The Silver Year: Chapter 7

Chapter​​ 7

A Boy at Heart

 

APRIL​​ 2012

 

“What stays with you most from that day?”​​ she asked​​ sitting on the sofa across from​​ him, pen​​ circling her open​​ notebook.

“It wasn’t seeing him dead,”​​ Walter​​ said.​​ “In fact,​​ he looked quite peaceful.” Her pen began​​ scratching​​ at the pace of his speech across the page. “He​​ even had​​ this​​ smile on his face​​ . . . It was when they put him in a body bag.​​ That faceless bundle of flesh and bone will haunt me forever.​​ It’s amazing the​​ guilt you suddenly feel for being alive when face-to-face with someone who no longer has that privilege.”

“That’s a strange thing to say. Why would you feel guilt?”

“I wasn’t always the nicest to​​ Brian.”

“You two didn’t get along?”

“Hardly ever.”

“Why was that?”

“I suppose egos got in the way. We just didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things.”

“When was the last time you saw him alive?”

“Um…” Walter’s fingers unthinkingly began to fidget in an effort to fight his natural urge to always tell the truth​​ even when he didn’t have to, “...on the bus.”

“The bus he died on?”

“Yes.”

“What were​​ your last​​ moments​​ like​​ with​​ him?”

Walter’s heart began racing and his stomach tightened. “I... I... I...” He stalled. “Do I have to tell you?”

Her​​ bucktooth grin flashed beneath her​​ bulging,​​ chipmunk-like cheeks,​​ making​​ her button nose​​ crinkle​​ adorably​​ between her doting, big,​​ brown eyes.​​ Maybe it was​​ the​​ disarming​​ English accent, but​​ somehow she’d​​ become his closest counselor and was pulling things out of him that had long been sewn up, when only an hour earlier, she’d been nothing but a stranger—well not exactly. Francis Jones was​​ Rolling Stone’s foremost​​ reporter, and there was a reason why.

“You don’t have to say anything you​​ don’t want to,”​​ Francis​​ said.​​ “This is your story. Not Quinn Quark’s, Cirkus’s,​​ or anyone else’s. Remember, you reached out to me, and no one knows about this interview but us. It’s just us​​ . . . But, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask. A lot of people want to know what happened that night.”

“And so​​ would I, but I was pretty gone that night myself . . .​​ Um…​​ you mind?”​​ Walter​​ said eyeing a bottle of Jameson​​ and an​​ ice bucket​​ filled with mixers​​ on the coffee table.

“Go ahead, that’s why it’s there.” She flashed​​ him​​ another​​ grin.​​ He poured himself a drink,​​ then leaned back in​​ his​​ armchair.

The​​ tranquil​​ glow of​​ Francis’s​​ living room​​ fireplace​​ was​​ dangerously​​ homey,​​ a feeling he hadn’t felt in​​ some time.​​ Although the label​​ had given him some money to get by,​​ it was nowhere near enough to get him out of Grandma’s,​​ which​​ was becoming more of a prison than a home​​ lately. Day and night,​​ growing​​ multitudes​​ of​​ paparazzi​​ and other bounty hunters of fame​​ stalked​​ the​​ front​​ door, so​​ Walter​​ had to​​ stay​​ holed up inside, unless of course he found the strength to endure their​​ legally-protected harassing.​​ 

Cirkus’s announcement of​​ the​​ live​​ show​​ and record​​ had​​ made​​ Walter’s​​ fame​​ (aka Quinn Quark)​​ balloon​​ even​​ greater,​​ thanks​​ in​​ large​​ part​​ to Lola’s shrewd​​ peddling.​​ Unbeknownst to​​ him,​​ his​​ emotional​​ soundcheck​​ performance of “See The Sky About To Rain”​​ had been filmed and recorded, and with no single or music video to use​​ for​​ promotion,​​ Lola instead​​ pushed​​ the video—one tight shot of Walter’s​​ genital-swelling​​ face rolling through the emotions of the song​​ until climaxing in​​ a money shot of tears.

Being that it was​​ recorded​​ on the day of​​ Quinn Quark’s​​ infamous last​​ performance,​​ the video​​ circulated quickly and soon became​​ a​​ viral​​ hit​​ among rock and indie circles. Cirkus was quick to respond, releasing the cover as a single, and soon the punk-leaning label had their first top-ten​​ U.S. hit once the video and Walter’s face made it into the general public’s circles and genitals. The​​ swelling was all​​ anyone​​ could talk about.​​ And although the song was labeled rock n’ roll​​ and Quinn Quark a rock star, it was not, and he was not.​​ America didn’t actually still like rock n’ roll,​​ but rock stars​​ were​​ like cowboys​​ to Americans,​​ mythologized​​ clichés​​ they loved​​ to resurrect over and over again.

Walter set​​ down​​ his drink and cleared his throat.​​ “While it​​ does​​ feel​​ good​​ to finally talk about​​ Squids’s death,”​​ he​​ said,​​ “I’m not sure this is the right venue. I’m sorry. I hope you understand.”

“Of course,”​​ Francis​​ said, however, there was​​ a​​ pinch​​ of exasperation on​​ her​​ face.​​ “How about something easy then?​​ What’s your favorite color?”

“Gamma ray.”​​ He​​ smirked.

“What?”

“Sorry,​​ bad physics joke. I guess gray, but that might change with my mood.”

“Favorite holiday?”

“Halloween.”

“Least favorite holiday?”

“Christmas.”

“Christmas? Who doesn’t​​ like Christmas?”​​ 

“How about the non-Christian world? But my reasons are different. Let’s just move on.”

“Okay...” Francis said turning​​ a​​ page​​ in​​ her notebook​​ .​​ . . How’s​​ rehearsal​​ going?​​ How’s it been​​ working​​ with​​ Jason Newsted?”

“Rehearsals are going great actually. It just feels great to be playing with a band again. I didn’t realize how much I missed it.​​ It’s like not having sex.​​ And Jason, oh man, it’s​​ like a whole​​ new​​ sex​​ now that​​ we​​ have a bassist who can​​ actually​​ play—um,​​ fuck.​​ I didn’t​​ mean to​​ say that. I’m sorry.”

You’re​​ fine.” Francis stopped scribing, surrendering her pen to the air as if she were a captured soldier surrendering a sword. “I can leave​​ it​​ out—I can leave anything out. Remember, this is a magazine interview, not a live interview, so​​ you​​ can relax​​ if you​​ slip up​​ now and then.​​ 

That was nice to hear, Walter thought. He didn’t have to be perfect. He wasn’t​​ onstage with thousands of eyes​​ stalking​​ him, just two big brown ones​​ like​​ glossy​​ eyes​​ of a beloved​​ Teddy bear. Her face quelled something in him like cutesy cartoon forest animals can do.

“Thanks,”​​ he said. “What I​​ meant​​ was, everyone in the band has nothing but the upmost respect for him, and it’s inspiring to be playing with someone of his caliber.

“So is there a possibility​​ we might see this lineup perform again after​​ the​​ Greek?”

“No. Let’s make that perfectly clear.​​ N-O. There will be no Perfect Crime or Quinn Quark after this show.”

“But what about your unreleased album,​​ Love Songs in a Minor Crash?”

“I never finished it. And the songs I had, they​​ weren’t​​ right for Perfect Crime.”

“But right for a solo project perhaps?”

“Yes,​​ actually.​​ Something completely​​ new​​ for me​​ though.”

“Really?” Francis said repositioning herself, pen ready to transcribe​​ again.​​ “What kind of sound is this new project?”​​ 

“Silence.”​​ Francis’s​​ eyes hung on​​ Walter​​ for further explanation, but he just smiled.

“I’m sorry,” she said,​​ “but​​ I’m not understanding.”​​ 

“It’s a novel. I’m writing a novel.”

“A​​ novel?” She looked to be reshuffling notes in her head.​​ “Why?”

“I suppose I like the privacy of it.​​ With a novel, my​​ physical image​​ doesn’t have to be packaged alongside my art.​​ I​​ also​​ don’t have​​ to relive​​ the emotions​​ of​​ my art night after night​​ on tour​​ for years on end.”

“That’s​​ surprising to hear from someone who seemingly​​ enjoyed the stage very much at one point. Did​​ Squids’s death spur this change?”

“Partially, but​​ not​​ fully.”

“Is the​​ novel​​ related to​​ his death?”​​ 

“No, and again, I don’t want to talk about his death.”

“Then what’s it about?”​​ 

“Uh…​​ well, death,​​ life,​​ love, existence—all the typical stuff,”​​ Walter fibbed.​​ So far​​ his​​ novel​​ was about nothing, because beside his​​ lacquered piece of shit he’d torn to bits, he’d written nothing.

“Care to expound​​ a​​ little more?”​​ Francis’s​​ pen​​ rapped​​ frustratedly​​ against her notebook.

“I guess you could also say it’s​​ a revue​​ of sorts, featuring​​ all​​ the women​​ who have shaped​​ me, good and bad.”

“Past lovers?”

“Some.”

“Can you tell me about them? Your love life is something of a mystery to most people.”

“There’s a reason,​​ and I don’t want to talk about it.”

“All right.” Francis’s pen rapped harder. “Are​​ you​​ currently seeing anyone?”

“I just said I don’t want to talk about my love life. But if the teeny boppers must know, yes I’m single, but nowhere​​ near​​ ready to mingle, and especially not with them.”

“So those rumors of​​ numerous​​ love affairs on the road aren’t true?”

“What? That I​​ enjoyed a few nights with​​ a​​ select​​ handful of of-age and fully consenting women? Yes, I enjoyed myself a little. Anyone would’ve have after what I went through.”

“What did you​​ go through?”

“No.​​ We’re not going there either.”

Francis’s button nose crinkled​​ sharply​​ and her lips pursed into a taut circle. She then​​ slapped her pen​​ onto​​ the coffee table and threw her notebook to the side.

“Okay Mister Huxley,” she said, “well,​​ where do you want to go, because I’m not having much luck driving?”

“Anywhere, just not my past.”

“Fine...” she said picking up her pen and notebook again, “...let’s talk about the future. This novel you’re working on, when can​​ we expect it?”

“Sometime,” Walter said,​​ “but you won’t​​ know because​​ I’m releasing it under​​ a​​ penname.”

“Why​​ is that?”

“Because the​​ book​​ can’t make it on the back​​ of​​ my music career.​​ I couldn’t​​ take myself seriously​​ as a writer​​ if​​ it​​ did.​​ That’s why people can’t know I wrote it.”

“So will anyone ever know​​ the author’s true identity?”

“God, I hope not. All I want is to disappear into​​ obscurity after this​​ farewell​​ show.”​​ 

Francis sighed​​ sympathetically​​ as​​ her demeanor shifted gears.​​ “That’s​​ a shame​​ you want to disappear from the world,” she said,​​ “because the world​​ really​​ seems​​ to​​ like you​​ Walter.​​ A​​ lot of great things​​ are​​ being said.​​ Some​​ have​​ even called​​ you​​ genius.”

“Genius? I’m a rock musician, that’s all.​​ If what I​​ have​​ is genius, then genius​​ is​​ much more an exercise than​​ a​​ gift.”

“I see . . . Excuse me,”​​ she​​ said​​ setting down her notebook​​ and pen again​​ and removing​​ her Stanford University sweater. Walter’s​​ eyes couldn’t help but say hello to the​​ cupfuls of breast​​ now​​ peeking​​ out​​ over​​ her​​ red​​ tank top.​​ He was trying his best to​​ not​​ sexualize his interviewer, but​​ nature isn’t​​ always​​ honorable​​ amongst cutesy forest animals.​​ 

“The fireplace,” she said,​​ “it’s kind of making things warm.”

“Well,​​ April isn’t​​ the most ideal​​ fireplace​​ weather.”

“I know...” she said, aware of his eyes as she​​ bent​​ over to​​ pick​​ up a​​ thick​​ binder from the floor, “…but​​ I just love fireside chats. It always brings out the best conversations.”​​ She opened the binder​​ across her lap.​​ “I hope you don’t mind​​ if we revisit your past again briefly,” she​​ said while thumbing through​​ its​​ many plastic-sheathed pages,​​ “but​​ I​​ spoke​​ to​​ a few of your​​ professors​​ at UCLA,​​ and​​ while​​ yes,​​ some in the music press have called you​​ genius, I​​ actually​​ heard​​ the​​ designation​​ much more​​ often​​ from​​ them​​ in regards​​ to​​ your work in physics.”

“Physics? I was​​ a​​ C-average physics student.”

“Yes,​​ but only in your junior and senior years. Before that you were the​​ most promising physics student the department had seen in some time, so much so you were​​ given​​ a full-ride scholarship—unprecedented for an incoming​​ freshman.​​ That’s why although many​​ of your professors​​ describe you as​​ genius, they also deride you as being…”​​ ​​ She​​ began reading​​ from​​ the binder:​​ “...‘arrogant’​​ . . . ‘lazy’​​ . . . ‘immature’ . . .​​ ‘ungrateful’,​​ and my personal favorite, ‘disproportioned​​ in​​ blood flow between​​ his​​ brain and penis.’”

“That last one​​ was​​ from Schechter,​​ wasn’t it?” Walter​​ asked.

“Yes. He actually had the most to say about you. He even showed me your papers, and while he admitted there was​​ a lot wrong with​​ them, he seemed to think…”​​ She​​ read from​​ her notes​​ again:​​ “…‘They’re the type of creative​​ genius​​ of someone​​ who could​​ revolutionize physics.’”

“So, what does​​ Schechter​​ know?​​ He was a great teacher, but a failed theorist himself.​​ A whole life wasted chasing dead-end theories. I’m sorry, but I didn’t​​ want to end up like him. He’s gone so crazy now​​ he’s trying to convince naive journalists who haven’t the slightest clue about theoretical physics what’s going to revolutionize it.​​ Probably because they’re the only ones who will take him seriously now.”

“You​​ don’t have to be condescending,”​​ Francis​​ said.

“Condescending? Okay, what’s the uncertainty principle?”​​ Walter asked.​​ She​​ shrugged.​​ “See,​​ naïve journalist who doesn’t​​ know shit​​ about physics.​​ Not condescending,​​ just​​ the truth.”

“But still,​​ you don’t have to be​​ a...”​​ She tried to come up with a​​ polite​​ rebuttal, but went blank.​​ 

“What?” Walter continued​​ his charge.​​ “An asshole? Is that what you want to call me? Go ahead, but you’re the real asshole here.​​ This entire interview you’ve been trying​​ to​​ trap me​​ because​​ you​​ thought​​ by putting together some extensive book report on my life you’d​​ know it better than​​ me.​​ And by the way, just because​​ I’m​​ famous​​ now,​​ that​​ doesn’t mean you have an all-access​​ pass to riffle through my past—”

“Actually it does,” she interrupted.​​ “Maybe I don’t know​​ ‘shit about physics’,​​ but​​ I do know​​ shit​​ about media law.”​​ 

“Well, whatever.​​ I’m done​​ here.” He stood from his chair and​​ walked​​ toward the door. “If you think you’re going to prod any more information​​ out of​​ me you’re nuts.”

Seriously?” she said. “You asked​​ me​​ for this interview.​​ I thought you wanted to introduce​​ the ‘real you’ to the world? How am I supposed to do that when you won’t tell me anything​​ about you?

“Well apparently you already​​ know​​ everything about me.​​ What else do you need to know?”

“How about why someone so gifted continually​​ wastes​​ his​​ talents?​​ Songwriter, physicist, and now you tell me writer, you’re so much more than Quinn Quark​​ the one-hit rock star​​ and I​​ just​​ want​​ the world​​ to​​ know.​​ Isn’t that what you want​​ too, for people to know the real you?”

Walter stood silent, contemplating​​ for a moment.

“No​​ actually,” he said.​​ “I’m sorry,​​ this​​ was​​ a mistake.”​​ He opened her front door.​​ 

“Walter stop,” she​​ begged. “Why?”

“Because​​ the real me is not who you think​​ he​​ is. Wanna know the truth? I have no​​ novel, not a single​​ page, so cross off writer.” He slashed an invisible pen over the air. “And some crackpot ideas I had while smoking too much pot in college doesn’t classify me as a physicist either; in fact, it’s just an​​ insult to the field.​​ So we’ll cross off that one too.​​ Hm…​​ what else? Oh yeah,​​ songwriter. I guess I’ll give you that, but not for much longer. As of next month I’m officially resigned of that title too. So there it is, an over-hyped,​​ title-less nobody who can’t commit himself to​​ anyone or​​ anything; just a big fucking face for people to​​ talk​​ about, that’s all.​​ You know, sometimes I wish nature hadn’t made me so brilliant if that’s what I really am. It’d sure make things a​​ lot easier. I envy the average man; the person who can float through life blissfully ignorant​​ of the world,​​ because​​ fuck the world!”

The front door struck​​ its frame like a thunderbolt.​​ 

 

Walter​​ tried to​​ walk​​ to his car,​​ but​​ delirium cuffed him to the​​ curb in front of​​ Francis’s​​ house.​​ As he sat, his head tilted​​ to​​ the night sky​​ in search​​ of​​ answers as​​ it​​ so often did.​​ 

 “She’s right,” he said.​​ Why?​​ . . .​​ Why-why-why-why?​​ Why do​​ you​​ always​​ throw away​​ everything good​​ for something uncertain​​ Walter, or whoever the fuck you are today?​​ Physics for rock stardom, rock stardom for writing, Amber for her mother—what’s next and when will it stop?”

A​​ cycle​​ then​​ began​​ to formulate.​​ Every​​ time something became too​​ comfortable,​​ he abandoned it​​ for​​ something new and more​​ challenging.​​ He couldn’t stand​​ to be comfortable, to be stable—to be bored.

“But then who am I?”​​ he​​ asked. “What am​​ I? Can I still be​​ or should​​ I​​ be asking these questions at​​ twenty-five? I can’t keep going around like this,​​ flirting with everything life has to offer. I have to stick to something, stick to someone. I have to be an adult . . . But I like new things. I like to dream. I like change.​​ I like being​​ single.​​ Why does it have to stop?​​ Why does life have to revolve around one resolute identity?”​​ 

The dilemma of being twenty-five.​​ Walter​​ had grown into a man, but was still very much a boy​​ at heart.

“Who are you talking to?”​​ Francis​​ asked​​ from​​ her doorway.​​ Walter stirred​​ to​​ his​​ feet​​ in surprise.

“Um…​​ myself,”​​ he replied.

“You realize that’s kind of​​ crazy,​​ right?”

“Guilty as charged.”

She shook her head.​​ “So what’s your deal?” she asked.​​ “Does it​​ really​​ drive you​​ that​​ crazy that​​ people recognize you​​ sometimes; that you impact their lives?”

“Just because people recognize me doesn’t mean I affect​​ their​​ lives.​​ I recognize Kim Kardashian, but if she​​ never existed​​ I think my world would be no different.”​​ 

“But​​ you​​ don’t​​ represent the world​​ Walter.​​ Kim Kardashian may have no impact on you, but she sure​​ does on the rest of the world—and that’s important. If there’s one thing I’ve learned​​ as a journalist, it’s that​​ you can’t be so consumed in your own world that you​​ forget about​​ the​​ actual​​ one. Kim Kardashian, as unfortunate as it may sound​​ to you, is the real world.

“Since I’ve already tanked my interview,”​​ Francis​​ continued, “I’m just going to be brutally honest with you now:​​ you​​ really​​ need​​ to​​ buck the fuck up​​ and stop being such a whiny bitch. There’s a lot worse curses that could be placed on​​ you​​ than being intelligent,​​ multi-talented,​​ good-looking,​​ and famous.​​ Also, becoming​​ a writer isn’t going to free you of​​ fame.​​ If your intention is to have an impact on people, whether it be through a song, a​​ story, or even a theory, you’re​​ also​​ going to have to deal with them—deal with being famous.​​ People​​ don’t connect with ideas​​ insomuch as they​​ connect with​​ other​​ people. Now,​​ should I call the cops and tell them some madman is talking​​ to himself in​​ my front lawn,​​ or do you want to come back in?”

 

Back in the living room,​​ Walter snatched up his discarded drink from the coffee table and began sipping at it.

“I can’t help but notice your drink is just ice,” Francis said. He pulled the glass​​ to his eyes and realized she was right.​​ “Do you want some more whiskey, or something else?”​​ she asked.

“You know, I could go for a beer if you have one,” he​​ replied.

“Of course. I’ll be right back.”

As​​ he watched her leave the room,​​ the​​ long,​​ naked legs​​ and​​ nice​​ behind​​ beneath her thin pajama bottoms​​ began circling his imagination.​​ 

No Walter. Be a good boy. Use your fucking brain. His tongue tossed around an ice cube to ease his drooling libido. Maybe his old professor Alan Schechter was right; maybe he did have deficient blood flow to operate his penis and brain at the same time. He often found his sex drive a maddening​​ disruption, leeching his​​ brain’s​​ ability​​ to think about anything else​​ until satisfied.​​ 

Walter​​ noticed​​ Francis’s binder, left temptingly abandoned on the couch.​​ What else does she have on me?​​ he wondered as he went to capture it.​​ 

Clearly​​ Francis​​ must’ve been anal about organization; every page was carefully tabbed and alphabetically arranged into sections about​​ his​​ life. Never had he imagined it with so much order. He opened to his time at UCLA and something caught his eye he hadn’t seen in well over three years; something that had once been as important to him as children.

“I hope you don’t mind, but all I have are some locally brewed IPAs,” she said, passively looking over two beers.

“Strange, because according to this file . . . on preferred intoxicants, under alcohol, under beer, you have listed Left Coast Trestles IPA. Oh, what a coincidence, that’s exactly the beer you have in your hands.”

Her chipmunkish cheeks turned red.​​ “Oh my god!”​​ she said and​​ snatched the binder from his lap.

“What? Am I not allowed to read this very comprehensive examination of my own life? I feel completely invaded, but oddly impressed.​​ You’re like a​​ female Nardwuar.”

She chuckled.​​ “No,” she said, “but​​ thank you for the comparison.​​ Your favorite drinks were easy; they’re on your tour rider. The other stuff… well, a good journalist never reveals​​ all​​ her sources. Truthfully, I don’t normally do this much homework,​​ but once I started digging, it was hard to stop. There really is so much more to you than people know.”

“And I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Here we go again.” She rolled her eyes. “Listen, you’re not my prisoner. You’re free to leave,​​ however,​​ if you’re going to stay, you need to start answering some questions, okay? I understand this...” she held up the binder, “...is kind of creepy. But there’s a reason​​ why​​ I​​ get​​ the stories no one else can: no one else works harder than me.”

Although the​​ salvo was​​ made, there was a controlled crazy around her Walter’s own crazy​​ couldn’t help but be drawn​​ into​​ play​​ with.

“Good,” she said, taking his silence as acceptance. She then pulled open one of the coffee table drawers beneath him, revealing a water pipe. “Oops. Forgot that was in there.”

Sure you did...​​ his penis-constricted mind managed to eke out. ...Run away.

Francis​​ closed the drawer and opened another. “Ah, there it is,” she said, and took out a bottle opener. “Cheers...”​​ she​​ gave him a bottle then​​ held​​ hers to his.​​ They​​ tapped, then​​ both took​​ big​​ swigs. Walter’s attention then went back to her binder.

“I noticed you have copies of my ‘crackpot ideas’ from college in there,” he said.​​ 

“Yes. Actually, I was hoping you could explain your theories a little? Just for the sake of my own curiosity.” She smiled widely, her buckteeth biting into her bottom lip like fangs into Walter’s heart.

“Well first off,” he said, “please don’t call them theories. The word​​ theory​​ deserves more sanctity than that. They’re more like . . . arts and crafts time, but with physics. Mind if I see them?”

She removed only the necessary pages and handed them to him. As he sorted​​ through, he​​ laughed​​ softly like someone reminiscing over an old photo album.  ​​​​ 

“Okay,” Francis said, “well, can you explain some of your ‘arts and crafts’ then? Uh…​​ Fibonacci Manipulations of Calabi-Yau​​ Manifolds…” she struggled to read from her notes,  ​​​​ “…sounds like a good place to start.”

​​ “Sure,”​​ Walter​​ said. “Unlike my personal life, I could talk about physics all night. You should take a deep breath to clear your head​​ though.​​ I’ll try my best to​​ keep​​ a tether, but I can’t promise you won’t let go.”

“Where​​ are you planning​​ on taking me Mister Huxley?” she said, her fangs biting in again. She then took an exaggerated breath. “Okay, I’m ready.”

“So the first thing every aspiring physicist learns,” Walter began, “is the big unsolved​​ question​​ of their day. Sort of a goal to reach if you really think you’re the next Einstein. The big unsolved problem facing physicists today is bringing Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which explains how big things like planets, stars, and galaxies operate, together with quantum mechanics, which tells us how things smaller than an atom operate. Separately, these mechanisms work great for calculating their constituents and have been proven beyond a doubt, yet when you bring them together—which we know has to happen when matter is compressed inside a blackhole, the calculations make no sense. A theory that would solve this has thus been dubbed, ‘a theory of everything’. Are you still following Francis?”

She was​​ fluidly​​ jotting away​​ with her eyes focused to the paper.​​ “Yep,​​ still​​ listening,” she said. “The theory of relativity and quantum mechanics don’t play nicely together—got it.”

“Well,​​ this paper is a guess to that problem. All my papers are essentially guesses to that problem. This particular one, however, is rooted in string theory, and according to​​ it, 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. Of course you also give a​​ time​​ in which you’ll be at this three dimensional location, and that is dimension number four. My second paper, however,​​ Reconsiderations of The Time Dimension,​​ questions if time can really constitute as a full dimension because it only flows one direction—forward, and my third paper,​​ Application of Uncertainty Principle to Spacetime, expands on this by saying there is no such thing as time because​​ wave-particle duality we find in quantum mechanics can also be found in the characteristics of spacetime​​ being that space is all location and time is all momentum yet they​​ still make​​ up​​ the same entity—” Walter stopped, noticing her confusion. “Sorry, I’m getting a little sidetracked.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s cute how worked up you get about this.”

“Who wouldn’t? We’re poking at the mind of God​​ here!​​ . . . Let’s back up. So string theory, ten to eleven dimensions, but we only experience four. So where are the other six—or seven if you want to count an M-theory technicality which my ‘guess’ does not?​​ They, according​​ to theory,​​ are​​ down at something called the Planck length,​​ rolled up into unfathomably small, six-dimensional ‘knots’ called Calabi–Yau manifolds that hold the threads of reality together so to speak.​​ To give you a reference​​ point,​​ imagine if an atom were the entire universe, this length​​ would be the​​ size​​ of​​ an​​ average tree here on Earth.​​ The shape of these ‘knots’, however,​​ is unknown, but very important.​​ Just the way the shape of a trumpet or tuba manipulates air​​ into particular​​ sound properties such​​ as​​ pitch and​​ timbre,​​ the​​ shape of these​​ knots​​ manipulate vibrating,​​ microscopic strings​​ into​​ particular​​ particle properties​​ such as​​ charge and mass, which​​ dictate gravity​​ and the forces that​​ attract, glue, and pull apart particles.​​ Particles like quarks​​ then​​ coalesce into protons and neutrons,​​ which interact with electrons to become atoms. Atoms interact with other atoms to become molecules;​​ molecules interact with other molecules​​ to become​​ matter, until eventually,​​ this beautifully complex symphony​​ emerges​​ we call reality.​​ Incredible​​ isn’t it?”

Some of​​ Walter’s​​ zeal seemingly soaked into Francis as her eyes had closed and her pen had stopped. Her body​​ appeared​​ seized in revelation.​​ 

Her lashes fluttered open.​​ “Yes, it really is,” she said. “Maybe that’s​​ why music connects​​ with us at our core; we’re just part of some great masterpiece by some unknown composer.”

“Physics does have a lot in common with music,”​​ Walter​​ said. “It even has the same wave-particle like nature we find in quantum mechanics.”

Francis looked at him lustfully.​​ “God,” she said, “you​​ must​​ be​​ really​​ fun to get high with.”

“Yes, getting high with God would be fun,” Walter joked. “But I insist I am not him.” He then finished off his first beer. “Mind if I have another?” he asked.

“Sure, one sec.” She stood to get another. “I’m serious though. If you want to, that bong in the drawer is all yours. Help yourself.”​​ 

Her teasing eyes remained on him until she left the room. As she returned, he looked at her cynically. He couldn’t shake the feeling he was being duped.

“Should we get high?” she asked.​​ 

“Maybe after the interview. I haven’t even told you my addition to string theory yet—I mean my meaningless guess.”

“Please continue,” she said and set the new beer in front of him.

“So are you familiar with a Fibonacci sequence?” he asked.

“Sounds familiar, but remind me.”

“In​​ a Fibonacci sequence,​​ you add the number with the number before it to get the next number.​​ 1+1 equals 2, 2+1 equals 3, 3+2 equals 5, 5+3 equals 8 and so forth, until you have a sequence that looks like this: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55—you get the point. You find Fibonacci numbers and ratios all over nature, the most popular one being a logarithmic spiral based on the sequence called ‘the golden spiral’. You see this spiral in plants, galaxies, seashells, hurricanes, and even in the structure of DNA. However, this is not because the Fibonacci sequence is some magical cosmic code, but more so a logical arrangement that nature was bound to adopt because it’s efficient and practical, whether it be packing as many seeds as possible into a given space, arranging leaves in order to capture the most sunlight,​​ or in my​​ paper’s​​ case, arranging six dimensions into a very small​​ ‘knot’.​​ 

“All this paper explores is possible Calabi-Yau​​ manifolds arranged​​ according to the mathematical constant behind the golden spiral: the golden ratio.​​ But​​ my understanding of multiverse theory at the time was very limited,​​ and it shows there may be an infinite​​ number​​ of​​ possible ‘knots’. My fourth paper,​​ Fibonacci Influenced Cosmic Inflation, does the same thing, but​​ applies the golden ratio to the expansion of the universe from the Big Bang.​​ But really, all these papers were just me​​ having​​ fun​​ with​​ the paintbrush of mathematics.​​ I didn’t really know what I was doing,​​ however, I was arrogant enough to call the year I wrote them,​​ 2007,​​ my​​ annus mirabilis, or ‘miracle year’ after Einstein’s miracle year in 1905​​ because I thought they were going to change the world.

Francis​​ again​​ looked awestruck, slowly shaking her head at him.

“What?” Walter​​ said.​​ 

“I don’t know,” she​​ replied.​​ “You’ve​​ just​​ been the center of my world lately in preparation for this interview, and now to have you here in front of me,​​ I guess​​ you’re exceeding expectations—good and bad. I’ve interviewed everyone from rock stars to presidents,​​ and I’ve never felt so… so star-struck​​ I guess.”

“Francis...”​​ he​​ said, his cheeks looking suddenly sunburned, “I’m a lot more ordinary than you think.”

“Well, I’m having trouble finding anything ordinary about you.” Her smile​​ again​​ sunk into his heart. “So what happened? You had your miracle year and then what, it all slipped away?”

“I suppose, but​​ I never really wanted it in the first place.​​ Physicist was​​ always​​ just plan B to​​ rock star. That was​​ always my dream,​​ but​​ in high​​ school,​​ my religion​​ didn’t quite fit into the lifestyle of my dream since band​​ gigs were​​ always​​ at places and with people the​​ Mormon​​ church didn’t​​ find kosher, so I got more interested in physics​​ instead.​​ But by​​ sophomore year​​ in college, Mormonism was no longer making​​ the​​ rules, rock n’ roll was, and once I realized I’d never be a new Einstein, I lost interest in physics.​​ It was really just​​ me trying​​ to prove my parents wrong anyhow.”

“What do​​ you​​ mean?”

“I… I just didn’t get much support from them​​ growing up,​​ my​​ stepmother​​ especially who​​ always said​​ I was​​ worthless and stupid, so my​​ solution was trying to become the next Einstein​​ to prove her wrong, even though she was dead by the time I was fourteen.”

“Really?” Francis said, unable to mask her enthusiasm. “What did she die from?”

It suddenly occurred to Walter what was happening.​​ They were supposed to enter his past briefly, but​​ now they were in his childhood, a place he had not been since until recent events forced him to revisit again. When four people’s lives would​​ most likely​​ still exist​​ if yours didn’t, you begin to wonder about​​ the meaning of such​​ patterns.

“Goddamn it,” he said shaking his head. “I need​​ to​​ shut up. Why am I telling you all this? Stanford’s journalism department​​ must​​ be proud. You really have a knack for pulling information out of people.”

“I was a psychology major. And to be honest, I’m not having to try very hard. Remember, I can leave anything out. I can be​​ just​​ an ear​​ too.”​​ She surrendered her pen again.

“She​​ drank herself to death four years after my parents divorced,”​​ Walter said.

“Why’d they divorce?”​​ Francis asked.

“Numerous reasons, all​​ involving me​​ though. But​​ the breaking point came when​​ I​​ joined the Mormon church​​ when I was ten,​​ which my stepmother​​ thought was of Satan—or her alcoholism​​ did​​ once​​ my father began​​ showing a passing​​ interest in the church.​​ When​​ my father​​ was gone on business trips, she used to lock me in my room after removing the interior doorknob for days sometimes, refusing to feed me unless I renounced the church.”

“That’s horrible.​​ Did your​​ father know?”

“Yes, but he downplayed it since my stepmother did. Her word was always taken over mine because I was proof of his dishonesty, and anytime he questioned hers,​​ I​​ was​​ always​​ her leveraging point.

“Leveraging point?”

“Oops,​​ I​​ didn’t mean for that to slip out.”

“It’s okay. Remember, ‘slip ups’​​ are okay here.”

Walter finished​​ his beer​​ before answering:​​ “I was​​ the​​ product of​​ an​​ extramarital one-night stand, but when​​ my mother​​ died giving birth to me, my father had no choice but to take me in.”

“Oh​​ my.​​ I’m​​ so​​ sorry.”

“Why​​ does everyone say that?”

“Sorry . . .​​ Where’s your father now?”

“Still in Arizona, but dead to me.​​ After the divorce, he dove into the alcohol even further, and after I dumped out his new bottles of rum one night, he put me in the hospital with a concussion. Child services then gave custody to my maternal grandmother,​​ who I still live with now . . .​​ I’m sorry,”​​ Walter​​ said wiping his eyes. “I haven’t thought about these things for a long time, but​​ ever since Squids’s death,​​ I​​ feel like they’ve been​​ bubbling out of me.”

“Please, don’t be sorry. You have nothing to be sorry for.​​ It’s probably because you’ve repressed them for so long.​​ What do you think it​​ is about his death that’s​​ triggering them?”

“It wasn’t just his death, it was my girlfriend’s too. I never told anyone in the press this, but she died right before the tour with Jester. They both​​ died within three months of each other, and both were sort of my fault.”​​ Walter’s tears became too much for wiping.​​ 

Francis took her notebook and pen sitting by her side and placed them on the coffee table.​​ “Come here,” she patted the​​ seat​​ cushion next to her, then opened her arms to him. He couldn’t hold himself back from accepting​​ the​​ invitation,​​ and​​ continued crying​​ into her clavicle.

“Shh…” she​​ said patting his back. “It’s all right Walter, it’s all right.”

Once calmed, he brought his head up.​​ “Thank you,” he​​ told her. “Maybe​​ we should pull out that bong now.​​ It might make me feel better.”

 

“Want another?” Francis asked​​ an hour or so later​​ as she gently stroked​​ Walter’s​​ head resting atop her mons pubis.​​ 

“Yes please,”​​ he​​ cooed. She took a hit from the bong and shot-gunned it into his mouth like​​ Amber used to do.

“So...” she said as her lips departed, “Squids stuck the needle in his arm and Amber died of a seizure, how​​ is that your fault?”

“Wanna know the truth?” Walter said, so gone he could no longer keep his eyes in place. “Wanna know what my last words to Squids were when I found him shooting up in that tour bus bathroom he later died in, right before he probably shot up the dose that killed him? ‘Shoot up until you’re dead for​​ all I care, because once this tour’s over, you’re out of the band.’ And it seems he took that to heart. Then poor Amber, after she dedicated her life to helping Perfect Crime make it, I decided on the very day we signed our record contract to break up with her, which was also the same​​ night​​ she died.”

“And​​ you think the break up caused her fatal seizure?”​​ 

“Almost certainly. Amber had absent seizures as a child, but they stopped​​ at​​ nine.​​ But when​​ she was caught cheating with me on a fiancé she was three months out from marrying, they returned. She also had one right after I broke up with her, which, I suppose in hindsight, was only a foreshock to the grand mal that killed her later. Even worse, you know what I was doing in the hours right before she died? I was lip-locking with her mother in my car while we both had our hands down each other’s pants.”

Francis’s eyes went wide​​ and​​ her​​ pen fell​​ to the floor​​ which she had picked​​ up​​ again without Walter noticing.​​ “Did you say her​​ mother?” she​​ asked.

A​​ great​​ surge of regret​​ rose in​​ Walter, but convinced Francis’s affection was​​ not only​​ benevolent​​ but​​ romantic, his head lacked the blood supply to stop his mouth from moving.​​ 

“Yes,​​ I guess I did,” he​​ answered.​​ 

“So​​ wait.​​ Amber cheated on her fiancé with you, then left him for you, then you cheated on her with her mother?”

“Well, I had broken up with Amber an hour and a half before, but basically.​​ But it​​ was only​​ that​​ one time.​​ We were both emotional, and it just happened. And​​ I know it sounds horrible, but​​ I think the only reason I was dating Amber was​​ because I was in love​​ with​​ her mother.​​ I think some part of her​​ mother​​ was​​ also​​ unknowingly​​ in love with me, but​​ some loves​​ are better​​ off​​ not mentioned and​​ just forgotten.”

“But forgotten​​ doesn’t mean​​ non-existing​​ . . .​​ Are​​ you still​​ in​​ love​​ with​​ her​​ mother?”

Walter’s eyes began leaking again as he shook his head yes. “I​​ miss​​ her all the time,​​ and I hate myself for it. It’s why I can’t release​​ Love Songs in A Minor Crash.​​ It’s not because I didn’t finish it, it’s because most of the songs​​ ended up being​​ about her.

Francis looked down at him​​ as he continued to cry, then at the large number of empty glasses and bottles around them, not all of them​​ Walter’s.

“Um…” she said​​ giving his head one final rub,​​ “…it’s three​​ a.m. If you’re okay, I think I’m going to​​ go to​​ bed now.​​ You can sleep​​ on my​​ couch.”

He wasn’t okay and he didn’t want​​ to sleep on​​ her​​ couch, yet​​ “okay,”​​ was all he​​ said.​​ She​​ then stood and his head fell off her lap.​​ She then got him​​ a blanket and tossed it by his side.

“Do you need anything else?”​​ she asked.​​ He wanted to say “you”, but instead just shook his head sourly. “Okay. Goodnight.”

She then turned​​ off the gas fireplace and lights, leaving Walter alone in​​ obscurity.​​ Obscurity, however,​​ soon​​ started to spin, and​​ an imaginary centrifugal force pinned him to his back. He reached for the ice bucket still on the table, but his fingers were just out of reach. He then began to bleat loudly.

“Are you crying​​ again?” he could hear Francis say in the dark. “What’s that smell?” She flicked a light switch and found her answer. “Oh my god, you’ve got to be shitting me.”

“I’m sorry,” Walter said, leaned over the side of the couch covered in puke.

“No, this is... this is​​ partially​​ my fault.​​ But that doesn’t mean you’re not helping me clean up.”​​ 

Walter stood, holding up the bottom of his shirt to let the mess pool into it. She giggled faintly.​​ 

“Even covered in your own barf,” she said, “somehow you manage to still look pathetically cute​​ . . .​​ I guess it’s not that bad. Thankfully you got most of it on yourself. Go take a shower. I’ll take care of the rest.”

After a thorough shower and teeth brushing, in nothing but his underwear, Walter accepted his place back on the couch.​​ 

“Come on,” Francis said, “you can sleep in my bed with me.”​​ He​​ perked like a happy dog from the couch. “It smells like cleaner in here now and the couch is still wet.​​ But no more crying or puking. I need my sleep.”

Entering her room, Francis looked over Walter’s mostly naked body, subtly stirred by it. She shook her head.​​ 

“Here, put on a damn shirt,” she said handing him one from her closet. They then settled under the covers, and surprisingly she accepted a kiss from him. Overly eager and still partially plastered, Walter then made a clumsy attempt for a breast, but she pushed his hand away.

“No Walter, it’s not happening,” she said. “Go to sleep.” She then turned away from him and he was left to sulk at her back.

 

 

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.

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

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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!

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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.

 

 

 

The Layman’s Guide to Quantum Mechanics- Part I: The Beginning

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By Bradley Stockwell

My next blog topic was scheduled to be a crash course in String Theory as it seemed like a logical follow-up to a previous post, A Crash Course in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. However as I was trying to put together this crash course on String Theory, I realized that while my previous post did an excellent job of explaining the basics of relativity, it was far too brief on the basics of quantum mechanics (so much so that you should just regard it as a crash course on relativity). It could also be that I’m just procrastinating in writing a blog post on String Theory because, as you can probably assume, it’s not exactly the simplest of tasks. So in the name of procrastination I’ve decided to write a comprehensive overview on something much easier (in comparison): quantum mechanics. I not only want to explain it, but to also tell the dramatic story behind its development and how it has not only revolutionized all of physics, but made the modern world possible. While you may think of quantum mechanics as an abstract concept unrelated to your life, without it there would be no computers, smartphones, or any of the modern electronic devices the world has become so dependent on today. Before we begin, unless you’re already familiar with the electromagnetic spectrum, I recommend reading my post, Why We Are Tone Deaf to the Music of Light before reading this. While it’s not necessary, if you begin to feel lost while reading, it will make this post much easier to swallow.

In 1900 the physicist Lord Kelvin (who is so famous there’s a unit of measurement for temperature named after him) stated, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” As history now tells he couldn’t have been any more wrong. But this sentiment was not one he shared alone; the physics community as a whole agreed. The incredible leaps we (the human race) made in science during the 19th century had us feeling pretty cocky in thinking we had Mother Nature pretty much figured out. There were a few little discrepancies, but they were sure to smooth out with just some ‘more precise measurement’. To paraphrase Richard Feynman (as I so often do), Mother Nature’s imagination is much greater than our own; she’s never going to let us relax.

The shortest summary I can give of quantum mechanics is that all matter exhibits properties of a particle and a wave on a subatomic scale. To find out how we came to such a silly conclusion, let’s begin with one of the above referenced discrepancies which was later called the ultraviolet catastrophe. The UV catastrophe is associated with something called black body radiation. A black body is an ‘ideal’ body that has a constant temperature, or is in what is called thermal equilibrium and radiates light according to that body’s temperature. An example of a body in thermal equilibrium would be a pot of cold water mixed into a pot of hot water and after some time it settles down into a pot with room temperature water. On the atomic level, the emission of electron energy is matched by the absorption of electron energy. The hot, high energy water molecules emit energy to cold ones making the hot ones cool down and the cold ones warm up. This happens until all the molecules reach a consistent temperature throughout the body. Another easily relatable example of a black body is us, as in humans. We and all other warm-blooded mammals radiate light in the infrared spectrum; which is why we glow when we are viewed through an infrared camera.

As you are aware, we cannot see the infrared light we emit with the naked eye because the frequency is too low for our eyes to detect. But what if we were to raise our body’s temperature to far higher than the 98.6 degrees F we’re familiar with? Won’t those emitted light waves eventually have a high enough frequency to become visible? The answer is yes, but unfortunately you’d kill yourself in the process. Let’s use a more sustainable example such as a kiln used for hardening clay pottery. If you were to peer through a small hole into the inside of the kiln, you’ll notice that when it’s not running it is completely black. Light waves are being emitted by the walls of the kiln but they are far too low in frequency for you to see them. As the kiln heats up you notice the walls are turning red. This is because they are now emitting light waves with a high enough frequency for your eyes to detect. As the temperature continues to rise the colors emitted move up the color spectrum as the light wave frequency continues to increase: red, orange, yellow, white (a combination of red, orange, yellow, green and blue produces white), blue and maybe some purple.

Now according to this logic of thinking, and classical physics of the time, if we were to continue to increase the temperature we should be able to push the emitted light from the visible spectrum into the ultraviolet spectrum and beyond. However this would also mean the total energy carried by the electromagnetic radiation inside the kiln would be infinite for any chosen temperature. So what happens in real life when you try to heat this hypothetical kiln to emit light waves beyond the visible spectrum? It stops emitting any light at all, visible or not.

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The infinitely increasing dotted represents what the accepted classical theory of the time said should happen in regards to black body radiation. The solid line represents experimental results. Reference these graphed lines from right to left since I refered to light waves increasing in frequency not length. 

This was our first glimpse into the strange order of the subatomic world. The person who was able to solve this problem was a physicist by the name of Max Planck who had to ‘tweak’ the rules of classical wave mechanics in order to explain the phenomenon. What he said, put simply, is that the atoms which make up the black body, or in our case the kiln, oscillate to absorb and emit energy. Think of the atoms as tiny springs that stretch and contract to absorb and emit energy. The more energy they absorb (stretch) the more energy they emit (contract). The reason no light is emitted at high energies is that these atoms (springs) have a limit to the energy they can absorb (stretch) and consequently emit. Once that limit is reached they can no longer absorb or emit energies of higher frequencies. However what this implied is that energy cannot be any arbitrary value, as a wave would suggest, when it is absorbed and emitted; it must be absorbed and emitted in distinct whole number values (or in Latin quanta) for each color. Why whole number values? Because each absorption and emission (stretch and contraction) by an atom can only be counted in whole number values. There could be no such thing as a half or a quarter of an emission. It would sort of be like asking to push someone on swing a half or a quarter of the way but no farther. Planck was fervent in stating though that energy only became ‘quantized’, or came in chunks, when it was being absorbed and emitted but still acted like a wave otherwise. The notion of energy as a wave was long established experimentally and was something no one would question—unless you’re Einstein as we’ll see later. How did Planck come to this conclusion? Through exhausting trial and error calculating, he found that when the number 6.63 ×10−34  (that’s point 33 zeros then 663) was multiplied against the frequency of the wave, it could determine the individual amounts of energy that were absorbed and emitted by the black body on each oscillation. When calculated this way, it matched the experimental results beautifully. Whether he truly believed that energy came in quantifiable chunks, even temporary ones, is left to question. He was quoted as stating his magical number (later to become Planck’s constant) was nothing more than a ‘mathematical trick’.

If you’re a little lost, that’s okay. The second discrepancy I’ll address will make sense of it all called the photoelectric effect. To summarize plainly, when light is casted upon many metals they emit electrons. The energy from the light is transferred to the electron until it becomes so energetic that it is ejected from the metal. At high rates, this is seen to the naked eye as sparks. According to the classical view of light as a wave, changing the amplitude (the brightness) should change the speed in which these electrons are ejected. Think of the light as a bat and the electron as a baseball on a tee. The harder you whack the metal with light the faster those electrons are going to speed away. However the experimental results done by Heinrich Hertz in 1887 showed nature didn’t actually work the way classical physics said it should.

At higher frequencies (higher temperatures) of light, electrons were emitted at the same speed from the metal no matter how bright or how dim the light was. This would be like whacking the baseball off the tee and seeing it fly away at the same speed whether you took a full swing or gently tapped it. However as the intensity (brightness) of the light increased, so did the amount of electrons ejected. On the other hand, at lower frequencies, regardless of how intense the light was, no electrons were ejected. This would be like taking a full swing and not even dislodging the baseball from the tee. While it was expected that lower frequency light waves should take longer to eject electrons because they carry less energy, to not eject any electrons at all regardless of the intensity seemed to laugh in the face of well-established and experimentally proven light wave mechanics. Think of it this way, if you were to have a vertical cylindrical tube with an opening at the top end and a water spigot at the bottom end then placed a ping pong ball inside (representative of an electron lodged in metal), no matter how quickly or slowing the tube filled with water (low or high frequency light waves), eventually the ball will come shooting out of the top—obviously with varying velocities according to how fast the tube was filled. If energy is a continuous wave, or stream, ejecting electrons with light should follow the same principles.

Finally in 1905 somebody, that somebody being Albert Einstein, was able to make sense of all this wackiness and consequently opened Pandora’s box on wackiness which would later be called quantum mechanics. In his ‘miracle year’ which included papers on special relativity and the size and proof of atoms (yes the existence of the atom was still debatable at the time), Einstein stated that quantization of light waves (dividing light into chunks) was not a mechanic of energy absorption and emission like Planck said in regards to black body radiation, but a characteristic of light, or energy, itself—and the photoelectric effect proved it! Einstein realized that Planck’s magical number (Planck’s constant) wasn’t just a ‘mathematical trick’ to solve the UV catastrophe, it in fact determined the energy capacity (the size) of these individual light quanta. It was for this he’d later earn his only Nobel Prize.

So how did Einstein conclude this? Well let’s imagine a ball in a ditch. This will represent our electron lodged in metal. We want to get this ball out of the ditch but the only way to do it is by throwing another ball at it. This other ball will represent a quantum of light (later known as a photon). In order to do this you must exert a certain amount of force (energy) to give the ball a high enough velocity to knock the ball in the ditch out. So you call upon your friend to help you who happens to be an MLB pitcher. He’ll represent our high frequency (high energy) light source. Let’s say he can ‘consistently’ throw the ball with 10 units of energy (the units are called electron volts calculated by Planck’s constant times the frequency) and it takes 2 units of this energy just to dislodge the ball from the pit. 2 represents something called the work function in physics. Since it takes 2 units of energy to dislodge the ball, when the ball comes flying out of the ditch it will do so with 8 units of energy (10 – 2 = 8). This energy is called kinetic energy. Now let’s imagine there is ten balls in the pit so we clone our friend ten times (anything is possible in thought experiments). This is representative of turning up the light’s intensity. No matter how many balls are ejected from the pit they all leave with 8 units of energy. This is how we get a result of seeing an electron fly away from the metal at the same speed whether we smacked it or gently tapped it with high frequency light. Seeing your dilemma, your sweet grandmother also wants to help you dislodge balls from this pit. She’ll represent our low frequency light source. Unfortunately she can only throw with a force of 2 units of energy and while she may get the balls to roll a little bit, there isn’t enough kinetic energy left to dislodge them from the pit, no matter how many times we clone her (2 – 2 = 0). This is how we get the result of smacking the metal with a full swing of low frequency light and not see any electrons become ejected.

At the time, Einstein was still nothing more than a struggling physicist working at a patent office and his paper on the photoelectric effect took a while to get traction. However in 1914 his solution was experimentally tested and it matched the results to a tee. Proof that light had properties of a particle was hard to swallow because it had been so definitively proven as a wave during the previous two hundred plus years or so (something we’ll discuss more in part two of this series). In fact many of the forefathers of quantum mechanics, including Einstein and Planck, would spend the rest of their careers trying to disprove what they started. Truthfully, compared to our perception of reality, quantum mechanics is outrageous, but it is an undeniable proven feature of our world. How we figured this out is something we’ll continue with in the next part of this series. Until then, stay curious my friends.

A Crash Course in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics

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By Bradley Stockwell

In this post, I’m going to attempt to highlight the basics of the two most successful theories in all of physics, relativity and quantum mechanics. Relativity governs objects on astronomic scales; planets, stars, galaxies and so forth, while quantum mechanics governs objects on subatomic scales; particles smaller than an atom. I’m also going to address why while these theories have been proven beyond a doubt, when combined together they are completely incompatible. A theory that successfully combines the two, a theory of quantum gravity, aka “the theory of everything”, is the holy grail of physics because it holds the key to the origins of our universe.

Relativity describes gravity and the universe in a beautifully simplistic way. Think of nothing more than a ball sitting atop a blanket stretched out between two people. The tautness of the blanket between the two people always remains constant. In the language of physics, this is the gravitational constant. The blanket is the fabric of the universe, called spacetime and as the name suggests, not only is it made of space, but also time. This is why the blanket analogy isn’t exactly accurate, because technically spacetime is four dimensional; three dimensions of space and one of time. However the analogy makes the concept easier to comprehend. The ball represents an object in space. The more massive an object, the more it depresses, or distorts the blanket. The distortion is what is known as a gravitational field. The more massive an object, the greater its gravitational field and ability to attract less massive objects. Say a large ball was placed on the blanket with some smaller ones. The smaller balls would naturally gravitate towards the larger one, like planets in our solar system to the sun.

Now one logical question probably came to mind when visualizing this, what keeps those smaller objects from falling completely into the larger one? Or what keeps our planets in orbit instead of falling into the sun? The answer is angular momentum. Objects in space are always moving. If it wasn’t for the gravitational pull of more massive objects, these objects would travel in straight lines. It is this inertia that keeps them in orbit instead of being pulled in completely. Think of a skateboarder riding the walls of an empty bowl-shaped pool. The skateboarder’s momentum keeps him glued to the walls and if he were to stop, he’d roll into the center of the pool. The planets are doing the same thing. They are riding the walls of the depression the sun makes in the fabric of spacetime.

Gravity keeps everything very orderly and very predictable because it obeys certain laws. This is how astronomers are able to predict the timing of cosmic events with amazing accuracy. Isaac Newton was the first to recognize these regularities and calculate them. He believed gravity was the attractive forces between objects in space. This theory survived for over two hundred years until Einstein realized gravity’s close connection to time. Gravity was not an attraction, but a distortion in the fabric of space, spacetime. And when this fabric is distorted, not only is space distorted but so is time. Time is relative to the observer and how distorted spacetime is at his, or her position. Time moves slower the closer you are to an object of mass because the distortion of spacetime is greater. This is called gravitational time dilation. For example, if you were to stand atop Mount Everest, time would move faster (an unperceivably small amount) for you than say someone standing at sea level because those standing at sea level are closer to the gravitational source (the earth) and deeper within the ‘gravity well’. This has been measured in experiments with atomic clocks at differing altitudes and clocks on GPS satellites have to be regularly adjusted because of this. So technically your head ages faster than your feet.

Gravitational time dilation however only applies to relatively stationary objects. Since you atop Mount Everest and the person standing at sea level are both standing on Earth, you both are traveling through spacetime at the same speed. If you or the other person begins to move, another form of time dilation needs to be applied to receive a correct calculation called relative velocity time dilation. According to relative velocity time dilation, the faster an object moves through spacetime, relative to another object, the slower time moves. Time dilation of relative velocity is much stronger than that of gravity. This can be observed with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. According to gravitational time dilation, because of their higher altitude, the astronauts should age faster than humans on Earth. But because they are moving much faster than humans on Earth, they actually age slower—about .007 seconds per six months. As strange as this all sounds, not only has this effect been proven by atomic clocks, but a measurable difference in brain activity has also been observed.

Gravity and time can be counteracted by velocity and this is a key component to the wackiness of quantum mechanics.  As I said previously, according to relativity, the faster an object moves through spacetime relative to another object, the more time slows down for that object because the effects of gravity are less until time and gravity become completely irrelevant at the speed of light. To understand this better, let’s go back to the blanket and balls analogy. Think about one of the smaller balls in orbit stuck at the same speed going around the larger ball. Gravity and angular momentum regulate this orbit and speed. But again, gravity is not a strong force; it can be beaten. Let’s say you take another ball and skip it across the surface of the blanket. The effects of gravity, which include time, are less on the ball you threw than the idly orbiting one. Time, compared to the idle ball, moves slower for the one you threw because gravity doesn’t have the same grasp on it. If you were somehow able to throw a ball at the speed of light it would travel so fast that it would catch up to the point before you ever threw it, like a jetfighter catching its own sound waves. However unlike the jetfighter which can break the sound barrier and outpace its sound, it is impossible for the ball to outpace the speed of light, at least as far as we know. At the speed of light the ball is stuck in the light barrier; its future, present and past existences become piled on top of one another and it has now entered the strange world of quantum mechanics. The ball exists at every time in every place. This is what existence is like within an atom because everything within it moves at, or nearly at the speed of light. This is where the term quantum mechanics comes from. The position and time of particles on a subatomic scale can’t be predicted to an absolute certainty. They can only be ‘quantized’ into approximate probabilities.

Let’s go back to our theoretical ball traveling at the speed of light across our spacetime blanket. I’m going to say this ball is a particle of light, a photon, because a photon is massless and only massless particles are able to travel at the speed of light. The reason being, if the ball had any mass it would distort spacetime and therefore has to play by the rules of gravity and consequently time. As we learned in my previous post, a photon is timeless. It is timeless because it has no mass and without mass, time and gravity have no grasp on you. Even if the ball had massive (pun intended) amounts of energy, it could never reach the speed of light because the energy needed would require an infinite amount of mass. As we also learned in my previous post, mass equals energy. The more energy required, the more mass required so the two counteract each other.

spacetime

Light from a star being bent by the curvature of spacetime around the sun so that it appears to be in a different position. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was proven by comparing the known positions of stars with their positions behind the sun during a solar eclipse. Light travels over the contours of spacetime which are created by massive objects within it. The star’s light bends around the distortion the sun’s mass creates in spacetime and appears to be in a different position when viewed from Earth.

However there are places in the universe where even massless matter, like light, has to give into gravity and the worlds of relativity and quantum mechanics come crashing together. Those places are called black holes. Although light can escape the grasp of gravity, it still has to travel along the contours of spacetime that gravity creates. Imagine our theoretical photon ball traveling across the dips and dents of the blanket created by the mass of the other balls. Now imagine if it were to encounter a hole in the blanket; there would be no escape. A black hole, the afterbirth of a collapsed massive star, is something so massive it completely rips through the fabric of spacetime. This is where the theory of relativity fails. The most dreaded symbol in physics is an infinity sign. If your calculations end in infinity, it means your theory has failed. When calculating the gravitational field of a black hole using relativity it ends in infinity; an impossible amount of mass has to be compressed into an impossibly small area, called a singularity. A spacetime singularity is where the quantities normally used to measure gravitational fields become so strong they curve in on themselves. They become looped much like the wacky world of quantum mechanics. Naturally you’d think a combination of the two, a theory of quantum gravity, would solve this. However it produces an answer that is infinity plus infinity for an infinite amount of times. It is an infinitely bigger failure than relativity at predicting the mechanics of a black hole. String Theory is the closest we’ve come to solving this, but it has yet to be definitively proven. If we could find a successful theory of quantum gravity, we’d most likely discover the origins of our own universe. The reason being, our universe has been continually expanding for the last 13 billion years from a singularity much like the one found inside a black hole. Our universe could be the answer for what’s inside a black hole—well at least one black hole. Pretty trippy to think about, right? Until next time, stay curious my friends!

Flight of the Timeless Photon

sunshinelove

By Bradley Stockwell

One of my favorite stories in all of physics is the story of sunlight because it touches on such a wide range of concepts. I apologize for the length of this post, but I guarantee you’ll be enlightened on many terms you probably hear thrown around a lot, but not a lot of people understand. Also, we learned in my previous post some of the important uses of light, but didn’t address the most important use of all, life!

Sunlight’s story, along with almost everything in the universe (we’ll ignore something called dark matter for now), begins with a hydrogen atom. Hydrogen is the most elementary and abundant element in the universe, hence the reason it is element one on the periodic table. Also because it’s comprised of one positively charged particle called a proton, which makes up its nucleus, and one negatively charged particle called an electron, which orbits around that single-proton nucleus. Within the sun, or any star, there is a process called nuclear fusion which transforms hydrogen into all 92 elements found in nature. Every grain of matter that makes up our physical world is forged in the heart of stars and is released when they begin to die. Not all stars produce all 92 elements however, like our sun will never get hot enough to fuse enough atoms together to produce heavy metals like gold. When I say heavy, what I am referring to is the element’s mass. The more sub-atomic particles shoved into an element’s nucleus, the heavier it is. Stars of different sizes produce different elements, but all stars begin with fusing hydrogen into helium as our sun is currently doing.

Within the sun’s core, hydrogen atoms are sped up from high amounts of energy, or heat, created by the force of the star’s mass on itself and collide at very high speeds, fusing them together to make helium. The sun has to smash four hydrogen atoms together to make one helium atom. The radioactive elements created in the steps in between are called hydrogen isotopes. Two hydrogen atoms make the stable isotope deuterium, three, the unstable isotope tritium, and four a helium atom. The difference between a stable and an unstable isotope is the even pairing of protons and neutrons (we’ll get to what a neutron is soon) in the nucleus. An even pairing, like one proton and one neutron (deuterium), is stable, but an uneven pairing, like one proton and two neutrons (tritium) is not and eventually falls apart into stable isotopes because it is too energetic to stay together. This ‘falling apart’ is known as radioactive decay.

 

NuclearFusion

 

Two hydrogen atoms make the stable isotope deuterium, three, the unstable isotope tritium, and four a helium atom.

If you’re a fan of The Simpsons, you may remember the Springfield baseball team was called The Isotopes. This was in reference to the town’s nuclear power plant, in which a forced and more violent version of this process occurs called nuclear fission. Typically uranium nuclei are loaded up with extra neutrons until it reaches what is called critical mass. Once critical mass is reached, the nuclei split and large amounts of energy are released because they can’t hold this new influx of neutrons. It’s kind of like your friend who drinks too much at a bar then spews all over the place. This neutron ‘spewing’ is what provides us with electrical power. While the process releases energy, it also leaves varying forms of unstable uranium isotopes that decay naturally into stable isotopes over sometimes hundreds of years. This is because uranium is such a heavier element in comparison to hydrogen, which its isotopes decay rather quickly. These radioactive leftovers are still highly energetic and emit damaging gamma and x-ray waves (we learned what these were in my previous post) and that is why containment is so crucial. My apologies for this nuclear fission tangent, but one should know the difference between fusion and fission. Fusion brings atoms together, fission rips them apart.

So back to the story of sunlight. When the sun does finally manage to smash four hydrogen atoms together, two of the hydrogen’s protons lose mass in the process and become neutrally charged particles called neutrons, making a total of two protons and two neutrons in the new helium nucleus with two orbiting electrons, one for each proton. The expelled proton mass, which eventually will become our beloved sunlight, is given off as energy in the form of highly energetic electromagnetic radiation (a.k.a. light) known as gamma rays. This is an excellent example of Einstein’s famous equation for energy, E=mc2, at work. What this equation says is mass (m) can be converted to energy (E). If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, the same concept applies. You’re trying to convert your mass into energy to lose it. However things on a quantum level work in funny ways. The neutron instead of being less massive actually becomes more massive than it was when it was a proton. This can be blamed on particles within protons and neutrons called quarks and how they behave; something I’ll leave for another post. The ‘C’ part of the equation stands for the speed of light constant which is just something that needs to be added formulaically in order to receive a correct calculation and we’ll get to why later.

We learned in my previous post that electromagnetic radiation is made of particles called photons. These newly created gamma ray photons are at first far too dangerous for earthly consumption. However after tens of thousands of years of being passed around between densely packed atoms within the sun, the photons tire out a bit until they become less energetic visible light photons, or what we call sunshine. Even traveling at the speed of light, photons can take up to a million years to escape the sun; a distance of 432,000 miles from core to surface. While this may seem like a long distance, compare it to the 93 million miles photons travel in only 8 minutes and it becomes apparent how abated those photons are by being continually absorbed and emitted by the soup of atoms within the sun. However once they hit the empty vacuum of space, they have a straight shot to Earth.

When photons finally enter Earth’s atmosphere, some of them are absorbed by tiny pores on plants’ leaves called stomata that convert those photons into chemical energy. This is done by the synthesizing of hydrogen atoms from water in the plant with carbon dioxide in the air to create sugars. This process, I’m sure you’re familiar with, is called photosynthesis. Since plants only use the hydrogen from water, they emit the remaining oxygen as a waste product and we literally breathe their shit. The sugar is stored and later converted into kinetic energy to allow the plant to function. This sugar however can be transferred to a creature that eats the plant and a creature that eats that creature and so forth. Animals (including us) extract energy from these sugars by reacting them with the oxygen they breathe and exhale the remaining carbon dioxide from the sugars so that another plant can use it to create more sugar and oxygen for them to consume.

So next time you look up at the sun (not directly!), think about what’s going on inside there. Think about everything nuclear fusion gives you; air, food— the very matter you’re made of, and say thanks. And as the sunlight warms your skin, think about the tens of thousands of years it took for those photons to reach it. And here’s another interesting fact to blow your mind on; for those photons, you are their entire existence! Well at least within our idea of existence. This is where the ‘C’ (the speed of light constant) in E=mc2 comes into play. The photon, which is energy, travels at the speed of light and that is why that speed needs to be figured into every calculation for energy. It is ‘constant’. And according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, time slows down the faster you move relative to another object until it completely stops at the speed of light. The photon’s time, relative to ours, doesn’t exist. The photon is considered timeless . . . well at least until it’s brought into our reality when you absorbed it as heat. I’ll segue this into my next post which will be on the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Until then, stay curious my friends!