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Beach Reading - Quantum Mechanics, A Kind of Love Story.

"Once upon a time it was possible for any reasonably intelligent person to know all there was to know about everything that was known."

Catherine Krantz

A Brief History of Time:
From the Big Bang to Black Holes

By Stephen Hawking

So you want to know about the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics? Where did we come from, where are we going, why are we here? Heady thoughts to ponder over college football and a belly full of Christmas dinner. But here we go.

It all started when I read this article about scientists looking for the existence of God in quantum physics. Some said the big bang theory didn't account for the creation of carbon (and if you remember from your high school Life Science class, carbon is essential to life on earth). So they said the likelihood of carbon being produced by 3 helie nuclie stars imploding, exploding or just plain ploding, was statistically near impossible. But then this other guy says, No, no its possible to create carbon by banging stars as long as the carbon atom is radioactive or some such complicated: atom, nucleus, fusion, radioaction stuff...

Whew! Thank God! For a moment there I was really getting worried...

So what's to be learned from all this quantum theorizing, except clever bits of obscure knowledge to toss out at beach parties?--You ask. Well bottom line, for me, is that it just goes to show that knowledge alone well never negate religion. And some of the smartest, most educated, atom crunching scientists are still looking for God in petri dishes. A perfect example of this age-old conundrum and an excellent beach read is Stephen Hawking's, "A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes."

They say this book is for the laymen, the non-scientists, but I say those laymen would have to be pretty damn intelligent and educated to even be able to grasp the vast majority if it. Well, of course you can determine the age of the universe by weighing its gravity and taking its temperature, duh! And of course you can do this by sticking a thermometer into the armpit of a black hole! Nah just kidding, you actually do this by counting the number of hydrogen molecules left in one tiny little piece of the atmosphere... Perhaps if I were a Scientist I'd truly understand this laymen's guide to the galaxy. But since I'm having to go on faith here, all Hawking does is come across looking like a God. How'd he know to do that? How'd he know to think that?

Once upon a time it was possible for any reasonably intelligent person to know all there was to know about everything that was known. Sadly for us who wanna know everything, that time is no more. In the past 70 years or so, science has progressed to such an extent that only a few very specialized specialists can ever know all there is to know about any one specialty. Stephen Hawking is just such a specialist. He is, so says the book jacket, "the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein". And that, in itself, is enough to get my attention. Trying to keep up with science is kinda like buying a new computer or a new car, as soon as you get it home, as soon as you read this book-- its ancient history. But for us casual observers of the universe, its way more than we'll ever need to know and just enough to fascinate and terrify.

So if you have an interest, Brief History of Time, is a great beach read, just don't try to understand all of it. So why then was this book such a phenomenon? Why did this book spend 100 weeks on the best seller lists and sell a million hard cover copies?? Why indeed, because people really do want to understand this stuff. I really do want to understand Euclidean Space-Time, if only cause it sounds so cool. No, I didn't really get it, but I did stumble upon some pretty fun facts to throw out at parties to impress my friends (and really, what could possibly be a better reason to pursue continuing education?). I'll share them with you but only if you promise to act surprised and impressed when I throw them out to the crowd at the bar:

-The speed of clocks is affected by their nearness to the earth, a clock placed at the top of a water tower runs faster than one placed at the bottom of the tower, (So why don't we gain time whenever we fly? I tested this out flying into Mexico City last week. In the air above Mexico City, my watch said it was 11:15, therefore missing my connecting flight. We touched down and I, in a great huff, ran from gate 25 to gate 9, expecting to make it by 11:15. Guess what, I still missed my flight, but the moral of the story is there is indeed, a Burger King in the Mexico City airport.)

-Every particle of matter has a corresponding antiparticle, when a particle collides with its antiparticle they annihilate each other, leaving only energy. What a fabulously romantic idea, the stuff of myths and legends. Science occasionally gets so near poetry, there just must be some scientific basis for all our romantic notions. Like the yin & yang with disastrous consequences, the soul mate you love to hate. The antiparticle you can't live with, can't live without. But no, it's actually a sad love story. Somehow, the result of a myriad of possible calamities and horrible misfortunes, (all having to do with temperature and gravity, of course) there's way more quarks than antiquarks (quarks are these tiny little things, it takes a bunch of them to make up other things, like particles). And well that's just seems sad and lonely for the quarks, there's just no guarantee they'll ever find their antiquark... but actually that's good for us. If every quark annihilated with their antriquark, there'd be no matter - only radiation, and then where would we be?

-According to the weak anthropic principle the reason the big bang occurred about 10 thousand million years ago, is because it takes about 10 thousand million years for intelligent life to evolve to the point of understanding the big bang.

-And the best one: "The earth is a medium-sized planet orbiting around an average star in the outer suburbs of an ordinary spiral galaxy, which is itself only one of about a million million galaxies in the observable universe."

-But my personal favorite is that there is actually a real live term called "supercool", it is the process of carefully reducing the temperature of water below the freezing point without ice forming. (And I thought I was the only thing that was supercool.)

So read "A Brief History of Time", its "Supercool" and there's no more perfect place to ponder the infinite universe than on a nice quiet beach, somewhere out here in the suburbs.

January 2001

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