Sunday, November 20, 2011

Of all that Matters


Reading Time ~ 5 minutes.

Hebrew Symbol for Aleph.  (From MAAfoundMath)
The above picture, the Hebrew symbol for Alephcame in my Twitter feed.

Youuu, yoou, I love youu to Aleph_naught! I sometimes declare to my son. So much more hip than saying I love you to Infinity! But then, Aleph is not to be thrown around casually, is it? It may end up like quantum.

He and She were strolling in a park.
She: Look! A triple rainbow!
He: Oh! Marvelous! Each bow is taking me further into a quantum state of of happiness.
She being a physicist, a theoretical physicist at that, was not impressed with the use of quantum.

I am neither a mathematician to feel bliss in the magic of pure numbers nor a physicist to expand on quantum happiness. But I have, with interest, read some solid state physics. That was years ago.

*****
Aleph reminded me of Alpha. Through the years, Alpha (α), the fine structure constant, has remained in memory with some of its allure. So I dusted my books, err, googled, I mean. And here I am.

Alpha is a fundamental constant in physics. It is dimensionless. It is equal to 1/137.
An anthropic explanation says: if α was any different from its value of 1/137, matter as we know would not have ever existed, would never have come into existence. Life would not have existed. Yes- you, I, your house, my laptop, blueberries and the atoms of a fallen pine cone, all count as matter.
Only space, everywhere. Poof.
For example, a 4% change in the value of α would not have created carbon, so carbon based life forms would not have been possible. If a > 0.1, fusion in stars would not have come about.
Your choice for α: A creative God's favorite number or another strange accident of evolution.

*****
α is sometimes just referred as 137. Some like to think of it as symbolic of how much we humans do not know. I like to think of α as both: how much we don't know and how much we do know.
We are here now- have self awareness, awareness of self-awareness, have walked around with math, science, philosophy, desire, and- discovered this constant. But we do not know how and why this number has this value and not something else.
Niels Bohr would have perhaps agreed with me, for he said: Contraria sunt Complementa (Opposites are Complementary).

An abbreviated equation of α is:
α = e2/ћc
where e is elementary charge, ћ is reduced Planck's constant and c is speed of light. But what does it mean?

Richard Feynman had this to say about α.
..It's one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the "hand of God" wrote that number, and we don't know how He pushed his pencil......

*****
Today has been a busy day. Didn't have much time to muse on mysteries and magic. In the mid-morning, I was steaming some idlis but still thinking of 137. Mind you, they were no ordinary idlis. The batch was part of a DOE (design-of-experiments). To replace white rice with brown rice. NO, no, no. No. It was not about preserving the nutritive B-vitamin rich bran. No. I simply fancy off-white idlis.
But the effort required was turning out to be non-trivial. This batch was going to give data with the measurables- texture and form, as: dense and shape-shifting. Again.

That was when I heard a knock on the door.
I waited. For the person at the door to go away.
Some brave souls ignore my handwritten “Absolutely NO Soliciting” sign on the door.
Third knock. Okay, this person wasn't going to go away. I opened the door.
A man, tall, sharply dressed and self-assured, was at the door. He introduced himself.

Bohr.

*****
*****

Neils Bohr.

***** !!

My knees went south. 
I was passing by, on my way to a Astrophysics Conference in Sirius, heard your thoughts and so came by, he explained.
Muchas Gracias, I had managed to say. So honored I am.

A quick glance was enough to give up on the fleeting idea of tidying the living room.
Won't you please come in?
A boy lives in this house” Was the live statement of the living room.

We went past all that to the kitchen area. I showed him a chair at the table.
I hope you don't mind my working as we talk, I said.
Smells lovely, what are you making? he asked. I told him.
Oh, Oppenheimer once talked about idlis.
Did he? I'm not very surprised, I said.

As I said that, I eyed the idlis. The taste was going to fine. But, they were going to be....bedraggled. Only a boy whose mother says I love you to Aleph_naught would feel obliged enough to eat them.

I made these the Tamilian way, I preemptively said. What I didn't say was that I always make them in the Tamilian way, I like them like that.

So over a plate of sorry-looking idlis, podi, and a nice bottle of Napa Valley White Zinfandel, we talked Bohr's atomic model, yin and yang, Churchill, and of course, 137. In a Scandinavian accented English-Physics and a sing-song Indglish.

Almonds and baby Idlies-brown.
*****
Here is the gist. Simply put, α seems to govern why and how electromagnetic forces hold an atom. It can be seen as a ratio of two energies: the repulsion between two electrons and the energy of a photon. The first physical interpretation of α was as the ratio of the electron in the first orbit of the Bohr atom to the speed of light. In Feynman's Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), α is a coupling constant determining the strength of interaction between electrons and photons.
Incidentally, did you know 137 is the 33rd prime number? That Bohr was at the goal of a football team? I_did_not_know football and theoretical physics mixed. Usually we see music and physics mix and play well. Of course, the actual picture of understanding α is complicated. The value is actually 1/137.0359997867. It also changes with energy levels.
α fascinated the physicist Wolfgang Pauli and the psychologist Carl Jung so much so they collaborated on a book about it.

*****
We like to derive meaning and purpose from this constant, α. But that remains elusive. A few particlephysicist-philosopher pioneers occasionally do cross the border and speculate on the philosophical aspects of fundamental constants. Alpha is still mysterious: all the interesting physical constants that make up α cancel out in units and give us a dimensionless constant, a fundamental number, that shapes electromagnetic interactions.

α makes us and we are it. α pervades all that matters in the universe (pun intended). Truth and beauty, in the absolute, are in the number. Isn't that something?
Truth, simply because untruth has no ground. Beauty poised, in the sharp choice between matter and no-matter. Absolute, because α cannot change. Contraria sunt Complementa.
Like how a collapsed idli complements a fluffy one. Which becomes more delectable because of the glaring absence of its opposite. One is always present in the other.
When seen like that- attributes and experience as a sum of a pair of opposites, TIME seems to become a passage of moments, each moment one of Absolute{beauty and truth}. Beauty in the pair of opposites, truth being in the now, in the immediate reality. Maybe that is why the wise say- Live in the moment”, “because that is all there is".
Our weakness seems to be that we can identify with only one of the pair of opposites at a time. Happy or unhappy. Successful or Not. Which can make the reality, the now, the truth, get warped in turn. Then we keep forever searching for the Absolute.


____"No, no, you are not thinking, you are just being logical"____  - Neils Bohr. 

*****
Notes.
1 Main information sources are the Wikipedia entries on Alpha and Niels Bohr.
2. Related: Kaput Anyway! is a post where I telescope to Jupiter and to a Galactic collision. For the intrepid, there is the post Mirror Images, with more madness about pairs of opposites

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