Feb 24, 2013

Spooky Action at a Distance

This image, from the newly revamped Jansky Very Large Array, is of Invisible W50 - a supernova  that exploded violently 20,000 years ago. It now contains a black hole, spans nearly 700 light years across and, according to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, resembles our very own benign and lumpen Florida Manatee.

Comparison, and contextualization more broadly, are our happy habit. "This" fits here, "that" fits there, "those" are similar - within a frame of reference, we are more comfortable. But this doesn't work so well in quantum physics; harder to name one thing after another thing if you can't pinpoint them in space or time.

Quantum entanglement suggests that we are all made of the same stuff, categorical brethren from one Big Bang when every atom in the universe was condensed into a singularity. From that point on, everything that exists has been quantumly entangled. Some scientists go as far as to say that all things in the universe are still touching, and the space between us is yet another illusion dredged up by our flawed perceptions. What is worse (or better), one subatomic particle can be entwinted with another that is thousands of miles away, but we cannot ever know their exact locations, or predict with certainty the outcome of any experiment involving them. All we can say of the world is what is probable.
Einstein helped usher in the quantum age, but he didn't believe it should be our fundamental science. He said, "Physics should represent a reality in time and space, free from spooky actions at a distance."  

We see his point. Quantum science is downright unnerving - 
 seriously fantastic, outside-lands theory - but it doesn't help much on days when we just want to know definitively our category and kind. 

Here at Chabot we have many photos of astronauts, grinning out from the walls. They seem heroic - in particular those who flew and lost their lives on Challenger - but the photos bring up that tension again. On Earth, humans are elegant, carbon-based royalty. We slough off our pending absence from the planet by inhabiting our physical forms with gusto. In space, though, we look clunky, clearly out of our element. We cannot breathe, or speak; inside a ship we awkwardly drift, a biological self flexing a synthetic wing. 

Why are we out there? What if there is no 'out there' to be 'in'? 

OSLab-ers are suckers for sci fi, and though we're still in support of space exploration, we are pretty happy about the idea of taking a quantum view. Rather than needing to stamp a proud, cold footprint (or flag) on space to shout out about our separate selves, we'll consider that each and every one of of us just is space. We could settle in and get weirdly comfortable in that category.

Emily Dickinson, deft as always at prodding the human underbelly, called us out long ago:
"We see -- Comparatively ---
The Thing so towering high
We could not grasp its segment
This Morning's finer Verdict—
Makes scarcely worth the toil—
A furrow—Our Cordillera—
Our Apennine—a Knoll—..."

Feb 14, 2013

Our Valentine in Orbit

No, not Venus (but good guess). Chris Hadfield, a Flight Engineer (soon to be a Commander) aboard the International Space Station, has been tweeting daily and entertaining us with fantastic photos of the Earth as seen from space, but today he's outdone himself by sending Valentines to the world, 
of the world... 

Happy Valentine's Day from the OSLab to you, astronomy-lovers, star-gazers, sci-fi geeks, future astronauts, science wranglers, perusers of the universe, all. 

Feb 8, 2013

Cheese and Rice, Our Savior

The Electric Chair was invented by a dentist.
First Electric Chair: Edison, Co.
Dr. Alfred P. Southwick, a pleasant dentist from Buffalo, New York, had witnessed a drunken man being accidentally electrocuted. He noted that the shock had delivered a quicker, less painful death than more popular gorey practices, the least grisly of which were strangulation with an iron collar, hanging and beheading. What followed was the invention of the electric chair.
Andy Warhol's Big Electric Chair
But how to market it? How do you relay the concept of such a horrific tool to the general public? How do you justify it to yourself? There must be some sort of separation between you and the dread thing. Luckily, there are handy linguistic games we play with ourselves that serve the purpose, two favorites being euphemism and nicknaming. During the first several years, most electric chairs were pet-named "Old Sparky," but a few, more colloquial monikers emerged. Louisiana coined "Gruesome Gertie," Indiana had "Old Betsy," and Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Tennessee preferred 
"Old Smokey."

"Woah," doesn't quite cover it. "Jesus Christ!" might be an appropriate response. But, if you didn't want to holler the Lord's name in certain company, reactions could employ a similarly avoidant linguistic tactic called a minced oath. Cheese and Rice, Jiminey Cricket, Gee Willikers, or Bejabbers could stand in.

The general category of silly words or phrases that act in place of actual, dictionary-approved ones provides an opportunity to be indirect, diplomatic, disrespectfully (some feel) distant from religious or historic significance.  It is a privileged fact of our complex language that we can say something other than exactly what we mean, and it can be mutually understood. English has no authoritative body governing "correct" usage, unlike French (Académie française), Italian (Accademia della Crusca), Icelandic (Íslensk málstöð), and Spanish (Real Academia Española). But what happens nonetheless is that the more the silliness is agreed upon, the closer it comes to being absorbed into the vernacular.

The more well known Cockney slang is replete with this type of accepted terminology (we'll keep them clean, here):
          trouble and strife = wife
          Eiffel Tower = shower

50's Diner slang has its own as well:
         Gimme two on a raft and wreck 'em - with a life preserver in the margins =
         I'd like two scrambled eggs on toast, bagel on the side, please.

This practice has a long history. In Greek mythology the king Rhadamanthus imposed on the Cretans the law that men should not swear by the gods, but by the dog, ram, goose, and plane-tree. In Shakespearean England, swearing on stage was banned, and thus all parts of the deity's self were covered by minced oaths: 'swounds (God's wounds), 'struth (by God's truth), 'sfoot (by God's foot), and gadzooks! ("God's hooks," referring to the nails in the cross).

Nicknames, euphemisms, minced oaths - a sprightly hop away from a direct expression of reality. In our least palatable efforts, we employ them to obscure abhorrent fact. Alternately, they act as an important reminder that there are multiple ways to express reality; language, and therefore meaning, are malleable. Humans are both figuring everything out, and making it all up, as we go along. OSLab celebrates this.
You say tomato...

Feb 1, 2013

Up from the Basement: A Shark, and Socrates

"Klaus Pichler was walking home late one night when he noticed a light on in the basement of Vienna's Natural History Museum. What he saw inside..."

...is documented in his Skeletons in the Closet. Pichler was given permission to photograph the corridors and closed off rooms of one of the oldest, largest history museums in the world. There he found a mesmerizing display, with a bloody, colonialist history. Specimens long since pillaged from other collections or plucked from the wilds of Africa and Asia were tucked, story untold, 
into basement rooms.

 images from http://www.fastcodesign.com/

Through Pilcher's photographs, the objects have been given a new context. They are fantastic, haunting, educational: an argument for preservation. But they beg a more philosophical turn. There needs to be some thinking about how a unique, thriving creature could have met its end at our hand, and why. 

In another museum, Socrates, long dead, is on trial again. 

Scholars have long been stymied by the details that led to his death sentence, and they're about to publicly rehash the whole affair. His first trial took place in Athens in 400 B.C.E. He was one of the greatest thinkers, teachers, and orators of all times, and lived in Athens, the world's foremost democratic citadel. His fellow citizens sentenced him to be executed. There had been no event, no crime per se. How could this have come to pass? The records, made fuzzy by the ambitions of those (Plato and Xenophon, foremost) who penned them, the differing interpretations of the philologists and historians who read them, and buffered by 2,000 years of competing interpretations, are not entirely reliable. But they do provide ample fodder for a debate.

Two days ago, the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, IL called together cadre of "some of the country's foremost legal minds" including high profile lawyers and judges to give the trial another go. No word yet on the verdict, but we can quickly review the history while we wait.

The historic decision was made by 501 Athenian jurors (majority vote), no judge. They declared that Socrates should be executed, for "refusing to do reverence to the gods recognized by the city, and introducing other new divinities," and for "corrupting the youth." Recent interpretations hint of political intrigue - one of his star pupils turned out to be a horrifically violent enemy of democracy. 

It was the accused's responsibility to defend himself. He was also allowed to cross examine the accusers. Socrates, the arguer to beat all arguers, gave them a run for their money. First, he deftly divided the accusers into two groups - the original accusers, and the unenviable sheep who had become convinced by them...you see where this is going.

The Socratic Method considers inquiry to be a lifelong process, a way of being. Gregory Vlastos, a Socrates scholar and professor of philosophy at Princeton, describes it as, "among the greatest achievements of humanity," that "calls not only for the highest degree of mental alertness of which anyone is capable" but also for "moral qualities of a high order: sincerity, humility, courage." 
 Law students are forewarned that it may be employed by their professors, and may result in frustration. It exposes beliefs and biases, and allows for multiple viewpoints to be held in equal standing. Greek scholars call it elenchus (inquiry, cross examination) and it leads, Socrates submitted, to moral reform. He chose to die rather than forego its benefits and kneel before a linear prosecution.

Before the ancient trial took place, Chaerephon, an old friend of Socrates', went to the Oracle at Delphi to inquire if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The answer was a resounding no. When this was relayed to Socrates, he decided to cross examine friends and acquaintances - politicians, craftsmen, poets, sophists - who believed he, or themselves, to be wise. In the end, he determined that he was wiser than all of them. His stated reason:

...the fact is that neither of us knows anything beautiful and good, but he thinks he does know when he doesn't, and I don't know and don't think I do: so I am wiser than he is by only this trifle, that what I do not know I don't think I do. (p. 427)

You see, says he, a wise man is one who knows he is not wise. We in the OpenScienceLab agree. And the Buddha agrees. So there really is no way out of that one.