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.

Administrarium

I wish I could take credit for this work, but I didn’t create it. I only happened upon it while organizing a box of government documents from the early 1990s. Almost thirty years later, it is as meaningful today as it was then:

“The heaviest element known to science was recently discovered by the Chemistry Department of California State University, Los Angeles. The element, tentatively named Administrarium, has no protons or electrons and thus has an atomic number of zero. However, it does have one neutron, 125 assistant neutrons, 75 vice neutrons, and 111 assistant vice neutrons. This gives it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together in a nucleus by a force that involves the continuous exchange of meson-like particles called morons.

“Since it has no electrons, Administrarium is inert. However, it can be detected chemically, as it impedes every reaction with which it comes in contact. According to the discoverers, a minute amount of Administrarium caused one reaction to take over four days to complete, when it would normally occur in less than one second.

“Administrarium has a normal half life of approximately three years, at which time it does not actually decay but instead undergoes a reorganization in which assistant neutrons, vice neutrons, and assistant vice neutrons exchange places. Some studies have shown that the atomic number actually increases after each reorganization.

“Research at other laboratories indicates that Administrarium occurs naturally in the atmosphere. It tends to concentrate at certain points such as government agencies, large corporations, and school districts, and it can usually be found in the newest, best appointed, and best maintained buildings.

“Scientists point out that Administrarium is known to be toxic at any level of concentration and can easily destroy any productive reactions where it is allowed to accumulate. Attempts are being made to determine how Administrarium can be controlled to prevent irreversible damage, but results to date are not promising.”

J.

Polar bears and peacock feathers

For years I have been puzzled when people say that polar bears are not really white; they only look white. They also say that the dots on peacock feathers are not really blue; they only look blue. If polar bears are not white, what color are they really? They look white to me. If those dots on peacock feathers are not blue, what color are they really? They look blue to me.

Philosophical questions about colors and other qualities go back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle. These and other philosophers have tried to examine what an object is other than its qualities and what a quality is apart from the objects that have it. Can you define whiteness apart from indicating something that looks white, whether it is a field covered in snow or a polar bear? Can blueness exist apart from a quality of things that look blue? If something changes in color, how much has it changed? Has it merely exchanged one quality for another, or is it now a different object?

I know that the people who say that a polar bear looks white but is not really white were not engaged in that kind of philosophic discussion.

Among his many accomplishments, Isaac Newton revolutionized science’s understanding of light and vision. By demonstrating that a glass prism or a lot of raindrops could break a beam of white light into a rainbow, Newton showed that color and light are closely related. As understanding of light and vision grew from that observation, scientists realize that objects absorb some wavelengths of light while reflecting other wavelengths. We see the colors that are reflected without the colors that are absorbed. White objects are reflecting all the wavelengths of visible light; black objects are absorbing all the wavelengths of visible light.

But that still doesn’t explain how a polar bear could look white without being white.

I recently read an article about light and vision that finally explained what that means. Many of the colors we see in objects are caused by pigments, which are chemicals on the surface of that object which absorb some light waves and reflect us. Chlorophyll is a pigment in many plants that absorbs some wavelengths of light (using that energy to feed the plant) while reflecting green light. Anyone who has worked with paints understands how to blend different colors of paint to achieve the desired color. The mixture of paints absorbs some wavelengths of light while reflecting those wavelengths that the painter wants observers to see.

Polar bear fur does not contain any white pigment. It is the shape of that fur, especially when it is wet, that reflects white light. Peacock feathers do not contain any blue pigment. The shape of the surface of the feather reflects blue light while absorbing other wavelengths of light, causing the dots on the feathers to look blue.

If only people would have said it that way. Polar bears look white and are white even though their fur contains no white pigment. The dots on peacock feathers look blue and are blue even though their feathers contain no blue pigment. Yes, it requires a few more words to communicate the idea, but the communication is much easier to understand.

Interesting sidelight number one: A young man I know well likes to say that purple is not really a color. In one sense he is right. There is no purple wavelength of light. Look closely at a rainbow and you will see that the inner portion of the color is a deep royal blue, not purple at all. On the other hand, he is wrong. Blend a paint that reflects red light waves with a paint that reflects blue light waves, and you will have purple paint. Whatever you cover with that paint will be purple…or at least the color purple will be one of its qualities.

Interesting sidelight number two: Earlier this year a woman took a picture with her phone of a dress that was blue and black. She sent the picture to her daughter, who looked at the picture and thought that the dress was white and gold. You could blame the camera, but here it gets interesting. When the photograph went viral on the internet, people could look at the same photograph on the same screen under the same conditions, and some people saw a white and gold dress while others saw a blue and black dress. A few people could even alternate the colors they saw in the dress. For centuries, people have wondered whether we all see things the same way. When you and I look at something that we agree is red, are we seeing it the same way? The answer, we now know, is no. The dress photograph of 2015 has had its brief internet fame, but I predict that the photograph will appear in psychology textbooks and philosophy textbooks for years to come.

J. (reposted from April 2015–one of my first posts)