Science Hit-and-Run

Theoretical Breakthrough: Generating Matter and Antimatter from Nothing

“Under just the right conditions — which involve an ultra-high-intensity laser beam and a two-mile-long particle accelerator — it could be possible to create something out of nothing, according to University of Michigan researchers.”

“Nothing” seems to include an awful lot of equipment. Someone please explain creation ex nihilo again to these people.

Lost Civilization Under Persian Gulf?

Historical sea level data show that, prior to the flood, the Gulf basin would have been above water beginning about 75,000 years ago. And it would have been an ideal refuge from the harsh deserts surrounding it, with fresh water supplied by the Tigris, Euphrates, Karun, and Wadi Baton Rivers, as well as by underground springs. When conditions were at their driest in the surrounding hinterlands, the Gulf Oasis would have been at its largest in terms of exposed land area. At its peak, the exposed basin would have been about the size of Great Britain, Rose says.

Tigris and Euphrates, eh? That reminds me of something. Oh yeah.

Giant Storks May Have Fed on Real Hobbits

The extinct predator could have fed on fishes, lizards and birds, “and possibly in principle even small, juvenile hobbits, although we have no evidence for that,” she said. “These birds are opportunistic carnivores — if you give them plenty of prey items, they’ll hunt all of them.”

There are no signs yet of whether hobbits returned the favor by hunting these birds. “No cut marks are seen on any of its bones,” Meijer said.

Homer was apparently quite well-informed:

When the companies were thus arrayed, each under its own captain, the Trojans advanced as a flight of wild fowl or cranes that scream overhead when rain and winter drive them over the flowing waters of Oceanus to bring death and destruction on the Pygmies, and they wrangle in the air as they fly; but the Achaeans marched silently, in high heart, and minded to stand by one another. (Iliad III)

Medieval England Twice as Well Off as Today’s Poorest Nations

New research led by economists at the University of Warwick reveals that medieval England was not only far more prosperous than previously believed, it also actually boasted an average income that would be more than double the average per capita income of the world’s poorest nations today.

Say what you will about the tenets of feudalism — at least it’s an ethos.

4 thoughts on “Science Hit-and-Run

  1. This whole something-from-nothing theme in particle physics has got me thinking a lot lately on how people in different fields use very different working definitions for words (in this case the word “nothing”) and then, when crossing into territory that is not their own, often conflate their definition with another, or assume that theirs is normative, or something like that. Hawking appears to have done this in his latest book “The Grand Design”, though I have not yet read it.

    In this case, the particle physicists are using a quite different definition of “nothing” than the philosopher’s. Nothing to them means flat space with no detectable matter or energy: that is, a pure vacuum. But of course any particle physicist worth his or her salt would recognize that this doesn’t actually mean “nothing” even in the strictest physical sense of the word, let alone in the philosophical sense of complete “non-existence”. The vacuum after all, is “something” subject to its own rules and containing energy and matter, only hidden, which has been revealed by Quantum mechanics.

    It appears that this proposed experiment would delve into this “hidden” store of matter, creating particles “out of nothing”, but only in the context of the first definition above. Conservation of energy and mass would still hold, by the way, since the experiment would require energy input into the system (the laser beam), which would be converted through exotic processes into physical particles. While interesting, this is nothing earth-shattering. It certainly doesn’t herald the advent of scientists being able to re-create “creation ex nihilo”.

    Now, if the physicists *did* find some way to make large-scale energy excess out of nothing, then that would be a paradigm-shifting result that would make Einstein’s revolution look like a high-school science fair project.

    At the end of the day, we’re still playing with God’s dirt, to reference the old joke ;). But, it’s wonderful dirt, at that!

  2. By the way, I hope this was clear, but I was referring to the physicists in this case (or at least the reporter who wrote the story) as being the ones who were conflating two definitions of “nothing”, and not you 😉

  3. That’s really helpful, Dan. I read about (and write about) science purely as a non-specialist, and so was unaware that physicist use “nothing” as a synonym for “vacuum”. I do wonder, though, whether many folks who park themselves in pews on Sundays might not also think of the “nothing” prior to the universe’s creation in terms of vast empty space.

    As for converting energy into matter — bring it on! Star Trek promised us transporters, and I want ’em!

  4. That’s a good point, David. The average church-goer, let alone the general public, likely do have that conception of nothing=vacuum, so I guess it’s no real surprise that they are often conflated. In fact, it’s hard for me personally to conceive of “true” nothing *without* bringing up such a mental image of infinite, dark, “space”. But, in fact, the consensus cosmological model is that “empty” space *itself* was created along with the Universe from some prior substrate.

    The trend in theoretical cosmology (and I hasten to add this is quite outside of my field) nowadays has been to postulate some sort of multi-dimensional “bulk” out of which our own 4D space-time originated somehow. Of course this “bulk” itself would constitute a physical “something”, and so doesn’t really get at the fundamental philosophical question of “why something rather than nothing?”. This relatively new and currently speculative “M-theory” merely pushes it back further into new frontiers, if indeed it turns out to be correct. For my part, this is a source of excitement and awe at the ever unfolding and deepening nature of physical reality that science is uncovering. Rather than any sort of threat to orthodox belief in God as Creator, it serves to uncover and qualify the riches thereof.

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