Monday, December 30, 2013

An Arbitrary World

It's interesting to think about how completely arbitrary everything in this world is.

Numbers, for example.  I can say that a train is moving at 50 meters per second or 5000 meters per second, and both statements could be true for the same train depending on whether I'm traveling in the opposite direction at 4950 meters per second or just standing still and watching it pass me by.  And the only reason that it's 50 in the first place is because we've been using that value as one more than 49 and one fewer than 51 for so long that everyone recognizes the quantity that it represents.  In reality, numbers are just names given to how much of something there is.  50 meters per second is just 50 of a meter (some arbitrary distance that we decided was significant) traveled for every one of a second (how long it takes to say "Mississippi").  I could even say the train is going 600 hoopdies per hippity, if I convinced enough people that hoopdies and hippities were better measures of space and time than meters and seconds.

Or languages, both written and spoken-- some guy decided that if the lines curve here, cross here, end there, and have spaces here, here, and here, then they'll stand for these sounds, which make this word, that describes this idea, yet some other guy can't make head nor tail of the runes in front of him.  For a while, we were content to have a bamillion different languages all over the world, but now, as the world is shrinking (it's not actually shrinking, guys, don't worry), we're starting to realize the inconvenience of not having a standard, so everyone's learning to read, write, and speak "English."  And why English?  Just because so many people speak it already-- it's no secret that it's not the easiest or most sensible language out there, but that doesn't matter because it's easier to convince twenty people to learn something complex than it is to convince fifty to learn something simple.  And I could even add my own words to the English language, if I'm popular enough; people call me a "nerd" all the time, but that wasn't even a thing until Dr. Seuss dreamt it up.

Think about all of the random signals you encounter on your average drive to work, school, or church.  You yield at the yellow triangles.  You stop at the red octagons.  You flash little lights on the side of your car to let people know you're turning, even though, technically, you're turning all the time-- this turn is just a little sharper than the ones you've been making up until now.  When you come up to the hanging metal contraptions, you stop if it's glowing red but keep going if it's green.  All the while, you're careful not to stray from the road, which is really just a slab of ground that's harder than the grass beside it, and keeping to "your side" of the line, which is just a brighter, straighter, and more permanent version of the line my six year old brother drew on the street with chalk a few months ago at his birthday party, yet everybody knows that if you cross the ones the people with their magic line-painting trucks created, you're going to get honked at, which we all somehow understand is a bad thing.

The funny thing is, and I mentioned this to my cousin in the car today, we don't follow all of these societal cues because we want to maintain order; we follow them because we want to avoid chaos.  We don't teach everyone in school about integrals and cross products because, in order to pay taxes and tip the waiter, all we need to know how to do is add, subtract, multiply, and divide.  We don't focus on writing as a form of art because you don't need to know how to write in iambic pentameter to fill our your resume.  We don't care whether the sidewalks have lines on them because no one dies if you accidentally walk into them.  But if you can't pay your taxes, then you'll go to jail, and if you can't fill out a resume, then you'll starve, and if no one knows what side of the road they should be driving on, then everyone dies.

But imagine if we did care.  Almost everyone knows that 80 miles per hour is too fast to be driving, but few know that your speed is the absolute value of your velocity, which is the derivative of your position in relation to the very frame of reference which determined how fast you were going in the first place.  Almost anyone could read what I'm writing, but few people pay attention to the parallel structure that I use so often or the conversational tone that I try so hard to maintain.  It's probably best if we stick to the basics with driving-- we don't need people practicing their drifting in the middle of busy intersections, but you get the idea.  I'm not saying anyone has to care-- preventing chaos is just as well, but it's interesting to me that so few people do. 

So next time you're flying down the road at 80 miles per hour, maybe you should stop and think about the fact that 429 hoopdies per hippity is a little fast (feel free to email me, if you have any questions about that conversion).

Friday, December 27, 2013

Reconciling Physics with Christianity

Given an accurate set of initial conditions, the outcome of any situation can be determined.  For example, if you know that a ball was thrown at a certain velocity and went a certain distance, you can figure out how long it was in the air and at what angle it was released.  A thorough examination of this illustration could even account for factors that seem negligible, such as air resistance or the variation of acceleration due to gravity as a result of the ball's changing distance from Earth's center.  If the ball were to hit a tree branch, as long as we could deduce the spring constant of that limb, we could say for certain where the ball would land, so long as we're given enough details about the motion of the ball and of the branch at the instant before the collision. 

Now, let's take this example and apply it to, say, the universe.  Assuming that the Big Bang Theory is true (which, of course, I do not), we should be able to anticipate every occurrence in all of creation (ironic, I know).  All we would need to determine exactly what would happen tomorrow is the set of initial conditions provided by that hot, dense baby of a universe that we started with all those billions of years ago and the formulas that describe whatever the heck was going on with it when it started to change and expand, along with the values of any variables therein that correspond with December 28th, 2013 (or December 28th, 13800002013, whichever you prefer).  Though I would probably spend far more than the next twenty four hours following this universal equation to its end, I would get there.  We could have super computers crunching numbers for every person at every second of every day, so that nothing would ever come as a surprise, and we could decide from the get-go whether our lives were worth living.  Am I going to get a job?  Find a girl?  Live long?  Prosper?  You wouldn't have to ask; you would know.  Actually, some super rich physicist would know and would probably charge you for the answer, knowing the world we live in, so you'd probably want to be a little more specific with him than I was with you.
Now, I'm not being completely fair, I'll admit.  I don't know how small scientists believe our universe started out, but I have a feeling it was subject to the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, meaning, basically, that we can only know so much about its particles' behavior and couldn't predict with complete certainty just what each particle would do with itself (things start disagreeing with Newton when they get really, really small or really, really fast).  But the idea is still very much the same, and the concept still very much applicable.  If we did know how it all started, then applied everything that we have discovered up until now, I'm sure we could devise a pretty darn good model to predict all of the things.  It would be just as simple as throwing the ball; you're told how the ball started moving and all you have to do is plug in the time to find its position at any given moment.  The ball doesn't care whether you've thrown it, yet; so long as you don't tell any lies about the way you plan on throwing it, it's going to move the same way every time.

I agree that much of what I've said so far is true.  I believe that thing about the ball and the branch.  I can gel with all of the intricate parts of the system, (air resistance, gravity, blablabla) as well.  I even think that all of the events in your life and mine are predetermined, though not by some all-inclusive formula but, rather, by God.  Here are a couple of reasons why. 

First off, forever is a long time, and things in our world simply don't appear out of nowhere.  I think that any non-religious person would agree with me on these two points.  I find it difficult to reconcile these two facts without some creator.  At what point did nothing become something, in order to give birth to our universe?  More importantly and more fundamentally, what was the catalyst and how did the universe appear?  Where's the conservation of energy and matter?  If there was no moment when everything out there sprang into being, if it's all been around forever but expansion only started recently (if you can call something that happened billions of years ago a "recent" development), then wouldn't this whole universe expanding thing have happened infinitely long ago?  Eternity is a difficult thing to wrap your mind around, but suffice to say that if there was no moment of creation (or mysterious coming into being , to be more politically correct), then everything would literally have happened forever ago-- that's the nature of eternity. 

The second reason is because math is a thing.  I took probability and statistics last semester, and if the math gods are confident enough to say that something didn't happen if they're 95% sure, then I don't know how any mathematically savvy human could give credit to any of the theories out there that don't involve intelligent design.  Let's throw the whole universe thing out the window and just look at our planet.  Do you know how unlikely it is that every species evolved from a teeny-tiny single-celled organism?  I'm not talking biologically-- I'm talking statistically.  What are the chances that some creature walking around with no ears (we'll call him Scruffy) gave birth to a little Scruffy Jr. with a system of hearing complex enough to work well enough to make him biologically superior, then that Scruffy the Third would inherit that same mutation from his daddy and so on?  Our ears use a hammer next to an amp made out of bones near some hairs in water that send electrical impulses to our brain.  That's how we hear things.  There's no reason that any of these individual parts would survive through generations without the others, and the chances of all of them occurring at once in a usable arrangement are beyond laughable.  As a self-proclaimed mathematician, I simply can't subscribe to the idea that an unfathomable number of these statistically impossible coincidences led us to where we are now in a mere four and a half billion years.

There had to be a designer, and an intelligent one at that.  I find it more sensible and more probable that there's a God in heaven than that any of the modern theories of the origin of the universe or the evolution of man are true.  I've been asked by more than one person how I can reconcile my religious beliefs with my pursuit of a career in physics.  I don't believe that there is any conflict between the two.  To me, physics is man's way of describing God's creation, and the fact that we don't have it all figured out (and never will), only bears testament to the magnificence of his handiwork.  In high school, when I asked my physics teacher why I (an aspiring English major at the time) should care about his class, he told me "So that you can quantify your world!"  And he was close-- it just isn't my world to quantify.