Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Fourth Dimension


I read another book.  So once again I've got stuff like time and space and the nature of the universe rattling around my brain like a dried pea in a maraca.  This one was called A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing.

It explains the Big Bang to lay people.  Sort of.  I got lost a lot in the specifics, but all I can say is that there are a whole lot of really smart physicists and astronomers who have figured out a lot of really amazing things.  I'm glad they're there, doing what they do.

To astrophysicists, this is like 2 + 2

One amazing thing I learned is that the evidence we have of the Big Bang is only temporary, and as the universe continues to expand, eventually all the stars in the sky will be too far away for us to see, and in 5 billion years or so, any other astronomers on other planets (our solar system will have blown up by then) will not have any evidence there ever was a Big Bang.  We are living a very unique time in the universe's history where we can figure these things out.  

See, it's all very clear.  Now.  

The quick answer to the book's central question (Why is there something rather than nothing?) is that nothing is unstable.  That is to say, nothingness can not sustain itself-- it needs something-ness to balance it out.     

Mind = blown


I remember when I was a kid hearing a "wild theory" that time was the fourth dimension! It totally blew my mind. Time?  A dimension in space?  

[WARNING: I may be talking out of my ass here.]

But today when I read books on astrophysics and the nature of the universe, they seem to take it for granted that time is the fourth dimension.  It's not some wild theory but a scientific given.

It makes sense when you consider that in order for two objects to intersect, not only do you need space coordinates, but a time coordinate as well.  When two cars collide, it just means they are occupying the same space (3 dimensions) at the same time (4th dimension).  If one car appeared in that space a second later (or earlier), there would be no crash.  So time is a crucial element in determining an object's location.

Of course, time is unique (to us) in that we are moving through it at a constant rate and we have no control over it.  Within the first three dimensions, we can move up and down and side to side, but you can't do that with time.

Here's how our journey through time was first described to me in a metaphor from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five:

But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

This was only the beginning of Billy's miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn't know he was on a flatcar, didn't even know there was anything peculiar about his situation
We move through time at a constant rate.  But as we learn more about the universe expanding, on a grand scale we don't really have control over where we are in space, either.  Our ability to move through space is quite minuscule on a universal scale. We (our planet and solar system) are all moving apart from the rest of the universe the same way we move through time.   We can't control that, either.


Believe it or not, I can even tie this fourth dimension stuff into my job as a librarian.  One of the main components of evaluating sources that I teach students is to always look at the publication date.  When something was written is just as important as who, what, or where it was published.

The when has always been a vital part of information for me.  Whenever I read a book, or watch a movie, or hear a piece of information, I want to know how old it is or what time period it represents.  Whether a story takes place in 1870 or 1970 or 2005 or 2013 will be just as important as whether it took place in India, Italy, or Iowa.

When is intertwined with where.



Friday, December 13, 2013

The Sleep Slalom

On cold nights, all the warm bodies in the house like to huddle together.

So when I have to get up to pee, getting in and out of bed is an exercise in twisting and turning, leading to something I like to call the Sleep Slalom, illustrated here:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Last Day Alive!

This is the email I received at work (all italics, capitalization, underlines, bolds, exclamation points, and otherwise annoying punctuation theirs):

We will be having a Trivia Question at our [staff] meeting next week...!

“If you knew that you had one day left to live, how would you spend your last day??”

It could be enjoying a certain place or destination, or doing a specific activity, or eating a favorite meal at a special restaurant, or spending time with family or friends, or meeting a particular person??? You get the idea!!

Um, no. I'm sorry, I don't "get the idea!!"

First of all, this is not a "Trivia Question".  It's a hypothetical.  And not a very good one.  If I'm supposed to come up with a very personal answer of how I would spend my last remaining hours on Earth, I don't need you to make suggestions as if I'm ordering dinner at Olive Garden.  "So what do you recommend for my last day alive? Is the eggplant parm good?"

My first reaction was: this is not a question I can answer candidly in front of my co-workers.  Because on my last day in this body, I would surely want to get my freak on.

But after thinking about it, the question became even more absurd.  My last day to live? How morbid is that?  Did I just find out I was dying?  I'd probably spend the whole day weeping and processing my own mortality.

Which leads to a lot of logistical questions.  Am I the only one dying, or is the whole world going to end? Because it would change the answer if everyone else had to get up for work the next day.

Also, am I healthy? Is tennis an option? If I'm healthy, then why am I dying? How much time did I have to prepare? There are a lot of activities you can't really put together in one day. Have I already "got my affairs in order?" If not, I'd have to write out a To-Do list and spend most of the day running errands and tying up loose ends.  Just contacting all my loved ones to say goodbye would probably take most of the day.

Don't leave all those chores for your loved ones!

I could have responded with something smart-assy like my questions above, but instead I just ignored the email (and the 17 subsequent email reminders.)


So the meeting was yesterday, and we received a sheet with everyone's answer.  The "trivia" part of the game was to guess who said what, but the answers were so generic that hardly anyone guessed who said what (there were 22 submissions.)  Most people said they'd spend the day with their family (duh!) and enjoy some favorite hobbies, food, or vacation destination.

People mentioned visiting the Grand Canyon or Italy or Spain or someplace warm.  That's all fine and good, but that must mean that you spent your second-to-last day traveling, because you can't get to any of those places (and enjoy it) in a day.  Which gets back to my question of how much planning time we had, and if we're dying, HOW are we dying?  You have to be in pretty good shape to travel and enjoy a vacation spot. But I can't imagine many people who are out on the jet-ski on the day before their body closes down, unless the plan is to commit ritual seppuku.

People also mentioned all the people who would be there with them.  It's nice that everyone assumes all your family and friends would drop everything to go along with whatever plans you have on this special day.  But what if your family and friends live far away?  You know how long it takes to put together a wedding to get all of your family and friends in one place?  Some people mentioned meeting with celebrities.  Um, is this a fantasy last day live?  I didn't realize that death grants you a bunch of wishes on your last day.  In that case, I'd like to change my answer.  I'd like to start off the morning by winning Wimbledon, and then see where the day takes me from there. 

My favorite answer was the person who said, "My wish isn't rated PG, but I would spend the day with my family." There's really only one thing I can imagine someone doing with a family member that's not PG, and I really hope it's with a spouse.


One last annoying/interesting thing from this exercise.  When we received the sheet with all the answers printed out, EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE ended with an exclamation point.  Even entries with multiple sentences-- there were no periods whatsoever.  Every! Single! Sentence!  Why are people so excited to be dying?

I pointed this out to the lady sitting next to me, and she said she didn't put an exclamation point when she wrote hers.  So the organizers of this game inserted exclamations into every entry.  Are they that excited about the prospect of all their colleagues dying?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Supersized Vegucation

My wife has about 16 different food-related documentaries on her Netflix queue.  So last week we watched one of them, Vegucated.  We mostly chose it because it's only one hour and 16 minutes, and we didn't have a lot of time.
The premise of the movie is that the writer/director/star, Marisa Miller Wolfson (it just now occurs to me what an ironic last name she has), recruits three New Yorkers to adopt a vegan diet for six weeks, and films the results.

If this plot sound familiar, it's because it is.  It's the exact opposite experiment that Morgan Spurlock does in his famous documentary Supersize Me, where he eats nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days, and shows how quickly his body turns into secret sauce.

Even the tone of Vegucated reminded me of Supersize Me, with cartoons and graphs and self-deprecating jokes about how much fun this experiment will be. 

But where Supersize Me entertains and informs, and lets the experiment speak for itself, Vegucated veers off in a different direction that feels too much like propaganda and preaching.  At one point, one of Wolfson's vegan friends counsels one of the participants that she doesn't have to eat vegan all that time, that veganism isn't a religion. But that's exactly what it feels like in this movie: Vegans trying to create converts.  The original tone of "let's see what happens if we go vegan" turns into something else. 

I didn't learn anything from this movie that I didn't already know, but the three participants in the study were amazed (and disgusted) by what they learned about factory farming.  Some of the things that horrified them, however, were just normal things that happen on a family farm.  It's a good illustration of how far removed most people are these days from where their food comes from. 

The tone and premise of the movie seemed so much like a knock-off of Supersize Me that I wondered if the writer/director/star Wolfson wasn't Morgan Spurlock's girlfriend.   I remembered that in Supersize Me Spurlock's girlfriend was a vegan who was repulsed by his experiment.

So I looked it up.  Wolfson is not Spurlock's girlfriend, but my search brought up some interesting findings.


Spurlock's "then-girlfriend (now ex-wife)" (Wikipedia) is Alexandra Jamieson, a chef who ended up writing a book about the detox diet she created for Spurlock after his McDonald's experiment.

Jamieson was a very public vegan, but then this blog post of hers from February of this year caught my attention: I'm Not Vegan Anymore.  

The post is a confession, a coming out, a revelation of a personal struggle.  She's been craving animal products for over a year, trying to suppress it, sneaking around, hiding it from her friends, but realizing that her body needs what it needs.  She is what she is: an omnivore.  The parallels to a closeted gay person-- the guilt, the confusion, the denial-- are probably a rhetorical flourish, but they work well.  Aside from the annoying amount of one-sentence paragraphs, it's really a great read.

Reading this confession reminds me of something I read in a social science book recently.  The author talked about how for many social revolutions, the original proponents of civil rights go a little bit overboard, go out of their way to drastically break from the norm.  As the social issue becomes more mainstream, objections to the previous social norm come more back to the center. For example, the first proponents of women's rights wanted to get rid of marriage altogether as a misogynistic institution.  But instead of getting rid of it, the mainstream has redefined gender roles within it.

That's what I see happening with veganism.  There are tons of (admittedly anecdotal) stories of people who used to be vegan or vegetarian coming back to an omnivorous diet.  Usually they're still more conscious of eating responsibly than before their vegan awakening, but they're not as militant about it.  The best part of Jamieson's post is the end where she writes a personal credo of what she believes:       

I believe there is a middle way. There is no ONE way that everyone should live or eat. People can still love animals and care about protecting the environment AND honor their own animal bodies and consume the foods that they need.

I believe there are many paths to health.

I believe you can love and care about animal welfare and still consume them.

I believe that a vegan, whole-foods diet saved my life and is a delicious, valid, healthy style of eating for many people.

I believe that a vegan diet should be promoted as one of many possible ways to get the body and life that people crave.

I believe most people should be eating more vegetables and less processed, chemicalized, processed junk food.

I believe we should restructure the way animals are raised so that they live in more natural, comfortable, humane surroundings and stop force-feeding them 80% of all antibiotics used in the US.

I believe humans are animals. And some animals need to eat other animals to be healthy. Some do not.

And I believe in the innate kindness of people. And that by having compassion for each other, no matter how we eat, we are creating a new food culture, and a better world.