Little things

Dear diary,

Sorry it’s taken me so long to write – my stars, you wouldn’t believe the things I’ve been doing.

Actually, I remember back in the days of snail mail (not that they called it that then, but you young kids wouldn’t know anything about it) that I used to start all my letters that way. Hmm, you would’ve thought I’d learned something over the years, but no. Electronic communication just makes you late sooner.

So, what have I been doing? Birthday, Christmas, New Year, Robbie Burns day (no, not really, no haggis for me this year), a record Melbourne heatwave (a good reason to forego the haggis, I guess)… Some sciency reading, including Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which has got me all fired up about evidence-based medicine and the sorry state of science reporting. And got me into an argument with my osteopath – not really recommended when they’re in a mood to wrench your vertebrae around. I’ve got the bruises to prove it.

Also, Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible, a birthday present I’d been greatly looking forward to. There are a lot of books out these days about sci-fi science, like time travel, teleportation, robots, etc. But to me this one stood out because of Dr Kaku’s genuine physics credentials. OK, yes, it could have done with a bit more editing. And the chapters that aren’t so much physics, like the one on telepathy, which delves into neuroscience, aren’t quite as good. And he has a curious obsession with nanotechnology (UFOs are nanoships built in a nanobase on our moon! That’s why they’re so small!) But yes, there is some really good physics there and well worth the read.

However, it also makes you think about the big picture, like how far away from a Theory of Everything are we really? Let’s just go back to my last post comparing atomic and astronomic scales.

Imagine scaling up an atom to the size of the solar system. What comparative size can we measure with today’s technology.

Well, with quantum mechanics the smallest distance we can measure corresponds to the highest energy instrument we have, i.e. the embattled LHC. When fully operational it should be able to get up to 14 TeV in energy, which can “see” scales of about 8.86 x 10-20m. At our atom/solar system scale, that’s equivalent to a distance of 8,400 km.

For a Theory of Everything we need to get down to much smaller distances where quantum gravity starts to kick in. This is the famous Planck scale, about 10-33m. It’s about how big you’d expect a superstring to be.

On our solar system scale that would be roughly 9.53 x 10-11m. Or about the size of an actual atom.

So I’m thinking we’ve got a long way to go; that’s an awful lot of orders of magnitude for something to happen in. Which is good, because it’ll keep physicists in a job. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the secrets of the universe, that’s all.

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