I was recently reading an article about the expansion of the universe and how recent data suggests the figures we've been using might not be quite correct. This led me to look at how we measure this expansion - and, more generically, how we measure any cosmic distance - and I thought I'd write an article about it.
Of the things you need to know in life, this is a biggie. Anything that helps protect my consumption of the venerable potato is worthy of study.
Boffins at Exeter University have determined that herring gulls are more cautious about stealing your chips if they’re being watched. Alas they are career criminals and will most likely still steal them, but they’ll take 21 seconds longer on average to do so than those gulls that aren’t being watched.
As is typical of the criminal fraternity, a lot of them were uncooperative:
The scientists tried to test 74 gulls, but most would not participate.
Only 19 of them of them actively participated in the “looking at” and “looking away” test. I’d suggest they were just the lackeys and those higher up in the criminal network — the Godfeathers perhaps — avoided being linked to any crime.
The University of Exeter researchers said the study, conducted in coastal towns in Cornwall and published in the journal Biology Letters, shows how people might be able to reduce food-snatching by modifying their own behaviour.
Indeed, if I find myself in locomotion with a potato I now constantly crane my neck so I can lock eyes with these bewinged reprobates. This buys me 21 seconds to employ the “arm-over defence” as taught to me by Master Po during my stay at the Shaolin temple.
The article I link to is specifically related to bipolar but the sentiment is true of film and TV representations of all mental health disorders.
The why, though, is easy.
People who don’t suffer from mental illness just don’t understand it. That’s true of most illnesses of course, mental or otherwise, but mental illness isn’t afforded the same respect as other illnesses. It just isn’t.
Despite all the science pointing to mental illness being a combination of biological, genetic and environmental causes, just like many other illnesses, you’re more likely to be blamed for your mental illness. Many people don’t see you as “ill” and assume you should just be able to think yourself better.
The short supply of empathy for these conditions is why so many sufferers find themselves living on the edges of society, either physically or emotionally.
Sadly such opinions are often prevalent even in medical circles, so it’s not surprising TV and film gets it wrong too.
Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is what we use to describe gravity and it has passed many experimental tests since Einstein devised it in 1915.
One of the things Einstein postulated is the pseudo-force we feel when we’re accelerated, such as being pressed back into our seats, is equivalent to the gravitational force.
He said that:
Inertial Mass x Acceleration = Gravitational Mass x Intensity of Gravitational Field
This explains why astronaut David Scott’s hammer and feather fell at the same speed on the moon during Apollo 15. The inertia of a hammer (i.e. its resistance to movement) is greater than the inertia of a feather to a degree that cancels out the differing gravitational attraction of the masses due to gravity, hence they fall at the same speed (in a vacuum — we see differences on Earth due to air resistance).
To be fair, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and many others all had ideas about the Equivalence Principle long before Einstein, but Einstein brought it all together, reframed it and expanded it in his General Theory of Relativity.
One bit that Einstein expanded — and is hence called the Einstein Equivalence Principle — is:
The outcome of any local non-gravitational experiment in a freely falling laboratory is independent of the velocity of the laboratory and its location in spacetime.
This basically states that all the laws of physics are the same everywhere. It’s easy to say “of course they are” because that’s our everyday experience, but these things need to be tested under extreme conditions to be certain a theory holds true.
The details of Einstein’s theory also highlight differences to Newton’s theory of gravitation and many of the proofs for General Relativity set out to find these predicted differences, which are often only apparent in extreme circumstances.
So the article I link to describes an experiment to test things by looking at the light from a star orbiting a black hole, which is a fairly extreme set of conditions.
The experiment found the redshifts of the light it observed are 43,000 times more likely under Einstein’s theories than they would be under Newton’s.
Einstein wins again but scientists still expect his theories to break at some point when they come up against Quantum Mechanics in even more extreme conditions.
One sexy aside to this experiment — for anyone who hasn’t nodded off by now — is the situation with gravitational redshift. An object attempting to climb away from close to a black hole (or any mass for that matter) should lose energy and slow down because the gravitational forces of the black hole will be pulling it backwards.
This applies to light photons too. But the speed of light is constant, so how do we slow it down? Well, we don’t and Quantum Mechanics comes to the rescue. Light can be either a wave or a particle (but not both in any given experiment) and we need to see it as a wave here. The energy of light is related to its frequency, so by stretching out its waves, the frequency drops and so does its energy. This energy is what’s lost to the black hole, and stretched out light waves move from the blue end of the spectrum to the red end, hence ‘redshift’.
So Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity combine to provide the solution, which is ironic given that the theories spend much of their time at loggerheads these days.
I’ve always thought 12 was a good number. I slightly prefer six because it’s great with eggs. I can eat any number of eggs from the six and still maintain some sort of symmetry — or at least a pleasing pattern — with the eggs that remain in the box. Even removing one egg isn’t too bad, although it leaves the least pleasing remainder.
Twelve isn’t quite so good because removing one egg leaves things unbalanced, which is why I always have two boiled eggs for breakfast. But it’s still better than 10, which, as the BBC video shows, is often hard to divide up into useful parts.
If you’re in IT you’re probably used to working in bases different to ten, most notably hexadecimal and of course binary, but I like the idea of a dozenal base.
It’s just me that cares about the symmetry of eggs in a box isn’t it?
I’ve recently noticed quite a few articles along the lines of the one I link to here, where organisations pay out ransom fees to hackers in order to recover their data.
Of course these are only the ones we hear about and I have no doubt many companies have paid off ransomware hackers in secret.
It is selfish to the extreme because you’re simply supplying funds that will help the hackers exploit other organisations.
I’d argue that the paying off of hackers ought to be illegal. In fact I thought it was already illegal to aid and abet a criminal.
It seems insurers are often at the root of these payouts:
The town's insurer was contacted by the hackers and negotiated ransom payment of 42 bitcoins, or roughly $500,000. Officials felt that paying the ransom was the most efficient way of regaining computer access.
This is very much a case of “I’m alright Jack” and they’re missing the bigger picture or, most likely, simply don’t care about it.
Kevin Beaumont, a cyber-security specialist, sums it up in the article:
Organisations are financing their attackers to be better than them - and sooner or later that situation may snowball for everybody else trying to defend their networks.
I have been following the misfortunes of a US company called Prenda Law for some time now.
Basically, they were copyright trolls targeting people who downloaded porn. They’d send such people a demand for $3,000 in order to settle their copyright infringement case and avoid the embarrassment of having their porn proclivities exposed in court.
But Prenda Law thought they could maximise their profits if they uploaded the copyright infringing porn to pirate sites and file sharing networks in the first place, thus baiting people to download it.
Paul Hansmeier, the lawyer in charge of Prenda, was estimated to have made $3m from this scam in three years.
The courts however took a dim view of Prenda’s activities. The judge said:
It is almost incalculable how much your abuse of trust has harmed the administration of justice.
Whereupon she sentenced him to 14 years and told him to pay $1.5m back to the victims he’d scammed.
Hansmeier was rumbled many years ago but he has since been spouting all sorts of nonsense to various courts in order to try to evade justice, which didn’t help his case at all.
No, that’s not the opening to a joke, bats really do live a long time.
Typically, a mammal’s longevity falls broadly in line with its mass. As mass increases, metabolism slows and lifespans get longer. We humans are a species that bucks the trend because we live considerably longer than mammals of similar or even greater mass than ourselves, but the formula holds in general.
There are 19 species of mammals that live longer than us relative to their body mass and 18 of those are bats.
So what gives? It turns out bats are very good at maintaining their chromosomes.
Just yesterday I was having a discussion with a friend of mine about how the last two weeks seem to have flown by and my friend asked if there were ways we could slow time down a bit.
I suggested he could consider jumping into a black hole or accelerating himself to light speed and that the tools for these endeavours might be purchased cheaply via one of Amazon’s ‘Deals of the Day’.
Then an article pops up on Quanta Magazine that talks about the origins of time and the universe itself, particularly in relation to Hawking’s Shuttlecock Universe proposal.
When I look at what’s going on in the world I quite often have a downer on humanity in general and certain individuals specifically, but I think it’s astonishing that our thinking has advanced to the stage where we can consider the origins of an entire universe.
In their view, the only sensible contour is one that scans through real values (as opposed to imaginary values, which involve the square roots of negative numbers) for a variable called “lapse.” Lapse is essentially the height of each possible shuttlecock universe — the distance it takes to reach a certain diameter. Lacking a causal element, lapse is not quite our usual notion of time.
Get your head around that.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have proposed a theoretical form of virtual money that, they claim, would be highly secure, fast to transfer, and could also enable financial transactions on galactic scale.
The article I link to is somewhat opaque but make of it what you will.
It’s proposing a new concept of money that …
… may also be thought of as something needed to get to a specific point in space-time, in response to data coming from multiple points (in space-time).
The interesting bit for me is that it uses a quantum encryption protocol (called BB84) to secure the transactions. What this basically means is that whilst it’s still possible to eavesdrop on the transaction, it’s impossible to do so and remain undetected. This is due to a property of quantum states called no-cloning and this cannot be cracked — ever — because it’s a physical law rather than an algorithm.
So if I want to transmit a secure key to you, we’d use BB84 and we’d know for definite if someone had eavesdropped on the transaction. If that happened we’d discard the keys, invalidate the transaction and try again.
But what I’d like to know is the exchange rate this currency is going to have with the Altairian Dollar. I’m led to believe a competent hitchhiker should be able to see the galaxy on less than thirty Altairian dollars a day.
Or at least if they do, they should give it Public visibility so it can be linked to from outside of Facebook.
What rattled my cage was a post by Dave Winer on his Scripting News site, which always worth a read, incidentally.
Dave Winer says:
You know what pisses me off. A guy writing the best political blog out there, on Facebook. So after I read his piece and think “everyone should see this” I can't send the link outside of Facebook.
We have this incredible thing called the web and we don't use it.
Yes, I admit I’m not the biggest fan of Zuckerberg and his privacy-busting, pseudo-narcotic corporate silo, but I don’t understand why anyone with anything interesting to say would run their blog on Facebook.
Facebook is meant for people who don’t have anything interesting to say to the rest of the world. That’s why it’s shielded behind a virtual barbed-wire fence away from the real web, so that we can keep all those photographs of people’s lunches out of sight.
I could rant on for some considerable time about this subject, but I won’t, just this once.
There exist a bunch of fundamental physical constants that define (or at least describe) important characteristics of our universe. Traditionally these are dimensionless numbers, which means they have no units like kph or grams, although they often describe relationships between dimensioned constants.
Alpha (also know as the fine structure constant), for example, describes the strength of the attraction between the electron and proton. It combines the speed of light, the elementary charge, Planck’s constant and something called the ‘permittivity of free space’ to arrive at its value. The value itself is approximately 1/137.
I think these constants are extremely sexy.
If these constants were different, the universe could be a very different place. Your trousers might fall apart or maybe the universe would have blinked out of existence shortly after (or even before) the big bang.
Scientists have often wondered if these constants are, in fact, constant. Maybe they were different in the past. It has however been difficult to measure what these constants were in the distant past.
The article I link to on ArsTechnica describes a new approach to measuring what a couple of these constants were in the past.