Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Great Google Reclaimation

It has literally been years since I posted at this blog - but I've thought about it every week. Google switched how the Blogger systems worked, and my account data managed to get lost in the shuffle - the blog still existed, and I still owned the domain name/etc - but I could not actually log into the blogger interface. Since Google has no customer service, there was no-one to complain to. I have finally managed to claw my way back into access. I am overjoyed.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sand and the Universe

I'm sorry for the long delay between posts; my life has been very hectic, dealing with unemployment and severe poverty.  This was far too long a gap, and I severely apologize. I'll try to be more regular in the future. In any case, onwards with the blog!

So, last time we zoomed in upon a grain of sand and noticed how it was composed of progressively smaller things. It was also shown (or at least implied) how the same laws which govern that grain of sand hold true throughout the universe. When you study a grain of sand, you study the planets and the stars themselves. This is not metaphor or poetry, this is the literal truth. There is a universality to the laws of physics, this is what makes science possible.  The same subatomic particles which make up that grain of sand are present throughout the universe; and one group is basically the same as another, except with variations in arrangement.

So as we zoomed in upon our grain of sand before, now we will zoom out, to discern its proper place in the scheme of things. There are many approaches we can take to this. The easiest is gravitational. All things, even a mere grain of sand, exert a finite (if small) gravitational force upon all other things. Distant stars, planets, galaxies...are all subject to the gravitational pull of this one grain of sand. Of course, this gravitational pull is unmeasurable in the face of the gravitational pull you exert, or a mountain, or even the planet. But it exerts a gravitational pull nevertheless.

Another way to examine this grain of sand is to see how it got to where it is today. We could trace it backwards in time. If it is a typical grain of sand on a typical beach, it was probably shipped from another beach. Many beaches today have a problem with erosion, so they ship in sand from elsewhere to replace sand as it naturally washes away, to keep the beach looking relatively similar from one year to the next for tourists. So this grain of sand was probably shipped from a sand mine, which was probably the bottom of a river, or a dune or somesuch. It was probably washed to that place from erosion, over the course of dozens of years or even centuries. Originally it would have been part of a larger rock, which would have been part of an even larger rock, all the way back to its presence as quartz atop a mountain. The quartz in turn would have been formed deep within the earth, at higher temperatures and pressures then would have been found on the surface.

From there we can get into the formation of mountains and continents, the subduction of ocean crust, and perhaps even the formation of the planet itself. We can go backwards from there to the formation of our star, our galaxy, and even the universe. There may be many grains of sand upon the earth, but an extremely long series of specific events was required for each one to get to its present location in time, the least and last of which is the rise of the human race, and humans transporting it to the beach. And while our human instinct might be to say that a single condition doesn't matter, the truth is otherwise.

Chaos theory has long taught us that many real-world systems are highly sensitive to small changes in conditions. If a single rock, or a single gust of wind millions of years ago were in a different place, that grain of sand would not be present there. And it is true that there would be another grain of sand...but it would not be -that- grain of sand.

So you see, we have a single grain of sand. Which is average, ordinary, plain and boring. But the past history of the entire universe is required for that single grain of sand to exist; all the way back to its creation. And the laws which govern it are the same laws which govern you, and the stars and galaxies and planets. And indeed, our very planet, galaxy, universe could not exist if grains of sand like this one did not exist. You can't have a grain of sand without the whole universe...and you can't have the universe without ending up with grains of sand. It seems humble, but in fact there is quite a bit that is really awesome about our bit of sand.

Try to appreciate that the next time you walk along a beach.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A grain of sand

I've decided to start explaining the universe by discussing a single grain of sand.

The reason I've chosen a grain of sand is simple. If one attempts to examine a part of the universe, one finds that one is naturally led to other things. So if one studies a rock, one naturally wonders where the rock came from, what it is doing there, what its history is, and what the rock is made of. A single rock, like a single grain of sand, is a small part of the universe itself. It obeys all the laws of physics that make the stars shine and and raindrops fall from the sky. Because of this, it contains within it all of the information necessary to describe the physical laws of all of existence.

So, rather then begin describing existence with the beginning of time, or the beginning of the earth, or some grand lofty cosmic thing, I am instead beginning with a description of a single grain of sand. It will perhaps be less straightforward and more simplistic in tone then most questions.

Not all sand is made of the same stuff, of course. A single grain of sand can be very different from another grain in terms of composition. Some sand may be made of quartz, other sand from limestone or bits of coral. Other minerals are possible, but in general the more common and resistant to weathering a mineral is, the more likely it is to be found as sand.
 
This particular grain of sand is sharp and angular, and relatively clear. It looks to be made of all the same stuff. Which is to say, it seems to the naked eye that if you cut it in half, you just get two smaller grains of sand. You've probably seen trillions of grains like it.

Because it is sharp and angular, we can tell that it has recently come off of another crystal, or was perhaps part of a small crystal embedded within a larger rock. Its small, sharp and angular size make it useful in many industries, where it would be called "Sharp Sand." Builders can use it in concrete, some use it in swimming pool filters, some use it in gardening, and it is even often used in foods as an anti-caking agent. Not to mention its historic use to create glass.

It is made of a mineral called quartz. If you were to examine this grain under a powerful enough microscope, you would see that as you zoom in on the grain of sand you would see patterns. These patterns appear as little dots essentially, which take the form of 6 sided prisms with 6 sided pyramids at either end. These patterns link together into endless beds.

As you zoom into our grain of sand further you will see that each of the dots in these patterns have structure of their own. Each dot, also called a molecule, is called "Silica", and it is formed from 3 smaller dots called atoms. There are two types of atoms in each Silica molecule, one Silicon atom and two Oxygen atoms.If we wish to continue to zoom in upon our grain of sand to learn upon it we will have to make a choice, as to whether we wish to examine the "Silicon" atom or the "Oxygen" atom. Since we breath in Oxygen every day, and it is so important to life on Earth, we will zoom into one of the Oxygen atoms instead.

As we zoom into the Oxygen atom we find first that it is very close to the other oxygen atom. Secondly, we find that it also has structure. Note that however far we have zoomed in, we have always found more complexity and structure. The oxygen atom seems to have a small, dense lump of stuff at its center, which is called the Atomic Nucleus, and is composed of protons and neutrons. Floating around it in a very -not- dense cloud are electrons. This is, of course, a simplification, the reality is much more complex, but we will get to that in time.

Two of the electrons on the outermost part of the electron cloud, known as the 'Valence Shell' of the atom, share the same space as two of the electrons on the other oxygen atom. While the details of how this works are beyond the scope of this post, this is called a "Double Bond". A total of four bonding electrons, two from each atom, are bonding the two oxygen atoms together. This double bond is both stronger and shorter then 'single bonds', which would involve one electron from each atom.

We could continue to zoom in upon our grain of sand, but we have already encountered quite a few mysteries. What, precisely, is holding the molecules to each other? What is holding the atoms within the molecules to each other? What exactly is this 'Atomic Nucleus', and why do these electrons orbit around it instead of falling into it?

Though at first our grain of sand appeared simple and uniform, we have seen that is not so. We have barely begun to discuss it. We could talk about its color, and why it has color, and the nature of the physics of light which allow us to see its color. We could talk about the gravitational force exerted upon us by this mere grain of sand. We could talk about any of the questions above, all of which involve principles of chemistry and physics I haven't even touched upon.

The laws binding the entire universe can be examined and studied, all within that single grain of sand.

In the beginning...

This is a blog dedicated to explaining everything.

That is, of course, a tall order. I seek to reduce all of the mysteries of the universe that I know of, or can find or research the answers to, into a format that can be understood by the average layman. My motto is to make things as simple as possible, but not any simpler. Towards that end, if an example or illustration is not precisely technically accurate from a mathematical point of view, but gets the essence of the idea across, I'll use it. The goal here is to explain and teach the layman, not the professional.

The universe is filled with wonders that the average person doesn't really understand, but might wish they understood. Certainly there is material out there to explain it, but perhaps they don't have time to read multiple books on various subjects. Or perhaps they'll read them, but find even those books too technical to understand. Or perhaps they've become hardened and cynical. These are the people I want to write to. I want to reignite the passion for knowledge in my readers, unlock the excitement of exploration within their own minds.

Because in the end, thats what its all about. Not about exploring the deepest of oceans, or the tallest of mountains. Not about peering into the vastness of space or backwards into the infinities of time. Its about the unknown possibilities of existence; about considering things that you would have never considered before. And anyone can do that.

I am willing to answer questions that readers pose. It does not specifically have to be about science, it can be about anything. Why the sun shines, why the economy is doing poorly, what Plato was trying to tell us. I'll answer as best as I can. For the most part, I'll try and keep it as unbiased and scientific as possible, but my own opinions will certainly shine through. I do not consider that an ill thing, everyone has biases and opinions and I will attempt to identify them myself when they crop up.

So let the questions begin. But in the meantime, in the next post I will attempt to start explaining everything.