If it doesn’t matter, does it also antimatter?

Antimatter canister from ‘Angels and Demons’

I was thinking this past week about antimatter. If that seems a strange topic for a humanities person to be thinking about, then consider all of the fictional uses of antimatter in literature and popular entertainment.

Science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick are a few of the many who have played around with this scientific discovery. The British television series Doctor Who used it for a propulsion system. That sentient android, Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation has a positronic brain that gives him powerful computational capabilities. In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, the Illuminati try to destroy Vatican City using the explosive power of a canister of pure antimatter.

In physics, the idea that there may exist particles and matter that are exact opposites of the matter that surrounds us goes back to the late 19th century. It is difficult to grasp the idea that there are mirror-image anti-atoms for all our known atoms. Take that idea wider and there would be whole anti-solar systems.

And what if in those solar systems the matter and antimatter meet? They would annihilate one another.

In 1932, American physicist Carl Anderson discovered the first physical evidence that antimatter was more than just an idea. Anderson was photographing and tracking the passage of cosmic rays through a cloud chamber. That is a cylindrical container filled with dense water vapor, lit from the outside, and built with a viewing window for observers. When individual particles passed through the sides of the container and into the saturated air, they would leave spiderweb tracks of condensation. Each type of particle forms a uniquely shaped trail. Anderson noticed a curious trail like that of an electron, with an exactly identical, but opposite curve. An electron and a mirror image. Evidence of an anti-electron.

He took a photograph of the event. A particle is seen approaching the metal plate, and when it hits the plate, it loses energy but continues to curve in the direction appropriate for a positively charged electron. He later called it a positron.

He had discovered antimatter. The discovery earned him a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936. he was 31, the youngest person to be so honored.

Antiprotons were discovered in 1955, and the antineutron was discovered the following year, and in 1985 scientists created the first anti-atoms. Other antiparticles, such as antiprotons and antineutrons, have been discovered.

These discoveries obviously led to thoughts about its practical use. But writers of fiction also speculated on how it could be used. Back in the 1940s, biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov used it for his fictional “positronic brain.” Made of platinum and iridium, this brain gave humanlike consciousness to the robots in his collection I, Robot.

Star Trek used it as the basis of high-energy propulsion systems. But the amount of antimatter so far created on Earth is well short of what would be needed to power any type of vehicle or spacecraft. According to an article at symmetrymagazine.org, all the antiprotons created at Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator add up to only 15 nanograms. CERN has even less. Making 1 gram of antimatter requires approximately 25 million billion kilowatt-hours of energy and would cost over a million billion US dollars. No one has a canister full of it – except in fiction.

Matter and antimatter particles are produced as a pair and when they meet, they immediately annihilate each other, leaving nothing but energy behind. Doesn’t that mean that the Big Bang should have created and destroyed equal amounts of these particles? Why do we exist in a Universe made almost entirely of matter?

As far as I can find, physicists seem to think that there was one extra matter particle for every billion matter-antimatter pairs. But those physicists have yet to explain this asymmetry. They are also looking for antimatter left over from the Big Bang using the alpha magnetic spectrometer on top of the International Space Station.

Thinking About Infinity. Check My Math.

I have been thinking about infinity.

I was never good at math in school but I have always been fascinated by numbers. Here is what I have been running through my thoughts. Check my math.

infinity + 1 = infinity, which makes it seem like that 1 is a zero – no effect.

What about infinity minus 1? It has to be less than infinity. Right? So, what is the answer?

infinity + infinity = infinity

But infinity – infinity = 0

Two things inspired this infinitely frustrating thought experiment. First, I watched the film A Trip to Infinity (on Netflix). This 2022 documentary explores the concept of infinity through interviews with mathematicians and physicists.

The second inspiration was the much lighter sitcom Young Sheldon. In a recent episode, the precocious and young genius Sheldon comes to doubt the existence of zero. He is tutoring his not-very-bright neighbor Billy in math. During the session, Billy naively asks how zero can simultaneously exist as something but be nothing. The question causes Sheldon to have a kind of existential crisis. He turns to the two professors he works with and they can’t really answer the question and have some mathematical doubts too. It’s not unlike the physicist and mathematicians in the infinity film who have answers about defining infinity but don’t really agree or even seem very confident.

Sheldon rejects religion and God which is very important to his very Christian mother. Somewhat incongruously, when Sheldon talks with Billy again, Billy suggests they just pretend zero exists. Sheldon interprets this as an act of faith and that restores him.

It’s not that you can’t find a definition of “infinity.” It is that which is boundless, endless, or larger than any natural number. The ancient Greeks discussed the philosophical nature of infinity. In the 17th century, we get the infinity symbol and infinitesimal calculus. Working in the foundations of calculus, it was unclear whether infinity could be considered as a number or magnitude and, if so, how this could be done.

By the end of the 19th century, people were studying infinite sets and infinite numbers, and infinity was clearly a mathematical concept. In physics and cosmology, whether the Universe is infinite is still an open question.

There is a section of the film that I rewatched and it still doesn’t make sense. One physicist says that if you place an apple in a box it will decay into mush and then dust. Then, it becomes microscopic particles and then it becomes one with the universe. Whoa. Give it enough time, and it will become an apple again. What?

I think the connection between the film and the TV episode is the futility of wrestling with paradoxes. You probably will end up accepting that with all of our knowledge we will likely never explain or comprehend the greater existential realities of the universe.

Aristotle said that the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Not that we shouldn’t think about these things. Just don’t expect an answer.

Virginia’s Relativity

                 Virginia Woolf at age 20


Doing some research reading on Virginia Woolf for a post yesterday about her novel To the Lighthouse, I came across an article that made what seemed like a weird connection between Woolf and Albert Einstein.

Imagine this: Virginia has a conversation with poet William Butler Yeats. It is 1934. Yeats wanted to talk about her very experimental novel from 1931, The Waves. Yeats’ interpretation of it was mystical and he had visions of “the Occult.”

She wrote in her diary after the conversation that you “can’t unriddle the universe at tea,” She also noted that Yeats had said that “Neither religion or science explains the world. The occult does explain it.”

Virginia was more interested in science than the occult. She was interested in physics and astronomy. Albert Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity were news in 1905 and 1915 respectively and astronomer Arthur Eddington proved (observationally) relativity in 1919, and it became something heard by (but not really understood by) the general public.

What might a novelist do with Einstein’s theory that events in time are not the same everywhere for everyone? It could certainly change how you used time as a narrative structure.  That is what is happening in To the Lighthouse and the article’s author sees the influence in her Orlando, and The Waves, which are two novels I don’t know very well.

Virginia – and others in and out of the literary world – were influenced by Einstein’s view that this is a non-linear, probably godless and probably impossible to fully understand the world and universe.

The article goes into much greater detail but what seems to at least partially have created some of the popularity of his theories in the culture was that they were just so damned counter-intuitive. They turned earlier ideas upside down.

Did Woolf read Einstein’s work? Not clear. She might have just heard it in conversation with friends like philosopher Bertrand Russell who published the ABC of Relativity in 1925. Maybe she read some of the many newspaper accounts. 

Did it get her thinking in such a way about narrative that the character Orlando in that same-named novel is a boy in Shakespeare’s time but later wakes up as a woman in the 20th century? Time in the novel is relative and it moves much more slowly for Orlando than for the rest of his/her world. That’s a paradox that Einstein suggests, though not in such an extreme fashion.

Yeats wanted her to consider that there is a world beyond this one we see. Einstein would agree, but he wouldn’t explain any of it as mystical or having to do with religion. Either would Woolf, who would have a character in Mrs. Dalloway say that “there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.” It’s a philosophy of simplicity and seeing the marvelous in every day.

And yet, her life ended in suicide. She finished her last novel and fell into another depression as she had before. It was the start of World War II and her London home was destroyed during the Blitz. Her diary was full of thoughts about death. Woolf was overtaken by mental illness throughout her life and was institutionalized several times and attempted suicide at least twice. Her illness may have been bipolar disorder, for which there was no effective intervention during her lifetime. On March 28, 1941, she filled her overcoat pockets with stones, walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned. She left a suicide note, addressed to her husband:

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do… 
I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.  V

There Is No Objective Reality

quantum leve
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I came across an article online while I was reading in bed last night. It’s not the kind of thing you want to be thinking about as you fall asleep. The headline was that “a quantum experiment suggests there’s no such thing as objective reality.”

The physics of this is far beyond me but it doesn’t mean there is no reality. Despite all the silly questions I was asked to consider i undergraduate philosophy classes, reality is right in front of your face. Just look up from this screen. See it?

Physicists have been considering the idea of objective reality since quantum mechanics became a big deal. They are not as concerned with what you see before you as they are with things at a quantum level. They have supposed that two observers can experience different, conflicting realities at the same time.

Of course, you observe a different reality from other observers all the time. Just watch the news or look at your Facebook feed. But scientists have just performed the first experiment that proves it. Or proves something.

A keyword in that headline is “suggests.” They say that the experiment produces an “unambiguous result.” There are a number of assumptions at play here: universal facts actually exist and that observers can agree on them; observers have the freedom to make whatever observations they want; choices one observer makes do not influence the choices other observers make. Those three assumptions are valid IF there is an objective reality that everyone can agree on,

This new experiment suggests that objective reality does not exist which would mean that at least one of those assumptions is not valid. Which one(s) might it be?

I don’t know that I believe that there is a reality we can all agree on, and I don’t have a lot of faith in our freedom of choice. The third assumption (which physicists call locality) is something I also question. Therefore, I don’t seem to believe in objective reality.  That can keep you up at night.

Ways to Time Travel

time traveler

I’m time traveling. So are you. We’re moving at the speed of one hour per hour. We are moving always forward towards the future.

Of course, when we speak of time travel most people think about speeding up or slowing down time or visiting the past or looking at the future.

Einstein wasn’t a believer in the constant, linear construct that most of us operate within. He actually proved that time changes depending on your position in space.

I’m sitting at my laptop at the desk looking out the window and occupying the three dimensions of space – length, width and height – but, though I’m seemingly motionless, I am moving forward in that fourth dimension of time.

Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity proposes that time does not pass at the same rate for everyone. If you are an observer or you’re the one traveling and being observed, time moves at different speeds.

The people in the International Space Station are moving faster in space through time than we are on Earth. But not much faster. If we could travel at 186,282 miles per second. (speed of light) then time slows down. Your clock runs slow relative to people who are still. Travel that way and you could return many years in the future.

If we could go faster than the speed of light (670 million mph), one year on that timecraft would equal 223 years on Earth.

Of course, Einstein is a time travel spoiler because he said that anything with a mass cannot physically reach the speed of light. So much for that time machine.

Sci-Fi folks like to offer the warp drive for time travel. Yes, this is a Star Trek thing but scientists have picked up on it. What warps is the fabric of space-time. Planets, stars, constellations – all of the universe is on that fabric.  Our timecraft would push up the fabric of space in front of it causing a bubble of space-time we could travel on and we wouldn’t be traveling faster than light.

I won’t even try to discuss traveling via cosmic strings which would enable our timecraft to attach onto them and fly through space at amazing speeds which might allow time travel.

As intriguing as time travel is to me, I have no hope that we can do it. So, I will continue to move at one hour per hour into the future and think about the past and guess at the future and try to slow down the present.

The Answer to Life Is 137


When Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he wrote that “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42.”  He was joking, but I wonder if the answer really might be 137.

Take a look at one thing about 137 in mathematics: Using two radii to divide a circle according to the golden ratio yields sectors of approximately 137° (the golden angle) and 222°.

In physics, 137 is the approximate denominator of the fine-structure constant. Being a dimensionless physical constant, it is approximately 1/137 and has the same numerical value in all systems of units.

Physicists have postulated for more than a hundred years that 137 might be at the center of a grand unified theory, relating theories of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and, especially, gravity. It’s the DNA of an atom.

As the inverse of the fine-structure constant, it is related to the probability that an electron will emit or absorb a photon (Feynman’s conjecture).

Some physicists has suggested that if the number that unified the relationship between all these concepts turned out to be 1 or 3 or a multiple of pi, that would make more “sense.” But why 137?

Leon Lederman thought that because the number 137 “shows up naked all over the place,” that means that scientists on any planet in the universe using whatever units they have for charge or speed, and whatever their version of Planck’s constant may be, will all come up with 137, because it is a pure number.

But it shows up frequently outside of math and physics.

In mysticism, the Hebrew word קבלה (Kabbalah) has a Gematria (numerical value) of 137.  It describes the “corresponding loops” which clasped together enjoin the two sections of the Tabernacle’s ceiling. These loops divided the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies – the physical dimension and the spiritual dimension – and at the boundary line of the physical world, the number 137 emerges.

Moses’ Tabernacle, the earthly dwelling place of God, was 13.7 meters long. NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) has taken the best measurement of the age of the Universe to date. and ”scientists now have the best estimate yet on the age of the Universe: 13.7 billion years.”

Some people have connected the science, math and mysticism. 137 refers to electrons and the odds of an electron absorbing a single photon. In simple Kabbalah language, 137 is about Vessel and Light. It is about the physical body of man (Vessel) and our ability to ignite the Light in the soul.

One of the important physicists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman, wrote about the number 137:

“It has been a mystery ever since it was discovered more than fifty years ago, and all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it. It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the ‘hand of God’ wrote that number, and ‘we don’t know how He pushed his pencil.”

According to the Bible, Abraham died at age 175, but when he was commanded by God to offer his son up as a sacrifice, he was 137. According to the Torah, Moses’ father lived to 137, and so did Ishmael and Levi.

Physicist Leon M. Lederman numbered his home near Fermilab 137.  He tried to unite the Ancient Greeks’ earliest scientific observations, Einstein, and the Higgs boson, which is nicknamed the God Particle.

“One hundred thirty-seven is the inverse of something called the fine-structure constant. …The most remarkable thing about this remarkable number is that it is dimension-free. …Werner Heisenberg once proclaimed that all the quandaries of quantum mechanics would shrivel up when 137 was finally explained.” 
― Leon M. Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics, died in a hospital room numbered 137, a coincidence that disturbed him.

Physicist Pauli and psychoanalyst Carl Jung were both obsessed with the power of certain numbers, including 137. They were fascinated by the atom’s fine-structure constant and its Kabbalistic significance. They formed an unlikely friendship and began a mystical quest that led them through medieval alchemy, dream interpretation, and the Chinese Book of Changes.

They were two people who believed 137 was at the intersection of modern science with the occult, and that it was a mystical number with a meaning beyond physics.

In 137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession by Arthur I. Miller, it is reported that Pauli once said that if the Lord allowed him to ask anything he wanted, his first question would be “Why 1/137?”

Is there a primal number at the root of the universe
that everything in the world hinges on?