Tag Archives: physics

Less Than Perfect

The following is a post from an earlier blog of mine, The Cranky Curmudgeon. It was posted on February 27, 2006.

Why do people, perfectly rational in other ways, defend the indefensible? Why do they continue along a path that is demonstrably wrong and easily abandoned? I’m not talking about the barbarous torture being carried out in our name, with our money, by our government. I’m talking about the indefensible butchering of the English language by educated, enlightened people.

I’m talking about people who are scientists, who make their living off understanding and precisely defining physical properties of phenomena in order to reshape the world and our relationship to it. People who demand, and thrive off of, minutiae – accurate minutiae.

I heard three words in a meeting the other day that just drove me crazy. These three words were:

  • Libary (for library)
  • Ec Cetera (for et cetera), and
  • Hierarchial (for Hierarchical)

Hearing these words butchered gives me the chills, but I learned a long time ago not to question an Engineer’s pronunciation of any word, lest one wishes to be the recipient of a surprised, somewhat pained expression followed by a derisive comment on one’s propensity for detail. Something like “Well. You knew what I meant. What are you? A Lawyer?”.

Well. Maybe. Maybe I knew what you meant and maybe I am a Lawyer. The latter part of the question is of no real consequence, and can be safely ignored as the silly attack it is, but the former isn’t necessarily all that clear. I knew what you meant? Could I be certain?

One of the simpler equations in physics is f = ma (force = mass x acceleration). Would an Engineer complain if I expressed it as f = na in a paper or in an analysis of a design or test results? Would it be OK if I said “Well, it’s only off by one letter and, after all, you know what I meant” (hee hee)?

I suppose, to be fair, there is the tongue twist factor to take into consideration. After all, library, et cetera, and hierarchical take a bit of concentration and practice to say properly. But here’s the real issue. Language is used to – now get this – communicate. Good, accurate, complete communication requires precision. It ain’t horse shoes or hand grenades.

So here’s what I have to say to those sloppy speakers who complain about merely being asked to correct their butchered pronunciations and complain they’re close enough to being “there”.

They’re ain’t no there their. You’re turn to figure out where your going (sic.)


Are We Alone?

“Is it all just for us, or do we get to share it with anyone?”

~ Paul Sutter (Astrophysicist on “How The Universe Works”)


Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is around 100,000 light years in diameter. That’s roughly 587,900,000,000,000,000 miles or 946,100,000,000,000,000 kilometers across. Those are in the quadrillions, which translates loosely into a “shitload.” The fastest man-made object—according to my research on the Intertubes—was a bit of a toss-up between NASA’s Helios 2 and their Juno spacecraft; that is until the Parker Solar Probe was launched. When it reaches its closest to the sun (in a few years) it will be traveling at approximately 430,000 MPH! That’s screaming. However, even at that speed it would take nearly 1,560 years to cross the entire galaxy.

Current estimates suggest there may be as many as 200,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe. Astronomers, astrophysicists, and cosmologists suggest our galaxy alone contains up to 200,000,000,000 stars. That’s an awful lot of stuff, eh?

The Milky Way
The Milky Way

Yet, in all of this, we have not been able to answer the most fundamental question we have about the universe . . . Are we alone? Is there life out there we just haven’t discovered? I like how astrophysicist Paul Sutter looks at it (see the quote from him, above, that I started this post off with.) I find it difficult to believe, now that we understand much of the physics and chemistry of the Universe, that life hasn’t (or won’t) evolve in places other than this one nondescript star system we call home.

Another quote I love is one I’m going to paraphrase, as the original quote, from Edward Robert Harrison, doesn’t quite provide the essence of what I’m trying to get across. His quote is: “Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas, which, given enough time, turns into people.” It almost says it all, but I think “Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas which, given enough time, begins to wonder where it came from . . . and where it’s going,” is a bit more on point.

If you are unfamiliar with, or new to, the field of cosmology you might not know what this means. Essentially, it’s refining what is the generally accepted understanding of how the Universe has evolved from nothing but sub-atomic particles to Hydrogen and, through the process of star formation (and spectacular stellar deaths via supernovae) the heavier elements have been formed . . . many of which are the building blocks of life, and us. We’re the descendants of the primal Hydrogen that made up the early universe and its first generation of stars.

To me, the concept of evolution—both of the universe itself and of life on Earth (perhaps elsewhere)—is far more incredible and truly beautiful than any origin story of any religion I’ve encountered . . . and I’ve encountered a fair number of them. Imagining the evolutionary process, which has played out over billions and billions (h/t Carl Sagan) of years is—for me—a challenging flight of fancy and an enlightening exercise in the dialectic, or zen, or yin-yang of life in this universe.

I hope one day we’ll find out we’re not alone. Perhaps that will give us the humility we need to get along with one another on this little blue dot we call home.


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