Continuing with the supplementary material for the book, from its Chapter 2. This is in reference to Galileo’s principle of relativity, a central pillar of modern science. This principle states that perfectly steady motion in a straight line is indistinguishable from no motion at all, and thus cannot be felt. This is why we don’t feel our rapid motion around the Earth and Sun; over minutes, that motion is almost steady and straight. I wrote
. . . Our planet rotates and roams the heavens, but our motion is nearly steady. That makes it nearly undetectable, thanks to Galileo’s principle.
To this I added a brief endnote, since the spin of the Earth can be detected, with some difficulty.
As pointed out by the nineteenth-century French physicist Léon Foucault, the Earth’s rotation, the least steady of our motions, is reflected in the motion of a tall pendulum. Many science museums around the world have such a “Foucault pendulum” on exhibit.
But for those who would want to know more, here’s some information about how to measure the Earth’s spin.
In my last post I raised a question about the pros and cons of common sense. I left it as a wide-open question, as I was curious to see how readers would react.
Many aspects of common sense affect how we relate to other people, and it’s clear they have considerable value. But the intuitions we have for nature, though sometimes useful, are mostly wrong. These conceptual errors pose obstacles for students who are learning science for the first time.
It’s also interesting that once these students learn first chemistry and then Newtonian-era physics, they gain new intuitions for the natural world, a sort of classical-physics common sense. Much of this newfound common sense also turns out to be wrong: it badly misrepresents how the cosmos really works. This is a difficulty not only for students but also for many adults. If you’ve read about or even taken a class in basic astronomy or physics, it can then be challenging to make sense of twentieth-century physics, where Newtonian intuition can fail badly.
Einstein’s relativity. Everybody’s heard of it, many have read about it, a few have learned some of it. Journalists love to write about it. It’s part of our culture; it’s always in the air, and has been for over a century.
Most of what’s in the air, though, is in the form of sound bites, partly true but often misleading. Since Einstein’s view of relativity (even more than Galileo’s earlier one) is inherently confusing, the sound bites turn a maze into a muddled morass.
For example, take the famous quip: “Nothing can go faster than the speed of light.” (The speed of light is denoted “c“, and is better described as the “cosmic speed limit”.) This quip is true, and it is false, because the word “nothing” is ambiguous, and so is the phrase “go faster”.
In my last post I introduced you to dimensional analysis, an essential trick for theoretical physicists, and showed you how you could address and sometimes solve interesting and important problems with it while hardly doing any work. Today we’ll look at it differently, to see its historical role in Einstein’s relativity.
It’s a busy time here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the US’s oldest urban Science Festival opens tomorrow for its 2015 edition. It has been 100 years since Einstein wrote his equations for gravity, known as his Theory of General Relativity, and so this year a significant part of the festival involves Celebrating Einstein. The festival kicks off tomorrow … Read more
Familiar throughout our international culture, the “Big Bang” is well-known as the theory that scientists use to describe and explain the history of the universe. But the theory is not a single conceptual unit, and there are parts that are more reliable than others.
It’s important to understand that the theory — a set of equations describing how the universe (more precisely, the observable patch of our universe, which may be a tiny fraction of the universe) changes over time, and leading to sometimes precise predictions for what should, if the theory is right, be observed by humans in the sky — actually consists of different periods, some of which are far more speculative than others. In the more speculative early periods, we must use equations in which we have limited confidence at best; moreover, data relevant to these periods, from observations of the cosmos and from particle physics experiments, is slim to none. In more recent periods, our confidence is very, very strong.
Notice that in the figure, I don’t measure time from the start of the universe. That’s because I don’t know how or when the universe started (and in particular, the notion that it started from a singularity, or worse, an exploding “cosmic egg”, is simply an over-extrapolation to the past and a misunderstanding of what the theory actually says.) Instead I measure time from the start of the Hot Big Bang in the observable patch of the universe. I also don’t even know precisely when the Hot Big Bang started, but the uncertainty on that initial time (relative to other events) is less than one second — so all the times I’ll mention, which are much longer than that, aren’t affected by this uncertainty.
I’ll now take you through the different confidence zones of the Big Bang, from the latest to the earliest, as indicated in the figure above.
Did the universe begin with a singularity? A point in space and/or a moment in time where everything in the universe was crushed together, infinitely hot and infinitely densely packed?
Doesn’t the Big Bang Theory say so?
Well, let me ask you a question. Did you begin with a singularity?
Let’s see. Some decades ago, you were smaller. And then before that, you were even smaller. At some point you could fit inside your mother’s body, and if we follow time backwards, you were even much smaller than that.
If we follow your growth curve back, it would be very natural — if we didn’t know anything about biology, cells, and human reproduction — to assume that initially you were infinitesimally small… that you were created from a single point!
But that would be wrong. The mistake is obvious — it doesn’t make sense to assume that the period of rapid growth that you went through as a tiny embryo was the simple continuation of a process that extends on and on into the past, back until you were infinitely small. Instead, there was a point where something changed… the growth began not from a point but from a single object of definite size: a fertilized egg.
The notion that the Universe started with a Big Bang, and that this Big Bang started from a singularity — a point in space and/or a moment in time where the universe was infinitely hot and dense — is not that different, really, from assuming humans begin their lives as infinitely small eggs. It’s about over-extrapolating into the past.
First things first. As with all major claims of discovery, considerable caution is advised until the BICEP2 measurement has been verified by some other experiment. Moreover, even if the measurement is correct, one should not assume that the interpretation in terms of gravitational waves and inflation is correct; this requires more study and further confirmation.
The media is assuming BICEP2’s measurement is correct, and that the interpretation in terms of inflation is correct, but leading scientists are not so quick to rush to judgment, and are thinking things through carefully. Scientists are cautious not just because they’re trained to be thoughtful and careful but also because they’ve seen many claims of discovery withdrawn or discredited; discoveries are made when humans go where no one has previously gone, with technology that no one has previously used — and surprises, mistakes, and misinterpretations happen often.