Communion Of Dreams

Catch a wave.
November 3, 2010, 12:24 pm
Filed under: Art, Politics, Predictions, Science, Sixty Symbols, YouTube

The morning after a “wave election“, this seems like the perfect time to talk about: Wave Function

Wait – what?

I noted about a month ago that I was going to stop writing ‘reviews’ of the Sixty Symbols videos, though I intended to keep working through them for my own edification and enjoyment, and I left open the possibility that I might again blog about a particular video. Well, that particular wave form has collapsed, you might say.

So, let’s talk about art. (Trust me, this actually makes sense.)

One of the things I most loved about owning and operating an art gallery was getting to know more artists, better. I’ve always been fascinated by intelligent and creative people and how they view the world – how they can almost see more deeply into reality and understand relationships which are otherwise opaque to the rest of us. A good artist uses that insight, shares that vision, by translating what they perceive into a form which is understandable to others. The character of Duc Ng from Communion of Dreams is supposed to be this kind of person, and the insight he shares about the alien artifact is crucial to understanding the mystery at the heart of the book.

This idea is hardly new – indeed, it is one of the fundamentals of good philosophy as well as good art. And so while I was very pleased to see it brought out in the “wave function” video (at about the 8:00 mark) I wasn’t terribly surprised. The point made was that Claude Monet, founder of the Impressionist school of art, had the ability to mentally ‘step back’ from his paintings, and envision them as they would be perceived from a distance, thereby providing a bridge between the microscopic and the macroscopic.

And this is a very good metaphor for the differences between the quantum mechanical world where the wave function rules and the classical physics world we live in.

See, this is the problem – quantum physics is so counter-intuitive that the tag line for the Wave Function video is: “If you think you understand this video, you probably don’t.”

So why make it? Well, because.

Because you can start to approach an understanding of what is happening at the quantum level through analogy and art and metaphor, even if you can’t quite wrap your head around what is actually going on with the math. Or at least you can be pushed to realize that the reality you have been living in doesn’t exactly jibe with the one which actually functions in terms of probabilities and possibilities. We deal in hard facts – or at least think we do. We make decisions. We put that daub of paint in one particular place, and so freeze our vision into a frame.

And yet . . .

And yet we edit. Stories are tweaked. A line sketched here is erased. A new daub of paint is put down, covering the last one. A new fact appears, and our understanding of the past changes – the universe changes before our eyes. We realize that the world we live in is somehow in flux – unable to be pinned down.

Just as a certain alien artifact appears just a little bit different to everyone who sees it.

Just as an election is interpreted from each unique vantage point.

Jim Downey

Going Dark.
October 9, 2010, 11:06 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Science, Sixty Symbols, Space, YouTube

OK, I made it through one-sixth of the Sixty Symbols. And I’ve enjoyed them. I’ll probably make it through the rest of them. But I don’t think I’ll do any more reviews of the videos. They’re good, but there really isn’t much for me to say beyond what I have already, since while the content changes, there isn’t much more to add other than that.

So, today’s symbol  Dark Matter will be the last, unless one of the other videos I look at prompts me to write something.

Dark Matter is like a chocolate pie. No, seriously. Except it doesn’t really interact with the matter of most of the rest of the universe, so it’s like a chocolate pie that you could eat but wouldn’t taste. Oh, it would make you fat if you ate it, since it does have some effect on gravity. Or something like that.

OK, snark aside, this is a good recap of why scientists think that some 23% of all the matter in the universe seems to have gone missing, but has to be there somewhere. It’s worth watching this video in order to understand the issues involved, even though the science to date is very uncertain, as are the models suggested to provide an explanation. And don’t even get me started on theories concerning the 73% of the dark energy which is also missing. Because the vid sets that aside as a whole ‘nuther problem.

So, farewell, Sixty Symbols, at least for now. But thanks at least for giving me a craving for chocolate this morning.

Jim Downey

Well, that’s pretty random.
October 7, 2010, 11:36 am
Filed under: Humor, Science, Sixty Symbols, YouTube

Random Force and Brownian Motion is the symbol for random force or Brownian motion. I did not remember this, if I ever actually knew it. So, score one for this Sixty Symbols video.

And I’m not sure whether it was intentional or not, but the actual video has echoes of randomness that are kinda funny. Some of the cut-aways to show a little bit of styrene bouncing along on a vibrating bed of small brass spheres seem pretty random, and the person doing the narration ends with a recap of what he’s just said, then sort of turns from the camera and asks “Have I finished?” I like that kind of structural consistency and ambiguity.

Jim Downey

How do you solve a problem like infinity?*
October 6, 2010, 10:11 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Music, Science, Science Fiction, Sixty Symbols, YouTube

“Now it’s complete because it’s ended here.”

That’s from Dune, of course. The context is that it sums up the practical attitude of the Fremen – no dithering, no misgivings, just figuratively take a knife and cut the thing off, so you have a conclusion.

But that is also the attitude of scientists, when it comes to  Infinity, at least according to the Sixty Symbols video about infinity.

It’s a good vid, and I recommend it. No, nothing terribly impressive about the images or production values. But it has a clarity that conveys how scientists think: they may be theoretical, but they’re also practical. They don’t like the concept of infinity, at least not when it is applied to understanding the physical universe. They’d rather leave that to the mathematicians. As a number of the scientists say, when infinity shows up in one of their equations/models, then there’s something wrong with the equation/model.

Jim Downey

*Yeah, OK.

The summit of beauty and love, *
September 30, 2010, 10:02 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Music, Science, Sixty Symbols, Space, YouTube

A hand mirror? I think I had forgotten that. Which is interesting, because I know full well what the symbol  Venus means, both in astronomical terms and otherwise.

Anyway, the bit about the mirror is about the only new thing I got out of this well done but very pedestrian video. But part of that may simply be due to the fact that I’m a space exploration geek from way back, and remember following the different probe missions sent to Venus when I was a kid. And the thing is short – less than five minutes – so if you need a refresher course about what we know about Venus, take a look.

Jim Downey

*Of course.

Demolition Derby.
September 28, 2010, 10:22 am
Filed under: Science, Sixty Symbols, tech, YouTube

What’s big, round, and cost a gazillion dollars – all in order to just smash things? Why, the  Large Hadron Collider Large Hadron Collider, of course.

At least that might be the impression you take away from the first part of today’s Sixty Symbols video.

Oh, there’s actually a lot of good science and decent imagery in the video, as well. But it’s an odd mix of being too simplistic and then on the other hand assuming that you understand a fair amount of physics. The explanations are good, if a little basic – but then there are repeated use of images showing the energy traces from collisions (in both two and three dimensions) without much in the way of explanations of what it is you are seeing. Someone who doesn’t understand those might easily come to a conclusion that they’re some kind of explosion (which they are, but not in the sense most people think) and think that the whole thing is dangerous (which it is, but only if the multiple safety features fail). That there have been some problems with this massive machine which resulted in a segment of superconducting magnets breaking loose and dumping a ton of liquid helium into the tunnel doesn’t help matters. These are the sorts of things which may well have contributed to the nonsensical fears in the popular press about the LHC creating a black hole and destroying the Earth.

Anyway, it’s a good video, if you ignore some of these problems. I did learn a couple of things from it (I didn’t realize that they were getting their particles accelerated to within 10 meters-per-second of the speed of light, for example). And I like that they did address how basic scientific research leads to real world applications which more than pay for themselves in the aggregate, though that almost seemed like an afterthought at the end of the video. So if you get a chance, check it out.

Jim Downey

The little particle that isn’t there.
September 26, 2010, 11:20 am
Filed under: Science, Sixty Symbols, Space, tech, YouTube

Today’s Sixty Symbols video is about neutrinos, represented by the symbol:  Neutrinos

Most of us have heard of neutrinos, a fundamental particle which has almost no mass and is almost impossible to detect, leading to some pretty amazing technological wonders designed to find them. But this video is disappointing – no, the information is good, and you’ll come away from it with a better understanding of the role of the neutrino in particle physics and cosmology. If you don’t fall asleep. Because it is almost entirely talking heads.

The same sound track – the same series of physicists explaining what neutrinos are and how they factor into our understanding of how the universe works – could have been used with an entirely different set of visual images. Maybe just a bunch of static diagrams. Or some of the images of neutrino detectors linked up above. Or animations. Or just about anything.

I’m not complaining about the enthusiasm displayed by the scientists, as they talk about this topic. That’s pretty clear. But that isn’t at all what I would think is most effective in conveying information about the subject to a lay audience.

Jim Downey

Friggin’ magnets, how do they work?*
September 25, 2010, 10:28 am
Filed under: Science, Sixty Symbols, Space, YouTube

So, this is the symbol for magnetic susceptibility: Magnetic Susceptibility

And the Sixty Symbols vid that goes along with it doesn’t actually explain how magnets work, but rather explores some of the fun things which can be done with magnetic fields. Specifically, magnetic levitation. And they do this in a way near and dear to my heart – by levitating a drop of beer. Yay!

OK, it’s silly. And the vid isn’t just levitating a drop of beer. Rather, it is just a demonstration of why scientists might want to levitate something: to simulate the effects of weightlessness when you don’t happen to have a space station handy. Understanding how materials and organisms behave in the absence of gravity actually is important. And besides, even astronauts deserve a beer now and then.

Jim Downey

*Yeah, OK, it was a pop culture reference.

September 24, 2010, 10:04 am
Filed under: Science, Sixty Symbols, Space, YouTube

Getting back to Sixty Symbols . . .

Today’s symbol/vid is  Vacuum and Pascals which stands for “Pascal” – the SI measurement of vacuum.

This is a fun video. Just let the words “vacuum cannon” bounce around in your head for a moment, and you’ll see the possibilities. It’s a graphic demonstration of the amount of air pressure we live with here on Earth, and how a vacuum can be used. A little more historical context for the idea of a vacuum would have been welcome (one of the first steam engines – the Newcomen – used vacuum pressure to create mechanical energy), but the folks at Sixty Symbols are trying to teach a little science, not history. And it does nicely explain how what most people think of as a vacuum is nothing like what exists in space, or what scientists need to do to recreate such a vacuum in the lab.

And the vacuum cannon is just plain cool. Check it out.

Jim Downey

Hey kids, let’s learn about SCIENCE!
September 22, 2010, 10:12 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Science, Sixty Symbols, Travel, YouTube

Sorry, in a bit of a mood.

But seriously, I came across this site last night and thought that I would share: Sixty Symbols. From their ‘Project’ page:

Ever been confused by all the letters and squiggles used by scientists?

Hopefully this site will unravel some of those mysteries.

Sixty Symbols is a collection of videos about physics and astronomy presented by experts from The University of Nottingham.

They aren’t lessons or lectures – and this site has never tried to be an online reference book.

The films are just fun chats with men and women who love their subject and know a lot about it!

Chances are, you already know something about many if not most of the different symbols featured. (Hey, if you read my blog you’re clearly above average in terms of intelligence and education, right?) But this is still a fun way to get a little deeper into some of those concepts.

I’m planning on going through each of the videos, about one a day, and posting about it. Not exactly a review of each one, more of a brief synopsis, perhaps with some additional background info thrown in.

The first one on their site is “Eclipse.” Approached through travel to Ningbo, China to observe the total solar eclipse of July 2009. There’s not a lot of explanation of the astronomy involved, but there probably doesn’t need to be. What you do get is the sense of delight of experiencing a total eclipse, even for someone who is a professional in the field. It is such an impressive moment that even understanding the science behind it, the astronomer is almost giddy. I only remember having been through partial eclipses, and that was magical enough – I can easily see how experiencing totality would be a real blast.

So, take the 9 minutes or so, and enjoy “Eclipse”.

Jim Downey