This post is once again inspired by a Ted Chiang short story. This time, it’s “The Evolution of Human Science”, which imagines a world in which super-intelligent “metahumans” have become incomprehensible to the ordinary humans they’ve left behind. Human scientists in that world practice “hermeneutics“: instead of original research, they try to interpret what the metahumans are doing, reverse-engineering their devices and observing their experiments.
It’s a thought-provoking view of what science in the distant future could become. But it’s also oddly familiar.
You might think I’m talking about machine learning here. It’s true that in recent years people have started using machine learning in science, with occasionally mysterious results. There are even a few cases of physicists using machine-learning to suggest some property, say of Calabi-Yau manifolds, and then figuring out how to prove it. It’s not hard to imagine a day when scientists are reduced to just interpreting whatever the AIs throw at them…but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
Instead, I’m thinking about my own work. I’m a particular type of theoretical physicist. I calculate scattering amplitudes, formulas that tell us the probabilities that subatomic particles collide in different ways. We have a way to calculate these, Feynman’s famous diagrams, but they’re inefficient, so researchers like me look for shortcuts.
How do we find those shortcuts? Often, it’s by doing calculations the old, inefficient way. We use older methods, look at the formulas we get, and try to find patterns. Each pattern is a hint at some new principle that can make our calculations easier. Sometimes we can understand the pattern fully, and prove it should hold. Other times, we observe it again and again and tentatively assume it will keep going, and see what happens if it does.
Either way, this isn’t so different from the hermeneutics scientists practice in the story. Feynman diagrams already “know” every pattern we find, like the metahumans in the story who already know every result the human scientists can discover. But that “knowledge” isn’t in a form we can understand or use. We have to learn to interpret it, to read between the lines and find underlying patterns, to end up with something we can hold in our own heads and put into action with our own hands. The truth may be “out there”, but scientists can’t be content with that. We need to get the truth “in here”. We need to interpret it for ourselves.
George Gamow was one of the “quantum kids” who got their start at the Niels Bohr Institute in the 30’s. He’s probably best known for the Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper, which managed to combine one of the best sources of evidence we have for the Big Bang with a gratuitous Greek alphabet pun. He was the group jester in a lot of ways: the historians here have archives full of his cartoons and in-jokes.
Naturally, he also did science popularization.
I recently read two of Gamow’s science popularization books, “Mr Tompkins” and “Thirty Years That Shook Physics”. Reading them was a trip back in time, to when people thought about physics in surprisingly different ways.
“Mr. Tompkins” started as a series of articles in Discovery, a popular science magazine. They were published as a book in 1940, with a sequel in 1945 and an update in 1965. Apparently they were quite popular among a certain generation: the edition I’m reading has a foreword by Roger Penrose.
(As an aside: Gamow mentions that the editor of Discovery was C. P. Snow…that C. P. Snow?)
Mr Tompkins himself is a bank clerk who decides on a whim to go to a lecture on relativity. Unable to keep up, he falls asleep, and dreams of a world in which the speed of light is much slower than it is in our world. Bicyclists visibly redshift, and travelers lead much longer lives than those who stay at home. As the book goes on he meets the same professor again and again (eventually marrying his daughter) and sits through frequent lectures on physics, inevitably falling asleep and experiencing it first-hand: jungles where Planck’s constant is so large that tigers appear as probability clouds, micro-universes that expand and collapse in minutes, and electron societies kept strictly monogamous by “Father Paulini”.
The structure definitely feels dated, and not just because these days people don’t often go to physics lectures for fun. Gamow actually includes the full text of the lectures that send Mr Tompkins to sleep, and while they’re not quite boring enough to send the reader to sleep they are written on a higher level than the rest of the text, with more technical terms assumed. In the later additions to the book the “lecture” aspect grows: the last two chapters involve a dream of Dirac explaining antiparticles to a dolphin in basically the same way he would explain them to a human, and a discussion of mesons in a Japanese restaurant where the only fantastical element is a trio of geishas acting out pion exchange.
Some aspects of the physics will also feel strange to a modern audience. Gamow presents quantum mechanics in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen in a modern text: while modern treatments start with uncertainty and think of quantization as a consequence, Gamow starts with the idea that there is a minimum unit of action, and derives uncertainty from that. Some of the rest is simply limited by timing: quarks weren’t fully understood even by the 1965 printing, in 1945 they weren’t even a gleam in a theorist’s eye. Thus Tompkins’ professor says that protons and neutrons are really two states of the same particle and goes on to claim that “in my opinion, it is quite safe to bet your last dollar that the elementary particles of modern physics [electrons, protons/neutrons, and neutrinos] will live up to their name.” Neutrinos also have an amusing status: they hadn’t been detected when the earlier chapters were written, and they come across rather like some people write about dark matter today, as a silly theorist hypothesis that is all-too-conveniently impossible to observe.
“Thirty Years That Shook Physics”, published in 1966, is a more usual sort of popular science book, describing the history of the quantum revolution. While mostly focused on the scientific concepts, Gamow does spend some time on anecdotes about the people involved. If you’ve read much about the time period, you’ll probably recognize many of the anecdotes (for example, the Pauli Principle that a theorist can break experimental equipment just by walking in to the room, or Dirac’s “discovery” of purling), even the ones specific to Gamow have by now been spread far and wide.
Like Mr Tompkins, the level in this book is not particularly uniform. Gamow will spend a paragraph carefully defining an average, and then drop the word “electroscope” as if everyone should know what it is. The historical perspective taught me a few things I perhaps should have already known, but found surprising anyway. (The plum-pudding model was an actual mathematical model, and people calculated its consequences! Muons were originally thought to be mesons!)
Both books are filled with Gamow’s whimsical illustrations, something he was very much known for. Apparently he liked to imitate other art styles as well, which is visible in the portraits of physicists at the front of each chapter.
1966 was late enough that this book doesn’t have the complacency of the earlier chapters in Mr Tompkins: Gamow knew that there were more particles than just electrons, nucleons, and neutrinos. It was still early enough, though, that the new particles were not fully understood. It’s interesting seeing how Gamow reacts to this: his expectation was that physics was on the cusp of another massive change, a new theory built on new fundamental principles. He speculates that there might be a minimum length scale (although oddly enough he didn’t expect it to be related to gravity).
It’s only natural that someone who lived through the dawn of quantum mechanics should expect a similar revolution to follow. Instead, the revolution of the late 60’s and early 70’s was in our understanding: not new laws of nature so much as new comprehension of just how much quantum field theory can actually do. I wonder if the generation who lived through that later revolution left it with the reverse expectation: that the next crisis should be solved in a similar way, that the world is quantum field theory (or close cousins, like string theory) all the way down and our goal should be to understand the capabilities of these theories as well as possible.
The final section of the book is well worth waiting for. In 1932, Gamow directed Bohr’s students in staging a play, the “Blegdamsvej Faust”. A parody of Faust, it features Bohr as god, Pauli as Mephistopheles, and Ehrenfest as the “erring Faust” (Gamow’s pun, not mine) that he tempts to sin with the promise of the neutrino, Gretchen. The piece, translated to English by Gamow’s wife Barbara, is filled with in-jokes on topics as obscure as Bohr’s habitual mistakes when speaking German. It’s gloriously weird and well worth a read. If you’ve ever seen someone do a revival performance, let me know!
Maybe you’ve heard the buzzword, and you imagine science fiction become reality: teleporting people across the galaxy, or ansibles communicating faster than light. Maybe you’ve heard a bit more, and know that quantum teleportation can’t transfer information faster than light, that it hasn’t been used on something even as complicated as a molecule…and you’re still confused, because if so, why call it teleportation in the first place?
There’s a simple way to clear up this confusion. You just have to realize that classical teleportation is easy.
What do I mean by “classical teleportation”?
Let’s start with the simplest teleporter you could imagine. It scans you on one end, then vaporizes you, and sends your information to a teleportation pad on the other end. The other end uses that information to build a copy of your body from some appropriate raw materials, and there you are!
(If the machine doesn’t vaporize you, then you end up with an army of resurrected Derek Parfits.)
Doing this with a person is, of course, absurdly difficult, and well beyond the reach of current technology.
And no, nothing about the Star Trek version changes that
Do it with a document, though, and you’ve essentially invented the fax machine.
Yes, faxes don’t copy a piece of paper atom by atom, but they don’t need to: they just send what’s written on it. This sort of “classical teleportation” is commonplace. Trade Pokémon, and your Pikachu gets “classical teleported” from one device to another. Send an email, and your laptop teleports it to someone else. The ability to “classically teleport” is essential for computers to function, the idea that you can take the “important information” about something and copy it somewhere else.
Note that under this definition, “classical teleportation” is not faster than light. You still need to send a signal, between a “scanner” and a “printer”, and that’s only as fast as your signal normally is. Note also that the “printer” needs some “ink”, you still need the right materials to build or record whatever is being teleported over.
So suppose you’re building a quantum computer, one that uses the unique properties of quantum mechanics. Naturally, you want to be able to take a quantum state and copy it somewhere else. You need “quantum teleportation”. And the first thing you realize is that it’s harder than it looks.
The problem comes when you try to “scan” your quantum state. You might have heard quantum states described as “inherently uncertain” or “inherently indeterminate”. For this post, a better way to think about them is “inherently unknown”. For any quantum state, there is something you can’t know about its behavior. You can’t know which slit the next electron will go through, you can’t know whether Schrödinger’s cat is alive or dead. If you did, the state wouldn’t be quantum: no matter how you figure it out, there isn’t a way to discover which slit the electron will go through without getting rid of the quantum diffraction pattern.
This means that if you try to just “classically teleport” a quantum state, you lose the very properties you care about. To “scan” your state, you have to figure out everything important about it. The only way to do that, for an arbitrary state on your teleportation pad, is to observe its behavior. If you do that, though, you’ll end up knowing too much: a state whose behavior you know is not a quantum state, and it won’t do what you want it to on the other end. You’ve tried to “clone” it, and there’s a theorem proving you can’t.
(Note that this description should make sense even if you believe in a “hidden variable” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Those hidden variables have to be “non-local”, they aren’t close enough for your “scanner” to measure them.)
Since you can’t “classically teleport” your quantum state, you have to do something more subtle. That’s where “quantum teleportation” comes in. Quantum teleportation uses “entanglement”, long-distance correlations between quantum states. With a set of two entangled states, you can sneak around the “scanning” part, manipulating the states on one end to compute instructions that let someone use the other entangled particle to rebuild the “teleported” state.
Those instructions still have to be transferred normally, once again quantum teleportation isn’t faster than light. You still need the right kind of quantum state at your target, your “printer” still needs ink. What you get, though, is a way to transport the “inherently unknown” behavior of a quantum state, without scanning it and destroying the “mystery”. Quantum teleportation isn’t easier than classical teleportation, it’s harder. What’s exciting is that it’s possible at all.
On an unrelated topic, KKLT have fired back at their critics, with an impressivesalvoofpapers. (See also this one from the same day.) I don’t have the time or expertise to write a good post about this at the moment, currently hoping someone else does!
I recently learned about a very cool concept, called a bubble of nothing.
Read about physics long enough, and you’ll hear all sorts of cosmic disaster scenarios. If the Higgs vacuum decays, and the Higgs field switches to a different value, then the masses of most fundamental particles would change. It would be the end of physics, and life, as we know it.
A bubble of nothing is even more extreme. In a bubble of nothing, space itself ceases to exist.
The idea was first explored by Witten in 1982. Witten started with a simple model, a world with our four familiar dimensions of space and time, plus one curled-up extra dimension. What he found was that this simple world is unstable: quantum mechanics (and, as was later found, thermodynamics) lets it “tunnel” to another world, one that contains a small “bubble”, a sphere in which nothing at all exists.
Except perhaps the Nowhere Man
A bubble of nothing might sound like a black hole, but it’s quite different. Throw a particle into a black hole and it will fall in, never to return. Throw it into a bubble of nothing, though, and something more interesting happens. As you get closer, the extra dimension of space gets smaller and smaller. Eventually, it stops, smoothly closing off. The particle you threw in will just bounce back, smoothly, off the outside of the bubble. Essentially, it reached the edge of the universe.
The bubble starts out small, comparable to the size of the curled-up dimension. But it doesn’t stay that way. In Witten’s setup, the bubble grows, faster and faster, until it’s moving at the speed of light, erasing the rest of the universe from existence.
You probably shouldn’t worry about this happening to us. As far as I’m aware, nobody has written down a realistic model that can transform into a bubble of nothing.
Still, it’s an evocative concept, and one I’m surprised isn’t used more often in science fiction. I could see writers using a bubble of nothing as a risk from an experimental FTL drive, or using a stable (or slowly growing) bubble as the relic of some catastrophic alien war. The idea of a bubble of literal nothing is haunting enough that it ought to be put to good use.
The only surprise was his lack of concern for accuracy. Quantum is Calling got the conjecture it was trying to popularize almost precisely backwards. I was expecting that to bother him, at least a little.
Should it bother you?
That depends on what you think Quantum is Calling is trying to do.
Science popularization, even good science popularization, tends to get things wrong. Some of that is inevitable, a result of translating complex concepts to a wider audience.
Sometimes, though, you can’t really chalk it up to translation. Interstellar had some extremely accurate visualizations of black holes, but it also had an extremely silly love-powered tesseract. That wasn’t their attempt to convey some subtle scientific truth, it was just meant to sound cool.
And the thing is, that’s not a bad thing to do. For a certain kind of piece, sounding cool really is the point.
Imagine being an explorer. You travel out into the wilderness and find a beautiful waterfall.
How do you tell people about it?
One option is the press. The news can cover your travels, so people can stay up to date with the latest in waterfall discoveries. In general, you’d prefer this sort of thing to be fairly accurate: the goal here is to inform people, to give them a better idea of the world around them.
Alternatively, you can advertise. You put signposts up around town pointing toward the waterfall, complete with vivid pictures. Here, accuracy matters a lot less: you’re trying to get people excited, knowing that as they get closer they can get more detailed information.
In science popularization, the “news” here isn’t just news. It’s also blog posts, press releases, and public lectures. It’s the part of science popularization that’s supposed to keep people informed, and it’s one that we hope is mostly accurate, at least as far as possible.
The “signposts”, meanwhile, are things like Interstellar. Their audience is as wide as it can possibly be, and we don’t expect them to get things right. They’re meant to excite people, to get them interested in science. The expectation is that a few students will find the imagery interesting enough to go further, at which point they can learn the full story and clear up any remaining misconceptions.
Quantum is Calling is pretty clearly meant to be a signpost. The inaccuracy is one way to tell, but it should be clear just from the context. We’re talking about a piece with Hollywood stars here. The relative star-dom of Zoe Saldana and Keanu Reeves doesn’t matter, the presence of any mainstream film stars whatsoever means they’re going for the broadest possible audience.
(Of course, the fact that it’s set up to look like an official tie-in to the Star Trek films doesn’t hurt matters either.)
They’re also quite explicit about their goals. The piece’s predecessor has Keanu Reeves send a message back in time, with the goal of inspiring a generation of young scientists to build a future paradise. They’re not subtle about this.
Ok, so what’s the problem? Signposts are allowed to be inaccurate, so the inaccuracy shouldn’t matter. Eventually people will climb up to the waterfall and see it for themselves, right?
What if the waterfall isn’t there?
The evidence for ER=EPR (the conjecture that Quantum is Calling is popularizing) isn’t like seeing a waterfall. It’s more like finding it via surveying. By looking at the slope of nearby terrain and following the rivers, you can get fairly confident that there should be a waterfall there, even if you can’t yet see it over the next ridge. You can then start sending scouts, laying in supplies, and getting ready for a push to the waterfall. You can alert the news, telling journalists of the magnificent waterfall you expect to find, so the public can appreciate the majesty of your achievement.
What you probably shouldn’t do is put up a sign for tourists.
As I hope I made clear in my last post, ER=EPR has some decent evidence. It hasn’t shown that it can handle “foot traffic”, though. The number of researchers working on it is still small. (For a fun but not especially rigorous exercise, try typing “ER=EPR” and “AdS/CFT” into physics database INSPIRE.) Conjectures at this stage are frequently successful, but they often fail, and ER=EPR still has a decent chance of doing so. Tying your inspiring signpost to something that may well not be there risks sending tourists up to an empty waterfall. They won’t come down happy.
As such, I’m fine with “news-style” popularizations of ER=EPR. And I’m fine with “signposts” for conjectures that have shown they can handle some foot traffic. (A piece that sends Zoe Saldana to the holodeck to learn about holography could be fun, for example.) But making this sort of high-profile signpost for ER=EPR feels irresponsible and premature. There will be plenty of time for a Star Trek tie-in to ER=EPR once it’s clear the idea is here to stay.
There’s a theme in a certain kind of science fiction.
Not in the type with laser swords and space elves, and not in cyberpunk dystopias…but when sci-fi tries to explore what humanity might do if it really got a chance to explore its own capabilities. In a word, the theme is scale.
We start out with a Dyson sphere, built around our own sun to trap its energy. As time goes on, the projects get larger and larger, involving multiple stars and, eventually, reshaping the galaxy.
There’s an expectation, though, that this sort of thing is far in our future. Treating the galaxy as a resource, as a machine, seems well beyond our present capabilities.
Neutron stars are one of the ways a star can end its life. Too big to burn out quietly and form a white dwarf, and too small to collapse all the way into a black hole, the progenitors of neutron stars have so much gravity that they force protons and electrons to merge, so that the star ends up as a giant ball of neutrons, like an enormous atomic nucleus.
Many of these neutron stars have strong magnetic fields. A good number of them are what are called pulsars: stars that emit powerful pulses of electromagnetic radiation, often at regular intervals. Some of these pulsars are very regular indeed, rivaling atomic clocks in their precision. The idea of a Pulsar Timing Array is to exploit this regularity by using these pulsars as a gravitational wave telescope.
Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time. They were predicted by Einstein’s theory, and we’ve observed their indirect effects, but so far we have yet to detect them directly. Attempts have been made: vast detectors like LIGO have been built that bounce light across long “arms”, trying to detect minute disruptions in space. The problem is, it’s hard to distinguish these disruptions from ordinary vibrations in the area, like minor earthquakes. Size also limits the effectiveness of these detectors, with larger detectors able to see the waves from bigger astronomical events.
Pulsar Timing Arrays sidestep both of those problems. Instead of trying to build a detector on the ground like LIGO (or even in space like LISA), they use the pulsars themselves as the “arms” of a galaxy-sized detector. Because these pulsars emit light so regularly, small disruptions can be a sign that a gravitational wave is passing by the earth and disrupting the signal. Because they are spread roughly evenly across the galaxy, we can correlate signals across multiple pulsars, to make sure we’re really seeing gravitational waves. And because they’re so far apart, we can use them to detect waves from some of the biggest astronomical events, like galaxies colliding.
Want to dream of a future where we use the solar system and the galaxy as resources? We’re there, and we’ve been there for a long time. We’re a civilization that used nearby planets to bootstrap up the basic laws of motion before we even had light bulbs. We’ve honed our understanding of space and time using distant stars. And now, we’re using an array of city-sized balls of neutronium, distributed across the galaxy, as a telescope. If that’s not the stuff of science fiction, I don’t know what is.
By the way, speaking of webcast lectures, I’m going to be a guest on the Alda Center’s Science Unplugged show next week. Tune in if you want to hear about the sort of stuff I work on, using string theory as a tool to develop shortcuts for particle physics calculations.
On Wednesday, Amanda Peet gave a Public Lecture at Perimeter on string theory and black holes, while I and other Perimeter-folk manned the online chat. If you missed it, it’s recorded online here.
We get a lot of questions in the online chat. Some are quite insightful, some are basic, and some…well, some are kind of strange. Like the person who asked us how holography could be compatible with irrational numbers.
In physics, holography is the idea that you can encode the physics of a wider space using only information on its boundary. If you remember the 90’s or read Buzzfeed a lot, you might remember holograms: weird rainbow-colored images that looked 3d when you turned your head.
On a computer screen, they instead just look awkward.
Holograms in physics are a lot like that, but rather than a 2d image looking like a 3d object, they can be other combinations of dimensions as well. The most famous, AdS/CFT, relates a ten-dimensional space full of strings to a four-dimensional space on its boundary, where the four-dimensional space contains everybody’s favorite theory, N=4 super Yang-Mills.
So from this explanation, it’s probably not obvious what holography has to do with irrational numbers. That’s because there is no connection: holography has nothing to do with irrational numbers.
Naturally, we were all a bit confused, so one of us asked this person what they meant. They responded by asking if we knew what holograms and irrational numbers were. After all, the problem should be obvious then, right?
In this sort of situation, it’s tempting to assume you’re being trolled. In reality, though, the problem was one of the most common in science communication: people can’t tell you what they don’t understand, because they don’t understand it.
When a teacher asks “any questions?”, they’re assuming students will know what they’re missing. But a deep enough misunderstanding doesn’t show itself that way. Misunderstand things enough, and you won’t know you’re missing anything. That’s why it takes real insight to communicate science: you have to anticipate ways that people might misunderstand you.
In this situation, I thought about what associations people have with holograms. While some might remember the rainbow holograms of old, there are other famous holograms that might catch peoples’ attention.
Please state the nature of the medical emergency.
In science fiction, holograms are 3d projections, ways that computers can create objects out of thin air. The connection to a 2d image isn’t immediately apparent, but the idea that holograms are digital images is central.
Digital images are the key, here. A computer has to express everything in a finite number of bits. It can’t express an irrational number, a number with a decimal expansion that goes on to infinity, at least not without tricks. So if you think that holography is about reality being digital, rather than lower-dimensional, then the question makes perfect sense: how could a digital reality contain irrational numbers?
This is the sort of thing we have to keep in mind when communicating science. It’s easy to misunderstand, to take some aspect of what someone said and read it through a different lens. We have to think about how others will read our words, we have to be willing to poke and prod until we root out the source of the confusion. Because nobody is just going to tell us what they don’t get.
I saw Interstellar this week. There’s been a lot of buzz amongphysicists about it, owing in part to the involvement of black hole expert Kip Thorne in the film’s development. I’d just like to comment on one aspect of the film that bugged me, a problem that shows up pretty frequently in science fiction.
In the film, Michael Caine plays a theoretical physicist working for NASA. His dream is to save humanity from an Earth plagued by a blight that is killing off the world’s food supply. To do this, he plans to build giant anti-gravity spaceships capable of taking as many people as possible away from the dying Earth to find a new planet capable of supporting human life. And in order to do that, apparently, he needs a theory of quantum gravity.
The thing is, quantum gravity has nothing to do with making giant anti-gravity spaceships.
Michael Caine lied to us?
This mistake isn’t unique to Interstellar. Lots of science fiction works assume that once we understand quantum gravity then everything else will follow: faster than light travel, wormholes, anti-gravity…pretty much every sci-fi staple.
But especially in high energy physics and quantum gravity, progress has basically stalled since the development of the standard model in the mid 70s. […] it is a frustrating situation and this makes you wonder if not there are other reasons for lack of progress, reasons that we can do something about. Especially in a time when we really need a game changer, some breakthrough technology, clean energy, that warp drive, a transporter!
None of these are things we’re likely to get from quantum gravity, and the reason is rather basic. It boils down to one central issue: if we can’t control the classical physics, we can’t control the quantum physics.
When science fiction authors speculate about the benefits of quantum gravity, they’re thinking about the benefits of quantum mechanics. Understanding the quantum world has allowed some of the greatest breakthroughs of the 20th century, from miniaturizing circuits to developing novel materials.
The assumption writers make is that the same will be true for quantum gravity: understand it, and gravity technology will flow. But this assumption forgets that quantum mechanics was so successful because it let us understand things we were already working with.
In order to miniaturize circuits, you have to know how to build a circuit in the first place. Only then, when you try to make the circuit smaller and don’t understand why it stops working, does quantum mechanics step in to tell you what you’re missing. Quantum mechanics helps us develop new materials because it helps us understand how existing materials work.
We don’t have any gravity circuits to shrink down, or gravity materials to understand. When gravity limits our current technology, it does so on a macro level (such as the effect of the Earth’s gravity on GPS satellites) not on a quantum level. If there isn’t a way to build anti-gravity technology using classical physics, there probably isn’t a way using quantum physics.
Scientists and popularizers generally argue that we can’t know what the future will bring. This is true, up to a point. When Maxwell wrote down equations to unify electricity and magnetism he could not have imagined the wealth of technology we have today. And often, technologies come from unexpected places. The spinoff technologies of the space race are the most popular example, another is that CERN (the facility that houses the Large Hadron Collider) was instrumental in developing the world wide web.
While it’s great to emphasize the open-ended promise of scientific advances (especially on grant applications!), in this context it’s misleading because it erases the very real progress people are making on these issues without quantum gravity.
That’s not obviously related to quantum gravity either. There has actually been some research into warp drives, but they’re based on a solution to Einstein’s equations without quantum mechanics. It’s not clear whether quantum gravity has something meaningful to say about them…while there are points to be made, from what I’ve been able to gather they’re more related to talking about how other quantum systems interact with gravity than the quantum properties of gravity itself. The same seems to apply to the difficulties involved in wormholes, another sci-fi concept that comes straight out of Einstein’s theory.
Quantum gravity becomes relevant when gravity becomes very strong, places where Einstein’s theory would predict infinitely dense singularities. That means the inside of black holes, and the Big Bang. Quantum gravity smooths out these singularities, which means it can tell you about the universe’s beginnings (by smoothing out the big bang and showing what could cause it), or its long-term future (for example, problems with the long-term evolution of black holes).
These are important questions! They tell us about where we come from and where we’re going: in short, about our ultimate place in the universe. Almost every religion in history has tried to answer these questions. They’re very important to us as a species, even if they don’t directly impact our daily lives.
What they are not, however, is a source of technology.
So please, science fiction, use some other field for your plot-technology. There are plenty of scientific advances to choose from, people who are really working on cutting-edge futuristic stuff. They don’t need to wait on a theory of quantum gravity to get their work done. Neither do you.
I did a few small modifications to the blog settings this week. Comments now support Markdown, reply-chains in the comments can go longer, and there are a few more sharing buttons on the posts. I’m gearing up to do a more major revamp of the blog in July for when the name changes over from 4 gravitons and a grad student to just 4 gravitons.
There’s a whole host of misconceptions regarding energy. Some of them are simple misuses of language, like zero-calorie energy drinks:
Energy can be measured in several different units. You can use Joules, or electron-Volts, or dynes…or calories. Calories are a measure of energy, so zero calories quite literally means zero energy.
Now, that’s not to say the makers of zero calorie energy drinks are lying. They’re just using a different meaning of energy from the scientific one. Their drinks give you vim and vigor, the get-up-and-go required to make money playing computer games. For most of the public, that “get-up-and-go” is called energy, even if scientifically it’s not.
That’s not really a misconception, more of an amusing use of language. This next one though really makes my blood boil.
Raise your hand if you’ve seen a Sci-Fi movie or TV show where some creature is described as being made of “pure energy”. Whether they’re peaceful, ultra-advanced ascended beings, or genocidal maniacs from another dimension, the concept of creatures made of “pure energy” shows up again and again and again.
Even if you aren’t the type to take Sci-Fi technobabble seriously, you’ve probably heard that matter and antimatter annihilate to form energy, or that photons are made out of energy. These sound more reasonable, but they rest on the same fundamental misconception:
Nothing is “made out of energy”.
Energy is a property that things have.
Energy isn’t a substance, it isn’t a fluid, it isn’t some kind of nebulous stuff you can make into an indestructible alien body. Things have energy, but nothing is energy.
What about light, then? And what happens when antimatter collides with matter?
Light, just like anything else, has energy. The difference between light and most other things is that light also does not have mass.
In everyday life, we like to think of mass as some sort of basic “stuff”. If things are “made out of mass” or “made out of matter”, and something like light doesn’t have mass, then it must be made out of some other “stuff”, right?
The thing is, mass isn’t really “stuff” any more than energy is. Just like energy, mass is a property that things have. In fact, as I’ve talked about some before, mass is really just a type of energy. Specifically, mass is the energy something has when left alone and at rest. That’s the meaning of Einstein’s famous equation, E equals m c squared: it tells you how to take a known mass and calculate the rest energy that it implies.
In the case of light, all of its energy can be thought of in terms of its (light-speed) motion, so it has no mass. That might tempt you to think of it as being “made of energy”, but really, you and light are not so different.
You are made of atoms, and atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Let’s consider a proton. A proton’s mass, expressed in the esoteric units physicists favor, is 938 Mega-electron-Volts. That’s how much energy a proton has alone and and rest. A proton is made of three quarks, so you’d think that they would contribute most of its mass. In reality, though, the quarksin protons have masses of only a few Mega-electron-Volts. Most of a proton’s mass doesn’t come from the mass of the quarks.
Quarks interact with each other via the strong nuclear force, the strongest fundamental force in existence. That interaction has a lot of energy, and when viewed from a distance that energy contributes almost all of the proton’s mass. So if light is “made of energy”, so are you.
So why do people say that matter and anti-matter annihilate to make energy?
A matter particle and its anti-matter partner are opposite in a lot of ways. In particular, they have opposite charges: not just electric charge, but other types of charge too.
Charge must be conserved, so if a particle collides with its anti-particle the result has a total charge of zero, as the opposite charges of the two cancel each other out. Light has zero charge, so it’s one of the most common results of a matter-antimatter collision. When people say that matter and antimatter produce “pure energy”, they really just mean that they produce light.
So next time someone says something is “made of energy”, be wary. Chances are, they aren’t talking about something fully scientific.