Monday, 19 December 2011

On attempting to understand the universe

Horribleness of tomorrow: oral exam in particle physics. Strangely enough I'm hardly even terrified. I seem to have adopted an air of "meh"-ness. It will work out or it won't, really. Nothing to panic about. ARGH who are you and what have you done to the usual nervous wreck that is me?

I spent a couple of hours yesterday reading a little about string theory. Dug up an essay on it that I wrote four years ago, in high school. Read through it and realised sadly that I don't know more on the subject now than I did then, not even after three years of physics studies. That is kind of the feeling I've got from this whole particle physics course, really. Everything is kind of simple and neat — there are a number of quarks and leptons and bosons and interaction rules and Feynman diagrams and whatnot, but everything seems to be really hand-waving. There is all this talk about symmetries and resonances and other concepts I thought I had an idea of the meaning of, but their meaning here seem so arbitrary. The further the course have progressed, the stronger the suspicion has grown that the math behind these theories is so impenetrable that it isn't even worth beginning to investigate it in a five-week course on the subject. It is both scary and depressing that it would probably take at least five years of hard studies on the subject before I would even begin to understand what it is all about. And then it would probably only be to discover that even the theory itself is far from complete. Exhilarating, yes, but also more than a little frustrating.

But not to worry, I'm inspired enough to get me through a couple of years worth of exams. One of the guys who won the Nobel Prize in physics this year, Brian Schmidt, gave a talk at the university last weak. I simply had to go there. I mean, they got the prize for the discovery of one of the most awesome facts of the universe: it is not only expanding, its rate of expansion is accelerating. So how could they tell? Well, allow me to go astrophysics populariser on you a bit.

They have been looking at galaxies other than our own, many millions of light-years away out there in space. The first problem that needs solving is: how do we measure their distances? Well, we know a couple of basic properties of light, and more precisely luminosity. Luminosity is a quantity that can be measured by sensitive instruments, and we know that it decreases as one over distance squared. Therefore, if we know exactly how bright some distant object is shining, and can measure how bright it appears to be shining all the way over here, the object's distance can be easily calculated. Fortunately, there are objects called type Ia supernovae whose luminosity is always the same, and we know this at a very high degree of accuracy. So when we observe such supernovae in distant galaxies (and although rare they are easily recognised), we know how bright they really are, compare with how bright they appear to be, and can calculate their distance. Yay!

But how do we know their velocity? Then a physical concept known as Doppler effect is an important phenomenon to take into account. Light waves, as they travel through space, experience so-called redshift as an effect of journeying through space towards an observer whose velocity differs from that of the light-emitting object. Their wavelengths stretch out, blue light goes redder, simply put. By studying spectra of absorption lines (alright I'm sorry I don't have the energy to explain every single term right now... just think of rainbows with black lines in them?) and noting how much farther to the red or the blue end of the spectrum these have moved, it can be deduced at what speed and in which direction the studied object is moving compared to us.

It turns out that all galaxies, including our own, are moving away from each other. It is also the case that galaxies further away seem to be moving away faster than those nearby. The conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that the galaxies are not just moving away from each other within space, but space itself is expanding, and its expansion rate is accelerating. If things continue like this, then in a couple of billion years we won't be able to see other galaxies since they will have moved beyond our observable universe (disregarding the fact that we all will be long-since dead by then). A mind-boggling thought, eh?

Definitely. But apart from the slight sea-sickness i cannot help but feel a strong urge to investigate this universe until it reveals more of its secrets. And although I'm surely one of the least bright persons aspiring to conduct research on the subject, I hope I some day will at least get to be a part of some kind of discovery. Could there be a deeper satisfaction after a hard day's work than knowing you have expanded the boundaries of human knowledge, even if just the tiniest bit? Not for me, I think. Wow. Maybe I'm going to be a scientist when I grow up, after all.

In the meantime, please reflect on this quote from an excellent book I recently read. I think it summarises my sentiment on knowledge after three years at the university quite well.

Before I heard him talk, I was like everyone else. You know what I mean? I was confused and uncertain about all the little details of life, but now" [...] "while I'm still confused and uncertain it's on a much higher plane, do you see? And at least I know I'm bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe.
— Terry Pratchett (Equal Rites)

May your minds stay clearer than mine, dear readers.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Take Me As I Am

You know what I think the hardest part of being a vegan is? It's not resisting the occasional cravings for milk or cheese or fish or bacon or whatever. It's not the limited options of edible things in many restaurants and supermarkets. It's not even having to turn down free food just because it happens to have animal products in it. No, the most tiring thing is to always have to be on guard, ready to defend my choice of diet and my whole moral philosophy, and/or suffer the taunting and snide comments from people who apparently cannot stand the thought of someone having spotted a problem and done a modest attempt at making the world a little less of a horrible place while they haven't.

Before you label me a sanctimonious bastard, let me elaborate a bit. Most of the time it's entirely unintentional, I'm sure. "So why are you a vegan?" is a perfectly innocent question, and discussing is a good thing. I always try to give an honest answer if the question is sincere, it's just that sometimes it gets a bit too much, so I blurt out some snappy retort before I can stop myself, and go back to focusing on my food. And there you go; I've given every vegan on the planet a bad name. Imagine yourself, if you're an omnivore, that every time you sit down to enjoy your lunch someone asks you "so why do you eat meat?", and refuses to drop the subject before you have elaborated on your moral beliefs.* You kind of get tired of it after a while, just wanting to eat your bloody (ha ha) food in peace.

What I'm saying is that I don't mind explaining my reasons for being a vegan, just that having to do it constantly can be rather mentally straining. Lots of vegans don't mind this, I'm sure, but although I do my best to keep my spirits up and fight the good fight and all that the fact remains that I'm not a very strong person. And occasionally, after one curious question or a mocking (even in good fun with the friendliests of intents!) becomes one too many, my quasi-brave facade crumbles and I break down and go home with a desire to dig a hole in the ground for myself and not showing my face to the world ever again. Mostly I'm too polite for my own good and just smile and nod whenever some well-meaning idiot tells me I should come to my senses and learn to eat meat again, but it hurts. While I'm not quite as unstable as I was when I was a kid, I still haven't learned to shrug such things off.

Some day I hope I will, but until then I'll just whine a bit about it all here where nobody will read it and naively wish that the world would deign to be a kinder place till I master my insecurities and become as brave and outspoken as I want to be. I know I could have chosen an easier life for myself; for goodness sake, I could just give in and be a normal person without acting on my stupid convictions at all, but I just can't live that way. Our actions and choices define who we are, not our theories and suppressed beliefs. Thoughts is where it all begins, sure, but if they are never put into action in one way or another they will make no difference in the end. You can say that you believe in peace all you want, but if you still go out beating people up every evening the words will have no meaning. I know I've chosen a difficult life for myself, provoking people by just doing things my own way, yet I feel no desire to back down and forget who I am just because of the silly little fact that I'm not strong enough to stand my ground again and again.

Some day I hope I will be. In the meantime I'll keep living this uphill struggle of a life and conquer my courage one scary and painful bit at a time.

To those who understand
I extend my hand
To the doubtful I demand
Take me as I am

*I am aware that some vegetarians use this method of pestering people by guilt-tripping them while eating as a means to convert them into herbivores. I try my best to never do that, because firstly, it's terribly rude and secondly, it doesn't work. I try not to shove my opinions in anyone's face unless they specifically ask for it or initiate a discussion by loudly proclaiming theirs.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Not dead, just busy

Kind of default state now, this working every waking hour and still have a to do-list two meters long. Oh, how I miss my sanity. But I'm living and learning. A lot. Hopefully I will even remember some of the things when my brain has solidified again after having been squashed with a brick repeatedly for half a year.

Don't really have time to do much more than whine a little here, for now. How I miss my spare time.

Well. Enough with the escapism. Back to drawing Feynman diagrams and struggling to keep what's left of  my sanity intact.

Nothing is easy.