I made some notes this morning as I was having my coffee and granola. I’d been thinking about today’s perihelion before I was diverted. The sun, if you see it, is five million kilometres closer than it will be in July though it’s not much closer than it was yesterday or will be tomorrow. So don’t expect it look any bigger.
I put down the coffee continued reading about quantum physics, though you might be surprised to know it was in the context of the Irish language. And as my mind walked the unwritten paths, among the spaces behind the text, I was somehow guided to follow things not on the page.
Machán Magan has that effect on me. His writing distracts me from what he’s writing about. It’s a wonderful skill that he shares with Tim Robinson and Robert Macfarlane. Perhaps it’s because all three writers are deeply rooted in the land. Impressive as individual oaks rather than ephemeral like serried identical sitka spruce, I know how to find my way back from their diversions.
Scim was the word that distracted me. A thin coating of tiny particles, like the dust on your mantelpiece. Scim is also the fairy film that covers the land. It’s a magical vision. When not coat or film, it’s the idea of entering a supernatural world through sleep. Magan proposes that scim could be the electron, the elusive particle that exists, or not as expected, in a world that is more quantum than expected. Anyway, I’m enjoying Thirty Two Words For Field.
I’m inclined to think about such things and elusive particles have been on my mind since I read a post on the blue dot. It was relegated to background thought while I was processing Brian Greene’s Until The End of Time. I didn’t want to confuse myself any further. So here we are, my mind permanently bent out of shape after Greene, I’m reading about words and it’s gone quantum on me. Again.
Viruses are tiny, electrons are smaller and the blue dot is relatively huge. My first encounter with the pale blue dot was here and again when Brian Cox and Robin Ince came to Dublin to talk about things they talk about on the radio in the Infinite Monkey Cage program. I referred to some of this in a previous post.
While I tend to accept that we humans are we ‘are just proton pumps on a mote in a multiverse’, I think that we are amazing for being able to identify our home from the vantage point of a robotic camera some 8 billion kilometres distant.
I used to work with complicated imaging and I recall being stunned a few years ago when someone showed me an image of a near vertical wall some ten kilometres beneath the seafloor. The near vertical wall in question was an image constructed from sound echoes that had bounced from many layers of very deformed rock formations. It’s way more complicated than this journal needs to describe but stick with me a moment.
Seismic imaging uses sound rather than light to ‘see’ through many kilometres of rock. At the heart of the technique is the physics first described in 1621 by the Dutch astronomer and mathematician Willebrord Snell. I won’t go into Snell’s Law but Archer fish use it to strike their insect prey with a jet of water from below the surface. The refraction that bends a stick you plunge into a pool suggests they should die of starvation. But the Archer seems to ‘know’ that here are four variables needed to compensate for a refraction shifted dinner’s position; know three and it seems a fish can calculate the fourth. Net result us that the Archer fish shoots from the water into the air and eats well despite not knowing of Willebrord Snell.
Prismatic waves are too complicated for me to describe here and besides I’m not sure I ever could. Suffice to say that there are multiple, scattering bounces that the world’s largest supercomputers can tease out in order to image a vertical wall ten kilometres beneath the sea. The hope would be that there’s enough liquid energy trapped up against the wall to pay for the cost of the computing.
I thought about this was we watched Hidden Figures the other night. It’s a bit schmaltzy but it’s a good thing to have seen how NASA suffered from repressive Virginian apartheid policies a century after the Civil War ended slavery. There’s that scripted moment when human computer Katherine Johnson recalculated the IBM computed landing zones and she got them right. Apocryphal or not, that it happened as portrayed isn’t as important as the message the script wanted us to hear about equality. As said during the movie, all humans pee the same colour.
Katherine Johnson’s manual calculations were trusted more than a spanking new IBM mainframe. That was in the early days of trajectory calculations and humans did something incredible putting Yuri Gargarin and John Glenn into earth orbits. It was an exciting time to live through despite the tensions of the mutually assured destruction policies that drove space exploration.
I think we humans may have just done something incredible by developing, producing and injecting a vaccine for a disease that was only known for a year. A picture taken 8 billion kilometres from the blue dot is one thing, finding a vaccine against a virus for 8 billion people in a year is something much better, a far bigger testament to human ingenuity.
Some say that it helps to know your enemy. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is about 80 billionths of a metre in diameter. I’ve read that you could fit 1000 side by side on the width of a nose hair. As if you’d really want to know such disgusting things.