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

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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 said, smiling plastically.

“But I’m not finished yet!” Avery snapped back.

“As I’ve said many times before Avery, there is a strict limit of twenty minutes to allow time for everyone.”

Her narrow face compressed behind her glasses, then exploded: “Fuck! Shit! Cunt! . . . D-D-DICK SUCKER!…” Raymond kept his plastic smile on as she spewed obscenities.

The other Octo-owls all assumed Avery had Tourette’s, but no one was brave enough to confirm this with her. It was just one of many elephants that sat amongst their cluttered cluster of chairs inside the café. Everyone had their elephant.

Walter on the other hand, worried his fit-o-fucks were a sign of the affliction, recently learned coprolalia’s profanity is only so targeted in movies. Instead he saw Avery’s elephant as an artistic ruse in a satire on truth. She lied to be overly honest with people; to be limitlessly exonerated from calling whosoever whatever whenever she felt like it, and he found it genius. Beneath the diversion of her vaginally laced verse was a coy little lie no one noticed but him. It was their unsung secret and why he silently loved her. Often what she screamed out loud he screamed inside his head.

A few hands clapped politely as Avery walked hurriedly with her head down from the lectern to her seat. Her small feet scurried like field mice under a long black dress. Her arms crossed over a binder she always had clung to her chest. There was a tautness of mistrust in the language of her string-beanish body.

Her eyes remained toward the floor as she sat. The tops of two large ears shaped like satellite dishes slipped out through her straight black hair. This was as exciting to Walter as the sight of cleavage. Although not particularly fantasizing anything more, he had an eccentric captivation about nibbling on those ears. No other ears evoked this feeling in him but hers. Those ears were the most beautiful ears in the world to him.

“I’m sorry to put you through this,” Walter said turning to Lola. “Are you sure you want to stay?” he asked for the third time.

“Yes, Walter,” she said laughing. “Regardless of your writing, this is entertainment at its strangest.”

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 to liquidate their minds of it. One of these writers, Raymond Troy, wrote a moderately successful romance novel and he attributed it to the meetings. Inspired, he decided to open the group to the public to help other struggling writers.

Although 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 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 assembly.

Although Walter never wholeheartedly believed in the meetings, he figured he should take advantage of them since they were less than a block away from his soon to be former home. The meetings were also encouraging because many people there were much worse off than he was, whether it be financially, giftedly, or in most cases mentally. A lot of the Octo-owls—including Walter—came more for therapy than penmanship training.

There were, however, a few spurts of Walter’s brand of genius outside the labia loving poet Avery Hynamen, first being Wyatt Stroud, a heavily Hemingway-influenced novelist whom Walter had become friendly with. He originated from Texas 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, and was the only other novelist besides Walter and Raymond.

Raymond had a very loose label for “writer”. He had to. If limited only to novelists, the group would’ve been perhaps two persons and a half—half because that’s about how often Walter showed up, and half because Walter was still under the navel as a novelist. He had written one page for a book, a book he still was unsure as to what it was supposed to be about.

Other than the two and a half novelists, there were poets, comedians, songwriters, a copywriter, two screen and play writers, a speech writer, a technical writer—basically any title addended with the word writer was included. There was even a cookbook writer named Chauncey Chan. Chauncey’s inclusion was debatable, but the group looked past this as he filled their bellies weekly. His food, unlike their talents, was remarkable. It was a symbiotic relationship of sorts. Chauncey provided them with nourishment—for many of the Octo-owls were starving artists—while they provided him with adulating taste buds for his eggshell ego.

Other spurts and notables included:

James Riggle, lead screamer for a local hardcore metal band, Death is What She Breathes. Every week he screamed 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 tattoo-colored skin and gigantic earlobe plugs, he resembled and spoke like a white rapper more than the suburban trust fund inheritor he actually was.

Next was Layne Grimey, an Octo-owl original and 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 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 Louis Bonner, the short story writer of Christian fantasy erotica. In impressively wild and creative concoctions, Louis channeled the perverse longings of his prolonged virginity into some of the best Octo-owl writing Walter had ever heard,  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. This was how Louis “purged” himself in order to remain physically pure for the wife that would probably never physically appear. Louis had fifty-eight consecutive years of single, virgin life.

“Walter,” Raymond cawed, “I see you’ve brought a new Octo-owl. What kind of writer are you my dear?”

“Oh no,” Lola said uncomfortably. “I’m not a writer, just a supporter.” She patted Walter’s leg.

“Oh, how wonderful! Well, we’re still very glad to have you…” Raymond flimsily held out his palm, indicating her to finish.

“Lola.”

“Lola. What a pretty name . . . Well Walter, would you like to recite your writing for the week? You must be excited since you brought a friend.”

Walter became instantaneously clammy.

“Umm… okay,” he said.

“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 back of the café, where a lectern sat on a slightly elevated stage which doubled as a reading nook during business hours. He grabbed the lectern like a teenage boy feeling breasts for the first time. Breathing deeply, his eyes stayed epoxied to the paper in front of him.

“Relax Walter, we have no judgments here,” Raymond assured him.

Sure, not outwardly, Walter thought, knowing the many judgments he passed on others who stood behind this same lectern. 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, irrational, contradicting, charlatanic, satanic, insecure, indecisive, self-loathing, self-loving, or just down right confusing, and at times, you’d be absolutely right because at one time or another I probably was, but in 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 piece together its brilliance, you realize it’s only yourself staring back.

“The greatest writers are 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 and most miserable people on earth; I am a writer. I have friends, but none of them are close. I have lovers, but no one to love. I do however have writing, my wonderful and tortuous writing.

“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. His eyes fled back down.

“Uh… eerrum…” he said, as they slid down the page, caught in a waterslide of words. He closed them until the dizzy spell passed. These dizzy bouts of anxiety were common lately.

“Walter, you okay?” Raymond asked.

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

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

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

“Well?” Chauncey asked beggingly.

“Oh Chauncey, fantastic as always!”

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

Please sit down Chauncey,” Raymond demanded. “Are you finished Walter?”

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

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

“No Chauncey, not your cornbread, my writing. That was nothing but a clusterfuck of nonsensical narcissism. That’s what you do when something sucks, inject it with ego then lacquer it over with pretentious nonsense so nobody can look in and see the piece of shit it truly is.”

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

“Yeah, but you can only polish a turd so much Raymond,” Walter defied.

Walter tried to continue reading but couldn’t. His diamond was too embarrassingly crude. Instead he just stared through his audience blankly as his mouth began moving inconsiderately:

“How did I get here? This isn’t my life. My life was supposed to be touring the world and making a living as every young musician’s pipe dream, a rock star, not living with Grandma in a bed of debt working at Guitar Center. This was supposed to be my silver year—the silver anniversary of my birth, but there’s nothing silver or bright about it, only darkness, and it’s all because I decided to become a writer.”

At this point the waterworks began and Walter’s voice strained somewhere between a whine and scream—a wheam.

“What the fuck have I done?!” Walter wheamed. “I gave up everything for something I have no talent for. Music, physics—I never doubted my abilities, but writing, I doubt myself every day. Every time my fingers touch a pen or keyboard a voice tells me I fucked up. But every time I think to quit another voice tells me I can’t. Even worse, I never used to have voices telling me things before I decided to become a writer—but I suppose killing two people can have that effect too.

“So here I am, a prisoner of my own head now, paralyzed and worthless, floating like a piece of flotsam on the sea of life. Perhaps this is how destiny’s dark horse finally gets me, the one’s whose hoof steps have faded, but never fall; the sleep I’ve been missing that I knew would catch up to me one day . . . Suicide is all I have if I don’t become a writer. That’s why it means so much to me, but why? Why must it be writer? Why must it be something I so plainly suck at? Why-why-why-why…” He then took his injected and lathered piece of shit and began tearing it in a puerile fit.

“Because you want to be remembered for ideas, not talents,” Avery squeaked from beneath her binder.

Walter’s hands and wheaming ceased. “What?—what do you mean?”

“You’d know if you just listened to your writing—which is not bad when you’re not trying so hard. It’s all right there:

“Great philosophy is like a puzzle made from a broken mirror; once you piece together its brilliance, you realize it’s only yourself staring back.

Writers are the greatest liars, but within their lies is a beautiful truth we call philosophy.

“You want to be a philosopher.”

“A philosopher?” Walter said baffled. “Aren’t philosophers a bit antiquated? Proclaiming yourself a philosopher nowadays is almost as crazy as proclaiming yourself a prophet.”

“They’ve just diversified,” Avery said. “But the heart of philosophy lives on in writers. It’s only natural for you to be attracted to it—although even writer has become a bit antiquated and crazy now.”

Kind of like rock n’ roll star… Walter thought to himself.

“That’s why you’re so miserable,” she continued. “You have ideas but you don’t know how to express them; you’re ‘a puzzle made from a broken mirror’, and you’re trying to piece yourself together.”

“You really hear all that in my writing?” Walter asked in a quaky voice.

“Yes, really.” Her small smile and doe-eyed stare assured him. “I hear philosophy in all your writing, and I look forward to it every time you’re here. So please don’t kill yourself. And as you said, writers are the loneliest and most miserable people on Earth—we have to be to do what we do, so loneliness and misery is just a part of the process of becoming one. But you’re not miserable and lonely without a purpose; you’re miserable and lonely because in some small way you want your misery and loneliness to change the world, but it must first change you.”

Walter’s breath pulsed heavily under the weight of this truth only he could hear. The other Octo-owls were too distracted by Avery’s lucidness to actually hear what she said. So used to vulgarities and vaginas interrupting her sentence flow, coherency became meaningless.

After a moment’s pause Avery shrieked, “F-F-FUCK YOU! Suck my dirty clit you cum-sucking retards,” to scare away their perplexed stares before tucking herself back into her binder like a turtle retreating into its shell.

“You’re right,” Walter said still shell-shocked by the revelation, “I guess I do want to change the world. I don’t know what I want to change about it, but something.”

Pfft,” Layne the sad comedian snorted haughtily. “What a millennial!” he said then clapped his lap proudly. “That’s the problem with your generation; none of you have a clue what you want, yet you all want to change the world, but only if someone else can help you do it.”

“Well, yeah,” Walter agreed. “That’s because the world has already changed so much and so fast in our lifetimes that we’re still trying to figure things out. Humanity’s at a sharp juncture in history and my generation is impaled right over it. The social leveling of the internet—much analogous to the social leveling of the printing press—has created a digital diaspora that has overtaken art, education, communication, thought, and inadvertently our identity. We’re hybrid children of meatspace and cyberspace—a first of our kind. That’s why we’re the generation no one understands or likes, not even ourselves. Why do you think we plagiarize the past so much? We’re searching for an organic personality to call our own. Millennials are revolutionary, yet utterly useless.

“But despite how pathetic we can be, I still think we’re a meaningful generation. Yes we’re a little confused, but we’re not afraid to ask for help; it’s what we’ve become accustomed to. We spend half our lives in a reality that didn’t exist when we were born asking for help because we’ve seen firsthand the revolutionary power of it. We have turned away from adolescent, imperial arrogance to embrace a world built on collaboration, empowerment, and equality, and it has been to the benefit and betterment of both humanity and capitalism, yet everyone else—including some of ourselves—call us selfish, lazy, and hopeless.”

Layne looked as if he was chewing on a piece of gristle mulling over a rebuttal. “Well,” he said more demurely, “it’s still absurd. Who just says they’re going to change the world but doesn’t know what they want to change about it? Only a millennial!”

“Yeah,” Louis Bonner, the repressed virgin, contributed. “Perhaps if your entitled generation had a little more Christ in your lives you’d know humility.”

“Humility?” Walter scoffed. “Christians have exterminated, pillaged, demonized, and dehumanized almost every religion and culture outside their own in the name of supposed Christian superiority. The majority of the world’s problems we face today are a result of Christianity’s ego, and personally, I believe the day America breaks the bonds of being a ‘Christian Nation’ is the day we become a better country.”

Louis gasped with fright at this blasphemy.

James Riggle the screaming suburbanite then stood from his chair and shouted: “Fuck yeah! This country’s gone to shit! It’s about time for a revolution!”

“Well, I don’t think a revolution is in order, but more so a renaissance,” Walter suggested. “I just want people to see the spirituality in curiosity a little more; to forget needing an answer to why we exist, but instead to get caught up in the joy of discovering existence itself. I want people to ponder and poke at the phenomenon of life 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 within 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.

“But curiosity doesn’t need apply to just the heavens above or earth below, but also our path behind. History is our most precious armament against the destructive forces of ignorance and arrogance—”

“Okay Walter, that’s enough,” Raymond reined in. “We’re getting quite off topic now and your time is up.”

“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 give up my readin’ time to hear him out,” Wyatt, the Hemingway novelist, 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.”

“So what? Fuck my token!” Concurrence again resonated, 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 Raymond?!” James Riggle screamed. “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.

“This stopped being about writing a long time ago,” Raymond said. “This meeting has gotten way out of hand. Walter I’m not going to ask again, please take a seat!”

“Who cares?” Wyatt continued to contend. “Meetin’ here every week isn’t just about writing, it’s about helping each other. I vote to get rid of tokens and time limits!”

The room shook with agreement.

“This isn’t something that’s up for a vote!” Raymond screeched as his casing of authority began to crack and fall around him. “The program works fine just the way it is! Its design has been proven.”

“Proven?” Walter said. “The only person it’s proven to work for is you. We’re writers; we don’t like structure. We learn on our own terms!”

The Octo-owls began hollering and banging their fists.

“And that’s why you’re all failures,” Raymond avowed. “You need structure—this is why you come to me!”

“We don’t come for you,” Wyatt blew like a war bugle, “we come for each other, our fellow Octo-owls! Right fellas?!”

Another round of agreements pelted the room.

“The Octo-owls is my creation and I am the only one allowed to change it!” Raymond shrilled.

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

“You idiots can call yourselves whatever you’d like, but it won’t be here!” Raymond said and flung his forefinger to the door. “If you don’t agree with the program you must leave, NOW!”

The room went silent. Without Raymond, the group was without a home. Raymond’s sister owned the café, and only through him did they have access to it afterhours.

“My house is only a block away,” Walter told everyone. “We can go there for now.” The group looked apprehensively at each other, 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 getting their next token.

“To hell with that!” Layne declared loudly. “I’m not leaving. I’ve been here since the beginning, and unlike you millennials I have some loyalty. This organization has helped me through a lot and I’ll be damned if I ever turn my back on it!”

“Thank you Layne,” Raymond said. “Anyone else?”

“I can’t leave also!” James cried then deflated into his chair. “I’m sorry guys, but it sounds like a lot of work starting all over again.”

Louis, noticeably effected by everything, seemed to be at a draw. “I need to pray,” he said. “I will have to let God decide.” He then picked up his things and left suddenly.

“I’m going to stay too,” Chauncey 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 still a little drunk from the whiskey she had earlier.

“Wow, you guys take your little book club, or whatever this is, a little too seriously,” she said and yielded to belly laughter.

“So be it,” Raymond executed like a judge. “Avery Hynamen, Wyatt Stroud, Walter Huxley, and Lola whoever you are, you are officially banned from the Octo-owls! Now leave!”

“Oh no,” Lola mocked, “what will be the purpose of my life now?!” The refugee Octo-owls joined her in liberating laughter as they all walked out of the café.

 

During the short walk to Walter’s cottage, Lola stared queerly at him. “What?” he asked.

“What was that whole ‘I have friends, but none of them are close. I have lovers, but no one to love’ bit about back there? What am I?”

“That’s a good question. I’m still trying to figure that out myself. There’s a lot you still don’t know about me Lola.”

“Apparently. This whole night has been unexpected—but when is anything ever as expected when it involves you? You really do lead a strange life Quarky, even by my standards.”

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

 

The group gathered together atop the sparse furniture left in Walter’s condo. “Sorry, this is all I have left 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.

“It’s okay Walt,” Wyatt’s voice bounced around the walls of the empty and tile-floored cottage.

“As you can see,” said Walter, “I’m moving out soon. Tonight in fact is my last night here, so you’ll have to find another place next week. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll be attending near as regularly.”

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

“Who said I was the leader?”

“I don’t know. I just figured since you kind of spearheaded this whole thing.”

“Just because I was the guy behind the lectern when we decided we had enough of Raymond? We all decided this. How about we have no leader? Just a democracy.” They all shook their head in agreement.

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

“Not necessarily,” Walter smiled, “but I’ve got a nomination . . . The H-Bar.”

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

“I’m glad you asked!” he said enthusiastically. “Well, in quantum mechanics…”

“Oh god!” Lola sighed. “I knew it had something to do with physics. It always does with you.” Lola had been unwillingly subjected to many unsuccessful science lessons while trapped on the tour bus together.

“Hear me out,” Walter said. “Really, it’s a cool concept, and the more I think about it, it actually fits us perfectly. 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 its discovery 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.

“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?” Avery asked. Walter tried to restrain his laughter.

“I guess if you wanted to use subatomic units for your calculation, then yes.”

“Oh, okay,” she said satisfied. “Now I get it.”  The bewildered faces transferred to Avery.

“But I still don’t,” Wyatt admitted. “I don’t see how any of this Planck’s constant, or h-bar applies to us.”

“I’m getting to that,” Walter said. “So 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. So I often imagine this place as a bar—that I’ve aptly named the H-Bar—in thought experiments in my head. Writers, like the H-Bar, are typically strange. We don’t fully fit into reality, so we create our own, and we explore the dimension of time as if it were a room. 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 then,” Wyatt proclaimed, “welcome to the H-Bar!”

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 and headed to the kitchen. “Anyone care to join?”

“Great idea!” Wyatt concurred and everyone else 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 her bottle of Jack Daniels thirstily. “It’s the best way to drink Jack anyhow.”

“I like your style,” Lola said and eyed Wyatt keenly. Walter took the empty glass and filled it with water from the tap.

“What are you doing?” Lola asked.

“I need a chaser.” She laughed at him.

“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,” Lola said tipping the bottle to him. “Here, I’ll let you have the first drink.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Should we toast to somethin’?”

“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,” she said, and took a wary sip. She coughed and reached for the glass of water. “Here you go,” she said and passed the bottle to Walter. His stare telescoped down the bottleneck into the dark amber sea below.

God, I hope this is the beginning of something great because I could really use some great right now, Walter thought.

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 with the remaining water.

The group then spent the rest of the night how most people envision writers spending their free time—getting fucked up. Eventually separated by their vices, Lola and Wyatt found themselves drinking in her old bedroom, while Walter and Avery smoked in the living room.

“This is the first time I’ve seen you without that binder clung to your chest,” Walter said as he set down his guitar. He had just finished serenading her with his most popular love song, “Miss Magpie”.

“Because your singing relaxes me,” she said grinning, puffy and glossy-eyed. “I love that song.”

“I’m glad,” he said, “because it’s been a long time since I’ve played it for anyone. You make me feel very relaxed too Avery. I haven’t been this relaxed in months. For the first time I finally see a future as a writer, all because of you.” Her eyes darted away bashfully beneath her coke-bottle glasses. “Really,” he continued. “I don’t see myself as a philosopher per se, but I do want my writing to say and do something for the betterment of the world, and somehow through all the chaos of my mind you heard that.”

“Only because I heard so much of myself in your chaos,” she said softly, then gravitated closer. “I always do.”

“And so do I,” Walter admitted as their hands met each other’s. “Well, not so much in the plights of your vagina, but in the tics of your Tourette’s. I’ve been experiencing some uncontrollable swearing myself lately.”

“Well,” Avery said sheepishly, “mine aren’t exactly uncontrollable . . . I mean, I had Tourette’s when I was a kid, but now my tics are…”

“Performance art?” Walter said.

“Yeah,” she said as if realizing it for the first time. “That’s exactly what it is . . . You understand then?”

“That you tell people the truth through a lie and they don’t even realize it? Yes, it’s brilliant! Brilliance that only an insane person can see, but it seems were cut from the same cloth of crazy.”

The grip of Avery’s grin tightened around her face. “Yes-yes!” she cried. “We very much are! That’s why what you said about writers being overly-honest liars really spoke to me.”

“I love you,” Walter impulsively slipped. Confining truth—even when it shouldn’t be told—was a struggle for him. “I mean, I love your art…” Walter began to back peddle, but Avery blurted back ‘I love you too!’ before he could fully. Compulsive confessions of love are rampant among artists. Love is the fuel of their mania and perhaps why they never take it as seriously as they should.

Really in love or not, lips went leaping.

“You heard me!” Avery said in the spaces of lip-smacking, “You’re the only one whose ever really heard me!”

“And you’re the only one whose ever really heard me!” Walter cried passionately. “I hear you!”

“I hear you too!” Avery echoed.

Still uncomfortable with “I love you”, “I hear you” became the suitable substitute which they repeated over and over again. After all, isn’t a longing for love just a longing to be heard?

However all the talk of hearing soon made Walter randy for ears—her ears, the most beautiful ears in the world. He reached for the right one and combed her hair behind it. She shrugged restlessly and combed her hair back over it.

“Why’d you do that?” he asked her.

“I hate my ears,” she said. “They’re so big.”

“But so beautiful! I find them mesmerizing the way they grand jeté off your head then gracefully connect to your jawline—they dance when you speak! Especially during a good d-d-dick sucker!”

“You really find them beautiful?” she asked.

“The most beautiful! They’ve redefined my definition of beauty. I never saw beauty in ears before I saw yours.”

She gave him a playful smile then pulled back her hair, flashing him her ears in their full glory. “Like this?” she said mischievously. “D-D-DICK SUCKER!” Walter had never been so turned on in his life.

He leaned into her right ear and said, “Do you mind?” The question trickled down her neck as his lips loitered over the ear, longing to taste its taffy texture. She moaned wantingly and shook her head no. He gently bit into the lobe. A scream grated across the air. “What?! Should I stop?” Walter asked.

“No-no, please keep going!” she pled. So he tugged more aggressively at the ear. “Uh… Uh… Uh—Ahhh!…” she blared on like a siren. The screaming was admittedly off-putting, but Walter pressed forward as most young men would.

His hand asked to be invited beneath her dress. Another keening groan granted permission and the hand began to climb as she continued to scream. By the time it summited, however, she was descending from what he estimated to be at least three highly-intense orgasms. Her underwear, dress, and the cot below were soaked and his hand hadn’t even entered. Never being in this predicament before, Walter was perplexed as to what to do next.

“Um… are you okay?” he asked.

“Use your Planck’s constant to calculate that,” she said emphatically and grabbed his head to kiss him.

All right, two girls in one day; I haven’t done that since I was on tour, Walter thought excitedly as her assertiveness seemed to signal she was ready for more. But to his surprise, she instead took his head and clung it to her chest as she so often did with her binder, then laid down to rest, taking Walter and his head with her. He tried to free himself but she only clutched tighter. Too exhausted, high, and drunk, he surrendered. Plus it felt good to be the little spoon for once. He was very much at a little spoon point in his life.

 

The next morning Walter awoke with a hammering headache exacerbated by a noisy lawnmower outside his window. In a haze, he was slow to see she was gone. All that was left of Avery was a still wet stain on his cot and a jarring pain in his neck; no customary phone number or goodbye, love went running off again without paying the check. Despair took hold.

We were both broken mirrors, but in the reflection of each other we saw how we could become whole again, he waxed poetically to himself. He always was his best audience.

“Good morning dear,” Lola said coming out from the hallway in her underwear and a 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.”

Lola sat 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 came off.”

“And then what? She left?”

“No, she fell asleep.”

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

“Sleepy sex?”

“Yeah, you’ve never been with a girl who was too tired to fuck, so she just lets you hump her while she passes out? I do it all the time.”

He looked at her cynically. “No. What the fuck Lola? . . . No, 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.”

“No,” Walter gasped through laughs. “She cuddled me like her binder—I was unwillingly made little spoon. And she’s surprisingly strong. My neck is killing me.” Lola laughed barkingly in response.

“So how’d you fare?” Walter asked. “Where’s Wyatt?”

“Two words: whiskey dick,” Lola divulged. “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 only remaining moving box and took out a jar half-full of pocket change—all that was left to his worth.

“Come on, I’ll pay today!” Lola said and slapped him on the ass. “Although 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,” he said, “just like the good ol’ days.”

 

They returned to Sit n’ Stay for breakfast. “You might be banned from my little brother’s club, but you’re always welcomed at my café,” Susie, the Sit n’ Stay’s owner and Raymond’s sister said. “I didn’t put up with his ego trips when we were kids, I especially won’t put up with them now. The regular for you dear—the Elvis, right?”

“Yes please,” Walter answered.

“And for you beautiful?” she asked Lola.

“Ah no need to flatter this one Susie,” Walter said. “She’s just a regular.” He often brought his catches from karaoke night to her café the morning after.

“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?” Walter said. “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. No one will get past my music, I’ll never be taken seriously as a writer, and then 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?”

She sighed. “Oh fuck off!” she said. “You’re afraid. That’s all it is.”

“Here’s your coffee guys.” Susie returned to the table. They both took the break in the conversation to peevishly pantomime their frustration with petulant facial contortions. “Food will be up soon.”

“Thank you Susie,” Walter said. “Besides Lola, I told you, I just can’t play those songs anymore.”

“That’s fucking bullshit and you know it!” Lola’s irritation sprayed across the sleepy café, briefly attracting everyone’s interest. She softened her tone: “I heard you last night! You were singing and playing ‘Miss Magpie’ for Mousey, and don’t you fucking deny it!” He’d forgotten. Evidently he could play his songs, it just took weed, whiskey, and a wanting woman for him to remember. “Can you at least meet with the band in a rehearsal studio and just see what happens?” Lola begged. “I’ll even bring along Minnie Mouse if that’s what it takes.”

“Am I sensing a little jealousy Lola?” Walter said, smiling playfully. 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. She wasn’t giving up yet. She had a few more Hail Marys to throw.

“Aren’t you curious where the show will be?” she asked nonchalantly. 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 of food. “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!”

“Fine, 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 in 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.

“I managed to get 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 Walter couldn’t keep focus on his food.

“Okay I’ll try,” he said.

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

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How Pencil Lead and Sticky Tape Won a Nobel Prize

 

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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

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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)

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.