A passage to parallel worlds

Now that the Melbourne Fringe Festival is over for another year, why not take an overdue look at the 2016 festival? For something different, I put together an interactive art installation called “A passage to parallel worlds”.

Based on a prototype event in bushland at A Centre for Everything, this version was held at the Abbotsford Convent Industrial School (formerly home of Shadow Electric).

After listening to a recorded introduction on walkmans (yes, walkmans – or is it walkmen?), participants followed a choose-your-own-adventure style story of the life of physicist Craig Lemming, as he encounters various concepts of multiple universes. These included parallel realities in higher dimensions, the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and identical copies of Earth repeated in an infinite cosmos.

Although the event was held in an out-of-the-way location far from the rest of the Fringe Festival, on AFL Grand Final Day (a mistake in retrospect), it turned out pretty good.

The highlight was being runner-up in the Best Live Art category at the 2016 Melbourne Fringe Awards. Yes, there were only two nominees, but it still counts.

The story was told through a series of stations representing each alternative event in the life of Craig Lemming, suspended from the roof of the Abbotsford Convent’s old Industrial School.
At each station, a text card explained what was happening at that point in the story, and the choices to get to the next point.
Participants each had their own ball of yarn, to thread through each point so their choices were made visible.
Some stations involved a random element, to represent the unpredictability of quantum mechanics.
Each participant worked through the story on their own, creating a web of intersecting and diverging timelines.
It’s important to choose carefully, as the timelines can get quite tangled.
The friendly guide, Dr Craig Lemming himself, helped people through and explained the real physics behind the parallel worlds.
The result was a delicate and strangely beautiful map of the multiverse. It was fascinating to see which were the popular choices and which were the paths least travelled.

(Photography by Image Workshop)

Lost in cat science


I’m breaking out of this here cave, this “astro” cave. No longer to be restricted to the limited world of the internet, I’m heading out on the electromagnetic spectrum, in a way that can only be described as talking on the radio.

Yes, from 8.30 am this Thursday 27 January I’ll be joining the team on Lost in Science, a weekly program of news, discussion and sciencey explanations on 3CR Community Radio 855 AM. But, if you can’t listen to AM radio at 8.30 on Thursday mornings you get a second chance when it’s repeated at 6 pm on Tuesday nights.

And if you miss that, you get a third chance when it’s podcast on the 3CR website. So take up any of these options and listen to me talking about physics and other not-quite-physics topics.

And if you’re reading this because you heard me mention this blog on the show: Hello! You should probably get yourself over to Lost in Science’s new blog, lostinscience.wordpress.com, to read about the following topic:

Bonus gag: Turning over and over like that, that’s what I like to call a “loll cat”.

Science chic

So, there’s this cycle chic movement, which seems to be about hipsters taking ownership of the roads away from M.A.M.I.L.s (middle-aged men in lycra – I got that from someone at work). Apart from that dubious goal, one of its aims is apparently to make cycling more appealing by getting cool people to ride bikes, rather than just saying that bike riders are cool.

This reminded me of the constant effort that’s made to get The Kids interested in science by convincing them that scientists are cool. Which for some reason never seems to work.

Instead, I’m proposing that we take a cue from cycle chic and enlist as science communicators people who are already cool. And I’m talking really cool. Even cooler than Brian from D:Ream.

Our starting point? Björk.

As she so rightly says, the scientifical truth is much better – you shouldn’t let poets lie to you.

Ain’t no drought in this here ocean

Ah, Herald Sun. How we rely on your scientific reporting, particularly when it comes to creative interpretation of climate change.

A couple of months ago we had an article about how the first 6 months of 2010 were, globally, the warmest ever recorded. This was ably refuted by the accompanying photo of a lifeguard shivering next to a Melbourne pool in winter. Unfortunately I can’t find a link to the article, but it’s a classic theme that winter disproves global warming.

Last Friday, that was matched by a story about water restrictions remaining while storage levels rise. All quite reasonable, including a climate expert who describes the ongoing trend towards drier conditions. But most important was the picture they chose to illustrate the article:

People on a jet ski at St Kilda beach

Summer Disbray and Lara Tori enjoy the nice weather at St Kilda beach.
Picture: Stephen Harman Source: Herald Sun

Yes, there’s plenty of water there. At the beach.

Next week: kids eating Frosty Fruits show that the ice caps aren’t really melting.

Schrödinger’s parliament – update

Previously, we discussed the indeterminate result of Australia’s federal election and how that left us in a very rare state of macroscopic quantum superposition. Well, I discussed it, and if you did too then you’re probably wondering how far the analogy can be pushed in light of this week’s Oakeshott-Windsor led resolution.

The answer is: just a bit further. Instead of a normal election result, where the quantum system collapses into a classical state either one way or the other, we have a more fragile equilibrium that still has a chance of fluctuating, even if only on individual pieces of legislation. This close-as-you-can-get-to-classical-while-still-being-a-bit-fuzzy-around-the-edges situation is, I declare, a coherent state.

To save me having to go into the details, please read the linked Wikipedia article if you want to find out more. I usually find Wikipedia to be quite good on matters of quantum physics, and this article is no exception. One of its gems is to point out that a coherent state is not the same thing as a Fock state, which is a state with a definite quantum number of particles.

But then again, some would say we really are in a totally focked state.

(Thank you, thank you. It took two blog posts and two weeks of hung parliament to build up the gag, but I think you’ll agree the punchline was worth it.)

Bad scientist

Lex Luthor is clearly a bad scientist. If for no other reason, then the simple mathematical formula of ‘bad guy + mad scientist’. (What? That’s how maths works.)

But he does go to some good sources for his science news. In Action Comics #890, where Action Comics is famously the title that Superman first appeared in, but which Lex Luthor has recently taken over in what could be considered a metatextual response to his failure to conquer either Superman or the Earth, we have the following scene:

Splash page from Action Comics 890

Here, Luthor has plugged himself into his Lexcorp Intelligent Listening Engine, a phenomenally over-engineered virtual reality system that allows him to search for the mention of certain key words on the internet (most of us would just use Google, but then we’re not mad geniuses). He’s seeking news on certain black lantern rings, which appeared in DC Comics’ Blackest Night storyline (don’t bother asking, just read Wikipedia). And yes, he’s wearing bike shorts.

But the important bit is in the lower left of the page, where we see the following caption:

- some new influence on the subatomic world - @benjamingoldacre

That would Dr Benjamin Goldacre, writer of the Guardian column, blog and book, all called Bad Science and all well worth reading. And although his actual Twitter username is @bengoldacre, and his interests are typically more around medical research than subatomic physics, it’s a nice tribute. Where better to go for your sciencey internet needs?

And after all, comic book science is some of the best bad science you’ll find.

Bonus feature: If you want to know what happens in the rest of the comic, check out the live reading from CONvergence 2010. I had no idea they did that sort of thing, but I found it in an internet search. Without, I might add, the aid of any fully-immersive 3D display, and without having to strip down to my underwear. Take that, Lex Luthor.

Elders of the Internet

How do I miss these things? It seems that seven people hold the keys to the internet – chosen to restart it if something breaks the domain name system and, I don’t know, stops phishing phraudsters pretending to be your bank account.

Apparently a restart requires five of the seven key holders to bring their smartcards to a secret location in the US, from their home countries of Britain, the US, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, China, the Czech Republic and… Burkina Faso. (For those who don’t know, Burkina Faso is a landlocked African country; it used to be called Upper Volta, its capital city is Ougadougou and its main industry is lint.)

This is a fantastic opportunity for any lonely nerds out there. Despite the fact that some key holders have come forward, no one really knows who they all are. So all you need to do is mock up your own fake smartcard, and you finally have the key to attention and respect.

“Yeah baby, it’s true, I’m one of the seven secret lords of the internet. Me and Al Gore. But don’t tell anybody: it’s a secret.” (To be read in a Burkina Faso accent.)

But of course, this is old news. The truth about the hidden elders was revealed two years ago, in that excellent documentary series, The IT Crowd:

Schrödinger’s parliament

In a massive victory for science, Australia is in the midst of its first quantum election in over 70 years. Just as Schrödinger’s cat was famously caught in a state of being neither alive nor dead but somehow both, the Australian government is now in a superposition of Labor and Liberal, with somehow no one in charge.

Some might say this is Tony Abbott’s fault. When he was repeatedly asked about his views on climate change ABC TV’s Q & A, he exasperatedly said “let the scientists argue about that”. Well Tony, the scientists have had a talk, and they’ve voted for quantum mechanics. But the real question is, what do we do now?

Well, if you believe in The Secret, or What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?, or any other twisted, moronic, New Agey misinterpretation of quantum physics, then all we have to do is wish really, really hard and we can make our preferred party win. But of course, you don’t actually believe that utter bull#$*! (their term, not mine).

Instead, maybe you prefer the many-worlds interpretation, which would mean that we now have two parallel Australias. Just like in the US, there are the irreconcilable worlds of the “red states”, run by a feisty ranga, and the “blue states”, run by a man in budgie smugglers going for an ocean swim in the middle of winter.

Or perhaps we just sit back and wait for the postal votes to sort things out. This is what Einstein would have called “spooky action at a distance”. Or more precisely, “spukhafte Fernwirkung”.

But no, I say we enjoy this historic moment. Physicists have been trying for decades to create macroscopic quantum entanglements this size, so let’s not ruin it now.

Just like the cat, if we keep all the politicians locked in a little box, then they can stay in their magic superposition forever. All we have to do is to agree to never look in on them again…

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.

A matter of scale

So I recently checked out the Melbourne Solar System, a nifty scale model of our little corner of the galaxy. The sun is down near the St Kilda Marina (itself pretty cool, what with the whole boats on shelves thing) and Pluto is 5.9 km away in Port Melbourne. Overall, an excellently nerdy and highly recommended way to spend a day at a beach that, well, you probably wouldn’t want to swim at in any case.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about the scale of things. As Douglas Adams famously said, space is big. Really, really big. At the scale of the Melbourne Solar System, the nearest star would be roughly 32,000 km away. That’s already getting pretty hard to picture – to get it more manageable we’re going to have to shrink things even further…

Now, a lot of people have pointed out that the solar system looks a leetle bit like an atom – well, not a real atom of course, with quantum uncertainties and weirdly shaped electron shells, but a classicised version, with electrons orbiting the nucleus much like a tiny solar system…

So, randomly choosing a gold atom as a model (not so random really – I found some good relative figures about gold, but also the sun is vaguely gold-coloured and according to Wikipedia they’ve long been connected), the sun’s diameter at 1,390,000 km is 9.53 x 1022 times the size of a gold nucleus at 1.46 x 10-14 m. And that works pretty good, because the size of the entire gold atom at 1.26 x 10-10 m turns out to be proportionally the same size as the heliosphere, the extent of the solar wind and one measure of where the solar system ends.

At this new scale, the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is a mere 0.421 μm away (roughly the size of the tiniest bacteria, but still pretty large compared to an atom). Our entire galaxy then is about 1 cm across. And the nearest galaxy (the Andromeda galaxy) is only 25 cm away. Which makes the entire observable universe, 92 billion light years wide, about 9.1 km in diameter.

Imagine that: a sphere extending roughly between the aforementioned Port Melbourne and Clifton Hill, full of tiny galaxies, each smaller than a fingernail and about a foot apart. And in one of these little golden galaxies, round about Federation Square, there is a single atom with an electron that corresponds to Earth.

Puts it all into perspective, eh?