Physics in Wonderland

Physics in Wonderland December 26, 2022


One of California's treasures
At the Stanford Linear Accelerator
(Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph)


I now return briefly to writing up some notes that are inspired by and/or are based upon Michael Guillen’s Believing is Seeing: A Physicist Explains How Science Shattered His Atheism and Revealed the Necessity of Faith (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Refresh, 2021).  They are, as I’ve previously explained, an initial hasty and unpolished pass on the topic that they address.  I’ve been getting a kick, by the way, out of the overeager attempts by some on the Peterson Obsession Board to divine the argument that I’m making with what I’ve written here about the Guillen book — e.g., indignantly complaining that I’m attempting to discredit reason and rationality, to attack science, to argue that my religious beliefs must be “true” because we supposedly can’t confidently say anything about reality anyhow, to contend that, since everything is subjective, the supposedly subjective experiences of the Book of Mormon witnesses are just as valid as anybody else’s subjective feelings, and etc. and etc.  As is usually (and black-comically) the case with them, they’re not even in the same conceptual ecosystem as I am.  Extreme bias coupled with hostility, sloppy reading, undisciplined extrapolation, and a presumed gift for clairvoyance will do that to you.  (Here’s a hint:  I haven’t even laid an argument out yet.  These are just collections of information that I’ll eventually use in support of a much bigger argument — one that is quite unlike anything that the POB has yet managed to attribute to me.)

In any event, here are some further notes based on my reading of Michael Guillen:


In Einsteinian spacetime, there are the familiar three spatial dimensions of up/down, right/left, and forward/backward (x, y, and z).  But there is also a dimension of time (t).  (For my present purposes, that’s all that I’ll say here about four-dimensional spacetime.)

More than seven years ago, I wrote a column for the Deseret News that was titled “Materialism isn’t what it used to be.”  And it still isn’t.

Since at least the days of Aristotle’s Physics, scientists assumed that distances, times, and masses — the mundane quantities that we measure by means of rulers, clocks, and scales — were stable.  Inflexible.  Competent and careful observers would always agree on such matters as the length of a meter, the duration of a minute, or the mass of a penny coin.

It turns out, though, that distances, times, and masses are elastic.  The length of a meter, the duration of a minute, and the mass of a penny vary according to the situation — and specifically to the speed — of the measurer relative to the thing being measured.  This weirdness only becomes evident and obvious at very, very high speeds, but it occurs everywhere.

Suppose, for instance, that you’re holding a precisely-made, hard plastic ruler in your hand that is exactly twelve inches long.  To a person driving by at sixty miles per hour, however, your ruler will seem a little bit shorter than twelve inches.  To be exact, it will seem to be 11.999999999999952 inches long.  (Remember, these things only become really evident at speeds that are much, much higher than that of even the most deranged driver along I-15.)

To choose another example:  Assume that you’re using a smartphone stopwatch app to measure out sixty seconds, and that your stopwatch is very precisely accurate.  To somebody who speeds by at sixty miles per hour, however, that minute will seem to be 60.00000000000024 seconds long.  Your stopwatch will appear to be running more slowly than the driver’s.

Or consider a shiny, brand-new penny.  (By now, you must surely have realized that an example using a penny was coming.)  According to the United States Mint, that penny — 2.5% copper and 97.5% zinc — has a mass of exactly 2.500 grams.  To the person who is measuring the penny from a car passing at sixty miles per hour, however, the mass of the penny is 2.50000000000001 grams.

A person unfamiliar with the implications of Einstein’s special theory of relativity (and with the experiments that confirm it, such as those involving subatomic particles approaching the speed of light in atom smashers) might common-sensically respond, of course, that the same object cannot have two different masses or two different lengths, that the same minute can’t have two different durations.  In each case, one of the measurements must be the correct one.  Right?  But relativity emphatically says No.  There is no privileged position from which one can declare such measurements Objectively Correct.

Moreover, speed is relative.  Imagine yourself driving along the freeway at sixty miles per hour.  (I know.  I know.  Who really drives on the freeway at sixty miles per hour?  Certainly nobody in Utah does!  But bear with me.)  That, anyway, is the speed at which the Highway Patrolman parked at the side of the freeway clocks you.  Irritatingly, though, the car in the lane next to you is keeping exact pace with you.  So, relative to its driver, you are traveling at precisely zero miles per hour.  You’re not moving.  It all depends upon one’s frame of reference, upon one’s point of view.  Neither the Highway Patrolman nor the irritating driver in the next lane is right about your speed.  And neither is wrong.  (My own addition: The “stationary” Patrolman is actually parked on a rapidly spinning planet — if he is at the equator, it’s spinning at about 1670 kilometers or 1038 miles per hour — that is orbiting around the Sun at approximately 107,000 kilometers [nearly 66,500 miles] per hour.  And the Sun itself is moving through space in an arm of the Milky Way galaxy at about 828,000 kilometers [or 515,000 miles per hour].  And the Milky Way Galaxy is traveling through the universe at roughly 2,100,000 kilometers [or 1.3 million miles] per hour.  So, when we say that an automobile is moving at sixty miles per hour we have always only been saying that it is traveling at that speed relative to a policeman parked alongside the road.  Or relative to a rock, or to a drunk, or to one of my exceedingly strange critics as he’s huddled over his laptop.)

But there actually is one seemingly privileged reality:  the speed of light in a vacuum.

Suppose that you’re standing (in a vacuum!) at the doorway of your bungalow when a light quantum streaks past you.  With your astonishingly precise twenty-seventh-century radar gun, you clock it as going 299,792,248 meters per second.  Exactly what you expected.  But somebody else is driving by at 1,000,000,000 miles per hour, a little fast for your neighborhood.  If he’s going in the same direction as the light quantum or in altogether the opposite direction, that should affect his measurement of its speed.  Shouldn’t it?  But it doesn’t.  The light quantum will still appear to him as if it’s traveling at a speed of 299,792,248 meters per second.

Here’s Michael Guillen:

Unlike the speed of a car or anything else in the universe, the speed of light doesn’t depend on one’s point of view; it’s the same for everyone, everywhere, always.  It’s an absolute truth, the only speed in the universe with that supreme status — for reasons, mind you, we do not understand.  It’s a mystery.

One final thing about light’s puzzling sacredness:  You and I can never accelerate to the speed of light, no matter how hard we try.

The harder we try, the more massive we become, making it all the harder for us to speed up.  (135)



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