Tag Archives: Physics

What Happens When You See The Light?

Self Interference Patterns

Once I was walking down the street, and I bumped into this guy with this big, purple hat. It was kind of a fedora, but not quite. It was a very nice looking purple hat on an otherwise unremarkable wardrobe. The interesting thing about it was how it reflected the light. If you looked at it from different angles, it appeared to sift between purple and a kind of green. When I asked him where he got the hat, I was surprised at his answer.

I had a shirt like that once. I bought it with one of those professional shoppers they have in department stores, for guys like me that couldn’t match colors to save their lives. I had this shirt that was purple, but had this kind of sheen to it that made it look different colors depending on how you looked at it. The great part was that the tie she picked out matched the color regardless of which direction you looked at the shirt. Needless to say, I always wore that tie with that shirt. For my current job I don’t need to wear a tie (thank goodness) so I’m sure what happened to that odd combination. I’ll never forget how that shirt helped me to make a very large sale, earning me a very large commission.

I was reading this interesting essay about the mysteries of physics the other day. I was talking about light, and all of its strange behaviors. To make the essay accessible to people without PhD’s in advanced optics, it was written in a very clear to understand form. It was talking about light waves and light particles as if they had a conscious mind of their own. Like when beam of light enters into a translucent material like glass, water, it will “bend” to match the particular density of the material. The question is how does the light know which angle to bend? As much they can tell, it bends automatically when it enters into the material, as if it has some previously learned information about the material. I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually know which way I walk into a room until I get inside and look around for a little bit.

Another strange thing about light is how it refracts with itself. If you send light through two different pinpoint holes, it will refract with itself. That is the light waves coming out of one hole with eventually meet up with the light waves coming out of another hole. And they behave just like waves of water do. When two peaks meet, they reinforce each other. When two troughs meet, they also reinforce each other. But when a peak meets a trough, they cancel each other out.

So for one hole, you’d have a bunch of concentric circles emanating out. But when you get two holes, the two circles form a specific pattern. And when they put some film on the far side, the pattern emerges when the interfering light crashes up against the film. There are lines where the peaks meet up, and where the troughs meet up, but when a trough meets a peek, there is nothing. So you get a bunch of discreet lines against the film.

So far, this is easy to understand. But what happens when they turn down the energy of the light, so that instead of coming through in waves, it comes through in particles? One particle of light will go through one hole, then a second later another particle will go through the other hole. What is the pattern that emerges on the film?

You’d expect that it would be a big blog of hits downstream from each hole. A photon, or light particle, would go through the hole, and then smash into the film in front of the hole. Likewise for the other hole. After a while, you’d expect two big collections of dots in two relatively small areas.

But that isn’t what happens. Each photon, as is goes through the hole, immediately changes course and hits a specific point on the screen. When they let the experiment run long enough, they eventually make the exact same pattern that the waves made. A bunch of discreet lines.

So how does each particular photon know where to go when it goes through the whole? It’s like it can look into the future and see what would happen if it were a high energy wave, and go there. It’s like it interacts with it’s future self to figure out where to go.

I took a seminar in goal setting once, and that’s one method that the teacher suggested. Imagine yourself in the future, having achieved all the goals you want to achieve in life. Then just sit down and have a conversation with your future self to figure out how you got there. The only rule is that you have to have got to where you will be only by doing things on your own. Like you can’t win the lotto, or be discovered by a movie producer. You’ve got get in on your own steam. I don’t know if you are into setting goals or anything, but that seemed to be a pretty interesting way to look at things. You can also talk to your future self whenever you run into troubles, and ask yourself advice. Since they’ve already accomplished what you are about to accomplish, they should know what they are talking about.

Light interference patterns have always been an interest of mine. It has been said that Einstein came up with most of his theories by imaging really bizarre and abstract interactions with himself and a beam of light. When you get down to it, light is a really strange and cool thing.

So I was wearing my shirt, and this guy came into the car dealership where I worked. Maybe I was feeling good, because it was the first time I’d worn that shirt/tie combination and had received a bunch of compliments, but the shirt somehow made the guy feel comfortable asking me a bunch of questions about this car he wanted to buy, and eventually bought, making me nice commission.

And the guy wearing the purple hat said he bought it at the goodwill store downtown, for a dollar. He was surprised that nobody else had snatched it up. We got to talking about how you can really find some good stuff all around you if you only keep your eyes peeled and your mind open.

What’s Your Model Of Reality?

A long time ago, in some basement laboratory, a bunch of physicists and mathematicians were trying to solve a particularly difficult problem. They were looking at some subatomic particles, and how they interacted with one other.

They had already figured out the math and the physics behind the interactions, and could accurately predict the behavior of two or three particles. In a closed system with five or ten particles bouncing around, it was pretty straightforward. The could use any number of statistical algorithms to figure out the motions of particles, say, x, y, and z, based on the motions of particles a, b, and c.

From that they could effectively extrapolate to the whole system. The only problem is that in nature, there is never a system with only ten or fifteen particles. There are systems with billions and billions of particles. When you go up to that same level, the same principles apply, but the sheer number of particles makes the calculations impossible. Even with a computer that is a billion times more powerful than any computer that can ever be invented, trying to calculate the motions of system with so many natural particles is impossible. (If you’ve ever wondered why they can never really predict the weather with any amount of scientific accuracy, this is the reason. There are just too many variables.)

Now this group of scientists was studying something called solid-state physics. This is where you have material that is really packed with particles. The particles don’t have very much room to move, so they are always getting in each other’s way, kind of like twenty people on an elevator. If the elevator stops on the fifth floor, and the person in the back needs to get off, then pretty much everybody has to move a little bit to accommodate them.

Same thing in solid-state particle physics. When one particle moves, just a little bit, it pretty much affects every other particle. These poor scientists were wracking their brains trying to figure out how to accurately predict the behavior of the system as a whole.

Then one guy had a brilliant idea. Why don’t they look at holes, instead of particles? In the elevator example, there are twenty people, and may enough space for one more person. So thinking of that empty space as a separate entity, you can reduce the math significantly if you only try and predict the movements of that empty space, rather than everybody else on the elevator.

So the scientists started looking at holes, instead of particles. And they gave holes the same properties that they normally give particles. Like weight, size, mass, density, spin, charge, etc. One of the cool things about scientists is that a value of zero is a perfectly acceptable value to give something. It is a number just like any other number. So they looked at a system with only few particles (holes) with zero mass, zero charge, zero spin and zero everything else they normally give to particles.

And lo behold, the math was much simpler, and it accurately predicted the behavior of the system. And solid-state physics was born. Solid-state physics is the underlying science behind all kinds of fascinating inventions that will help mankind for hundreds of years. To say solid-state physics is a significant development in human history would be a huge understatement.

And it was all based on a “model” of reality. They looked at a system, and figured out the easiest way to “frame” reality so they could predict it and utilize it the most. They ignored the traditional way of “looking at things the way they really are,” and came up with their own model. It didn’t matter one bit that they were looking at imaginary “holes” moving around in a space.

It’s been said that a musical equivalent would be to write a piece of music by ignoring the notes, and focusing only on the spaces between them.

The moral of the story? Reality is a finicky thing. You don’t necessarily have to buy into everybody else’s’ interpretation, or model of reality. You are allowed to observe things, give them whatever meaning you want, and see how that works out for you.

You ask a girl out, and she rejects you. Have you been rejected, or did you only meet a girl that has bad taste? You try a business venture and it consistently loses money. Did you fail in business, or did you find a way to practice and improve your skills so you’ll be better in the next venture? Did that person cut you off in traffic because they are an evil person with no manners, or are they suffering significant emotional pressures and are at their wits end?

Labels you give to reality can be helpful, or beneficial. They can make it easier for you to get what you want, identifying learning opportunities and resources, or they can make it difficult, only identifying obstacles and problems.

When you realize that you have complete control over how you label things, you’ll be surprised how many opportunities open up for you.

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Models of the World and Quantum Physics

When I was a kid I used to build models. Cars, airplanes, a few ships, even some famous buildings, like the Empire State building, and the Sears Tower in Chicago. I never built any models of ships or boats, but I had few friends that did. One thing about some of the models I built, (especially ones that took a long time,) was the incredible amount of detail that each model had. All the way down to some of the movable engine parts of some of more intense models.

Despite how accurate they appeared, they were only models of the real thing. The planes couldn’t fly, the cars wouldn’t drive, and the buildings wouldn’t hold any little people. They were only approximations of something larger and functional. And they were always built after the real thing. There weren’t ever any models of things that hadn’t been built yet.

Not all models are like this, however. In the early days of the twentieth century, physicists were trying to wrap their minds around something called Black Box Radiation. They had this black material, and when they heated it to very high temperatures, they would measure the spectral characteristics of the light it emitted as it cooled down. At first they thought they understood the physics behind what was happening. They came up with a model, and it worked.

The problem is, their model didn’t work at all levels. At first it only worked at the higher temperatures, but it broke down completely as they cooled off. They kept trying to update and change their model, and although they got a little bit closer each time to approximating the actual behavior, it still didn’t work at all levels.

Many famous scientists of the day were involved in this project. Bohr, Einstein and others were among those that tried and failed to accurately model the behavior of this mysterious phenomenon.

The interesting thing about models is how easily some people can be convinced that they are undisputed truth. Anytime there is an approximation of the physical world around us, it is only a model. Which is fine so long as people understand that it will always need to be updated and expanded on, or even discarded completely if somebody comes up with a better one.

The basic structure of our world and our solar system is a prime example. Long ago, people used think the world was flat. Those that claimed it was round were burned at the stake. Until Magellan circumnavigated the globe, the concept of a round Earth was foreign to most people.

The sun is another example. Those in authority used to believe, until fairly recently if you compare to the length of human history, that the Earth was the center of everything, and the sun and all the stars moved about the Earth. It wasn’t until Copernicus posited his theory of the Sun being the center and the Earth revolving around it did people start to see things in a different light.

It’s only when you take your model as unshakeable truth can you get into trouble. Burned at the stake, being held under house arrest for life, and other punishments are what has happened to people in the past for questioning the model of reality held by those in authority.

Sometimes one’s model of reality is held so tightly as absolute truth that people will fight, even die to protect it. The crusades are a prime example of this. The streets literally ran with the blood of heathens simply because they did not buy into the currently held model of the status quo.

Models are a great way to approximate and refine your view of reality, so long as you realize that they are just models, and should be readily exchanged with those that offer a better description of what we think is going on outside of our heads.

And this guy Max Plank, then a young twentyish something physicist stepped forward and offered his idea of this black box radiation. He said that instead of emitting energy in a continuous stream, the energy was being emitted in discreet entities, or quanta. They tried his model, and sure enough, it described the phenomenon beautifully. And so was the beginning of quantum physics.

The problem that baffled Einstein and his contemporaries was solved by young, almost unknown physicist. Had the older, established physicists been unable to realize that their models were only models, where would we be now?

Use The Right Angle for Lasting Results

The other day a friend of mine was complaining to me about this recent diet she was on. She has been struggling with weight for a better part of her adult life, and tried diet after diet after diet. She lost quite a bit of weight on the low carb diet, but whenever she started to really see results, she got an unbelievably strong craving for chocolate. Rollo’s to be specific. Personally I find rollo’s to be pretty tasty, but I’d be hard pressed to eat more than a couple.

She was telling me that she has a tremendous amount of willpower at the beginning, and she is able to maintain this willpower, but for some reason it begins to fade after a couple weeks. She says it’s like a contest in her mind between the positive idea of seeing herself in the mirror a little bit slimmer, and the intense physical cravings that start to grow out of control when she has gone a couple weeks of really sticking to her diet.

Diets are an amazing thing, when you think about it. If you walk into any major bookstore in the United States, you’ll a huge section of diet books. Low carb, low fat, the Hollywood diet, the popcorn diet. You name it, and somebody has written a book on how get thin when you try their diet. Most Doctors (and most people) realize the simple truth that if you limit your food intake, you will lose weight. Many have noticed that all these fad diets are merely a tricky way of limiting your intake.

One of the things I think they miss out on is how you should pace yourself, whenever you start a new lifestyle change, which any certified dietician will tell you that is exactly what a diet is, a lifestyle change. But the problem most people run into is they start off too quick. Like when you go to the gym, and you haven’t worked out in a long time. If you try really hard the first day, you are going to be sore. So naturally, most coaches, and fitness trainers will tell you that it is important to start slow.
People really want to get in shape, and that’s fantastic. If they use this desire to train too hard, too early, they will become sore, and stop training. So their strong desire can have the paradoxical effect of thwarting their progress. I was overhearing a personal trainer coaching a new client at a gym once, and I heard her say:

“You need to start slow. The most import thing is to do something, anything. Don’t make the mistake of going for too much, too soon. That is what people that get stuck in that yo yo effect do. If you start slow, and increase your activity slowly over time, you will build up an incredible amount of momentum that will slowly but surely become part of your lifestyle so much, that you will feel completely lost if you don’t do something physical every day.”

I could tell this girl was a fantastic trainer, because she was incredibly fit herself, and her new client was exclaiming how excited he was because the trainer had such a long waiting list. She must have discovered some secret someplace that kept her in so much demand.

I guess it’s kind of like when I was in high school physics, and I learned that to get the maximum distance from a projectile, you need to launch it at a forty five degree angle. If you throw it steep, it will go high, but won’t go very far. If you throw it too shallow, like a baseball pitch, you will get a lot of speed, but it will fall to the earth rather quickly, and you won’t get much distance either. The secret is to throw it at just the right angle, to maximize the distance. If you don’t take the right angle, you will put in too much effort at the beginning, and it will fizzle out too quickly, and not give you the distance that you need. Balance is key.

So I suggested to my friend that she set her sights a little bit lower, instead of trying to lose 10 pounds in two weeks. When I suggested that she lose ten pounds in six months, she looked at me as if I was crazy. When I asked her to imagine herself two years from now, and what her life was like after she’d made it a habit to live so losing ten pounds every six months was a piece of cake, she smiled.

“I’d be in pretty good shape, for life!”


How to Use Different Models to Create Your Reality

When I used to study physics, I learned about a breathtakingly awesome new way to look at things. It was developed by a bunch of physics geeks who were studying the movement of particles in very dense particle environments. Which sounds strange in and of itself until you realize that normal matter is largely empty space. The distance between atoms and molecules that make up your arm, your cell phone, the chair you’re sitting in now as you read this is mostly space. Even the eyes you are using and the brain that is processing these letters into words into sentences into ideas, is mostly made up of space.

But in the realm of solid state physics, matter starts to behave a little differently. Because the atoms are packed in so tightly, there is a lot less space. And when scientists try to describe the matter, using the language of physics and mathematics, it gets incredibly complicated, incredibly quickly.

Add on top of that subatomic particles have characteristics that are completely out of the ordinary experience of what you see everyday. Size, shape, color, density taste, and all other descriptions we use to describe what we can see don’t apply on the sub atomic level. So they need to come with descriptive names like spin, charge, charm, strangeness and other goofy names, not goofy because the scientists are goofy, but because the nature of matter itself is goofy. And when you think about it, the only reason things we can see seem normal, is because we are so used to seeing them all the time.

Of course everything behaves just like it is supposed to, according to the laws of physics, but that which we are not familiar with seems strange and magical.

So these scientists are trying to study this system of particles, all packed closely together. When they try to describe the movement of one particle, they have to take into account all of it’s neighbors. And of course for each neighbor, you need to take into account all of its neighbors. You can see how this can fry the world’s fastest computer in a jiffy.

Until one scientist had a fantastic idea (which is what scientists do.) He suggested that instead of looking at each particle, with all of its strange qualities, and use that to describe the system, he had a better solution. Why not look at the holes instead? Why not assume that instead of  a kajillion particles bouncing around off each other, why not just look at the movements of the few thousand holes that are in there? And assume the holes have zero mass, zero spin, zero charge and zero whatever other characteristics that are used to label the particles.

What? His fellow scientists asked him. Are you crazy? Study the movement of holes? But holes don’t move! Holes are only there because of the other particles!
Try it, he persisted. So they tried it. And it worked. Beautifully. By describing the holes, which made the math incredibly more simple, they were able to describe the particle system to a T.

Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. These guys, these highly trained physicists, decided to describe something in terms of something that they knew wasn’t true, and yet it still worked to describe the system so they could predict how it would behave under various situations.

What they did was create a new model of what they were looking at. A model is something that you come up with when you aren’t sure of the rules. You can use different models, and see what works best.

People do this every day. In fact developing models is so ingrained in our neurology, that we do it all the time and don’t even know it. In the movie “The Jerk” with Steve Martin, there was a scene where some crazy sniper had decided to kill somebody at random. Of course, he chose The Jerk. When he missed, and starting hitting a stack of oil cans, The Jerk looked at the situation and decided “He hates these cans!” While that was pretty funny, and obviously wrong, it illustrates what happens. Something happens that we don’t understand, so we immediately make up a reason to explain what is happening around us.

Normally what people do is see something, and then quickly and automatically come up with a model to explain how what they are seeing fits into their already pretty well defined version of reality. Unfortunately, a lot of times the model is not created to come up with a beneficial way of looking at the world, or even an accurate way of looking at the world, but to protect our ego and our feelings.

And we almost never stop, take a step back, and see if our model is really accurate or supportive of how we would like to experience life.  Many people can see the same thing, and come up with vastly different meanings for what they see and experience.

Think of what the physicists did in the experiment above. They purposely created a model to make life easier. They purposely created a model that made it easier to understand what is going on. It didn’t matter to them at all that the model was obviously not correct according to reality. All they cared about was how their model was able to help them get what they wanted out of the experience they were looking at.

Of course we don’t live in a physics laboratory. The life that we experience on a daily basis is a million times more complicated that a test tube filled with particles. But if you can just take a step back, from time to time, and see if you can come up with different explanations for things you think are set in stone, you’ll be amazed at how incredibly more rich and abundant your reality becomes.

Because I find the concept of models and trying on different models so fascinating, I’ll be posting several more articles on different specific models for the nature of the universe and life in general. So when you read them, you’ll at least have a couple different ideas as starting points to choose from when you decide to create your reality the way you like it.