Archive for September 21st, 2011

Further Adventures In The Annals Of Rudeness

The young’un cat is no longer bound by any standards of human decency.

Since my last public complaints about his misbehaviors, we have moved far beyond mere attacks on the food supplies of the sea serpent, and the flooding of my library.

Now he is using my body as a trampoline.

We are locked in a battle royale about when he gets to go outside. He thinks that 5 a.m. is a fine time. But he is Wrong. For there are, at that hour, potentially, bears and mountain lions still out there. In my Rules, he doesn’t get to emerge into the world until it is light. When such night creatures have faded back into their own good holes. His young life has been one of bliss: he just doesn’t understand that there may be Dangers. He knows only that he needs to get out there to start herding the turkeys, excavating the ivyfrolicking with squirrels.

In the summer, when light came not long after 5 a.m., there wasn’t much of a problem. He’d come and prod me with a paw, while making a sound like he had been starved for three weeks. I would mumble that he just had to wait a few minutes. Impatient, he would periodically prod some more, send up more wails, like something out of a Sally Struthers “Feed The Children” TV commercial. Until, seeing light poking into the world, I’d stumble to the door and let him out.

But now light is not coming soon after 5:00 a.m. It is waiting hours after. And the young’un cat is no longer content to poke me with a paw, coupled with the Sally Struthers wail. Now, when the prod and the Sally don’t achieve the desired effect, he bounds onto my body, landing like an anvil with fur. As I struggle to regain breath, he leaps onto the floor. He waits until I have just fallen asleep again, then begins racing back and forth across my pummeled form, ululating in Sally-speak. This goes on continuously. Until the world lets there be light.

I don’t know what’s going to happen come December, when light does not arrive until 9:00 a.m. Which means I will have to endure four hours of this outrage. I am fearful I will end confined in a jail, morgue, or asylum.

Generally, cats eventually mature, get over such exuberant excitement with the world. I’m not sure that is going to happen with this fellow. I think he may be an eternal teenager.

Help. Me.

Tidying Up

“The unified theory still eludes me.”

“That’s only because it isn’t there.”

Einstein sighed. “You are a quantum mechanic, of course?”

“So were you. And I’m also a relativist. So much so I can’t apply a single law of creation to all phenomenas. I also don’t want to. But you do.”

“That’s science.”

“That’s religion, sir.”

The old man shut his eyes. Then: “We cannot see what we are not given the means to see. In the end . . . ” He opened his eyes and stared intently at T. “We are stuck with that simple, rather dull Englishman and his theory of natural selection.”

T. had already come to the same conclusion. “Darwin. Yes, sir. To survive we must know more about where we are or if, indeed, there is anywhere for us to be located in and able to describe.”

The old man smiled. “Perhaps your—precocity is the next step toward our finding out. I seem to have completed my work, much against my will, if I may say so.”

T. nodded. “I know what you mean, sir, but something’s going wrong with me, too. Before the shift in time, things were so clear to me that all I had to do was press a button in my head and the equations came. Now my head’s a bit cloudy. Too much testosterone? I think I’m turning into everybody else. I’m a breeder who can’t think anymore.”

Einstein laughed. “That’s the price we pay for being human. Once there is Eros, there is Thanatos.”

On his own, T. had worked out the Greek for the human condition: once love—sex—began, death set up shop. “I know,” he said. “Better to be an amoeba and immortal. Just dividing from time to time.”

“Ah, but does that eternal amoeba see the beauty of an equation or even play Mozart badly? I started to fade at twenty-six and you’re doing it—let’s hope you’re not—at sixteen. Natural selection is speeding up, at our expense. Well, I have a second career. Soon the Jews will have their own country, Israel, and the Zionists have asked me to be the president. I told them that although I’ve always been a Zionist, I am far too stupid about politics to be a president.”

“If there is anything I’ve come to know, sir, being around here, it’s presidents. You couldn’t be any dumber than this lot.”

“You console me!” Then Einstein frowned. “Now, mischievous boy, let’s see what we can do to tidy up what you’ve done to space-time.”

—Gore Vidal, The Smithsonian Institution

Nothing Is Everything

Quantum physics has revealed a stunning truth about “nothing”: even the emptiest vacuum is filled with elementary particles, continually created and destroyed. Particles appear and disappear, flying apart and coming together, in an intricate quantum dance. This far-reaching consequence of quantum mechanics has withstood the most rigorous experimental scrutiny. In fact, these continual fluctuations are at the heart of our quantum understanding of nature.

The vacuum has too much energy. A naive theoretical estimate gives an amount about 10120 times too large to fit cosmological observations. The only known way to reduce the energy is to cancel contributions of different particle species against each other, possibly with a new symmetry called supersymmetry. With supersymmetry the result is 1060 times better—a huge improvement, but not enough. Even with supersymmetry, what accounts for the other 60 orders of magnitude is still a mystery.

The next accelerators are opening a window on the pivotal role of symmetry in fundamental physics. Such discoveries are key to understanding what tames the quantum vacuum, a topic that is fundamental to any real understanding of the mysterious dark energy that determines the destiny of our cosmos.

David Gerdes


When I Worked

September 2011
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