AMPed

I went out to San Dimas this weekend for the AMP (Apologetics-Mission-Partnership) Conference. Four speakers presented on Friday night, with six more on Saturday. For an Evangelical gathering, the speakers were surprisingly diverse. Several were unapologetic in their religious chauvinism, targeting Islam as well as “marginal” Christians. Others were surprisingly liberal, most markedly the scholar who asserted that between Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22, the Bible was a testimony to human error. This struck me because the organizing agency, Reasons to Believe, upholds the purpose of proving the inerrancy of the Bible.

The most stimulating talk was Dr. Ross on the geological processes that stabilized the climate long enough to allow homo sapiens to cover the earth. One chart in particular was mind-boggling: it turns out that prior to the Laurentian, temperatures oscillated in a 24 F range around the mean. The oscillation is driven by the gravitational dynamics of the solar system and the wobbles of Earth’s rotation, and is large enough that large-scale agriculture is impossible. But when the last Ice Age ended, temperatures settled into a 3 F band. No scientific explanation is known, but that stability allowed humanity to cover the planet and then turn its attention to religious and scientific inquiry.

Given my intentions out at Love Returns Ministry, the most valuable part of the event was the opportunities that I had to talk with young adults. A young man in high school walked up on Saturday morning to ask me whether I understood Dr. Ross’s reference to “large and small dimensions.” I don’t know why he imagined that I would be able to answer the question, but he got a survey of the problems in the reigning model of fundamental physics. He chased me down during the morning break, eager for my opinions. As the conversation unfolded, he revealed that he had taken the evolution side of the creation debate in class. When I suggested that Genesis was evolution, he was taken aback until I made the connection between photosynthesis and “Let there be light.”

Then there were three young adults, two caught up in conversation during breaks and one that I searched out to supplement the response she had been given by the presenter of a talk on how as a Christian to talk to youth about sex and relationships. I focused on two messages: first, that Islam was merely a compression of the Hebrew tutelage to faith, with a shift from history to psychological analysis of the Old Testament heroes. Secondly, I emphasized that the presence of love in the heart was the best guide to our relationships, with the ultimate goal of becoming “spiritual engineers.” I found myself doing most of the talking, but when I stopped to apologize, they all responded with variations of “No, thanks for sharing.”

Far better to receive that than the attentions of the scholars at RTB. They are all so terribly certain of the truths they propagate. What’s important to me, however, is that the future manifest new possibilities – the possibilities allowed by hearts and minds that commit themselves in service to Unconditional Love. A positive reception by the participants in that future (our young adults) tells me that I’m doing the right thing.

Hoisting by Einstein’s Petard

While often cited as an authority in particle physics and cosmology, Einstein didn’t win the Nobel Prize for his work on relativity. That was considered too controversial at the time. Rather, he was awarded the prize for two papers that forced physicists to shift their understanding of waves.

As I’ve pointed out before, the mathematics of waves is seductive. By assuming that a phenomenon is uniformly smooth at any magnification, we are allowed the use of powerful mathematical tools such as differential equations and Fourier analysis. But it comes with a big assumption: that the things described have no structure inside of them.

Einstein’s two papers undermined that assumption. One paper forced the conclusion that light waves were composed of particles called “photons.” The second forced a recognition that water waves were composed of molecules.

Then he spent the rest of his life pursuing a grand theory of physics that assumed that space was uniformly smooth. Go figure, and take note: he failed in his quest.

So have all the others that followed in his footsteps.

In essence, all that I am asking in my New Physics page is that we imagine that space has structure. I’m hoisting Einstein on his own petard.

The Big Bang Collapses

Yet again.

One of the challenges confronting astrophysicists is figuring out how galaxies form. The problem arises in kind of a round-about way.

The space the fills our universe is remarkably uniform. That’s surprising, because it formed from an extremely violent context. We would expect it to be warped, in the mode of Einstein’s general relativity, causing light to “bend” as it traveled the great distances between galaxies. In addition, until a couple of years ago it was believed that the universe was coasting to a stop. In other words, the mass of the universe appeared to be just enough to keep the galaxies from flying apart forever, but not so much that they would turn around and collide together in a “big crunch.”

These two questions were reconciled with Alan Guth’s “inflationary universe” hypothesis. This holds that the universe was created with an invisible, uniform background energy that dissipated very early, creating most of the matter that we see around us.

One consequence of this model is that matter should be distributed uniformly in the universe. This is a problem for galaxy formation, because if matter is distributed uniformly, there’s no reason for it to start clumping together. There have to be little pockets of higher density for galaxies to form. When only normal matter is included in the simulations of the early universe, galaxies form way to slowly, and don’t exhibit the large-scale structures that we observe in the deep sky surveys.

Worse, when we look around the universe, we can’t actually see enough visible matter to account for the gravitational braking that slows down the rushing apart of the galaxies.

One way of solving these conundrums is “dark matter.” The proposed properties of dark matter are that it does not emit light (it’s dark) and that it has a different kind of mass that causes it to clump together to seed the formation of galaxies.

Today we have a negative result from an experiment designed to detect dark matter. This won’t deter the theorists for long – they’ll just come up with new forms of dark matter that are invisible to the detector (this is an old trick, which caught out my thesis adviser back in the ’80s).  But it does seem to make Occam’s razor cut more in the direction of the generative orders proposal for the formation of the early universe. That model doesn’t need inflation or dark matter or a multiverse to work. It anticipates just the universe that we see around us.

*sigh* Just saying.

Nucleons in a Bunch

The world of the very small is impossible to observe in complete detail. In the everyday world, once the billiard ball is struck, we can predict the final configuration on the pool table. This is because the method we use to observe the initial positions and motion of the balls – vision – doesn’t change appreciably those positions and motions. In the microscopic world described by quantum mechanics, however, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle tells us that we can’t measure with arbitrary accuracy both position and velocity.

A similar principle affects the theory of quantum mechanical rotations. In principle, a rotating body has a total angular momentum (its propensity to keep spinning) and an orientation of the angular momentum in space. Since we have three spatial directions in our reality, there are three components of angular momentum. However, quantum mechanical theory tells us that we can know the total angular momentum, but any attempt to measure one of its components will disrupt the values of the other two components.

This leads to some confusion in interpreting the theory, even among physicists. The leader of my Ph.D. thesis project, hearing that I was doing well in my advanced coursework on quantum mechanics, expressed his confusion regarding the underlying physics of the system we were studying (muons in a magnetic field). I explained to him that the other two components still existed and influenced the time-evolution of the muon, but at the end only a single component could be measured.

This was a man that intimidated his collaborators with his brilliance and drive, and no one had ever clarified for him the basics of the quantum theory  of angular momentum. This is not uncommon – often the words used to describe quantum processes are not reflective of the underlying mathematics of the theory. This allows lots of room for physicists to overplay the significance of their measurements.

Today we have a report from an experimental study that confirms that some quantum objects are not symmetric. This is not surprising, in some sense. The system, the nucleus of the barium atom, is a swirling stew of 56 protons and 88 neutrons. What the study reveals is that some number of these particles can clump together in a particularly ordered fashion. Once they achieve that configuration, the remaining protons and neutrons can’t push their way into the structure, and end up hanging like a barnacle on the outside.

Here’s a way of visualizing this: let’s say that we have twelve of those little magnetic balls. We can organize eleven of them into a nice little tetrahedron. But the twelfth ball is going to be stuck on the outside of the tetrahedron like a barnacle. It is going to ruin the regularity (what physicists call symmetry) of the assembly.

Why is this loss of symmetry exciting? Well, it seems to be a pretty natural consequence of self-organizing aggregates. But it’s also related to some principles used to guide the development of quantum mechanical theories. Remember, we can’t see this world very clearly, and touching its inhabitants disrupts their behavior. So to guide the development of theory, physicists have come up with abstract mathematical principles. Three important ones are charge (C), parity (P) and time (T) inversions. These state, respectively, that the equations that describe the quantum world should not change if:

  • particles are replaced with anti-particles
  • the particles are observed in a mirror, and
  • the universe is run backwards.

In actuality, it’s hard to create theories that violate all of these principles simultaneously (what is called CPT violation). However, the weak force that controls radioactivity is known to violate parity (P), though invariance is restored under CP.

So what is the significance of the asymmetry of Barium-144? The authors claim that it is parity violation in the strong and electromagnetic forces. The claim is based upon the observation that when looked at in the mirror, the barium atom will have its bump on the opposite side.

But that is not what parity violation means! The mirror-image barium nucleus is still allowed under the equations that describe its structure. In fact, it can also be obtained simple by walking around to observe it from the other side. That is certainly allowed in the theory.

We can contrast this with parity violation in  neutrinos. Neutrinos, which only participate in the weak interactions, always have their angular momentum aligned against their direction of motion. They are “left-handed.” Observed in a mirror, however, that orientation changes: the direction of motion is reversed, but not the angular momentum. Thus the neutrino becomes “right-handed,” which is not known in nature, and so the equations of the weak interaction are violated by parity inversion. However, by adding charge inversion, the violation is removed: anti-neutrinos are indeed right-handed.

So in this case I’m afraid that got those making so much of the Barium-144 asymmetry have gotten their “nucleons in a bunch” for no good reason.

In general, the obscurity of quantum phenomena are not even well understood by physicists themselves. When they trumpet a great discovery, then, you should always ask yourself whether the practical implications of their work merit continued support by the public.

Unless, of course, you think of science as a cultural investment, like art or politics.

Super Massive Black Holes

New study indicates that super massive black holes did not form through slow accretion from normal black holes, but rather early in the evolution of the universe in some unknown, cataclysmic process.

This contradicts the “Big Bang” theory, but is expected in a physics of Generative Orders (see points 7 and 8 of the “Reference Model”).

Gravity Waves ‘Goodbye’ to Einstein

I was out at the Skeptics Society science talk on Sunday. The speaker was Stephon Alexander, a theoretical astrophysicist at Brown University, who talked about the relationship between string theory and music. Dr. Alexander also plays the tenor sax, and has released his first jazz album. His new book, The Jazz of Physics, describes the relationship between his two passions.

The format was a discussion with Michael Shermer, the head of the Skeptics Society. Michael rounded out the conversation with the “big questions.” Regarding the future of physics, Alexander predicted that we would have a theory that reconciled gravity and quantum mechanics in the next fifty years. As for the ultimate origin of the universe, Alexander observed that the possibility of creating carbon, which is the basis for life on earth, is tightly coupled to the relative strengths of two fundamental forces: the first binds quarks together to form a proton, and the second binds electrons to protons to form hydrogen atoms. Even a 10% change in strengths would prevent the formation of carbon in stars. This is the kind of “fine-tuning” often exclaimed by theists, but Alexander allowed Shermer to lead the conversation into a discussion of the multiverse hypothesis.

As you might imagine, I ended up having to apologize to Dr. Alexander for the question that I raised.

The question was motivated by the history of physics, which has again and again used the equations of oscillating waves to describe complex phenomena. This is the technology of Fourier analysis, and its power lies in fact that waves can be composed to produce very complex patterns. (Just consider the surface of a swimming pool, for example.) But Fourier analysis has its weaknesses, and I am particularly concerned regarding two of them.

The lesser of the weaknesses is that close to the source of a wave, other mathematical methods may give a more concise description of the disturbance. For example, the surface of a beaten drum deforms with Bessel waves. This is also how the air moves in the vicinity of the drum. It is only far from the source that the pressure waves that we hear as sound are described efficiently by Fourier notation. So when applied inappropriately, Fourier analysis may make it difficult to understand the things that create the waves.

The second weakness is that the media in which waves propagate are not smooth – they are actually composed of particles. We have seen this again and again in physics. Sound waves can be described as waves, but until we accept that gases are composed of little atoms there are certain effects that we can’t explain – such as why our voice squeaks after we inhale the helium from a balloon. Considering water waves, Einstein himself was awarded the Nobel prize in part for explaining the motion of small impurities in water with the insight that the water was composed of atoms that bashed the impurities around, causing them to jitter and wander rather than flowing smoothly from place to place. More abstractly, James Clerk Maxwell predicting the existence of electromagnetic waves by combining the equations that describe the generation of electric and magnetic fields. Einstein’s Nobel award also recognized his explanation of the photoelectric effect with the idea that electromagnetic waves were actually composed of particles called photons.

Considering this history, it seems natural to wonder whether the theories that Alexander describes in his book – theories that hold that the cosmos is composed of quantum-mechanical waves – are going to be replaced by theories that posit structures inside those waves. In response to the question, he offered that there had been some ideas proposed of that type, but they hadn’t been developed because they were “unfashionable.”

I had the sense that I rained a little on Dr. Alexander’s parade, which upset me. There were a number of young Hispanic high-school students in attendance, and he made a powerful representation to them that anyone can aspire to be a scientist – the most important steps were to try, to keep your eye out for mentors, and to recognize whether it was truly your passion. That is an important message, and in casting doubt on his picture, I may have undermined the inspiration that he offered.

But I just couldn’t help myself. It was those questions asked by Shermer, to which I believe I have been granted such powerful answers. This I was able to communicate to Stephon when I stopped to have my book signed. During his talk, he enthusiastically related the vision that the universe of waves sings to itself, a vision not dissimilar to his experience of jazz improvisation.

While the specifics are different, the passion is common to us both. I offered to him that, not being an academic, I don’t often have the opportunity to share my ideas, and because I have been led by them into a view of the universe that contains such wholeness and beauty, I tend to become a little bit passionate when conveying them. However, I do intend them as gifts, and hope that they help people to escape fear that has no foundation.

And maybe, just maybe, one of those young people will be inspired by the analogy I offered. We know that the gravitational waves exist – they were recently detected by the LIGO collaboration. And we know what they propagate in: dark energy. It only takes the courage to break from what Alexander called “fashion” to cast down Einstein and offer a new view of the universe – a view that I am fairly certain explains spirituality, and makes evident the existence of God.

And, given Einstein’s views on quantum mechanics, famously stated as “God does not play dice with the universe,” I believe that the great man himself might forgive me the ambition to see him overthrown.

Getting in Line

More than a decade ago, I proposed the idea that the universe is composed of one-dimensional structures. My motivations for seeking an alternative to the reigning standard model of physics, along with a fifty-year research program, were published as the Generative Orders Research Proposal (follow the New Physics link at the top of this blog). The idea is now making its way into the physics journals. (Did the Universe Begin as a Simple 1-D Line?)

What’s curious is that the Live Science report on the work is headed with a graphic that summarizes the reigning inflationary model of the early universe (still commonly referred to as the “Big Bang” model).

It’s nice to see the basic concepts of Generative Orders gaining traction – it moves us one step closer to a reconciliation of science and spirituality.