are moving apart due to the swelling of space. Just think of it. Eventually they’ll move outside our existence.”

He picked up his coffee, took a sip. I sat still, befuddled.

If Nick’s mind is a mass of confusion because of what he reads, imagine what mine is like after he’s had time to cogitate on this stuff and then spit it out in what amounts to vague incoherencies. I like real science, social science, not this soft, fuzzy theoretical stuff.

Before I could parse what Nick had told me, he began to explain something about the speed of light, and its limitations. I only ended up more confused.

“That doesn’t makes sense,” I said. “If you have one ray of light traveling in a certain direction, and another ray traveling in the opposite direction, then they’re traveling away from each other at twice the speed of light. Right?”

“No,” said Nick. “They’re traveling away from each other at the speed of light. They can’t travel away from each other any faster.”

I couldn’t wrap my mind around this. I have a tough time wrapping my mind around a lot of stuff like this: particles that exist in two places at once, particles that can communicate, curved space, etc. “That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “What is it? Relativity or something?”

“Yeah,” said Nick. He took another sip of his coffee. I could tell he was preparing to launch into another, related topic. I stood to leave.

“I’d love to hear more,” I said. “But I’ve got to go make sales calls with Tony.” I gathered my things.

“I should offer to drive,” I said. “Tony’s driving scares me. He drives too fast and he loves to tailgate. I spend most of my time looking down at my lap, holding on to my seat.”

Nick laughed. We’re not impressed with Tony’s driving skills. We think he’s a bit wild. When he was younger, he had several accidents and several tickets. Once while driving on the freeway, he hit an engine block; another time on the freeway, he hit a lawnmower. He hit a mailbox one time, too, but that wasn’t in the freeway.

Tony, Dana, Joel: the three drivers who scare me.

Tony and I left to make sales calls.

We drove from customer-to-customer to let them know that Tony’s leaving Custom Box, and that I’ll be taking his place in the field. Everywhere we went, the reaction was the same: “Will you still bring us ice cream?” For the past several years, Tony’s taken ice cream to our customers at least once each summer. Apparently, this scores Big Points.

Tony was driving through northeast Portland, wending the car on a narrow road in an industrial park. Traffic had stopped. Ahead of us, a semi was having trouble backing into a business. Tony became agitated.

“Come on!” shouted Tony. “Learn how to drive! You shouldn’t be driving a truck if you can’t back it up!”

“Calm down,” I said.

“Look at that idiot,” he said. “He can’t even back up the truck.”

“What do you care? Maybe he’s just learning. Just take it easy.”

Time passed. Tony fidgeted in his seat. He muttered under his breath.

“My god. I can’t believe this,” he said.

“Relax. You’re acting like Jeremy.”

“Well, that guy shouldn’t be allowed to drive a truck if he doesn’t know how to back it up.”

“What do you know?” I asked. “You’ve never driven a truck.”

“Man, that pisses me off,” Tony said, turning on me. “You and Jeff and Nick think I can’t drive a truck. I drove a big U-Haul truck to Bend without any trouble — I backed it up without any trouble — but Jeff won’t let me take the truck to deliver boxes. You guys think you’re such good drivers. It’s bullshit.”

“The very fact that you’re angry at this guy for taking so long to back up tells me you’re not ready to drive a big truck,” I said.

“Shut up,” said Tony. “I’ve seen you put a car into the ditch in freezing rain. And I’m not the one who rear-ended a car full of Mexicans while driving a truck.”

I had to grant this was true. “Yeah, that was pretty much Jeff’s fault all they way.”

Nick came into the office Thursday morning, his head filled with ideas. He does this sometimes. This time, he dragged Tony behind him.

“We were just talking about Voyager,” said Nick said.

“Which Voyager would that be?” I asked. “That bad Star Trek show?”

“No. Voyager One and Two,” he said. “Do you realize they’ve been traveling for over twenty-five years? They were both launched in 1977. They’ve left the solar system and still it only takes ten hours for their signals to reach us. Ten hours. The nearest star is 4.2 light years from us. Assuming that Voyager’s signals are traveling at the speed of light” — and here the three of us had a long argument about whether this was a valid assumption; I contended that radio waves were not light waves and thus would not travel at the speed of light, even in a vacuum — “then, well, imagine I’m walking across the United States. If I had gone as far as Voyager, I would have walked from Canby to Oregon City. In twenty-five years.

I shook my head. I, too, sometimes engage in intellectual flights of fancy, but they’re not so amusing when they’re my intellectual flights of fancy.

“You know how when you get an x-ray they protect you with lead?” said Nick. “Well, do you know how thick your lead shield would have to be to block just 50% of neutrinos from hitting you?”

No, I didn’t know how thick my lead shield would have to be to block just 50% of neutrinos from hitting me.

“It’d have to be 5.7 trillion miles thick. One light year.”

“Do neutrinos cause cancer?” I asked, puzzled by the comparison to x-rays.

“No,” said Nick. “I don’t think so.”

“Then why would I want a lead shield that thick?”

Tony and I left to make sales calls.

As we drove past Mom’s, I looked at the back yard, to the oak tree, once broad and tall, the oak tree which I climbed so many times as a kid. In the (possibly apocryphal) family mythology, this tree grew from an acorn planted on the spot by my grandfather, or my uncle, or some other family member. An outhouse once stood in the spot, and when the indoor bathroom was built, someone planted an acorn on the site of the old shithole.

But that was fifty or sixty years ago. Over time, the tree has aged, and rotted. The ice storm last winter wounded the oak, tearing off a couple of great boughs. Mom had an arborist come out to repair the damage. After patching the wound, he recommended felling the tree anyhow. Mom called my cousin, Mart, to do the job. Now the tree is laying on its side, the thick woody trunk askew.

“It looks like Mart has to come back to finish the job,” I told Tony.

“I can’t believe she cut that down,” he said.

“It was rotted,” I said. “Even Jeff agreed it needed to go.”

“Jeff’s not an arborist,” said Tony. “What does —”

“Look out! Don’t hit that bird!” I shouted as a stupid robin swooped low in front of us. “I can’t believe you almost hit that bird.” I was joking, of course. In the country, it’s impossible to avoid killing a bird once in a while.

Then I said, “Jeff’s not an arborist, but mom called one in. He trimmed the oak and then told her it needed to come down. He should have told her first, huh? Say, how do you know what an arborist is?” I turned to look at him.

“I’m not an idiot,” Tony said.

“I know,” I said. “But I only just learned about the existence of arborists three months ago. How do you know about—”

“Oh man,” said Tony, eyes wide, staring out the window.

I turned to look at the road just in time to see the car smack a little bird. “I can’t believe you hit that bird!” I said, laughing.

“It’s not my fault the’re jumping out in front of me,” Tony said. “If they were traveling at the speed of light, it wouldn’t be an issue!”

And then he added: “Besides, how do you know the bird didn’t hit me? Let’s see: I’m going straight and the bird veers toward me. You don’t see me saying ‘Oh look! You’re running into neutrinos.’ They’re running into you. It’s all in perception.”

“What are you doing, Tony?” I shouted.

He was on his cell phone, arguing with his wife. He was also driving. He had come up — quickly — behind a car that was backing out of a driveway.

Tony veered a bit to one side, half-heartedly applied his brake, and let the woman have the right of way. When he had finished arguing with his wife, he turned to me: “What did you mean, asking what I was doing back there? I saw that lady pulling out.”

“Yeah, but you came up behind her so fast. You were going to pass her on the right.”

“No, I wasn’t. I let her in.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but you scared the shit out of her: ‘Why’s that asshole coming up so fast. What’s he trying to do?'”

“What? You wanted me to just stop and wait for her?”

“No, you didn’t have to stop, but you could have slowed down. Would that have been asking too much?”

Tony only sighed and shook his head.

“I’m helping you to become a better driver,” I said.

In the afternoon, Tony sent me to Portland by myself. He’d had enough of my driving tips. That, and I think he wanted to discuss the shape of the universe with Nick.


On 29 October 2004 (01:14 PM),
Dana said:


Your lack of basic physics knowledge (if you are being truthful in this entry) is making me squirm. Go read Hawking’s Brief History of Time, if you haven’t, or watch Cosmos again…

For the record:

Neutrinos do NOT cause cancer (they only interact through the weak nuclear force, and a little bit through gravity).

Radio waves ARE light. Or, more properly, they are both electromagnetic in nature. Radio waves are modulated electromagnetic fields, and visible light is visible electromagnetic fields.

The whole point of relativity is that light always moves at the same speed in a given medium. So two light beams retreating from each other are still travelling at light speed relative to one another, not twice the speed of light. However, from the point of view of one of them, the apparent frequency of the other will appear quite different than if they were travelling in parallel in the same direction. Instead of having different speeds, they have different relative energy and, hence, relative frequency (the energy of light is dependent on it’s frequency)

That’s the core weirdness. If light always travels only at lightspeed, then you get stuff like length contraction, doppler shift (ie, red and blue shift), and time dilation.

At least from a mathematical modelling point of view, Gravity is the *shape* of space in four-dimensions. The more massive something is, the more space is *bent*, and the more force is exerted on other nearby masses.

Oh, and I believe both voyagers are still technically inside the solar system — inside the ‘heliopause’, at any rate, the point in space at which the Sun’s EM field meets the interstellar medium and creates a kind of ‘bowshock’. Voyager 1 (Humanity’s fastest vehicle, IIRC) is farther out than V2, I believe.

Lots more info than my faulty memory can dredge up is here at NASA’s Voyager Mission page.

I have to admit, I get the vague impression that you put yourself in this entry with the various positions you did as a way of tweaking my (or perhaps Kris’) nose…

On 29 October 2004 (01:35 PM),
Kris said:

Remember, Dana, Jd was a psychology major!

On 29 October 2004 (01:57 PM),
Dana said:

Oh, I know, Kris. It’s just painful to be reminded that, as smart as he is, there’s so much he doesn’t know. Sigh.

Mostly for Nick, although it might be a bit heavy, here’s a pointer to Wikipedia’s M-Theory page, which is one of the better contenders for how to get Quantum Gravity (ie, the unification of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics into one complete structure). It has 11 dimensions, not the more usual 4 that Relativity gives us (3 spatial, 1 temporal). Also, the wikipedia’s entry on Cosmology contains a lot of good stuff about the big bang and whatnot. =)

On 29 October 2004 (01:57 PM),
Pam said:

That was the first thing that came to my mind, too, Kris, especially when JD is talking about liking real science, not soft fuzzy stuff.

On 29 October 2004 (01:58 PM),
Tiffany said:

It is good to know that ice cream is as important as boxes.

How do you hit an engine block and a lawnmower on the freeway?

On 29 October 2004 (02:07 PM),
Dana said:

…especially when JD is talking about liking real science, not soft fuzzy stuff.

I think he just prefers sciences where opinion is as important as fact… ;)

On 29 October 2004 (03:29 PM),
Nick said:

Osh! Leave it to JD to not get his facts straight. I am not a muckety-muck. I am an Entangled Intergallactic Reconnaissance Officer.

Dana, I have some exposure to M-Theory from reading Brian Greene’s first book. I enjoy reading pop physics even though I will never achieve a full comprehension of it. Some of the concepts of quantum physics and M-Theory are just mind-boggling to me(I heard one person say of quantum physics, “Not only is quantum physics stranger than you think. But, it is stranger than you can think.”). But, I still try to get some kind of grasp of them and that is why I expose poor JD to the stuff rattling around in my head. It can really help to solidify my understanding if I can explain it to somebody else. JD is just too practical though. The point isn’t that one needs to block neutrinos from hitting them. It is that a wall of lead 5.7 trillion miles thick can only block 50% of them.

Oh, one other thing. Tony also hit our truck while it was parked in our parking lot.

On 29 October 2004 (03:37 PM),
J.D. said:

Dana: Your lack of basic physics knowledge (if you are being truthful in this entry) is making me squirm.

Ha! Now you know how I feel about your willful ignorance of literature! :)

I should make the same arguments to you about my lack of physics knowledge that you make to me about your lack of reading: “I don’t like to know physics, I don’t want to know physics, I like psychology, and I’ll stay with it because I’m comfortable with it.”

Dana: Neutrinos do NOT cause cancer.

I didn’t think they did. It seemed unlikely. And the point seemed moot since so few strike the Earth, right? I have a passing familiarity with neutrinos; I can remember Maurice Stewart lecturing on them in Astronomy.

Dana: I get the vague impression that you put yourself in this entry with the various positions you did as a way of tweaking my (or perhaps Kris’) nose..

Close to the mark. I was intentionally trying to be very self-deprecating, making fun of my backseat driving, etc. And I was trying to poke fun at Nick and Tony, too. But the fact is, I don’t know a lot about physics, and I don’t care to. I don’t need to. It plays no great role in my life. I feel no void. Not like the void Dana feels due to lack of being well-read. :)

On 29 October 2004 (04:10 PM),
Dana said:

No, millions of Neutrinos are sleeting through the Earth as I sit typing this.

It’s just that only about two or three will actually hit and interact with an atom at all.

The big supernova in 1987 (that nobody but me seems to remember) was detected because a Neutrino detector in Japan had a huge jump — they picked up six all together, instead of the more normal one or two a day.

That’s not because only six passed through the Earth — it’s because so many passed through the Earth that six happened to react inside the detector…

On 29 October 2004 (04:31 PM),
J.D. said:

Dana: The big supernova in 1987 (that nobody but me seems to remember)


This particular supernova — 1987A, if I recall correctly — is Big Deal, even today, is it not? Who doesn’t remember it?

And the anecdote you relate at the end of your comment is what I am remembering from Astronomy class, is why I thought neutrinos were rare…

On 29 October 2004 (06:34 PM),
Mom (Sue) said:

About the oak tree, I think the acorn story is definitely apocryphal, although I can’t be 100% sure of that. From what I recall, the tree was planted as a sapling. However, Virginia would no doubt remember better than I would (and I am going on a vague memory of what Steve said). Where is Virginia, anyway? I miss her.

As for taking it down, the arborist came out and looked at it and gave me a quote for the pruning, then gave me a date for the work to be done. He didn’t comment on the scarred up area at that time or indicate that he had noticed it when he gave me the quote. When he came on the morning the work was to be done, he told me that the tree was very dangerous and should come down. Basically, because he hadn’t said this initially, I didn’t believe him and went ahead and had the pruning done. However, after it was done, I questioned him more on what he thought could happen in a windstorm, and he said that he thought it would go down on a corner of the house. I asked for a quote on taking it down and it was quite exhorbitant.

I decided to try to find arborists in the area online. I found one who said he would come out for $120.00 or else I could take pictures of the tree and scan them in to him. I did so and he concurred that the crack in the tree from the branches coming down over the last few years was so deep that the tree was dangerous and should come down. He wouldn’t do the work himself but gave me the name and phone number of a guy who would. He also estimated what it would cost, which was less than the first arborist but still up there, especially if he hauled the wood. As this online arborist had no monetary advantage of any kind in giving me his diagnosis, I became (and still am) convinced that what he said was true.

I mentioned this in an e-mail to Mart and Elizabeth and Elizabeth wrote back saying that Mart would be glad to do the work. I opted for this avenue. In the meantime, I took a good look (and more pictures) of the tree, especially in relation to the house. It was even more apparent that it was a danger to the house. In addition, I was quite in awe of how the weight of the last branch to come down had smashed the birdbath to smithereens, and I had never been able to even lift the birdbath’s basin. What would a bunch of heavy branches do to my house?

I know that the tree had sentimental value for family members. I felt bad to see it come down and wished for some other alternative. I don’t believe that there was one, however.

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