Chapter Four: Who is Walter Huxley? (excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Silver Year)

chapter4post

I’m almost finished with the self-edit of my novel. But in the meantime, I’ve decided to post an entire chapter to my blog. Not much context is needed, for this chapter can almost stand alone as a prologue, but I recommend reading the novel’s teaser I posted before it if you haven’t already. WARNING: Although the offending material is in the minority, if you’re deeply religious, or offended by vulgar language and/or explicit sexual content, I highly advise you to keep scrolling on (also sorry for WordPress’s strange formatting). Enjoy!

Chapter 4

Who is Walter Huxley?

“I am equipped with the tunnel of life. Through it passes new life into this world, into this dimension! I am equipped with a portal to another dimension. Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Do you hate me because I refuse to be fruitful, to multiply this dimension? Is this why you scream, you bleed, you pain me so? Oh my vagina, vagina . . . VAGINA!”

“Okay thank you Avery,” the group’s moderator Raymond smiled plastically like a Christian camp counselor.

“But I’m not finished yet!” Avery responded angrily.

“As I’ve said before,” he said cautiously, “we have a limit of ten minutes per reading in order to allow time for everyone.”

Avery’s narrow face compressed behind her glasses, then exploded, “Fuck! Shit! Cunt! . . . d-d-dick sucker!…” Raymond kept his plastic smile on as she rattled off a torrent of obscenities.

The regular attending Octo-owls all knew Avery had Turret’s, although no one was brave enough to confirm that with her. It was just one of the many elephants that sat amongst the cluttered cluster of chairs in the cafe. Everyone had their elephant. Walter imagined however that the young poet did exaggerate the severity of her syndrome in order to be limitlessly exonerated from calling whosoever whatever whenever she felt like it. He liked her for that. Often what she screamed out loud he screamed in his head.

A few hands clapped politely as Avery walked hurriedly with her head down from the lectern back to her seat. Her small feet scurried like field mice under her long black dress. Her arms crossed over a binder she always had clung to her chest like a security blanket. There was a tautness of mistrust in the language of her string-beanish body. Given the disability, her past was most likely saturated with ridicule. Her eyes remained toward the floor as she sat. Two large ears poked out like satellite dishes through her straight black hair. Walter, although not particularly wanting anything more, had a strange fascination about nibbling on those ears. No other ears had evoked this feeling in him but hers. For some reason, those ears were the most beautiful he’d ever seen.

“I’m sorry to put you through this,” he said turning to Lola. “Are you sure you want to stay?” Lola laughed quietly.

“Yes. This is quite entertaining to say the least.”

There were many entertaining types amongst the Octo-owls. Writers generally are misfits and the group had every shade. The Octo-owls began as a group of eight struggling writers who defecated their bad writing on one another every Tuesday night at the Sit n’ Stay Café in order to purge their minds of it. One of these writers, Raymond Troy, wrote a moderately successful romance novel and he attributed it to these sessions. Inspired, he decided to open the group to the public in order to help other struggling writers. Although the membership now fluctuated above and below eight, the name stuck. Each week those who read their works out loud, no matter how bad, were credited with a week of writing. Consecutive weeks of writing were rewarded with progressing benchmark tokens: first week, one month, three months, six months, a year and so forth. In plain language, it was Alcoholics Anonymous for those suffering from writer’s block. This was where Raymond, also a recovering addict, adopted the structure.

Although Walter didn’t wholeheartedly believe in the meetings, he figured he should take advantage of them as they were less than a block away from his soon to be former home. The meetings were encouraging only because typically everyone else there was much worse off than he was, whether it be financially, giftedly, or in most cases mentally; he often felt like a well-able runner competing in the Special Olympics. There were a few bright spots however, such as the regular attendee Wyatt Stroud, a heavily Hemingway-influenced novelist who Walter had become friendly with. He came from Texas originally and always wore what is sometimes referred to as a Canadian Tuxedo: a denim jacket and jeans. He had a thick build, beard, and Texan accent.

The other regulars fell somewhere under the loose label of what Raymond defined as writers. There were novelists, poets, songwriters, copywriters, screen and play writers, speech writers—it seemed any title addended with the word writer was invited. There was even a cookbook writer named Thomas Tucker. Tom’s inclusion was debatable, but the group seemed to look passed this as he filled their bellies every week with food. His food, unlike their writing, was remarkable. It was a symbiotic relationship of sorts; Tom provided them with nourishment—for many of the Octo-owls were starving artists, while they provided him with taste buds.

Some other notable regulars were of course the vagina-obsessed poet Avery Hynamen. There was James Riggle, lead screamer for a local hardcore metal band, Death is What She Breathes. Every week he’d come up and scream out a fresh set of lyrics, most often about his on-and-off-again girlfriend Jezebel, scribbled onto pizza boxes, napkins, or once an old pair of her panties. With the exception of his multicolored tattooed skin tone and gigantic earlobe plugs, he resembled and spoke like a white rapper more than the suburban trust fund inheritor he was.

Then there was Layne Grimey, an Octo-owl original. He was an unemployed middle-aged comic who thought being unnecessarily honest about his insecurities and misgivings was the ticket to fame. Walter much preferred to hear Avery’s nonsensical vagina monologues to Layne’s unpleasant rants about a small penis, suicide attempts, and a cheating spouse who left him over ten years ago. More often than not, his standup ended in a bath of tears and awkward laughs, but he came devoutly every week as if it was the only thing keeping him alive.

Lastly there was the Christian erotic fantasy writer Louis Bonner, who somehow, in impressively wild and creative fashions, justified the perverse fantasies of his prolonged virginity in the eyes of God. Walter always looked forward to his readings, a favorite being the story of the passage of God’s seed to the Virgin Mary through a line of diversely intercoursing angels from Heaven to Earth. For the regular members of the Octo-owls, including Walter, the meetings were more for therapy than penmanship training.

“Walter, I see you’ve brought a new friend . . . What kind of writer are you my dear?” Raymond said in his nasally squeamish tone.

“Oh no, I’m not a writer,” Lola said uncomfortably, “just a supporter.”

“Oh, well we’re glad to have you…” Raymond flimsily held out his palm, indicating her to finish.

“Lola.”

“Lola. What a pretty name. So you’re supporting Walter huh?” She looked at Raymond dumbfounded.

“No I just sat next to him because he’s cute,” she said with a sarcastic snare.

“I want to fuck his brains out too!” Avery blurted in agreement from the back of the room. Everyone’s eyes shot towards her and she quickly tucked herself behind her binder like a turtle retreating into its shell.

Well then, big yummy ears here I come! Walter thought excitedly.

“Well Walter, would you like to give your reading for this week?” Raymond said sternly to bring the attention back on himself. Walter began to feel clammy.

“Umm… okay.”

“And did you do your own writing, or did you opt for the assignment?”

“The assignment.”

“Okay then, tell us, who is Walter Huxley?”

Walter stood from his chair and gingerly made his way to the lectern near the front window of the café. He grabbed it like a teenage boy feeling breasts for the first time. Breathing deeply, his eyes stayed glued to the paper in front of him. “Relax Walter, we have no judgments here,” Raymond said.

Sure, not outwardly, Walter thought, knowing the many unavoidable judgments he passed on others who stood behind this lectern. However, it was not the Octo-owls he was concerned with, it was Lola. In this gathering of nutcases he was tame, but Lola would be the first person of full sanity to hear his work. He took a deep breath and began:

“I’m sometimes hard to understand because I unconsciously start speaking in metaphors. My train of thought often wanders after budding from an idea as it has to bend and twist around the soil of my brain, but it will almost always bloom into a destination. On the rare occasion it does derail itself from too much momentum and mass, I apologize for the casualties, but my train was never intended to carry passengers . . . In other words, I babble. But hopefully you can find the beauty between my babblings, or at least get some odd enjoyment out of my odd enthusiasm.

“I sometimes also make up eloquent sounding words—being fully aware of my lexical violation, but artful linguistics sometimes requires it. Also Shakespeare made up his own words so fuck off. Speaking of comparing myself to Shakespeare, you could describe me as arrogant, self-absorbed, promiscuous, impulsive, reckless, narcissistic, irrational, contradicting, charlatanic, satanic, insecure, indecisive, self-loathing, self-loving, or just down right confusing, and at times, you’d be absolutely correct because at one time or another I probably was. But in the process of choosing an identity one must try on all their available masks.

“I try to guide my life according to the quotes of no one but myself, but often discover someone may have said them better before me. This is what I call inspiration, and for the sake of sanity, it’s always welcomed to know I’m not alone. Great philosophy is like a puzzle made from a broken mirror; once you peace together its brilliance, you realize it’s only yourself staring back.

“The greatest writers are always the greatest liars, but within their lies is a beautiful truth we call philosophy and this is why we forgive them. However, as much as we writers like to lie, it’s only a covering to expose our darkest truths; our most revealing insecurities so you’ll understand the reasoning behind our philosophy: our insanity. Carefully concealed in our pages you can find every perverse thought inscribed on the bone of our skulls like day markings on a prison cell wall. But it is this vicious honesty that balances the pendulum of our characters; the reason why you hate us, love us, pity us, worship us, and immortalize us; and the reason why you see yourself within us. We sacrifice sanity for the salvation of others’.

“I am Walter Huxley and I am one of the loneliest people on earth; I am a writer. I have friends, but not a best friend. I have lovers, but no one to love. I do however have writing, my wonderful and tortuous writing.

“I presume I have sparked your interest because I did my best to scare you away, or at least lose you—that’s what I was trying to convey with the whole train metaphor thing if you didn’t get it. Anyways, I only ask if you’re going to step inside my head, please wipe your feet before doing so because it’s already filthy enough.”

Walter’s eyes came up from the paper. The look on everyone’s face was not one of satisfaction or dislike, but confusion. Shit, shouldn’t have looked up, Walter thought to himself.

“Uh… eerrum…” His eyes became lost in the words on the paper and slipped like someone trying to find a footing on ice. He closed them until the dizzy spell passed. These dizzy bouts of anxiety had become a common occurrence lately. When his eyes reemerged, the confused expressions still remained.

“Walter are you okay?” Raymond asked finally.

“Yeah . . . I just haven’t had much to eat today.”

“Here, eat some of my honey-baked cornbread!” Tom excitedly rose from his chair with a slice.

“Thank you Tom,” Walter said, gratefully taking the offered piece. His face lifted with joy as it entered his mouth.

“Well?” Tom asked beggingly.

“Oh Tom, fantastic as always!”

“Oh goodie!” He squealed with delight and clapped his hands.

Please sit down Tom. Are you finished Walter?” Raymond didn’t like when things were out of order.

“Yeah I think—no wait, I’m not. I’m sorry, that was a piece of shit.”

“Aww… what?!” Tom panicked. “I knew I should’ve used the blueberry honey over the clover—stupid-stupid-stupid!” Tom repeatedly smacked himself on the head. Although debatable as a writer, Tom certainly was an artist, this display of self-abusive perfectionism an emblematic mark.

“No Tom, not your cornbread, my writing. That was the most disorganized clusterfuck of thoughts to be put on paper. It just reeks of pretentiousness. That’s what you do when something sucks, just lather it up with a lacquer of pretentiousness so nobody can look into it and see it for the piece of shit it truly is.”

“Walter come on, that’s not true. It’s a diamond in the rough,”—Raymond’s favorite consoling comment and the metaphor he used like a truck stop whore throughout his entire novel.

Walter tried to continue reading but couldn’t, so he just stared through his audience blankly. “How did I get here?” he said thinking out loud. “This isn’t what my life was supposed to be. I had everything I wanted and I threw it away, for this? Please someone tell me I’m not a fucking writer!”

“That’s not true. You are a writer, you’re just a—”

“Yes Raymond, a diamond in the rough; I get it, but you can only polish a turd so much. Maybe I’m not being clear enough. Let me strip away the cryptic metaphors so maybe you all can understand—I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I was a rock star—or at least very close to one, and now I work at Guitar Center. In addition to my experience as a professional musician, I also have a degree in physics, and even a few years of managerial experience, but still, the best job I can get is Guitar Center working with high school kids. I’m in debt to my eye balls and it keeps growing every day because once again, I work at Guitar Center. Everybody wants money from me and I’m forced to pay them back—whether it be by law or lawsuit—before I can even feed myself. My bank, because almost every debt can be forgiven except for a student loan; my band and label—correction my former band and label—because I decided to back out on being a rock star, and for what? To be a writer? A skill that I’m so brilliant at that I can’t even put together one page!” Walter paused, his breath pulsing rapidly. Whether he liked it or not, everything was finally spilling out.

“Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much if it wasn’t my songs, my ideas, and my work that brought those assholes to stardom anyways. And now they’re suing me?” His eyes couldn’t help but direct themselves toward Lola. While the Octo-owls had some understanding of his past, only she knew fully. “Granted they are in their right to do so. A band is a relationship and signing a record deal is like signing a marriage certificate and I bailed on the honeymoon. I guess I could fix all this; I could go finish the one album I promised. The problem is I can’t. No matter how hard I try, my pride seems to choke my voice—or maybe it’s the fact that two people no longer exist in this world on account of me. Every time I try to sing those songs I can’t help but be reminded of this.”

At this point the waterworks began and his voice strained somewhere between a scream and whine. “Can dreams only come true once in life? Is there no coming back after abandoning your entire life’s work at twenty-five? Is it too late for me? I don’t know and that’s the scariest part. With my first dream I was always so sure, but now I doubt myself every day. Every time my pen touches paper or my fingers to a keyboard something tells me I fucked up. But yet every time I think to go back, something pushes me back towards writing. It’s so frustrating being stuck in the middle and not making any progress in any direction. In fact, it’s what I hate the most; not being broke; not having to move in with my grandmother; not my degrading job; not losing everything I worked so hard for; but being stagnant! I have a dream, but no direction.

“It just wasn’t supposed to be like this. This was supposed to be my silver year; the silver anniversary of my birth. While technically it still is, I just thought the celebration would be a little more grand; I thought I’d be on top of the world, not crushed beneath it. I guess I just like to be miserable and broke because every time I’ve managed any sort of stability in life, I have an irresistible urge to throw it all away. Why can’t I be like everyone else and just settle into a nice and cozy life?”

He then took his lathered piece of shit and began tearing it in a puerile fit. “Why-why-why-why…”

“Because you’re a writer,” Avery squeaked from behind her binder. “We’re the loneliest and most miserable people on earth—you said it yourself.” The perplexed faces transferred to Avery. They were used to her fits of shouted vulgarities, but a coherent, cohesive thought? This was a first. After a moment’s pause she shouted, “F-F-FUCK YOU! Suck my dirty clit you cum-sucking retards,” to scare away their stares.

“You understood what I was saying?” Walter said feeling touched.

“Uh-huh.” She smiled sweetly.

“You’re right,” Walter said, “I am a writer. But I’m not miserable without a purpose; I’m miserable because I want to change the world.”

“What do you mean you want to change the world?” Layne Grimey, the sad comedian asked.

“Well like you Layne, although not so… vividly, I funnel my misery into my writing in the hope that everything that’s ugly now will someday be seen as beautiful; that it will all be worth it in the end because I changed the world.”

“But that’s just absurd, who just says they’re going to change the world? No wonder you can’t write; that’s a lot of pressure.” Layne looked as if he was chewing on a piece of gristle trying to mull the idea over.

“But doesn’t every artist hope that their work will have an impact on people?” Walter said to the entire room. The Octo-owls looked at one another then slowly nodded their heads. “Then you too, in some way, want to change the world.”

“But you say it so bluntly,” Louis Bonner, the repressed virgin added. “I mean it sounds really egotistical and crazy when you say you want to change the world. Jesus says we should be humble.”

“You don’t think Jesus was ever called crazy and egotistical? Do you think he brought—for better or worse—Christianity to the world by being passive?”

“Oh, so you think you’re Jesus then?” Louis said dignified. Walter and he had stumbled into many debates on faith in the past so Louis’s objection was almost expected.

“Don’t put words in my mouth Louis. I’m simply trying to illustrate if everyone was meek, this world would never change. So thank God for the few men who are brave enough to try, otherwise we’d still be stuck in the Dark Ages.”

“Well I guess you’re right. Amen to that.” Suddenly many hands with questions went up throughout the room. Walter was beginning to feel the subject of a press conference. He pointed to his friend Wyatt Stroud, the Hemingway novelist.

“Why do ya wanna to change the world?”

“I’m not sure exactly. It’s just programmed into me. Some people grow up wanting to be doctors, firemen, football players—I’ve always just wanted to change the world. I thought being a rock star would enable me to do so, but I found it not to be the case, at least not in the way I want to change it.”

“So you want a revolution then?” James Riggle the screaming suburbanite stood from his chair. “Fuck yeah! This country’s gone to shit. It’s about time someone does something about it. I’ll join you.”

“Thank you James, but no. I don’t want a revolution, and certainly not a war, but more of a renaissance. As you know, two people have already died in the name of my pursuit to change the world and I don’t want anymore. Life is special and I want people to realize that. I want them to ponder and poke at the phenomenon of it because maybe then they’ll appreciate what a rare gift it is. Nothing puts that in perspective better when you realize that Earth is but one of hundreds of billions of planets in the galaxy, and our galaxy is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. The earth is insignificant, and while I’m certain life exists somewhere else in the universe, it is rare, and intelligent life, extremely rare. So how lucky are we that we exist? That the winds of energy that control the cosmos happened to deposit matter in the form of the human race? Regardless of how you believe that came to be, there’s no need for theology to tell you how special it is. If we humans realized this more, I think we’d start behaving differently. We’d start looking out for ourselves and this world better because right now as a species we don’t particularly have a universal view of existence; it’s extremely shortsighted. We only have one Earth and our survival is dependent on preserving it along with the other life forms we share it with. We’re resting upon a fragile tower of life built from the microbial levels up, and each piece pulled from this tower only brings us closer to our own demise.

“Also I feel the time in which we exist is one of the most important in history—particularly in American history, but hardly anyone seems to realize it. Thanks in part to the social leveling of the Internet—much analogous to the social leveling seen after the creation of the printing press, America is experiencing a midlife crisis of sorts in which we’re finally starting to turn away from our youthful, imperial arrogance to embrace an economy built on the sharing of information and the empowerment of all individuals; a symbiosis of humanity and capitalism for the betterment of both. Although these seem like conflicting concepts on the surface—”

“Okay Walter. I let you go a few minutes over, but I’m sorry, your time is up,” Raymond asserted his lasso over the meeting again.

“But I want to hear what he has to say d-d-d-dick sucker!” Avery contested.

“I’m sorry but the program must follow certain rules and guidelines in order to work.”

“I’ll gladly give up my readin’ time to hear him out,” Wyatt said with his Texas charm. “I love it when Walt starts goin’ on about space and time and all that other stuff.” Agreements went around the room like a bombing brigade.

“You don’t want to do that,” Raymond smiled uneasily, squirming in his chair, “you’re getting your three-month token today.”

“Fuck my token!” Concurrence resonated again and the room became noticeably louder.

“I’m sorry that’s just not how things work! If we want to be better writers we must follow the program. Walter please take a seat.”

“Why because it worked for you?” James Riggle the screaming suburbanite proclaimed. “Not everyone learns the same way.” Walter was pleased in the way this meeting was going. Apparently he wasn’t the only one holding in a dislike for Raymond and his program; maybe the Octo-owls weren’t as hopeless as he thought.

“Yeah, here’s someone we’re tryin’ to help with their writin’ and yer program is prohibitin’ us from doin’ so,” Wyatt added. “Isn’t the whole point of us meetin’ here every Tuesday to help each other? Who the hell cares about tokens and time limits. I vote to get rid of both!”

The room shook with agreement. “This isn’t something that’s up for a vote!” Raymond retorted. “The program works fine just the way it is. Its design has been proven.” Raymond’s shell of authority was beginning to crack and fall around him.

“Proven? The only person it’s worked for is you,” Walter joined in. Suddenly a pride in being a writer rose up within him—although he had yet to prove himself as one. “We’re writers; we don’t like structure. We learn on our own terms!” The Octo-owls began to holler and bang their fists on anything nearby.

“And that type of reasoning is why you’ll fail. You need structure; this is why you all came to me!”

“We don’t come for you, we come for each other, our fellow Octo-owls, right fellas?” Wyatt’s booming voice cut through the noise while Raymond’s shrills struggled to find footing.

“If you don’t agree with the program you can leave, but the Octo-owls is my creation and I am the only one allowed to change it!” Raymond’s sincerity was revealing itself to be all but a perfunctory measure to the fulfillment of his ego.

“Fine we’ll call ourselves somethin’ else. That name doesn’t even make sense anyways.”

“You idiots can call yourselves whatever you’d like, but it won’t be here! Good luck, I highly doubt any of you will do anything with your lives, much less have a career in writing,” Raymond said pointing to the door.

The uprising came too quickly to realize that the group formally known as the Octo-owls were now without a home. Raymond’s sister owned the café, and only through him did they have access to it after hours.

“My house is only a block away,” Walter said. “We can go there for now.” The group looked around apprehensively, not sure what they had just done like someone coming down from a blind fit of rage. For some this had been a ritual for years; their entire life’s focus was aimed on getting their next token.

“I can’t!” Layne screamed frantically. “I can’t leave. I need this too much.”

Raymond smiled sinisterly. “Anyone else? This is your last chance.”

“I can’t do it too,” James said sitting back down in his chair. “I’m sorry guys, but it sounds like a lot of work starting all over again.”

Louis still seemed to be at a draw. “I need to pray; I need to let God decide.” He picked up his things and left hurriedly.

“I’m going to stay too,” Tom folded. “I just need mouths to feed and it looks like most of them are staying here.”

Wyatt and Avery went to stand by Walter’s side. Lola was still in her chair on the verge of laughter. Having no vested interest, she could objectively sit back and see the hilarity in it all. She was also a little drunk from the whiskey she’d been drinking earlier. “Wow you guys take your little book club, or whatever this is, a little too seriously,” she said finally giving over to laughter.

“Avery Hynaman, Wyatt Stroud, Walter Huxley, and Lola whoever you are, you are officially banned from the Octo-owls! Leave immediately!” Raymond executed like a judge.

“Oh no, I can’t be in your club; I’m so sad!” Lola said mockingly. “Whatever shall I do with my life?” The refugee Octo-owls joined her in laughter and continued to do so as they all exited.

As the group of four took the short walk to Walter’s condo, Lola stared queerly at Walter. “What?” he asked.

“Nothing. This night just isn’t what I expected it to be—but when is anything ever as expected when it involves you? I guess I’m starting to realize really what a strange life you lead Quarky, even by my standards.”

“Well strange moments are what I adore most in life,” he said with a proud smile.

The group gathered together atop the sparse furniture left in Walter’s condo. “This is all I have left, sorry Wyatt,” Walter said placing a paint bucket upside down on the floor. Avery sat awkwardly on the beach chair—binder still clutched, and Walter joined Lola on the broken cot.

“Ah, it’s okay Walt.” Wyatt’s voice bounced around the walls of the empty and tile-floored condo without coming to rest.

“As you can see I’m moving out soon—in fact tonight is the last night I’ll have the place, so we’ll have to find another place next week, or whenever we meet next. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll be able to attend as regularly as I have.

“But who’s going to lead our meetings?” Avery asked afraid.

“Who said I was the leader?”

“Well, I just figured since you kind of spearheaded this whole thing.”

“Why? Just because I was the guy behind the lectern when we decided we had enough of Raymond? We all decided this on our own. How about we have no leader? We’ll just keep everything very democratic. Plus, I don’t know how great of a leader I’d be right now. I’m at a very . . . unstable point in my life.”

“Well, should we at least have a name?” she asked.

“We don’t necessarily need one, but I’ve got a nomination.” Walter smiled. “The H-Bar.”

“The what?” Wyatt blurted. “What’s an H-Bar?”

Walter laughed. “Umm… how to explain this?” Walter had the name stored away for some music project or an actual bar, but never thought of how to explain it in layman terms. “Well in quantum mechanics there’s something called Planck’s constant—”

“How’d I know it had something to do with physics?” Lola sighed.

“Hear me out. Really, it’s a cool concept, and the more I think about it, it actually fits us well. As I was saying, in quantum mechanics there’s something called Planck’s constant, and in calculations, it’s represented by a lower case h with a line slashed through the top of it—an h-bar. Quantum mechanics was birthed from the discovery of Planck’s constant because it determines the size of individual units of energy, mass, and other constituents that make up the subatomic world. For example, an individual unit of light is called a photon. In order to calculate how energetic a red photon is versus a blue one, you have to multiply the light wave frequency of the color red or blue by Planck’s constant. From this you’ll find a red photon is less energetic than a blue photon. Planck’s constant is also used to determine the mass of particles, electron orbits, and much more. It gives us the framework we need to work around a world that we cannot see.” Bewilderment hung on their faces. “Sorry, it’s kind of tough to sum up so briefly.”

“So if I wanted to calculate the energy produced from the eight-thousand nerve endings of a female clitoris during an orgasm I could use Planck’s constant to do so?”

Walter tried not to laugh but couldn’t help himself. “Well, if you wanted to use subatomic units for your calculation, then yes . . . I’m curious Avery, please forgive me if I’m wrong, but I assumed you had Turret’s, but you’ve yet to have a single tic since we left the café.”

“I do—or did. I’ve had it under control for some years now though.”

“But what about all the—”

“Dick suckers, cunts, and fucks?” Avery finished.

“Yeah.”

“That’s just me using it as a cover to keep people at bay; to allow me to tell them what I honestly think.” She smiled acceptingly. “That’s why I like what you said about writers being overly-honest liars. It really spoke to me. I embellish my syndrome to be overly honest with people.” Walter secretly celebrated that his guess had been right. The others looked at her more baffled than they were before about her.

Anyways, I’m still not gettin’ all this. How does Planck’s constant, or the h-bar apply to us?” Wyatt asked.

“Well I always thought, how cool would it be to actually see the quantum world in person? What if we were able to shrink down to the world in which we can see Planck’s constant in action? In the quantum world, things are very strange. We could disappear and reappear in another place, walk through walls, be in two, three, or as many places as we’d like at the same time; basically a world with infinite possibilities and realities. Granted, I don’t know how in control we’d be of these possibilities and realities, but it’s still a place I’d like to visit. I often imagine this place as a bar—that I’ve aptly named the H-Bar—when I do thought experiments in my head. Anyways, writers—like the H-Bar—are typically strange. We don’t always fit into reality, so we create our own; we explore the dimension of time as if it were a room, and that’s why the H-Bar is our kind of place, a place with no such thing as time or reality . . . I don’t know, what do you think?”

“It’s beautiful!” Avery said starry-eyed.

“I still don’t get it exactly, but I like it,” Wyatt added, then presented the name for a final vote. “All in favor of the name the H-Bar say yay.” The group of four responded in agreement. “All right, welcome to the H-Bar everyone!” There was a short celebration and then silence.

“Now what?” Avery asked.

“Well I don’t know about you, but if this is a bar I’m having a drink,” Lola said heading towards the kitchen. “Anyone care to join?”

“Great idea!” Wyatt concurred and everyone followed.

Lola searched through Walter’s empty cabinets without success. “I guess all we have is this one glass,” she said holding up the glass she drank from earlier.

“Fuck it, let’s just drink from the bottle,” Wyatt said, eyeing the bottle of Jack Daniels thirstily. “It’s the best way to drink Jack anyhow.”

“I like your style,” Lola eyed Wyatt keenly. Walter took the empty glass and filled it with water from the tap. “What are you doing?” Lola asked puzzled.

“I need a chaser.” She laughed.

“Maybe you’re really not cut out to be a rock star after all.”

“I’ll need a chaser too,” Avery said meekly.

“I guess you and I are the only real drinkers here Wyatt. I’ll let you have the first drink.” Lola tipped the bottle towards him.

“Thanks, but I feel like we should be toasting to somethin’—any suggestions?”

“How about we toast to time?” Walter suggested.

“Why do I feel another physics lesson coming on?” Lola rolled her eyes.

“Let’s celebrate this place in space and time, because in the real world, we’ll never be able to come back. While our future is infinite, our past is zipping up right behind us, closing its doorways forever. May this moment someday become a treasured memory as the beginning of something great!”

“Cheers.” Wyatt took a mouthful then handed the bottle to Lola.

“Cheers,” she said and passed it to Avery.

“Cheers.” Avery warily took a small sip with a grimacing face. She coughed and reached for the glass of water. “Here you go,” she said passing the bottle to Walter. He stared down its orifice.

“I really hope this is the beginning of something great because I could really use some great right now. Cheers!” he said then dove into a generous drink.

“Damn Walter,” Wyatt said impressed. Walter came up from the bottle coughing and extinguished the burning the best he could with the remaining water.

The group spent the rest of the night how most people envision writers spending their free time—getting fucked up. Eventually separated by their vices, Lola found herself alone drinking with Wyatt in the spare bedroom, and Walter found himself smoking with Avery in the living room.

“This is the first time I’ve seen you without that binder clung to your chest,” Walter said to Avery while they sat on his cot.

“Because I feel relaxed,” she grinned puffy and glossy-eyed.

“Good . . . Do you mind if I do something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time?”

I-I-I guess that depends on what it is,” she said nervously.

“Just tell me when to stop if you don’t like it.”

O-o-okay.”

Walter’s eyes locked onto those beautiful ears he had so often fantasized about. He combed her hair behind the right one and took in its full magnificence. God, I am so weird, he thought before slowly leaning in. His open lips hovered over the ear, breathing softly into it. He took her low moans as a sign to proceed and gently bit down on her lobe. A scream grated across his ear drum.

“What?! Should I stop?”

“No-no, keep going!” she pleaded. He tugged more aggressively at the ear. “Uh… Uh… Uh—Ahhh!” Typically a woman screaming in pleasure was a good thing, but he hadn’t even kissed her yet and she was blaring like a siren. Walter suddenly felt awkward, but pressed forward as most young men would. His hand found its way up her dress and began climbing up her thighs. By the time it reached the promise land however, her underwear was soaked and she was coming down from what he estimated to be at least three orgasms. Never being in this predicament before, he was confused as to what he should do next.

“Um… are you okay?” he asked.

“Use your Planck’s constant to calculate that,” she said emphatically.

She then grabbed his head and kissed him forcefully in gratitude. All right, two girls in one day; I haven’t done this since I was on tour, Walter thought as her kiss seemed to signal she was ready for more. But to his surprise, she took his head and clung it to her chest as she so often did with her binder. Still holding his head, she then laid down on the cot and proceeded to go to sleep. Walter tried to remove his head but she clutched to it tighter. At this point he was too exhausted, high and drunk to fight her, and he too dozed off.

The next morning Walter awoke to a hammering headache exacerbated by the noise of a lawnmower outside his living room window. In a haze, he was slow to realize that he was alone. All that was left of Avery was a still wet stain on his cot and a jarring pain in his neck. Peculiarly, he felt a little depressed. She didn’t even offer a customary phone number or goodbye.

“Good morning dear,” Lola said coming out from the hallway in her underwear and Bob Dylan shirt. “Remind me to never pass out on a tile floor again.”

Walter sat up. “And remind me never to volunteer myself as a human teddy bear again.” She sat down beside him on the cot and immediately shot up.

“Is that what I think it is?!” she said looking at the stain. Walter laughed. “Fucking gross.”

“Well at least someone got off last night,” he said wryly.

“What, did mousey not reciprocate those howls of pleasure I was hearing from her last night?”

“As much as I’d like to take credit, not much talent was required; she finished multiple times before I even got her dress off. In fact, it never even came off.”

“And then what? She left?”

“No, she fell asleep.”

“And she didn’t at least have some sleepy sex with you?”

“Sleepy sex?”

“Yeah, you’ve never taken a girl home that was too drunk to fuck, so she just lets you hump her while she passes out?”

“Not that I’m aware of. I like my partners to be at least conscious while I hump them,” he said looking at her cynically. “She made no effort to return the favor, instead she just cuddled me very aggressively.”

“Ah, the old spooning blue ball move—typical bitch. How some girls can sleep with an awkward boner in their ass crack all night beats me.” Lola’s brutal honesty was such a gift at times. The insight she gave to the other side of a sexual transaction had proven itself invaluable to Walter.

“No,” he gasped through laughs. “I was unwillingly made little spoon. She cuddled me like her binder, and she’s surprisingly strong; my neck is killing me.” Lola laughed barkingly in response. “So how’d you fare? Where’s Wyatt?”

“Two words: whiskey dick. He felt so ashamed he left last night.”

“So that makes three strikeouts and one goal.”

“I think you’re mixing up your sports, but yeah. Want to go to breakfast?”

“Sure—wait, let me check.” Walter opened the last remaining moving box and took out a jar half-full of pocket change—all that was left to his worth. But at least now he had hope. Avery, as perplexing as she was, was a small spark of confidence in his writing capabilities. His writing had meant something to her.

—Or so she said, one of Walter’s inner voices began. Maybe she just said that to get you in bed. I mean, she just up and left without even a goodbye or number. You’d think if she really felt a connection to your writing, she’d at least want to hear some more . . . Was I just used by Avery Hynamen?

The voice of doubt was hard to silence once it started, but he tried:

No. Maybe she just saw the stain and got embarrassed like Wyatt. Yeah that’s it. Come on Walter give yourself some credit.

“Walter!” Lola shouted.

“Yes?” he asked dumbfounded.

“You’re talking to yourself again aren’t you?” His eyes went down in embarrassment.

“At least not out loud this time. How could you tell?”

“You think I can’t tell by now when you go into that little head of yours? Come on I’ll pay today,” she said slapping him on the butt. “Even though you’re not technically my client anymore, we’ll be discussing business so I can write it off.” Walter was in too dire straits to refuse a free meal.

“Getting wined and dined by the label again, just like the good ol’ days.”

They returned to the Sit n’ Stay Café for breakfast. “Raymond practically begged me to ban you from the café, but my little brother’s club is supposed to bring me business, not take it away,” Susie, the Sit n’ Stay’s owner and Raymond’s sister said. “I didn’t put up with his little ego trips when we were kids; I don’t know why he’d think I’d put up with them now. The regular for you dear—the Elvis right?”

“Yes Susie,” Walter said as she jotted down his order.

“And for you beautiful?”

“Ah no need to flatter this one Susie; she’s just a regular.” Walter often brought his catches from karaoke night to her café the next morning for breakfast.

“Thanks asshole.” Lola scowled. “The Mediterranean sounds great.”

“All right I’ll put that in for you,” Susie said and collected the menus.

“So have you thought about it?” Lola said to Walter.

“Thought about what?” He pretended not to know.

“The show! Aren’t you tired of not having enough money to even eat? And you can finally write everything off for good: no more of me hounding you, no more lawsuit, no more Perfect Crime. You can finally focus on just being a writer.”

“You really think that I can just write off Quinn Quark with one show? No, here’s what will happen: I do the show, the record of course sells and my debt goes away, but instead of you and the label hounding me, I’ll be hounded by the media and the fans for an eternity about another show, a reunion, or another record. I won’t be taken seriously as a writer because no one will get passed my music, and I’ll turn into a miserable drunk and die in my late twenties like a reincarnated Jim Morrison. Are you willing to kill me for this show Lola?” Walter said with some shaded sarcasm. She sighed.

“Oh fuck off. Stop postulating the worst will always happen and maybe it won’t.”

“Oh yeah, because my life has just been a fountain of good fortune lately. Excuse me for not being a little more optimistic.”

“Here’s your coffee guys.” Susie returned to the table. They both took the break in the conversation to pantomime mutual annoyance of each other with petulant facial expressions. “Food will be up soon.”

“Thank you Susie . . . Besides Lola, even if I wanted to do the show, you know I can’t sing.”

“Stop fucking saying that because it’s not true!” Lola’s frustration sprayed over the sleepy café, causing everyone to look briefly in their direction. She then softened her tone. “Only in your head does your voice not work. It sounded in perfect working order last night when you were singing and playing guitar for your little mouse girl. Can you at least meet with the band in a rehearsal studio and just see what happens? I’ll even bring along Minnie Mouse if that’s what it takes.”

“Am I sensing a little jealousy Lola?” Walter said, playfully smiling. Lola let out another throaty sigh.

“You’re not going to do it are you?”

“Nope.”

They remained silent until the food arrived. Walter hungrily began to stuff his mouth while Lola stared at him in disgust. “Aren’t you the least bit curious as to where the show would be?” Walter, unable to respond verbally, shook his head no. “Oh too bad, I mean you always talked about how much you wanted to play the Greek.” Walter choked on his Elvis.

“The Greek Theatre?!” he said with his mouth still full. “Yeah right, Perfect Crime could never fill the Greek. That’ll just put me more under water.”

“I don’t know, have you looked at how many downloads and plays your online demos have received lately? No wonder the label is so angry they can’t cash in on it. Your enigmatic, J.D. Salinger-like persona has done nothing but spark more interest in Perfect Crime.”

“I have been getting recognized a lot more lately,” Walter said pondering. “And if I do the show it’s only going to get worse.”

“Okay, just thought I’d mention it,” Lola said and began eating. She could tell by the look on his face the voices were battling inside his head. Walter spoke so much of how badly he wanted to play the Greek on the two’s many visits to the Griffith Observatory. Both rested in the same municipal park, Griffith Park, nestled into the Hollywood hills (quite literally the Hollywood Sign overlooks both). He always said one day he’d play at the Greek in addition to also being a guest astronomy lecturer at the observatory’s monthly lecture program, All Space Considered.

“Who’s going to play bass?” Walter asked as casually as possible.

“Some studio guy named Flea,” Lola responded in the same casual tone.

“Flea?! The same Flea who played with The Mars Volta?”

And The Red Hot Chili Peppers? Yeah that Flea.” The voices began to spat so much he couldn’t keep focus on his food.

“Okay I’ll try.”

Lola coughed. “You’ll what?! Did you just say you’ll try?”

“Yeah, I’ll try. No promises, but I’ll meet up with the band and see how it goes.”

“Oh Quarky!” she sat up and kissed him. “I know you don’t believe in him, but I’m going to take this as proof—thank God!”

Advertisements

How Pencil Lead and Sticky Tape Won a Nobel Prize

 

pencil_lead_and_tape

By Bradley Stockwell

First off, I want to apologize to all of my six followers to this blog. I know I left you in anxious anticipation over my follow-up post to Climate Change Part I on future green technologies. However, after three months of procrastination, I confess I still haven’t written it. I’m sorry, but I’m easily distracted and while attempting to assemble it I came across a story too good not to tell about a fascinating material called graphene. Graphene is the thinnest, strongest and stiffest material on Earth; it conducts electricity and heat better than any other known material; it is transparent and two-dimensional and is the basis for all future technologies and A.I. At the moment, its potential of applications looks limitless. Oh did I mention it was discovered with nothing more than pencil lead and tape? They even gave the guys who discovered it the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. Shit, if I knew it was that easy I could’ve scratched Nobel prize in physics off the bucket list a long time ago.

So what is graphene exactly then? In short, it’s a sheet of pencil lead (graphite) an atom thick. But to understand how we arrived at the discovery of graphene, we need to tell another story, the story of carbon. Graphene is an allotrope of carbon which simply means it’s one possible way to structure carbon atoms. The carbon atom has six protons and typically six neutrons in its nucleus. Sometimes the nucleus has eight neutrons, in which case the carbon atom is known as carbon-14. Carbon-14 is unstable, meaning it radioactively decays, but the decay is consistent over long periods of time. Because this form of carbon is found in many materials, measuring its presence gives us a way to age materials—or what is known as carbon dating. Carbon-14 however is not an allotrope of carbon, it is what is known as an isotope, something covered in detail in a previous post, Flight of the Timeless Photon.

Allotrope formation is dependent on the electrons of a carbon atom and the way in which they bond to other carbon electrons. Carbon has six electrons, two of which are buried in its innermost shell near the nucleus, and four in its outermost shell which are called valence electrons. It is these four outermost electrons—and a ton of heat and pressure—that make the difference between a lump of coal and a diamond, another allotrope of carbon. In diamond, a carbon atom’s four valence electrons are bonded with four other carbon valence electrons. This produces an extremely stiff crystalline structure. In fact, a typical diamond is made up of about a million billion billion atoms (1 with 24 zeros after it) all perfectly arranged into a single pyramidal structure, which is key to its extraordinary strength. But diamond is not the strongest and most stable allotrope of carbon. Although DeBeers may want you to think otherwise, a diamond is not forever; every diamond in existence is actually slowly turning into graphite. The process however takes billions of years so no need to worry about your wedding ring just yet.

Graphite is not a crystalline structure like diamond, but planes of carbon atoms connected in a hexagonal pattern, with each plane having an extremely strong and stable structure—stronger and more stable than diamond. Some of you may be asking, is this not the same graphite we write with and grind up into fine powder lubricants? Yes indeed it is, and the conundrum of descriptives can be blamed on electrons. In diamond, a carbon atom shares its four valence electrons with four other carbon atoms, whereas in graphite it shares its electrons with only three (see graphic below). This results in graphite having no electrons left over to form strong bonds between layers, leaving it up to something called van der Waals forces, a weak set of forces generated by fluctuations in a molecular electric field. Basically it’s the universal glue of matter and is something all molecules naturally possess. Because these forces are so weak is why you’re able to write with graphite—a.k.a. pencil lead. As you press your pencil to paper, you’re breaking the van der Waals forces, allowing layers of graphite to slide across one another and deposit themselves on a page. If it weren’t for the weak van der Waals bonds, pencil lead would be stronger than diamond and this is behind the advent of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is spun graphite, lathered in an epoxy glue to overcome the weak van der Waals forces. Restriction of van der Waals forces is also behind the phenomenality of graphene.

diamond-structure-graphite-structure

Since graphene is a single layer of graphite one atom thick, there is no need to worry about weak van der Waals forces. By default this makes graphene the strongest and thinnest material known to man. Also, because its carbon atoms are not structured in a crystalline lattice like diamond, which leaves no free electrons, it also conducts electricity and heat better than any known material. This means because of its transparency and thinness, we could literally add touch sensitivity to any inanimate object and possibly entire buildings. It also allows for something called Klein tunneling, which is an exotic quantum effect in which electrons can tunnel through something as if it’s not there. Basically it means it has the potential to be an electronic dynamo and may someday replace silicon chips and pave the way for quantum computing. Graphene was purely hypothetical until 2004 when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov discovered it. As stated in the title of this post, they discovered it with nothing more than a lump of graphite and sticky tape. They placed the tape on the graphite and peeled off a layer. They then took another piece of tape and stuck it to the piece of tape with the graphite layer and halved the layer. They continued to do this until they were left with a layer of graphite one atom thick. I’m not exaggerating the simplicity of the procedure in any way. Watch the video below and you can replicate the experiment yourself, the only catch is you need an electron microscope to confirm you indeed created graphene. Until next time my friends, stay curious.

4 Easy Experiments to Prove Quantum Mechanics to Your Drunk Friend

science_drinking

By Bradley Stockwell

I once had a friend after a long night of drinking consult me on his living room couch, “What does quantum mechanics really mean?” I was taken aback for this particular friend and I had never discussed physics—let alone quantum mechanics—in our entire five year relationship. He was a former UCSB frat boy and he was the friend I turned to when I needed a break from my intellectual studies to indulge in the simpler pleasures of life such as women and beer. He was also so heavily inebriated that I was pretty sure he wasn’t even going to remember asking the question in the morning (which I was indeed later proven right).

I answered casually, “Well, it’s the physics of atoms and atoms make up everything, so I guess it means everything.” Not satisfied with my answer he replied slurredly, “No really, what does it mean? We can’t really see what goes on in an atom so how do we really know? What if it’s just some guys too smart for their own good making it all up? Can we really trust it? From what I know we still don’t completely understand it so how do we know if it’s really real? Maybe there’s just some things as humans were not supposed to understand.”

I’ll be honest I was in shock for I had never heard my friend express this type of existential thinking before. Not to paint him one-sidedly, we had had many intelligent discussions on finances, the economy, politics, but never physics and philosophy. Maybe it had something to do with the marijuana joint I just passed to him. Anyways, after a few moments of contemplation I answered, “Everything from your smartphone to the latest advances in medicine, computer and materials technology, to the fact you’re changing channels on the TV with that remote in your hand is a result of understanding quantum mechanics. But you’re right; we still don’t fully understand it and it’s continually showing us that the universe is probably a place we’ll never fully grasp, but that doesn’t mean we should give up…” I then continued with what might’ve been too highbrow of an explanation of quantum mechanics for an extremely drunk person at 3 a.m. because halfway through he fell asleep.

As my friend snored beside me, I couldn’t help but be bothered that he and so many others still considered quantum mechanics such an abstract thing more than a hundred years after its discovery. I thought if only I could ground it in some way to make people realize that they interact with quantum mechanics every day; that it really was rooted in reality and not a part of some abstract world only understood by physicists. I myself being a layperson with no university-level education in science learned to understand it with nothing more than some old physics books and free online classes. Granted it wasn’t easy and took a lot of work—work I’m still continuing, but it’s an extremely rewarding work because the more I understand, the more exciting and wonderful the world around me becomes.

This was my inspiration behind The Party Trick Physicist blog; to teach others about the extraordinary world of science and physics in a format that drunk people at 3 a.m. might understand. I make no promises and do at times offer more in-depth posts, but I do my best. With this said, as unimaginative as a post about at-home physics experiments felt to me initially, there’s probably no better way to ground quantum mechanics—to even a drunk person at 3 a.m.—than some hands on experience. Below are four simple quantum mechanical experiments that anyone can do at home, or even at a party.

1. See Electron Footprints

For this experiment you’ll be building an easy to make spectroscope/ spectrograph to capture or photograph light spectra. For the step-by-step tutorial on how to build one click here. After following the instructions you should end up with, or see a partial emission spectrum like this one below.

mercury emission spectrum

Now what exactly do these colored lines have to do with electrons? Detailed in a previous post, The Layman’s Guide to Quantum Mechanics- Part 2: Let’s Get Weird, they are electron footprints! You see, electrons can only occupy certain orbital paths within an atom and in order to move up to a higher orbital path, they need energy and they get it by absorbing light—but only the right portions of light. They need specific ranges of energy, or colors, to make these jumps. Then when they jump back down, they emit the light they absorbed and that’s what you’re seeing above; an emission spectrum. An emission spectrum is the specific energies, or colors an electron needs—in this case mercury electrons within the florescent light bulb—to make these orbital, or ‘quantum’ leaps. Every element has a unique emission spectrum and that’s how we identify the chemical composition of something, or know what faraway planets and stars are made of; just by looking at the light they emit.

2. Measure The Speed of Light With a Chocolate Bar

This is probably the easiest experiment as it only requires a chocolate bar, a microwave oven, a ruler and calculator. I’ve actually done this one myself at a party and while you’ll come off as a nerd, you’ll be the coolest one there. Click here for a great step-by-step tutorial and explanation from planet-science.com

3. Prove Light Acts as a Wave

This is how you can replicate Thomas Young’s famous double slit experiment that definitively proved (for about 100 years) that light acts as a wave. All you need is a laser pointer, electrical tape, wire and scissors. Click here for a step-by-step video tutorial.

4. Prove Light Also Acts as a Particle 

This experiment is probably only for the most ambitious at-home physicists because it is the most labor and materials extensive. However this was the experiment that started it all; the one that gave birth to quantum mechanics and eventually led to our modern view of the subatomic world; that particles, whether they be of light or matter, act as both a wave and a particle. Explained in detail in my previous post The Layman’s Guide to Quantum Mechanics- Part I: The Beginning, this was the experiment that proved Einstein’s photoelectric effect theory, for which he won his only Nobel Prize. Click here to learn how to make your own photoelectric effect experiment.

Good luck my fellow party trick physicists and until next time, stay curious.

String Theory in 1000 Words (Kind Of)

string-theory-1024x576

By Bradley Stockwell

Because my last two posts were quite lengthy, I’ve decided to limit myself to 1000 words on this one. Before I begin, I must credit the physicist Brian Greene for much of the insight and some of the examples I’m going to use. Without his book The Elegant Universe, I wouldn’t know where to begin in trying to explain string theory.

In short, string theory is the leading candidate for a theory of everything; a solution to the problem of trying to connect quantum mechanics to relativity. Because it has yet to be proven experimentally, many physicists have a hard time accepting it and think of it as nothing more than a mathematical contrivance. However, I must emphasize, it has also yet to be disproven; in fact many of the recent discoveries made in particle physics and cosmology were first predicted by string theory. Like quantum mechanics when it was first conceived, it has divided the physics community in two. Although the theory has enlightened us to some features of our universe and is arguably the most beautiful theory since Einstein’s general relativity, it still lacks definitive evidence for reasons that’ll be obvious later. But there is some hope on the horizon. After two years of upgrades, in the upcoming month, the LHC—the particle accelerator that discovered the Higgs Boson (the God Particle), will be starting up again to dive deeper into some of these enlightenments that string theory has given us and may further serve as evidence for it.

So now that you have a general overview, let’s get to the nitty gritty. According to the theory, our universe is made up of ten to eleven dimensions, however we only experience four of them. Think about the way in which you give someone your location. You tell them you’re on the corner of Main and Broadway on the second floor of such-and-such building. These coordinates represent the three spatial dimensions: left and right, forward and back and up and down that we’re familiar with. Of course you also give a time in which you’ll be at this three dimensional location and that is dimension number four.

Where are these other six to seven dimensions hiding then? They’re rolled up into tiny six dimensional shapes called Calabi-Yau shapes, named after the mathematicians who created them, that are woven into the fabric of the universe. You can sort of imagine them as knots that hold the threads of the universe together. The seventh possible dimension comes from an extension of string theory called M-theory, which basically adds another height dimension, but we can ignore that for now. These Calabi-Yau ‘knots’ are unfathomably small; as small as you can possibly get. This is why string theory has remained unproven, and consequently saves it from being disproven. With all the technology we currently possess, we just can’t probe down that far; down to something called the Planck length. To give you a reference point of the Planck length, imagine if an atom were the size of our entire universe, this length would be about as long as your average tree here on Earth.

string_dimensions

Calabi-Yau shapes, or ‘knots’ that hold the fabric of the universe together.

The exact shape of these six dimensional knots is unknown, but it is important because it has a profound impact on our universe. At its core, string theory imagines everything in our universe as being made of the same material, microscopic strings of energy. And just the way air being funneled through a French horn has vibrational patterns that create various musical notes, strings that are funneled through these six dimensional knots have vibrational patterns that create various particle properties, such as mass, charge and something called spin. These properties dictate how a particle will influence our universe and how it will interact with other particles. Some particles become gravity, others become the forces that attract, glue and pull apart matter particles. This sets the stage for particles like quarks to coalesce into protons and neutrons, which interact with electrons to become atoms. Atoms interact with other atoms to become molecules and molecules interact with other molecules to become matter, until eventually you have this thing we call the universe. Amazing isn’t it? The reality we perceive could be nothing more than a grand symphony of vibrating strings.

Many string theorists have tried to pin down the exact Calabi-Yau shape that created our universe, but the mathematics seems to say it’s not possible; that there is an infinite amount of possibilities. This leads us down an existential rabbit hole of sorts and opens up possibilities that the human brain may never comprehend about reality. Multiverse theorists (the cosmology counterparts to string theorists) have proposed that because there is an infinite number of possible shapes that there is an infinite variety of universes that could all exist within one giant multidimensional form called the multiverse. This ties in with another component of the multiverse theory I’ve mention previously; that behind every black hole is another universe. Because the gravitational pull within a black hole is so great, it would cause these Calabi-Yau ‘knots’ to become detangled and reform into another shape. Changing this shape would change string energy vibrations, which would change particle properties and create an entirely new universe with a new set of laws for physics. Some may be sustainable—such as in the case of our universe—or unsustainable. Trying to guess the exact Calabi-Yau shape a black hole would form would kind of be like trying to calculate the innumerable factors that make up the unique shape of a single snowflake.

The multiverse theory along with M-theory also leads to the possibility that forces in other universes, or dimensions, may be stronger or weaker than within ours. For example gravity, the weakest of the four fundamental forces in our universe, may be sourced in a neighboring universe or dimension where it is stronger and we are just experiencing the residual effect of what bleeds through. Sort of like muffled music from a neighbor’s house party bleeding through the walls of your house. The importance of this possibility is gravity may be a communication link to other universes or dimensions—something that the movie Interstellar played off of.

Well I’ve gone over by 52 words now (sorry I tried my best!), so until next time, stay curious my friends.

 

The Layman’s Guide to Quantum Mechanics- Part 2: Let’s Get Weird

schrdi1

By Bradley Stockwell

A great way to understand the continuous-wave and the quantized-particle duality of quantum physics is to look at the differences between today’s digital technology and its predecessor, analog technology. All analog means is that something is continuous and all digital means is that something is granular, or comes in identifiable chunks. For example the hand of an analog clock must sweep over every possible increment of time as it progresses; it’s continuous. But a digital clock, even if it’s displaying every increment down to milliseconds, has to change according to quantifiable bits of time; it’s granular. Analog recording equipment transfers entire, continuous sound waves to tape, while digital cuts up that signal into small, sloping steps so that it can fit into a file (and why many audiophiles will profess vinyl is always better). Digital cameras and televisions now produce pictures that instead of having a continuum of colors, have pixels and a finite number of colors. This granularity of the digital music we hear, the television we watch, or the pictures we browse online often goes unnoticed; they appear to be continuous to our eyes. Our physical reality is much the same. It appears to be continuous, but in fact went digital about 14 billion years ago. Space, time, energy and momentum are all granular and the only way we can see this granularity is through the eyes of quantum mechanics.

Although the discovery of the wave-particle duality of light was shocking at the turn of the 20th century, things in the subatomic world—and the greater world for that matter, were about to get a whole lot stranger. While it was known at the time that protons were grouped within a central region of an atom, called the nucleus, and electrons were arranged at large distances outside the nucleus, scientists were stumped in trying to figure out a stable arrangement of the hydrogen atom, which consists of one proton and one electron. The reason being if the electron was stationary, it would fall into the nucleus since the opposite charges would cause them to attract. On the other hand, an electron couldn’t be orbiting the nucleus as circular motion requires consistent acceleration to keep the circling body (the electron) from flying away. Since the electron has charge, it would radiate light, or energy, when it is accelerated and the loss of that energy would cause the electron to go spiraling into the nucleus.

In 1913, Niels Bohr proposed the first working model of the hydrogen atom. Borrowing from Max Planck’s solution to the UV catastrophe we mentioned previously, Bohr used energy quantization to partially solve the electron radiation catastrophe (not the actual name, just me having a fun play on words), or the model in which an orbiting electron goes spiraling into the nucleus due to energy loss. Just like the way in which a black body radiates energy in discrete values, so did the electron. These discrete values of energy radiation would therefore determine discrete orbits around the nucleus the electron was allowed to occupy. In lieu of experimental evidence we’ll soon get to, he decided to put aside the problem of an electron radiating away all its energy by just saying it didn’t happen. Instead he stated that an electron only radiated energy when it would jump from one orbit to another.

So what was this strong evidence that made Niels Bohr so confident that these electron orbits really existed? Something called absorption and emission spectrums, which were discovered in the early 19th century and were used to identify chemical compounds of various materials, but had never been truly understood. When white light is shined upon an element, certain portions of that light are absorbed and also re-radiated, creating a spectral barcode, so to speak, for that element. By looking at what parts of the white light (or what frequencies) were absorbed and radiated, chemists can identify the chemical composition of something. This is how were able to tell what faraway planets and stars are made of by looking at the absorption lines in the light they radiate. When the energy differences between these absorbed and emitted sections of light were analyzed, they agreed exactly to the energy differences between Bohr’s electron orbits in a hydrogen atom. Talk about the subatomic world coming out to smack you in the face! Every time light is shown upon an element, its electrons eat up this light and use the energy to jump up an orbit then spit it back out to jump down an orbit. When you are looking at the absorption, or emission spectrum of an element, you are literally looking at the footprints left behind by their electrons!

FG09_12hydrogen-spectra

Left- The coordinating energy differences between electron orbits and emitted and absorbed light frequencies. Right- A hydrogen absorption and emission spectrum. 

As always, this discovery only led to more questions. The quantum approached worked well in explaining the allowable electron orbits of hydrogen, but why were only those specific orbits allowed? In 1924 Louis de Broglie put forward sort of a ‘duh’ idea that would finally rip the lid off the can of worms quantum mechanics was becoming. As mentioned previously, Einstein and Planck had firmly established that light had characteristics of both a particle and a wave, so all de Broglie suggested was that matter particles, such as electrons and protons, could also exhibit this behavior. This was proven with the very experiment that had so definitively proven light as a wave, the now famous double slit experiment. It proved that an electron also exhibited properties of a wave—unless you actually observe that electron, then it begins acting like a particle again. To find out more about this experiment, watch this video here.

As crazy as this all sounds, when the wave-like behavior of electrons was applied to Bohr’s atom, it answered many questions. First it meant that the allowed orbits had to be exact multiples of the wavelengths calculated for electrons. Orbits outside these multiples would produce interfering waves and basically cancel the electrons out of existence. The circumference of an electron orbit must equal its wavelength, or twice its wavelength, or three times its wavelength and so forth. Secondly if an electron is now also a wave, these orbits weren’t really orbits in the conventional sense, rather a standing wave that surrounded the nucleus entirely, making the exact position and momentum of the particle part of an electron impossible to determine at any given moment.

This is where a physicist by the name of Werner Heisenberg (yes the same Heisenberg that inspired Walter White’s alter ego in Breaking Bad) stepped in. From de Broglie’s standing wave orbits, he postulated sort of the golden rule of quantum mechanics: the uncertainty principle. It stated the more precisely the position of an object is known, the less precisely the momentum is known and vice versa. Basically it meant that subatomic particles can exist in more than one place at a time, disappear and reappear in another place without existing in the intervening space—and yeah, it basically just took quantum mechanics to another level of strange. While this may be hard to wrap your head around, instead imagine wrapping a wavy line around the entire circumference of the earth. Now can you tell me a singular coordinate of where this wavy line is? Of course not, it’s a wavy line not a point. It touches numerous places at the same time. But what you can tell me is the speed in which this wavy line is orbiting the earth by analyzing how fast its crests and troughs are cycling. On the other hand, if we crumple this wavy line up into a ball—or into a point, you could now tell me the exact coordinates of where it is, but there are no longer any crests and troughs to judge its momentum. Hopefully this elucidates the conundrum these physicists felt in having something that is both a particle and a wave at the same time.

Like you probably are right now, the physicists of that time were struggling to adjust to this. You see, physicists like precision. They like to say exhibit A has such and such mass and moves with such and such momentum and therefore at such and such time it will arrive at such and such place. This was turning out to be impossible to do within the subatomic world and required a change in their rigid moral fiber from certainty to probability. This was too much for some, including Einstein, who simply could not accept that “God would play dice with the universe.” But probability is at the heart of quantum mechanics and it is the only way it can produce testable results. I like to compare it to a well-trained composer hearing a song for the first time. While he may not know the exact direction the song is going to take—anything and everything is possible, he can take certain factors like the key, the genre, the subject matter and the artist’s previous work to make probabilistic guesses as to what the next note, chord, or lyric might be. When physicists use quantum mechanics to predict the behavior of subatomic particles they do very much the same thing. In fact the precision of quantum mechanics has now become so accurate that Richard Feynman (here’s my obligatory Feynman quote) compared it to “predicting a distance as great as the width of North America to an accuracy of one human hair’s breadth.”

So why exactly is quantum mechanics a very precise game of probability? Because when something is both a particle and wave it has the possibility to exist everywhere at every time. Simply, it just means a subatomic particle’s existence is wavy. The wave-like behavior of a particle is essentially a map of its existence. When the wave changes, so does the particle. And by wavy, this doesn’t mean random. Most of the time a particle will materialize into existence where the wave crests are at a maximum and avoid the areas where the wave troughs are at a minimum—again I emphasize most of the time. There’s nothing in the laws of physics saying it has to follow this rule. The equation that describes this motion and behavior of all things tiny is called a wave equation, developed by Erwin Schrödinger (who you may know him for his famous cat which I’ll get to soon). This equation not only correctly described the motion and behavior of particles within a hydrogen atom, but every element in the periodic table.

Heisenberg did more than just put forth the uncertainty principle—he of course wrote an equation for it. This equation quantified the relationship between position and momentum. This equation combined with Schrodinger’s gives us a comprehensive image of the atom and the designated areas in which a particle can materialize into existence. Without getting too complex, let’s look at a simple hydrogen atom in its lowest energy state with one proton and one electron. Since the electron has a very tiny mass, it can occupy a comparatively large area of space. A proton however has a mass 200 times that of an electron and therefore can only occupy a very small area of space. The result is a tiny region in which the proton can materialize (the nucleus), surrounded by a much larger region in which the electron can materialize (the electron cloud). If you could draw a line graph that travels outward from the nucleus that represents the probability of finding the electron within its region, you’ll see it peaks right where the first electron orbit is located from the Bohr model of the hydrogen atom we mentioned earlier. The primary difference between this model and Bohr’s though, is an electron occupies a cloud, or shell, instead of a definitive orbit. Now this is a great picture of a hydrogen atom in its lowest energy state, but of course an atom is not always found in its lowest energy state. Just like there are multiple orbits allowed in the Bohr model, there higher energy states, or clouds, within a quantum mechanical hydrogen atom. And not all these clouds look like a symmetrical sphere like the first energy state. For example the second energy state can have a cloud that comes in two forms: one that is double spherical (one sphere inside a larger one) and the other is shaped like a dumbbell. For higher energy states, the electron clouds can start to look pretty outrageous.

hydrogen energy stateshydrogen_orbitals___poster_by_darksilverflame-d5ev4l6

 

Left- Actual direct observations of a hydrogen atom changing energy states. Right- The many shapes of hydrogen electron clouds, or shells as they progress to higher energy states. Each shape is representative of the area in which an electron can be found. The highest probability areas are in violet. 

The way in which these electron clouds transform from one energy state to the next is also similar to the Bohr model. If a photon is absorbed by an atom, the energy state jumps up and if an atom emits a photon, it jumps down. The color of these absorbed and emitted photons determines how many energy states the electron has moved up or down. If you’ve thrown something into a campfire, or a Bunsen burner in chemistry class and seen the flames turn a strange color like green, pink, or blue, the electrons within the material of whatever you threw in the flames are changing energy states and the frequencies of those colors are reflective of how much energy the changes took. Again this explains in further detail what we are seeing when we look at absorption and emission spectrums. An absorption spectrum is all the colors in white light minus those colors that were absorbed by the element, and an emission spectrum contains only the colors that match the difference in energy between the electron energy states.

Another important feature of the quantum mechanical atom, is that only two electrons can occupy each energy state, or electron cloud. This is because of something inherent within the electrons called spin. You can think of the electrons as spinning tops that can only spin in two ways, either upright or upside down. When these electrons spin, like the earth, they create a magnetic field and these fields have to be 180 degrees out of phase with each other to exist. So in the end, each electron cloud can only have two electrons; one with spin up and one with spin down. This is called the exclusion principle, created by Wolfgang Pauli. Spin is not something that is inherent in only electrons, but in all subatomic particles. Therefore this property is quantized as well according to the particle and all particles fall into one of two families defined by their spin. Particles that have spin equal to 1/2, 3/2, 5/2 (for an explanation on what these spin numbers mean, click here) and so on, form a family called fermions. Electrons, quarks, protons and neutrons all fall in this family. Particles with spin equal to 0, 1, 2, 3, and so on belong to a family called bosons, which include photons, gluons and the hypothetical graviton. Bosons, unlike fermions don’t have to obey the Pauli exclusion principle and all gather together in the lowest possible energy state. An example of this is a laser, which requires a large number of photons to all be in the same energy state at the same time.

Since subatomic particles all look the same compared to one another and are constantly phasing in and out of existence, they can be pretty hard to keep track of. Spin however provides a way for physicists to distinguish the little guys from one another. Once they realized this though, they happened upon probably the strangest and most debated feature of quantum mechanics called quantum entanglement. To understand entanglement, let’s imagine two electrons happily existing together in the same electron cloud. As stated above, one is spinning upright and the other is spinning upside down. Because of their out of phase magnetic fields they can coexist in the same energy state, but this also means their properties, like spin, are dependent on one another. If electron A’s spin is up, electron B’s spin is down; they’ve become entangled. If say these two electrons are suddenly emitted from the atom simultaneously and travel in opposite directions, they are now flip-flopping between a state of being up and a state of being down. One could say they are in both states at the same time. When Erwin Schrödinger was pondering this over and subsequently coined the term entanglement, he somewhat jokingly used a thought experiment about a cat in a box which was both in a state of being alive and being dead and it wasn’t until someone opened this box that the cat settled into one state or the other. This is exactly what happens to one of these electrons as soon as someone measures them (or observes them), the electron settles into a spin state of either up or down. Now here’s where it gets weird. As soon as this electron settles into its state, the other electron which was previously entangled with it, settles instantaneously into the opposite state, whether it’s right next to it or on the opposite side of the world. This ‘instantaneous’ emission of information from one electron to another defies the golden rule of relativity that states nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Logic probably tells you that the two electrons never changed states to begin with and one was always in an up state and the other was always in a down. People on the other side of this debate would agree with you. However very recent experiments are proving the former scenario to be true and they’ve done these experiments with entangled electrons at over 100 km a part. Quantum entanglement is also playing an integral role in emerging technologies such as quantum computing, quantum cryptography and quantum teleportation.

For as much as I use the words strange and weird to describe quantum mechanics, I actually want to dispel this perception. Labeling something as strange, or weird creates a frictional division that I’m personally uncomfortable with. In a field that seeks to find unity in the universe and a theory to prove it, I feel it’s counterintuitive to focus on strange differences. Just like someone else’s culture may seem strange to you at first, after some time of immersing yourself in it, you begin to see it’s not so strange after all; just a different way of operating. Quantum mechanics is much the same (give it some time I promise). We also have to remember that although reality within an atom may seem strange to us, it is in fact our reality that is strange—not the atom’s. Because without the atom, our reality would not exist. A way I like to put quantum mechanics in perspective is to think of what some vastly more macroscopic being, blindly probing into our reality might think of it. He/she/it would probably look at something like spacetime for example, the fabric from which our universe is constructed, and think it too exhibits some odd properties—some that are very similar to the wave-particle duality of the quantum world. While Einstein’s relativity has taught us that space and time are unquestioningly woven together into a singular, four dimensional entity, there’s an unquestionable duality just like we find in subatomic particles. Time exhibits a similar behavior to that of a wave in that it has a definite momentum, but no definable position (after all it exists everywhere). And space on the other hand has a definable, three dimensional position, but no definable momentum, yet both make up our singular experience of this universe. See if you look hard enough, both of our realities—the big and small, are indeed weird yet fascinating at the same time. Until next time my friends, stay curious.