Change and continuity

Human understanding of light has wavered over the centuries. Some famous philosopher/scientists, including Rene Descartes, insisted that light consists of waves; others, including Isaac Newton were convinced that light consists of particles. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, most scientists who deal with the physics of light acknowledge that light is both wave and particle. The particles, called photons, also have wave-like qualities. Moreover, electrons also possess the same paradoxical wave-particle duality. Even protons and neutrons, consisting of quarks, appear to have wave-particle duality. Therefore, everything in the material world rests upon the paradox that the component parts of every item are, at the same time, tiny particles of matter and also waves of energy.

One result of this paradox is that knowledge is limited about each particle. For example, no one can know the precise position of a particle and also how it is moving. This principle was first enunciated by a scientist named Heisenberg and is called the “Heisenberg uncertainty principle.” One famous scientific joke involves a police officer pulling over a car driven by Dr. Heisenberg. When the officer asks the doctor the standard question, “Sir, do you know how fast you were going?” Dr. Heisenberg replies, “Please don’t tell me, because if you do, I’ll never figure out where I am.”

By the way, there is also a Salvageable uncertainty principle. Ask me what that principle says, and I will answer, “I’m not sure.”

Larger material items, made out of enormous quantities of protons and neutrons and electrons, generally follow rules of geometry and physics that make sense to the average human mind. A police officer’s radar gun accurately measures the speed of a moving car. That car might be shown, by the radar gun, to be traveling seventy miles an hour. That measurement does not prove that an hour ago the car was seventy miles away. Until a few minutes ago, the car might have been sitting in a parking lot only a few miles away. But, for large material objects, we can account for both the speed and the location of that object and can accurately report both statistics at any given moment.

Philosophically, though, the motion of a material object and its location remain a puzzle. Greek philosophers more than twenty-four centuries ago were already asking how any object could move through an infinite number of points in a finite time. Dividing time into an infinite number of punctiliar moments does not solve the philosophical quandary. We can observe an object at rest and can measure its size and describe its location. We can observe an object in motion and determine its speed and direction. Trying to gather all that information at the same time seems as though it should be easy, but problems remain. As we begin measuring size and location and speed in appropriate units, we are forced to make statements that are philosophically untenable. The car that is moving seventy miles an hour does not disappear from the highway this instant and reappear seventy miles away an hour later. Assuming that its speed and direction do not change, it will be present on every bit of paved highway between here and its destination at some point during the next hour. Chopping the highway into miles, feet, inches, or any other unit—while also chopping time into hours, minutes, and seconds, or any other unit—leaves the location of the car between those identified units a mystery. If, for example, we film the car at a rate of twenty-four frames per second, each frame will show the car at a different location on the highway without any explanation of how the car traveled from one point to the next point, since an infinite number of points exists between those two points.

Aside from that problem, the car in each frame of the film is not the same car. The car constantly changes. From instant to instant, it burns a tiny bit of gasoline. Its tires rotate, and tiny bits of rubber from the tires (perhaps mere molecules) separate from the tires. From time to time, dirt and insects are added to the windshield and other parts of the front surface of the car. Take the same car at any two points along its journey and compare its description; one will see that it is not the same car. Tiny changes have occurred to make the car slightly different as it travels down the highway and also travels through time from past into present and on into the future.

We are all like that car. We change continually. None of us is the same person who woke up this morning. We have breathed air in and out of our lungs, and some of that air has been taken into our body to be used by our cells; other air that was in our bodies has left our bodies. We eat, we drink, and we use the bathroom. We wash, removing dead skin cells from the surface of our bodies. Sometimes we cut our hair or trim our nails. Even our minds change as we experience and remember new events every instant of our waking lives (and also while we sleep). You are not the same person you were when you were a child. You are not the same person you were ten years ago. You are not the same person you will be ten years from now.

On an atomic and molecular level, we change constantly. On a cellular level, we change constantly. In other ways, we continually change while we travel the timeline of our lives. Yet, as we view that timeline from outside of time, we also perceive continuity. Because that timeline is unbroken, we are able to describe ourselves as the same person through the years and over the course of a lifetime. In the same way, a car remains the same car in spite of the many changes that happen to it—a new tank of gas, an oil change, new tires, replacement of damaged body parts, replacement of damaged engine parts. Over twenty years, every piece of a car could be replaced, but legally and philosophically it remains the same car. The philosophic implications of continuity as we change are enormous. J.

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A little more about time

Picturing our lives as a timeline, a threat or string running through time from beginning to end, makes a lifetime seem something like old-fashioned film, the way movies were created and shown before the digital age. One could hold a reel of film in one’s hands and have the entire experience in one place, but the film on the reel said nothing. The film had to be threaded into a projector and shown on a screen to have meaning. As a motor moved the film through the projector, a flashing light shone through each frame—twenty-four frames per second. Trial and error showed that aspect to be ideal for viewing. Seeing twenty-four images each second, a viewer saw action and motion that seemed normal—they could be filmed by a camera that took twenty-four photographs per second, or they could be a series of drawings or still photographs that were carefully arranged to imitate normal action and motion.

An average human life—we will say seventy-six years—would require many reels of film. One would need enough reels to contain over one million feet of film. Nearly 57 billion frames would need to be shown at twenty-four frames per second to cover those seventy-six years. We can take this metaphor to think about time and about living our lives in time. However, this metaphor has a simple yet important shortcoming. In spite of the successful illusion captured by film shown twenty-four frames per second, time does not move in tiny bursts the way film operates.

If time clicked along at twenty-four units per second, a photon or neutrino (or anything else moving at the speed of light) would jump 7,750 miles between each frame. Science shows no evidence of particles jumping from point to point in space. Particles appear to move at a consistent rate, existing in every inch or centimeter between any two locations. Time, then, must also operate consistently, not jumping from instant to instant with a tiny gap between instants, but flowing effortlessly through every conceivable instant.

Early philosophers questioned the geometry of points and lines and planes and three-dimensional space. If a moving object must pass through an infinite number of points to reach its goal, how can it ever arrive? It must first reach the half-way point, but before getting there it must reach a point half-way there, and on and on cutting the distance in half again and again but still having more intervening points to achieve. Now, it seems, time must do the same. We approach an instant… we reach that instant… we pass that instant… and somehow, that instant has traveled from the future into the past although it was scarcely present at all.

Experience tells us that objects indeed travel through space and through time. The problem of traveling through an infinite number of points in space and an infinite number of instants in time does not bother moving objects in the least. Change, it seems, is a constant reality in our world. But, in a world where everything continually changes, how can we hold to the belief that anything stays the same? If each of us is constantly changing, how can any of us remain the same person throughout a lifetime, or even in the course of one year? J.

The oxymoron of subatomic particles

Science, like money, is a human invention that is very useful when used properly and very dangerous when misused. Both money and science can be very useful; on the other hand, a lack of either can be very problematic. Neither science nor money has the strength and significance to be the foundation of a person’s life. A human life based only on science, like a human life based only on money, is sadly crippled and unable to handle the crises that can strike a life emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

One of the strengths of science is also one of its weakness: science continually changes. The more effort people put into studying the world, observing the world, experimenting with things in the world, and making predictions based on those experiments and observations, the more likely it becomes that new theories will shape science and direct scientific inquiry on paths that, until that time, were unexpected.

Science was practiced in ancient Egypt, Babylon, India, and China, developing differently in different places. Western science (which drew upon scientific observations and theories from Egypt, Babylon, and India) began roughly twenty-four centuries ago with the philosophers of ancient Greece. Among their efforts was an attempt to determine the basic building blocks of the physical, or observable, world. One early philosopher suggested that everything material is made of water—a reasonable guess, since water can assume so many forms, from ice and snow to liquid water to vapor. Others suggested different basic materials rather than water. Pythagoras and his followers proposed that everything observable consists of numbers. Greek philosophers tended to seek internally consistent explanations of the world, even when those explanations seemed contrary to observation. One group, for example, insisted that motion is logically impossible and is only an illusion—that the true universe is stable and unchanging. Until the invention of calculus many centuries later, scientists and philosophers were not equipped to refute the logic that suggested that motion cannot happen in the world.

A basic teaching of western science since Greek times has been the assumption that all physical items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces. These were named “atoms” from the Greek word for “unbreakable.” For many centuries, most western scientists considered four elements to be represented among the atoms: water, earth, air, and fire. Alchemy—the predecessor to modern chemistry—observed and experimented with physical items with the assumption that all such items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces of water, earth, air, and fire. Modern western science would never have developed without the alchemists of medieval Europe. Far from living in “the dark ages,” the medieval alchemists were at the forefront of science, culture, and civilization.

Chemists eventually demonstrated the existence of far more than four elements—for example, that water is not a basic building block, but water can be divided into hydrogen and oxygen. As they continued to experiment and observe, chemists developed a series of mathematical relationships among the elements, re-suggesting the possibility that number is the most fundamental building block of the universe. Modern physics grew out of modern chemistry; roughly one hundred years ago, western scientists began to find particles that seemed to be building blocks even of atoms.

Understand that subatomic particles are an oxymoron. Atoms are supposed to be unbreakable—the word “atom” was created to communicate that important idea. Finding that atoms contained protons, neutrons, and electrons changed the rules of science; evidence of quarks and other subatomic particles continued the process of demonstrating that atoms, though important, are among the worst-named ideas in all of science.

Huge powerful machines have been built to study the tiny pieces of atoms. Smashing atoms to observe their particles has been compared to smashing an old-fashioned watch to try to guess how it functions. One scientist, Leon Lederer, joked that God “seems to be making it up as we go along,” since every layer of discoveries suggests a new layer of tiny pieces even smaller than those already demonstrated.

Scientists continue to study the world, to try to understand how things work. They observe and experiment, not only with subatomic particles, but with viruses and other disease-causing agents, medicines, genetics, and the climate of the planet. Sometimes most scientists agree with each other about how things work; other times their research seems to contradict the research of their peers. We are all familiar with the constant revision of nutritional studies—first eggs are good for us, then they are bad for us, then they are good for us again. The old tradition of individual scientists plugging away in their laboratories to manage great discoveries has long been supplanted by teams of scientists funded by government grants and by corporate investments. Political agendas and the hope to generate a financial profit inevitably shape the work of today’s scientists. Their work is important and should not be curtailed; but every scientific discovery must also be accepted with the proverbial grain of salt. That salt is as important an ingredient as any other contribution to scientific investigation. J.

The final straw

A few years ago I found a radio station I truly enjoyed. It played music from fifties hits to contemporary hits—you could hear Elvis and Taylor Swift and the Beatles and the Police in the same fifteen-minute set. It played the longer version of songs. It never played the same song twice on the same day, and it mixed up its songs enough that you were not likely to hear the same song more than once a week. It boasted that it did not broadcast a lot of “DJ chatter.” OK, it boasted of that a bit too often, but that’s a minor complaint about a station I genuinely loved.

On November 1, 2015, it started playing nothing but Christmas music. Not even carols—just songs like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” As soon as I realized what it was doing—about the third song in—I switched to a classical music station, and my car radio stayed on that station until spring.

I should point out that I listen to the radio only in my car. At home if I want to hear music I choose a CD. Even my morning wake-up alarm is music off a CD. But my car does not have a working CD player. (OK, it does not have a broken CD player either. It has a broken cassette tape deck.) I avoid talk radio. I avoid country music. I avoid current top forty hits, or whatever they call that kind of music now. That leaves me with Oldies and Classic Rock; but I really enjoyed the eclectic mix of that one radio station I had found.

When I returned to that station in the spring of 2016, they had diminished their library to seventies and eighties hits. They played the shorter version of songs. (Think of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” with a truncated monologue at the beginning and the final instrumental riff removed.) Even with those annoyances, I was willing to listen. I like a lot of songs from the early to mid eighties, as well as some songs from the seventies. Listening was not as satisfying as it had been, but it filled the time driving to work and back, driving to school and back, driving to church and back.

In fact, they added one feature I enjoy: on Sunday mornings they rebroadcast a Casey Kasem Top Forty countdown from the eighties. I hear the lower part of the countdown on the way to church and get to enjoy the bigger hits on the way home.

But they went to a Christmas-heavy format again last November, sending me once more to the classical music station. When I returned in January, I found that they had hired a morning DJ who chatters. He has listeners call in (or text or Facebook-message) to converse with him about oddities he has discovered while surfing the internet. Even worse, he talks over the instrumental introductions to songs.

Today he broke the final straw. He talked over the entire instrumental introduction to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” and then he also cut off the ending of the song. The instrumental part of “Eye of the Tiger” makes the song—without that part of the music, it’s actually a pretty lame song.

I have switched back to the classical station. And I probably will never return. J.