The Quantum Pontiff

The Most Depressing Results in Physics

I’m a pretty optimistic guy. Okay, I’m a really optimistic guy. But even my optimism has its limits when bashing up against the cold hard reality of what experiments plus our understanding of the laws of physics tells us about the universe. Here are my top three most depressing facts about the universe coming from the field of physics and astronomy.

  • i-3964e03106412cbe653241b4ebf51477-MMExperiment.jpgThe speed of light. The speed of light is a real bummer, dude. I mean sure, 299792458 meters per second may sound fast, but in comparison to the nearly 40 trillion kilometers to the nearest star, it’s not very fast. And considering the fact that it takes light around 100000 years to cross the galaxy, which is not even to mention the 20 to 40 times longer it takes light to travel between the galaxies, well, if there is something that the speed of light is shouting it must be “You might as well cancel your travel plans!” Because the speed of light limits how fast we can travel, this means any plans for galactic empire (which of course we all dream about) face a stiff barrier in how long such a trip will take. Of course, time dilation helps out the actual travel time, but any star traveler moving at relativistic speeds is doomed to abandon the society he or she originated from. Gone is the idea of space traveler, replaced, by a spacetime traveler, whose travels must abandon not just his society’s place but also his society’s time. Exploration has always been a lonesome endeavor, but on an astronomical scale, the speed of light makes any such trip a major downer.
  • i-a17b42f697188b9a4519b6c8962d9ce7-disorder.jpgHeat death Personally, I love thermodynamics. If you’ve ever seen a thermodynamic argument applied outside its natural domain, well it’s a thing of beauty. But the second law of thermodynamics. Well it’s a bummer. The entropy of a system, well, like a hippie in Amstradam, it just seems to be getting higher. Disorder, disorder, disorder. Ultimately will we reach a point of maximum entropy, with the universe in complete equilibrium? Some people worry about communism, me I worry about things all going to equilibrium. Of course one can take solace in estimates that the time it will take to reach heat death is something like 10100 years, but not me. At night I wake up worrying that in the end, not only will we all be alone, but we will be nothing but the remains of blackhole Hawking radiation. Oh, right, I’ll be dead well before then. Which I guess is to say “entropy sucks.”
  • i-1b6d8f21d4a437a279dbc60f4df40be9-darkenergy.jpgDark Energy The bad news used to be that the universe was expanding. As far as things go, this isn’t too bad of news, because it was possible that while the universe was currently expanding, with everyone running away from you like you’ve got swine flu, it was possible that soon the universe might stop expanding and start contracting (of course the big crunch at the end of all of this might be a problem.) All the better to spread the swine flu, don’t you know? But now we are learning that not only is the universe expanding, but that the rate of expansion is actually accelerating! The villain here is the apply named “dark energy.” Dark is right, it seems that not only are we getting more cosmically lonely, but that we must have made a faux pas of epic proportions and everyone is leaving the party with the pedal to the metal. At night the ice weasels may come, but someday they won’t come any more, damn you dark energy.

Comments

  1. #1 Sigmund
    September 4, 2009

    The speed of light problem is not such a serious impediment to space travel, even if we can never get close to it. We can still reach the stars. All we need to do is build unmanned interstellar ships that can travel to the stars and when they reach them they build humans. We have the DNA code and we can probably put together a fertilized cell and artificial incubator without too much bother in the near future. Use a few robots to bring up the created kids and some educational videos and there you have it – humans at the stars.

  2. #2 Dave Bacon
    September 4, 2009

    The depressing part is not that we can’t get to the stars. It’s that to do so we, as individuals, must abandon our homes, not just spatially, but also temporally.

  3. #3 Pookie
    September 4, 2009

    Just build bigger ships and bring “home” with you. You’d need a sustainable, self-renewing ecosystem anyway, since the trips are going to be *extremely* long.

  4. #4 Pierce R. Butler
    September 4, 2009

    … 299792458 meters per second may sound fast…

    Has c been measured to that precision? (but not precisely enough to give decimals too?)

  5. #5 --bill
    September 4, 2009

    it is indeed a life in hell

  6. #6 Ethan Siegel
    September 4, 2009

    You just put a depressing spin on these three things; I have a positive outlook on all of them!

    The first one allows special relativity, which means we can see unstable things that simply move fast enough!

    The second one, among other things, allows me to cook my eggs and ensures that they won’t spontaneously uncook.

    And the third one gives me a great mystery to try and figure out!

  7. #7 John Sidles
    September 4, 2009

    I will follow Ethan Siegel’s lead and suggest the three most encouraging results in physics (in information theory):

    (1) We can observe our own workings  Our atoms have magnetic moments. These moments could be set to zero without altering human biology in the slightest … yet Providence nonetheless installed them. Why is this good? Simple: in to enable us to nondestructively observe even the atomic-level details of our own workings.

    (2) We can dynamically simulate our own workings  We are hot, wet, noisy creatures. Why is this good? Simple: to dynamically concentrate our own state-space trajectories onto low-dimension manifolds, so that we can simulate ourselves with PTIME resources.

    (3) We can control our own workings  With comprehensive observation and simulation of our own biology, we are in a position (for the first time in any century) to control our own biology. Why is this good? Simple: It is good to be alive in the only century in which medicine evolves from a (primarily) diagnostic profession into a comprehensively curative & regenerative profession.

    If you think about it, aren’t the above three results are far more inspiring—and far more feasible of near-term achievement—than any (20th century) dream of spaceships?

    And please note that “yellow book” understanding of QIS/QIT (and “yellow book” understanding of classical physics too) is central to realizing all three of these encouraging results! :)

  8. #8 Edy Levi
    September 4, 2009

    #4 acctuly, c is defined that way. and meters and seconds were adjusted by the new definition. (that is at last what one of my proffesors said in undergrad physics)

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    September 4, 2009

    @Pierce: c is defined to be that speed, which effectively serves as the definition of the meter. That’s because the definition of the second is much more precise than the length standard that was replaced.

    @Pookie: But you run the risk of later generations of passengers forgetting the original mission. See, e.g., the Robert Heinlein novel Orphans of the Sky.

  10. #10 John Sidles
    September 4, 2009

    Eric Lund: But you run the risk of later generations of passengers forgetting the original mission.

    Not a risk in a literate society! Haven’t you noticed how readable documents like The Federalist Papers are today, two hundred years after they were written? … that’s because English (as a language) now grows by accretion rather than by evolution.

    If the folks on Heinlein’s starship had access to Wikipedia pages like The Mission: Where We Are Going and The Control Room: How It’s Laid-Out … well … the novel’s plot-line would have been a whole lot duller!

    The point being (I guess) Heinlein’s novel is a parable about the virtues of literacy, more than it is a story about space-travel.

  11. #11 John Sidles
    September 4, 2009

    To continue the above theme — if we read Heinlein’s books as parables about literacy, history, civic duty, and Jeffersonian democracy—rather than as stories about spaceships—then we are well-prepared to contemplate the (mildly transgressive!) implications for the 21st century of quotes like Feynman’s

    “Nevertheless, a very great deal more truth can become known than can be proven.” … “I have proven to myself so many things that aren’t true”

    Insofar as we forget Feynman’s insights … and rely instead wholly on logic and theorems to guide our thought and actions … then aren’t we condemned—like Heinlein’s history-forgetting space crew—to remain (in the words of Frank O’Conner):

    “a bookless, backward, superstitious race that has scarcely emerged from the twilight of mythology”

    We engineers, scientists, and mathematicians sometimes imagine that logic and theorems suffice to protect us from superstition … but hasn’t the exact opposite proved to the case?

  12. #12 Eric Lund
    September 4, 2009

    Not a risk in a literate society!

    You assume that the society in question will remain literate. There is a reason the Greek letters with which you are familiar bear no resemblance to Linear B: the ancient Greeks lost knowledge of writing for several centuries.

  13. #13 Cherish
    September 4, 2009

    I don’t think the first one has to be depressing if we can remain optimistic that maybe someday our progeny may get smart enough to control wormholes or somesuch…not that it solves all problems.

  14. #14 John Sidles
    September 4, 2009

    Eric, you and I definitely agree on the main premise … so long as our society remains literate, there is very little risk that we will become anaspeptic, phrasmotic, or even compunctious! :).

  15. #15 Jeff
    September 4, 2009

    You missed the most depressing physics fact: the principle of maximal aging:

    http://www.scientificblogging.com/hammock_physicist/principle_maximal_aging

    “A free object takes the path of maximal aging”

    which means that you and I tend to move in such a way that each step minimizes the remaining distance to our grave…

    Thank you very much Albert! ;)

  16. #16 Kevin W. Parker
    September 4, 2009

    Dark energy is even more depressing than you describe, considering that the day will come when not only will it shred our descendants into little bits (assuming we have any), but the very atoms they’re made of.

  17. #17 Paper Hand
    September 4, 2009

    Even assuming that the descendants of a generation ship remember their original reason, who’s to say that they would *want* to settle on a planet? Seems to me they’d be so used to their ship that they’d be quite happy staying on their ship, maybe expanding it and/or building new ships.

    This may ultimately be the solution to Fermi’s Paradox. Space-faring societies inevitably remain *purely* space-faring, ignoring those dangerous, unprotected, unpredictable planets with their constantly varying weather and delicate ecosystems.

  18. #18 Joel
    September 5, 2009

    Pity they couldn’t have just defined the speed of light to be 300000000m/s and adjusted the definition of seconds and meters to match. Stupid legacy systems.

  19. #19 T_U_T
    September 5, 2009

    The speed of light problem is not such a serious impediment to space travel, even if we can never get close to it.

    nuclear propulsion = 0.1c = only four decades to alpha centauri. Crew of 5 females gives birth halfway through so at the destination we have crew of 20 people, 15 of them young. If they carry several thousands of deep frozen gametes, and use them for artificial insemination for a few generations, they will have enough genetic diversity.

  20. #20 Anton Mates
    September 5, 2009

    Even assuming that the descendants of a generation ship remember their original reason, who’s to say that they would *want* to settle on a planet?

    And even if they do, who’s to say they would want to settle on any planet other than the obvious one? They didn’t ask to be born into a life of hazardous exploration; why not figure out how to turn the ship around and head right back to Earth?

  21. #21 Thomas
    September 5, 2009

    Consider that with instant travel across the universe the first spacefaring species would probably colonize the entire universe. With a finite traveling speed one species may have time to colonize a galaxy, but there will at least be somewhat more diversity in the universe. It may be depressing for us that we can’t go everywhere as fast as we want, but it is very good for any less advanced civilization out there to be spared human colonizers.

  22. #22 Thomas Spencer
    September 5, 2009

    Hey cheer up !! You never know. Right now nobody understands gravity. Once some genius discovers the secrets of the gravitational force perhaps it will unlock secrets of traveling to the stars.

  23. #23 Kea
    September 5, 2009

    1. But in the varying c cosmology, you would not expect the possibility of travel to be divorced from your limitations as a primitive planet bound species. You would look forward to space travel and the further evolution of intelligent species as partners in the glorious future of your galaxy. And in this cosmology, dark energy does not exist.

    2. Increasing entropy goes hand in hand with increasing complexity (of living systems etc) … at least in the new cosmology. See 1.

    3. See 1.

  24. #24 PolyMorph
    September 5, 2009

    In the event of dark energy causing a Big Rip, we could perhaps still maintain civilisations in close orbit of black holes, as spacetime is very much curved overthere, The Big Rip will probably stretch the event horizon, but I suspect will not be able to rip the black hole appoart, so there could be a sweet spot where the Big Rip and the black hole, stretching and compression spacetime are in equllibrium.

    Furthermore we could be extracting energy from the black hole electromagnet spin for a long time, long after the light have gone out in the rest of the universe.

    On another note, stetching of spacetime causes redshift, so they say, the Big Rip will cause a fainting “redout” , but on the other hand, highly enegetic gammarays and WIMPS that have only weak interation with other matter, would become visible in lower frequencie ranges, so actually the sky might light up in a sea of aether revealing itselve as another big bang ?

  25. #25 Pierce R. Butler
    September 5, 2009

    … c is defined that way. and meters and seconds were adjusted by the new definition. … the definition of the second is much more precise than the length standard that was replaced. … Pity they couldn’t have just defined the speed of light to be 300000000m/s and adjusted the definition of seconds and meters to match. Stupid legacy systems.

    Oh Emm Gee. As if the national trauma of Pluto’s demotion wasn’t bad enough!

    Scientists will have only themselves to blame on that full-moon night when the pitchfork- and torch-bearing villagers surround their ivy-covered ivory towers…

    Oh, and: (a) how much of an adjustment in the precise length of a meter was required by the new definition; (b) what was/is the margin of potential error in lightspeed measurement then; ((c) when?) and (c1) now?

  26. #26 hillhopper
    September 6, 2009

    “like a hippie in Amstradam” Is that like “a scientist in Worthington”? Depends on where one lives, I suppose.

  27. #27 wilbur dillman
    September 6, 2009

    As the Moody Blues sang years ago.” Thinking is the best way to travel.” Interacting with the field of intelligence that permeates the entire cosmos simply requires tuning in to the non-local channels. We can do this from home. No need to send bodies.

  28. #28 Neil B ♪ ♫
    September 6, 2009

    Don’t forget least depressing results in physics, such as fine structure constant being some mathematically nutty ~ 1/137, but which is just right for life to exist.

  29. #29 Robert
    September 6, 2009

    MOTHER
    He’s been depressed. All off a sudden, he can’t do anything.

    DOCTOR
    Why are you depressed, Alvy?

    MOTHER
    Tell Dr. Flicker. It’s something he read.

    DOCTOR
    Something he read, huh?

    ALVY
    The universe is expanding.

    DOCTOR
    The universe is expanding?

    ALVY
    Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!

    MOTHER
    What is that your business? He stopped doing his homework.

    ALVY
    What’s the point?

    MOTHER
    What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!

    DOCTOR
    It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we’ve gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here. Uh?

  30. #30 robert
    September 7, 2009

    the REAL bummer in this discussion is that none of the commentors is/will be getting laid within 10E100 yeats

  31. #31 Mike
    September 7, 2009

    Actually, you might consider that the limit of speed of light is “our friend”.
    Imagine if one of those distance galaxy, stars, or whatever, sends a gama burst directly at us TODAY. Since it’s so far away, You, me and all the others would be dead if it traveled fast enough to get here in an “instant”… As it is, the speed of light limit means we can enjoy ourselves another day. You can have your “galaxy empire”… I’d rather have a bowl of ice cream.
    -
    Mike

  32. #32 Neil B ♪
    September 7, 2009

    Robert, that’s funny. Better, with “yeats”. In an infinite universe, everything happens over again and everywhere, an infinite number of times! So there are indeed 10E100 “Yeats”, presuming you meant the poet of that name! Well, the space volume required to recreate 10E100 of Yeats is huge. Depending on how similar he has to be, we could bong-timate a volume of around 10E3000 cubic light years. So any of us must travel beyond that space in order to get laid. Is that what you meant?

    Fortunately my girlfriend doesn’t mind my being a bit weird, after all my motto is “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.” BTW dude, guys who can’t spell don’t get lade.

  33. #33 John Sidles
    September 7, 2009

    Robert: the REAL bummer in this discussion is that none of the commentors is/will be getting laid within 10E100 yeats

    LOL! Except for us long-married commentators … for us it’s only 10E50 “yeats” … unless we are so romantic as to quote Yeats (and Delmore Schwartz):


    In Dreams Begin Responsibilities …

    “How am I fallen from myself, for a long time now
    I have not seen the Prince of Chang in my dreams.”
    Khoung-fou-tseu.

    … Because you were the spectacle that stirred
    My fancy, and set my boyish lips to say
    “Only the wasteful virtues earn the sun “;

    A late afternoon spent reading and discussing Yeats … continued over an elegant dinner … perhaps you will both “see the Prince of Chang” in your dreams! :)

  34. #34 James Sweet
    September 8, 2009

    Actually, you might consider that the limit of speed of light is “our friend”.
    Imagine if one of those distance galaxy, stars, or whatever, sends a gama burst directly at us TODAY. Since it’s so far away, You, me and all the others would be dead if it traveled fast enough to get here in an “instant”… As it is, the speed of light limit means we can enjoy ourselves another day. You can have your “galaxy empire”… I’d rather have a bowl of ice cream.

    Cold comfort… what if the gamma burst was a million years and a day ago?

    This was actually a pretty good summary of the most depressing conclusions of physics. I agree.

    One more depressing thing to add about dark matter:

    There are some optimists who believed that even with a standard heat death, it would be conceivable for sapient life to persist eternally in the form of gaseous clouds of ever-decreasing density, with their thoughts slowing down as the density decreases but never actually ceasing.

    Of course this probably wouldn’t work anyway because of quanta, but there was some wiggle room for debate over whether that limitation was really a deal-breaker or not. In a constantly-expanding universe, one could hold out a sliver of hope for life to persist eternally.

    If the expansion is accelerating, though, then this scenario goes to pieces. In a universe with dark matter, all life is doomed.

  35. #35 amphiox
    September 8, 2009

    I think an equally depressing thing about c is that it also limits communication. Starfarers going to a sufficiently distant destination will be effectively disappearing from their societies, no different from dying. They won’t come back, and we won’t be hearing from them. We will have no access to any insights or discoveries they will make. There will be no intergalactic internet.

    If we send generation ships, we will probably have to accept that some of them will decide to turn around and come back, while others will decide to stop halfway, while others will decide to change directions, and others will simply fail and everyone on board will die. And the parent society/planet will have no control over them after they are launched. They will be not so much colony ships as independent new nations.

    If generation ships are an answer to Fermi’s paradox, we should expect that at some point, with advancing astronomy technology, we will find them. They should be about the size and albedo of small asteroids, and would be expected to have some kind of unique radiation signature, particularly if their engines are on.

  36. #36 Gruesome Rob
    September 8, 2009

    Haven’t you noticed how readable documents like The Federalist Papers are today, two hundred years after they were written? … that’s because English (as a language) now grows by accretion rather than by evolution.

    Of course Beowoulf and Canterbury Tales are just as readable as the day they were written too.

    Hey, wait…

  37. #37 Mike
    September 8, 2009

    Dark matter…doesn’t matter. Since the recent ideas that we live in a multi-verse, and that if one universe explodes or implodes, there is another (multiple) one ongoing. life is going on somewhere…just not where it used to…
    perhaps that migraine you had yesterday was just a multiverse event. Suppose when you cease to exist in this universe, you become a migraine to someone (your doppelganger ) in some other universe. Maybe those aren’t really your dreams, but the “life” of your doppelganger(s)! Eat a bowl of ice cream too fast and shock all those multi-verse beings living in your brain. The ice cream headache is just their way of saying “hello”.
    (..hmm..I better pay attention to my spelling…)

  38. #38 Neil B ☺
    September 8, 2009

    Speaking of other worlds, have you heard of “quantum suicide”? It’s the idea that you can’t kill yourself if there’s any chance of survival, since the surviving branches carry your consciousness. If you are Schrodinger’s cat, you always feel “alive” since the dead-branch-yous don’t count! But it’s just more silly MWI/decoherence BS anyway. See my spicing it up with a challenge, what if the nucleus-trigger put you to sleep for awhile instead of killing you?

    http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com/2008/11/this-is-adapted-from-my-comments-to.html

  39. #39 John Sidles
    September 8, 2009

    Gruesome Rob says Of course Beowoulf [circa 900 AD] and Canterbury Tales [1382 AD] are just as readable as the day they were written too. Hey, wait…

    Heh heh … both were written centuries before Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary. The mid-1600s were when the language of English literature froze like LaTeX … with the publication of Edward Phillips’ 1658 dictionary The New World of English Words! :)

  40. #40 Brian Beverly
    September 9, 2009

    The universe is getting high on entropy and if that gets you down then try to smoke your way through that.

  41. #41 Raoul Ohio
    October 18, 2009

    Q: … 299792458 meters per second may sound fast…

    Has c been measured to that precision? (but not precisely enough to give decimals too?)

    As I recall, because this number is more accurate than length (and maybe time) can be measured, somewhere along the line this number was ** DEFINED ** to be the speed of light. Time can be measured quite accurately, so the two are used to define length. Recall that the meter is defined by a bar under glass in Paris with two scratches on it. My guess is that you would be hard pressed to get five digits out of it.