Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Barrier of Knowledge

I'm obsessed with an idea.  I'm obsessed with lots of ideas, but I've been enthralled with this one in particular for over a year now-- in fact, I wrote a bit about its conception in a blog post called "A Break Through" in February of 2015, and I've since mentioned it to just about anyone I've made Big Talk with.  If you know me at all, we've probably talked about the Barrier of Knowledge.

The Barrier of Knowledge is the veil through which you pass whenever you learn something.  It's as simple as that, but it's so interesting.

Let's say I have a run-in with the Men in Black, and they wipe my memory completely-- my mind is now a true tabula rasa: I know nothing.  From here on out, anything that I observe will teach me something brand new, and this information will become the context in which I ground my reality.  Cool.  But more interesting to me than the idea that I am shaped by the new things I learn is the idea that I cannot be unshaped by them.  Sure, I can be reshaped, but never unshaped.

In other words, the present me is, in every passing moment, forfeiting the perspective of the former me.

Let's rewind to my elementary school years, when I was reading the Harry Potter books.  If I'm on The Order of the Phoenix, and you walk up to me and tell me that Dumbledore dies in book six (I intentionally dropped that spoiler without warning you first-- if you haven't finished the Harry Potter series and you're sitting here reading my blog, you have some Sirius priority issues, and you should feel bad), then you've "ruined the story."  We actually say that!  Because you told me what happens before I made the full journey there, you ruined the experience for me.  What you have done cannot be undone.  It is the Barrier of Knowledge, and it's a one-way Veil (gee wiz, this post is Riddle-d with Harry P. references).  You can say that you were kidding and try to convince me that everyone's favorite Gandalf doppelganger doesn't really die in The Half-Blood Prince, but it won't do any good.  I'll still be expecting it when Snape casts the Killing Curse on Dumbledore.  You can reshape me, but you can't unshape me.

But this idea isn't just interesting, it's actually useful to be aware of.  I'll use the example of teaching.  Everyone teaches.  You teach your friends how to play your favorite games, you teach your kids how to ride bikes, you teach your parents how to dab-- everyone teaches.  And when you teach someone something brand new, you're ushering them through the Barrier of Knowledge from the other side.  From the other side.  That's an important, albeit subtle, point.

Like I said before, once you pass through the Barrier of Knowledge, you forfeit the perspective of your former self.  This can be an issue when it comes time to teach something, if you are unaware that the Barrier of Knowledge exists.

For example, if I told you that Euchre is a game in which ace is high, trump is higher, and right and left bauers are highest and that you need to take a majority of the tricks when you're in the barn to win, you might be a little confused.  One cannot use the vernacular of a particular game to teach a new player the rules, yet sometimes it's difficult to remember that terms which become so familiar over time are completely foreign to someone who hasn't been exposed to them.

Similarly, I can't explain acceleration as the derivative of velocity with respect to time if someone doesn't know calculus.  It's still completely possible to explain that acceleration is just how velocity varies with time-- I just can't call it the derivative.

One of the reasons that I spend so much time thinking about this is because I don't think that very many of my professors are as aware of the Barrier as they should be.  It's taken me years of exposure and countless hours of study just to speak the language of physics, and honestly, I'm still not there, yet.  I'm not saying anything particularly complicated when I claim that it's a requirement for operators in Quantum Mechanics to have an orthonormal basis of eigenstates, I'm just not respecting the Barrier of Knowledge.  Like, at all.  I firmly believe that just about anyone can learn just about anything, but I also believe that it has to be explained in a way that is accessible to them.

In the summer, I work as a math instructor, and I see people on both sides of the Barrier of Knowledge struggling to send messages through it on a daily basis.  But being aware that this barrier exists is the first step to training oneself to respect it and thus become a better communicator in all areas of life.

Using big words in everyday conversation?  Probably not respecting the Barrier of Knowledge.  Speaking gamer to a jock?  Not respecting the Barrier of Knowledge.  Explaining the perpendicular of a slope as the negative reciprocal to someone struggling with their Algebra homework?  Not respecting the Barrier of Knowledge.

It's not a trap we mean to fall into; it's honestly just the result of lazy communication.  Which is why we should train ourselves to speak accessibly, no matter the context-- to respect the Barrier of Knowledge.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Language, Science, and the Infinite Complexity of the Universe

What a title, am I right?

I'm awful at titling things.  Titles are supposed to draw you in, they're supposed to give you enough that you can taste it, but not so much that you'll spoil your dinner.  But that's not how I like to title things.  I like to call things what they are.

I made this pot in high school:

You know what I called it?  "Green and Yellow Pot."  I think Mrs. Yousey took off points for that.

Believe it or not, this blog post will be about language, science, and the infinite complexity of the universe.  I'll probably give a nod to history as well, but I didn't want to include that in the because screw history.

The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.

Language is a tool that we use to externalize our thoughts.  At the most basic level, we do not think in words, we do not think in a language.  My favorite fiction series growing up was The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini.  This series consists of four books, the protagonists of which are a boy and his dragon, Saphira.  If you've seen the movie Eragon, wipe your mind of it (if you haven't already) and go read the book.  Anyway, one of the coolest features of the relationship between dragon and rider in Paolini's world is that their thoughts are intermingled.  Eragon does not always use language to communicate with Saphira, he often shares images or feelings with her through their mental connection.  

We can't do that.  We're stuck with language: an inherently insufficient means of expressing our thoughts.  I say inherently because the insufficiency is inherent!  There is a degree of complexity and exactness that is lost when we try to take an idea and turn it into a word.  The word "butterfly" does not capture the beauty and the grace of one, nor do the millions of other words that have been used to try and capture the creature in a literary net because they too are insufficient.  I cannot perfectly communicate anything that I see, feel, or think.

Don't get me wrong, more often than not, words are good enough, language is good enough.  But not perfect.  If I could share my mind with you and you, yours, with me: that would be cool.  I believe that's why the writers I like the best are the ones who can really make me feel or see something.  Mind you, it's not the same thing they felt or saw, but it's something.  I see a wordsmith as truly accomplished in his or her craft when they have the ability to impress something on me that goes beyond language (see "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" by Donne).  

But you see my point, I hope (though I can't perfectly communicate it).  Words are self-limiting.  They're the best tools we have for transferring data from my hard drive to yours, but there is always something lost when an idea passes through the channel of language.

The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

Uh... fine.  That's kind of a mouthful, but fine.  Science is the process through which we try to understand the way existence as we know it works (I say "as we know it" here for the multiverse people, not because I want to sound stuffy).

But I fear we're on a different ship crashing into the same rocks we did with language.  Is it really possible to take our universe, which is infinitely-complex, and shrink it down into something we can actually swallow?  If someone asked me that, I'd give them a hard no.  Even if I knew for a fact what the exact radius of a perfect circle was, I couldn't tell you the circumference without truncating pi at some point.  

Just as thoughts and ideas are too complex for words, creation is too complex for science.  We can do well enough to send a man to the moon, but there's really no hope of developing an understanding of existence that is perfect and complete.  

In fact, nature puts limiters on what we can observe, making science as a system (recall: "The intellectual and practical... of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment) inherently insufficient.

There are things in this world (I don't mean world here, but I've already used creation, universe, and existence...) that we cannot see, hence science, just like language, is inherently insufficient for its own purpose.

Confession time.  Normally, I would just take the history thing for granted and skip over it.  But, I have to admit, this one's actually pretty interesting, so I'll briefly go over the third parallel.

The study of past events, particularly in human affairs.
The whole series of past events connected with someone or something.

The reason the history one is interesting is because there are two reasons history is hopeless:

One, we cannot record any event in its entirety.  I could scribble down that George Washington was the first president of the United States, but I could not capture his every shift in pose and take of breath as he gave his first speech to the American people.  It couldn't be done!  Not only would language limit me, I couldn't even observe everything I would have to write down.  

(See how we cannot study history perfectly because we can neither communicate nor observe perfectly? Hmm...)

Two, even if technological and biological advances took place which allowed us to communicate and observe at the level we would need to to document an event completely, there are events which we would have already failed to document in this way (such as Washington's inauguration) as well as current events that either aren't important enough or are too well hidden to be documented.  

The idea of a "complete history" is an oxymoron (aside: I couldn't remember the word "oxymoron," so I Googled "big shrimp hot ice" to find it).  In reality, we only cover the most important details of the most important stuff, which, by the way, is kind of dumb, since what's important to me is not the same stuff that's important to you.

In all three of these examples (and in many others you could easily come up with), we see our limitations as humans.  We can neither externalize (language) nor internalize (science) perfectly the time and space around us (history).  But there is one who can.

Probably my favorite quality of God is his that he is not finite as we are.  He exists outside of time and permeates all space.  He was before and he will be after (the alpha and the omega, anyone?).  He is all-knowing and completely sovereign.

And it comes as no surprise to me that we, created in his image, strive for that even though we know that inherently we could never accomplish it.  We cannot see all that he sees, and even if we could, we could not capture it with language and bind it all up in some complete set-- only God has the "whole series" of events, and he wrote them "before" time even existed.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Most Interesting Lecture of all Time (and Space)

What you're about to read is the Holy Grail of physics lectures.  Well... it's the introduction to the Holy Grail of physics lectures.  It's the lecture every professor wants to give and the one every student wants to hear.  In the next couple of paragraphs, I'm going to lay down the foundation of Special Relativity and explore some of the paradoxes that arise from it.  This is some seriously cool stuff.
Within this post, I'm going to include links to several helpful videos.  I'll try to write in such a way that you don't need the visual aids, but I highly recommend that you click the links as they come up-- they will prove very helpful in wrapping your head around this new way of thinking (I'm speaking from personal experience).

First thing's first.  If we want to understand special relativity, we need to understand "frame of reference,"  Simply put (as everything should be), this is just the idea that things appear to move differently from different perspectives.  For example, if you're driving your car around your neighborhood, the bobble head on your dashboard seems to sit still (aside from the occasional nod it gives you when you slow down or speed up), while the mailboxes, houses, and and old men sitting on their porches are zooming past you.  From the perspective of one of those old men, however, it's you who appear to be traveling very quickly, while his glass of lemonade sits motionless beside him.  Video.

This idea probably isn't new to you!  This thought first crossed my mind sometime around third grade, when I was tossing a tennis ball up and down in the back seat of our truck on the way to grandma's house.  How is it that our vehicle can be traveling so fast, yet the ball doesn't fly backward when I let go of it?  As you could easily reason, it's because I'm effectively throwing the ball at 60 miles per hour (or however fast the vehicle is moving) every time I let go of it.  This is why cricket players get a running start when they bowl-- the velocity of the ball when they release it is equal to the combination of the speed at which they're running and the speed at which their arm is moving when they let go of the ball.

Now you're ready for the first (and most) mind-bending idea I'm going to hit you with.

Imagine that I have a flashlight.  If I aim it straight in front of me and turn it on, the light will travel at 300,000,000 meters per second (300 million m/s).  Great.  Now, let me get a running start.  Let's say I get going at like... 7 meters per second, then turn on the flashlight.  From my perspective-- my "frame of reference," how fast does the light travel?
I know, I know, you're smart enough not to fall for the trap I set.  I just explained reference frames, and you know the from my perspective, the light is still moving at 300,000,000 meters per second.  But how fast does my mom, who's standing next to me, wondering why I'm running around the house with a flashlight, see the light moving?  Well, if I'm moving at 7 meters per second, and light travels at 300 million meters per second, then my mom should see the light moving forward with the sum of these two velocities: 300,000,007 m/s!

But she doesn't.

What my mom sees light traveling at 300,000,000 m/s-- the same speed it was traveling before I took off running.

Wait... what?  Video.

Light travels at a constant velocity, regardless of from what reference from you observe it-- inertial (moving), or otherwise.

This fact is the foundation of Special Relativity, and it is not easy to swallow, yet we know it to be true.

The fundamental implication here is the first that comes to mind-- one that you might have already considered: nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, or we're going to encounter some serious problems.  For example, If I ran at twice the speed of light and flicked on my flashlight, then the light, which doesn't change its velocity with mine, would be behind me, while I'm running forward, flashlight in-hand.  Or maybe the light just wouldn't escape at all?  Once I reach that threshold of 300 million meters per second, the light just vanishes?  Who knows.  It's spooky stuff, and it can't happen.
So with the axiom that the speed of light is constant follows the rule that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.  Nothing

However... as things move faster and faster, approaching 300,000,000 m/s, some interesting "paradoxes" arise.  I say "paradoxes" because these aren't paradoxes at all!  They are truths that follow from that first axiom: the speed of light is constant.  We call them paradoxes because they counter the intuition that we've developed from a lifetime traveling at ordinary, "non-relativistic" (AKA not very fast) speeds.

Now, when I set out to write this post, I planned on explaining some of these paradoxes in my own words, but then I realized that if you just watch the videos that I provide links to, you'll get a better, clearer, more complete explanation than I would be able to give you in a then redundant paragraph.

So what I'm going to do instead is leave you with videos explaining the two most famous paradoxes of relativity along with brief explanations, just so you can get a taste of what they're about and decide whether you want to invest the five or ten minutes watching the coolest things you'll ever see.  Then, you can ask me any questions you have about things that don't make sense or sit well with you!

So I leave you with these links and the feeling that the rug has just been ripped out from under you because that's what learning new things about physics does each and every time.

The Twin Paradox:
This is the idea that if you start out with two people at the same age (twins), then send one of them, person A, off in a spaceship at really, really high speeds, person A will return to earth younger than person B.
[this is because of something called time dilation]

The Pole-Barn/Ladder Paradox:
In this paradox, a 6 foot pole can fit completely into a 4 foot barn.
[this is because of something called length contraction]