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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Monday, December 30, 2013

Will Man Last for an Eon?

“Sit down,” said the doctor to the patient. “I have some bad news. Your time left is limited. You've only got ten.”

“Ten years?” asked the patient.

“No,” said the doctor.

“You mean, ten months?” asked the patient.

“No,” said the doctor.”

“You mean ten WEEKS?” said the patient.

“No,” said the doctor. “I mean...ten, nine, eight, seven...”


We can make jokes like this about the topic of our future lifespans, but a more serious topic is that of humanity's lifespan. The only joke I know on that topic is the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, an organization which most sane people will regard as a joke.

One interesting question is the question of whether man will last for longer than man has existed. Scientists estimate that our species Homo sapiens has existed for perhaps 150,000 years. Will man last longer than this? Some people think that man will last for more than another 100,000 years, but others reject this opinion.

Let's imagine a dialog between two men, Tim and Tom. Tim thinks that man will be around for eons, but Tom thinks that man won't last longer than a few thousand years. Let's hear from both of them.

The Case for Thinking Man Will Last for an Eon


Tim: Nuclear weapons threaten man. But there will probably never be a major nuclear war, because no leader would be stupid enough to start one. Even if there was a full-scale nuclear war, it would not cause the destruction of man. It would probably just set back our civilization by a few centuries, and from a geological perspective a few centuries is a relatively short time.

Despite the threat of nuclear war, space travel will probably make man almost immortal. Soon man will establish colonies in space. Once these colonies are established, man will no longer have all his eggs in one basket, so to speak. Even if the earth is destroyed, there will be self-sufficient space colonies capable of independent survival.

Within a few centuries, man will learn how to travel to other planets revolving around other stars. By the year 3000, man will have colonized planets in other solar systems. Once this happens, man will be essentially immortal. No matter what type of war or natural disaster occurred, it could not wipe out man if man had spread to a number of different planets revolving around different stars. Because man will colonize many different locations in space, man will probably last for eons. A million years from now there will probably still be men living somewhere in the universe.

From a purely mathematical standpoint, it makes sense to think that man will last for a huge length of time. Scientists say that modern man has been around for perhaps 150,000. If we imagine that man will last for eons, we can believe that there is nothing special about our age -- we're somewhere in the middle of man's lifespan. That seems like a more plausible assumption than thinking that man's history is 99.9% finished.

The Case for Thinking Man Will Not Last Much Longer

Tom:  Man has existed for about 150,000 years, but there are reasons for believing that man will not last for more than a few thousand years. First, there is a large chance that a nuclear war will destroy man. Or perhaps global warming will make the planet uninhabitable for man. Or perhaps robots will take over the planet, leading to a long, slow twilight for man, one that results in our eventual extinction.

But let us consider what will happen if none of these things happen. In such a case man's science will continue to grow. Within a thousand years scientists will discover genetic engineering techniques that allow parents to have super-intelligent children. Once such techniques are available, parents will choose to have super-intelligent children. After all, why would parents want to have a child with an IQ of only 100, when they could have a child with an IQ of 500 or 600? By the year 3000, almost all normal parents will be using genetic engineering techniques to have super-intelligent children. The result will be that within a few thousand years Homo sapiens will evolve into another species far more intelligent than man. If man is not destroyed by a nuclear war, within a few thousand years the race of men will evolve into a race of supermen. Once this begins to happen, man will fade away, and will be replaced by a successor species. By the year 4000 the earth will either be a nuclear wasteland devoid of human life, or it will be the home of a species of supermen: Homo futuris, the successor of Homo sapiens.

Homo Futuris Inspects his Domain

Saturday, December 28, 2013

When I Trained to Be an Electron: A Physics Story

I had enjoyed many centuries living a carefree existence as a photon, a free roaming particle of energy. It was fun to just be a wandering massless particle of energy, not subject to many rules. But I always dreamed of something more in life. I longed to have a more intimate and deeper relation with my fellow subatomic particles. So one day I signed up to be an electron. Of course, you can't just choose to be an electron and jump in an atom. First you have to go to the Academy for Electrons, to learn all the stuff that a good electron needs to know. That's exactly where I found myself, all enthusiastic about beginning my training. 
 



On the first day of school I found myself in a big room with lots of other electron trainees. I was hoping to find some particularly cute young electron I could become friends with, but sadly every single electron there looked exactly the same as me. It was like being in a freaking hall of mirrors.

The teacher started to begin the first lesson.

OK, you clueless clowns, listen up and listen good,” said the teacher. “Your wild and crazy days as free roaming photons of energy are over. We will teach you to be good electrons. That means that you will have to learn many a new trick, and many a new rule. The first lesson will be how to behave when you are traveling through an electric wire.”

They injected me and the entire class of electrons into a big copper wire, and let us travel through the wire repeatedly in an electrical circuit. It was a blast! All I had to do was enjoy the wild ride. It was kind of like being a fish being carried along by the high-speed flow of the rapids of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Me and the other electrons giggled when we bumped into each other.

I thought to myself: cool, I am going to enjoy being an electron. But then they had us do something harder.

OK, you newbies, now it's time for something more challenging,” said the teacher. “You have probably heard of the famous Double Slit Experiment. In this experiment electrons act like particles when they pass through one slit, but they act like waves when passing through two slits. You must learn this important skill.”

To prepare us for this test, they had us electrons practice changing back and forth from a particle state to a wave state. I tried it, and it was fun. I felt all kind of loose and jiggly and energetic when I changed into the wave state.

Then they injected us electrons through either one slit or two slits. I was supposed to act like a particle if there was one slit, and act like a wave if there were two slits. But there was a problem. They injected me so fast I had no time to look and see whether there were one slit or two slits! So I just faked it. I randomly guessed whether there were two slits or one, changing myself into a wave half of the time. By pure luck, it worked. Other poor electrons weren't so lucky, and were flunked out of the Academy right there and then.

OK, students,” said the teacher, “now it's time to learn the real core of being an electron. It's time to practice the art of orbiting the nucleus of an atom.”

They started us electrons out simple. I was put in a simple hydrogen atom, and had to do nothing but keep orbiting around the nucleus. It was a piece of cake. Any idiot could have done it. I thought to myself: is this all there is to being an electron in an atom? But then things got more complicated.

Now, my little friends,” barked the teacher, “you will learn another important part of being an electron. You will learn how to do quantum jumps.”

The teacher explained that a quantum jump is when an electron jumps from one orbit around the nucleus to another orbit. I tried jumping to a different orbit, moving as fast as I could.

No, no, no,” scolded the teacher. “You've got to move to a different orbit instantaneously.

This seemed impossible to do, but after a lot of practice, I was able to do it. I kind of concentrated real hard, and then, poof, I was able to jump to a different orbit in the atom.

So they had us electrons practice quantum jumps in atoms. They sent in photons of energy, and whenever a photon of energy hit me, I was supposed to do a quantum jump to a different orbit in the atom.

At first I thought I had got the hang of it. But then they told me about a rule that would mess everything up for me.

You're doing it wrong,” the teacher said to me. “You can't just jump to any old spot in the atom when you do a quantum jump. You have to follow the Pauli Exclusion Principle. The Pauli Exclusion Principle says that no two electrons in the same atom can have the same quantum state. That means you can't jump to an orbital position in the atom if another electron with your spin is already there.”

Here was the deal. They put me in a complicated atom with dozens of other electrons, orbiting the nucleus in many different orbits. They sent in photons into the atom. Whenever a photon hit me, I was supposed to jump to a different place in the atom. But I couldn't just jump into any old place. I had to figure out exactly the right place to jump to, so that I could obey this godawful Pauli Exclusion Principle. Plus, I had to figure that out instantaneously.


It was kind of like a rule that you can take any seat in a dark crowded movie theater where there are only a few seats, but you can't ever sit next to someone with the same eye color that you have. And also, you have to figure out which seat to take instantaneously.

I tried to fake it, like I had done with the slit test. I just tried jumping to random positions in the atom. But it didn't work. They kept catching me, and they kept telling me I was violating the Pauli Exclusion Principle.

Finally I lost my temper.

What do you think I am, some kind of freaking Einstein?” I bellowed. “How in hell is an electron like me supposed to instantaneously figure out the right place to jump to in a complicated atom with lots of other electrons?”

My teacher had no sympathy for me. I was thrown out of the Academy for Electrons.

So I gave up my hope of becoming an electron. Now I am once again a lonely free-roaming carefree massless photon of energy. My dreams of moving up in life have been shattered. Crushed by the system!

I still can't figure out how those other electrons manage to keep instantaneously jumping to the right positions in those atoms.

This story is fiction, but it raises a serious question. How is it that electrons are able to behave so “brilliantly” when doing quantum jumps in complex atoms?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

We Do Not Understand How the Universe Came to Look This Way

From the time of the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, the universe has undergone an amazing evolution. Imagine if you had been there at the beginning, to witness the hot smooth density, in which supposedly all of our universe was packed into a microscopic size. If you knew nothing about the eventual outcome, you would not have been optimistic about what would have resulted from this explosive event. Your best bet might have been a mess of disorganized space junk, with no more order than the debris resulting from a hydrogen bomb explosion.

But almost 14 billion years later, we have a universe of remarkable order. Matter is organized into superclusters of galaxies consisting of clusters of galaxies consisting of galaxies consisting of solar systems. A large fraction of the galaxies are the particularly beautiful type called spiral galaxies. Do scientists really have a firm grip on how this improbable evolution occurred?

Difficulties in Explaining the Seeds of Structure

Scientists say that the current structure of the universe evolved from what are called primordial density fluctuations. They can see tiny fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation, which is uniform to about 1 part in 100,000. But how did those fluctuations get there?


Cosmic Background Radiation

The most common explanation is that the fluctuations began as quantum fluctuations (matter popping into existence in accordance with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle), and that these quantum fluctuations were then amplified by a period of cosmic inflation (exponential expansion) that occurred for a fraction of a second when the universe was less than a second old.

The difficulties in this explanation are many. For one thing, no one has ever actually observed a quantum fluctuation that caused matter to appear out of nowhere, not even a fluctuation big enough to produce an atom. Secondly, there are currently serious credibility issues associated with the theory of cosmic inflation, issues that have been highlighted by Princeton physicist Paul Steinhardt in this review. Among those issues are what Steinhardt calls an “unlikeliness” problem, plus the problem of creating an inflation theory that both begins and ends an inflation phase while remaining consistent with observations. Cal Tech physicist Sean Carroll says here, “When perturbations are taken into account, inflation only occurs in a negligibly small fraction of cosmological histories,” and then spells that out as a fraction less than 1 in 1.000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. The leading cosmologist Roger Penrose has described cosmic inflation as a thermalization process, and has stated, “There is, however, something fundamentally misconceived about trying to explain the uniformity of the early universe as resulting from a thermalization process.” He states that any thermalization process doing anything would have “been even more special before the thermalization than after” (The Road to Reality, page 755).

Third, the inflation theory requires a severe fine-tuning of its model parameters in order to perform the trick of inflating these quantum perturbations to be the right size. As one scientist puts it here:

A lumpiness of about 10-5 is essential for life to get a start. But is it easy to
arrange this amount of density contrast? The answer is most decidedly no! The
various parameters governing the inflating universe must be chosen with great
care in order to get the desired result.

In short, we do not yet have a good plausible explanation of how these “seeds of structure” appeared. The only explanations are ones that resort to extensive parameter tweaking, rather like in the graphic below.




Explaining the Growth of Structure: More Nebulous Fudge Factors

Scientists have done calculations regarding the formation of galaxies and the preservation of galactic structure, and have come up with the resounding conclusion that the gravity of visible matter is completely insufficient to explain the origin and persistence of galactic structure.

Consequently cosmologists have come up with some “fudge factors” to help explain things. The two biggest fudge factors are called dark energy and dark matter. Scientists say that dark matter is a mysterious type of matter that is invisible. Dark energy is supposed to be a mysterious unseen energy that pervades all of space. Scientists guess that the universe's mass-energy is 68% dark energy, 27% dark matter, and 5% regular matter.

Total unambiguous observations of dark matter: 0
Total unambiguous observations of dark energy: 0

It's not as if scientists haven't tried. They have spent many dollars and much time with some very fancy observation techniques, but have still come up short. But that hasn't stopped cosmologists from creating a “lambda cold dark matter” theory (called LCDM) designed to explain cosmic structure.

Besides the fact that it relies on dark matter (the existence of which has not been verified), there are problems in this LCDM theory. One of the main problems is that it predicts way too many satellite galaxies. The paper here describes the problem. According to this link the LCDM theory predicts that our galaxy should have thousands of satellite galaxies, but instead it only has about 26.

Another problem with the LCDM theory is that it predicts that almost all galaxies should have have large bulges in the center or be spherical. But between 58% and 74% of disk-shaped galaxies do not have a bulge.

Another problem with the LCDM theory is the difficulty of getting it to produce not just galaxies but a universe with as many beautiful spiral galaxies as we have in our universe.

A spiral galaxy

As this site says, "Cosmological evolution simulations do not generally produce universes containing large spiral galaxies. Rather they produce clumps of matter making up roughly spherical amorphous galaxies without anything like the broad disks and extended arms of a typical spiral galaxy." 

Strange Anomalies

In this story a scientist comments on strange findings he has discovered by studying deep space:

"The dark matter seems to 'know' how the visible matter is distributed. They seem to conspire with each other such that the gravity of the visible matter at the characteristic radius of the dark halo is always the same...It's like finding a zoo of animals of all ages and sizes miraculously having identical, say, weight in their backbones or something...It is possible that a non-gravitational fifth force is ruling the dark matter with an invisible hand, leaving the same fingerprints on all galaxies, irrespective of their ages, shapes and sizes."

Perhaps this is some strange cosmic conspiracy, or perhaps just a reason why we may need an explanation other than dark matter. Another strange finding is the discovery of a Vast Polar Structure (VPOS), which is basically about 26 dwarf galaxies above and below our galaxy, without any matching structure on the other two sides of our galaxy. This structure does not at all seem to be what we would  expect from a dark matter theory of the origin of structure (and may be hard to explain even with alternate theoretical models). If gravity alone is creating structure, why don't these companion galaxies exist in more of a sphere around our galaxy?

The limits of our understanding of cosmic structure may also have been highlighted by the recent discovery of the planet HD 106906 b, a planet 11 times the mass of Jupiter. HD 106906 b orbits its star at a distance 650 times the average distance between Earth and the Sun. That puts the planet 20 times farther away from its star than the planet Neptune is from the Sun. This finding seems to be quite incompatible with current theories of solar system formation. HD 106906 b is being called “the planet that shouldn't exist.”

Particle Physics Makes the Situation Even Worse

When we look in the world of particle physics for help with these problems in explaining large scale structure, we get no help.

The prevailing theory of large structure formation (the Lambda Cold Dark Matter theory) is based mainly on the hypothesis of dark matter, but dark matter is totally unaccounted for in the Standard Model of physics. Dark matter has no place in that model. That leaves dark matter as a kind of nebulous “some kind of something.” Do we know how many dark matter particles there are, or how much mass any dark matter particle has? We sure don't.

Modern quantum physics does predict that dark energy should exist. The problem is that quantum field theory predicts that the dark energy should be at least 1060 times (a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times) larger (and probably 10120 times larger) than the maximum value that it can be, according to observations. This is known as the vacuum catastrophe problem or the cosmological constant problem. Quantum field theory predicts that every cubic meter full of vacuum should contain more energy than the maximum amount that the observable universe can contain.

In light of all these considerations, the graphic below summarizes the current very shaky state of our current understanding of the formation of cosmic structure. 

 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mind Upload Shortfall: A Science Fiction Story

Edgar Stanton had heard about mind uploading, but he didn't really start paying much attention to the idea until he started to see the slick television commercials introduced in the year 2054.

“Why be satisfied with a measly eighty years, when you can live ten times longer?” said the television pitchman. “With the Foundation for Forever system, you can upload your consciousness to a robot body with a 1000-year warranty. You can live to see the grandchildren of your grandchildren of your grandchildren!”

“Wow, Foundation for Forever,” said Edgar. “I like the sound of that.”

Edgar and his wife Paula scheduled a visit to the offices of the company that put on the ad. It was a company named Immortalgorithmics, Inc. Edgar and Paula were met by a cheerful salesman named Dan.

Dan delivered a slick sales pitch, and explained some of the technical aspects of the system.

“Our Foundation for Forever system requires a destructive brain scan,” said Dan. “Your brain will be processed by a big machine which captures the state of every atom and neuron in your brain, destroying your brain cells as it scans. But we capture every element of your memory and personality. Then we transfer that to the silicon brain of our humanoid robot, the one with the 1000-year lifetime. When that robot opens its eyes and starts walking and talking, it won't just be a robot. It will be you. It will be you with a body of metal, plastic, and silicon, a body that will last 1000 years."

Then Dan asked a key question: “So how are your financials?”

“I make a good income,” said Edgar. “I'm starting to contribute yearly to my IRA.”

“Hmmm,” said Dan, frowning. “You may not fit our typical customer profile. You see, the Foundation for Forever system of mind uploading has a minimum price tag of two million dollars.”

Two million dollars?” gasped Edgar. “I heard it was expensive, but I didn't know it was that expensive.”

“I suggest that you just keep your nose to the grindstone,” said Dan, “and call us in another ten or twenty years. But only if you've saved up that two million dollars.”

Edgar went home disappointed. His wife tried to console him.

“Who knows whether that mind uploading even works right?” said Paula. “When someone's mind gets uploaded to one of those robots, the robot always says he's the same person who died. But who knows – the robot may be just a copy of the person who died, not really the same person.”

“Don't try to discourage me with objections like that,” said Edgar. “I'm more certain than ever that I want to have my mind uploaded into a robot. I've just got to earn the money, that's all.”

Edgar had been wonderfully happy as the manager of a small pet store, but he knew this wouldn't give him the money he needed for the mind upload. So he closed the store, and got a job working for a Wall Street financial firm in New York City. He had to work his way up, but after several years he found himself a position on the trading floor. For year after year he worked as a derivatives salesman. He hated every minute of this work. But whenever he wanted to quit, he told himself: I've got to earn this kind of money, so I can one day have my mind uploaded into a robot, and live 1000 years.

After fifteen years, Edgar had accumulated 1,300,000 dollars. But then Edgar suffered a terrible misfortune. He was diagnosed with cancer. It was one of the few types that medical science still had no cure for.

Edgar discussed his diagnosis with his wife, who started crying when she heard the news.

“Don't worry, honey,” Edgar said. “I have a plan. All I need is another 700,000 dollars for that mind upload, and then I'm looking at a 1000-year lifespan in an electronic body. I'll take all our savings, and invest it in stock options. Those kind of things can pay off big very fast.”

Edgar invested in the stock options, but the stocks did poorly. He lost half of his savings. Now he knew he could not possibly afford the mind uploading. Edgar's hopes were crushed.

Two months later Edgar lay dying in a bed at a hospice for terminal cancer patients. His wife sat near him, hoping to make his last hours comfortable. Finally his condition worsened, and it became apparent his end was very near.

But suddenly Edgar's face looked cheerful and peaceful. “I see something,” he said. “There... there...it's wonderful. And my mother is there.”

A few minutes later Edgar died. Paula tearfully recounted his last words to the nurse, a sixty-year-old nursing ace.

“Shades of Osis and Haraldsson,” said the nurse cryptically. “You know, I've seen that many times. It's damn strange how they often brighten up just before they go.”

Paula went home that night, and lay alone in bed, thinking about her husband's death. The next day she woke up and went to get herself some food. But then she saw something amazing. There in the living room of her house was a ghostly transparent figure. She recognized the face immediately – it was the face of her husband.

“Funny thing about that mind upload,” said Edgar, smiling beatifically. “Turns out I didn't need it.” 


Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Many Mysterious Coincidences of Particle Physics

Let us look at the fundamental particles of nature, and consider the question: how many, if any coincidences can we find there? At this time I will not be considering what are sometimes called anthropic coincidences, meaning an agreement between some value of nature and the value that is required for beings like us to exist (those interested in that topic can see this post). Here I will merely be considering numerical coincidences, meaning a case of one fundamental number in nature matching another in nature without any obvious explanation, or one number being the exact opposite (or a simple integer multiple) of another number in nature, without any obvious explanation.

The Stable Particles in Nature

To start out looking for possible coincidences, we can create a table listing all of the massive stable particles in nature. The list will include a particle called the positron (which is known as the antiparticle of the electron), and a particle called the antiproton (known as the antiparticle of the proton). Note that both positrons and antiprotons are completely stable particles which will stay around forever when they exist by themselves undisturbed in nature. In actual practice, however, positrons and antiprotons tend to be quickly destroyed in our universe because a positron is converted to energy whenever it comes in contact with an electron, and an antiproton is converted to energy whenever it comes into contact with a proton. (Conversely, an electron and a positron can be produced by a collision of two energy particles called photons, and a proton and antiproton can be produced by a collision of two photons.)

So here is the table listing the stable massive particles in nature that can exist by themselves (throughout this discussion I am going to ignore the “ghost particles” called neutrinos):


Particle Name Mass Charge
Electron 9.10938291 X 10-31 kg -1.60217657 × 10-19 coulombs
Positron 9.10938291 X 10-31 kg 1.60217657 × 10-19 coulombs
Neutron 1.674927351 X 10-27 kg

Proton 1.672621777 X 10-27 kg 1.60217657 × 10-19 coulombs
Antiproton 1.672621777 X 10-27 kg -1.60217657 × 10-19 coulombs

I list these figures to ten decimal places, because the observational studies described here and here  verify that these masses and charges have been determined to ten decimal places.

Looking at the table above, your first impression will be that there are a number of coincidences. The coincidences can be listed as follows:
  1. The absolute magnitude of the charge of the electron, the proton, the positron, and the antiproton are all exactly the same. (An absolute magnitude is the number you are left with after you remove any negative sign. For example, the absolute magnitude of -22 is 22, and the absolute magnitude of 23 is 23).
  2. The mass of the electron is exactly the same as the mass of the positron.
  3. The mass of the the proton is exactly the same as the mass of the antiproton.
There is one way (at least in theory) that we might be able to explain some of the coincidences in the list given above. If we can prove that these coincidences are due to a “simple integer combination” situation, then it might make one or more of the coincidences seem not very coincidental.

Let me give an example of what I mean by a “simple integer combination” situation. Imagine if two men equipped with empty bags go up to a barrel of tiny gold nuggets. The men both fill the bags with as much gold as they can carry, and then go home and weigh how much is in each bag. They find that both bags contain exactly the same weight of gold, to a tenth of an ounce. That would be a huge coincidence, with a very low likelihood. But imagine that instead of little nuggets the barrel contains only big 50 kilogram gold bars. Such bars would be so heavy that each of the men could carry no more than 2 or 3 of them. It would therefore be not much of a coincidence at all if the men then came home, weighed their bags, and found that both bags weighed the same. Since we would expect that both bags would be a simple integer combination of 50 kilograms (50, 100, or at most 150) then the likelihood of both men coincidentally carrying the same weight would be relatively high, around 1 in 3. This example shows how a “simple integer combination” situation can get make a coincidence seem not very unlikely.

Looking at the situation in regard to fundamental particles, we can imagine a universe in which a simple integer combination might explain away the coincidence of the proton mass matching the antiproton mass. Protons are believed to be made up of particles called quarks. The two main types of quarks are called the up quark and the down quark.

particles and antiparticles


The following table (omitting antiquarks) shows the relation between the charges in the fundamental particles that have charges (in this table e refers to a charge of 1.60217657 × 10-19 coulombs):


Particle Charge
Proton 1e
Antiproton -1e
Up Quark 2/3 e
Down Quark -1/3e
Electron -1e
Positron 1e

Protons are believed to be made of two Up quarks and one Down quark. This gives them a charge of 2/3e +2/3e + -1/3e, which equals 1e.

Now we can imagine a universe in which a simple integer combination might explain away the coincidence of the proton charge equaling the antiproton charge. It would be a universe in which antiprotons were made up of three Down quarks. Then we would explain the -1e charge of the antiproton without having to believe in any big coincidence. Since there are 4 ways in which you can make 3 combinations of an Up quark and a Down quark, we would then have a minimal coincidence with a likelihood of only 1 in 4 – not very unlikely at all.

The only problem is: that is not an accurate description of the antiproton. When we look at what antiprotons are made of, the coincidences don't become smaller and more likely – instead they become greater and more unlikely.

Scientists say that an antiproton is made up not of quarks but particles called antiquarks. Rather than being made of three Down quarks, an antiproton is made up of two Up antiquarks and one Down antiquark. So there is not at all any “simple integer combination” which explains why the proton charge is exactly the opposite of the antiproton charge.

When we list all of the particles and component particles, we have quite a list of coincidences to explain. Here is the expanded table (in this table e refers to a charge of 1.60217657 × 10-19 coulombs):


Particle Charge Composition
Proton 1e 2 Up quarks, 1 Down quark
Antiproton -1e 2 Up antiquarks, I Down antiquark
Up Quark 2/3 e N/A
Down Quark -1/3e N/A
Up Antiquark -2/3 e N/A
Down Antiquark +1/3e N/A
Electron -1e N/A
Positron 1e N/A

So now we have 8 fundamental particles, all of which have charges that are simple integer multiples (either negative or positive) of the charge 1/3e ( one third of 1.60217657 × 10-19 coulombs).

It is not an unlikely coincidence that the proton charge has a simple numerical relation to the Up quark charge and the Down quark charge, because the proton is made of two Up quarks and one Down quark.
It is not an unlikely coincidence that the antiproton charge has a simple numerical relation to the Up antiquark charge and the Down antiquark charge, because the antiproton is made of two Up antiquarks and one Down antiquark.

However, all of the following are coincidences incredibly unlikely to occur if there is no underlying principle that explains them:
  1. The coincidence that the electron charge is the exact opposite of the positron charge.
  2. The coincidence that the absolute magnitude of the charge of the Up quark is exactly twice the absolute magnitude of the charge of the Down quark.
  3. The coincidence that the absolute magnitude of the charge of the Up antiquark is exactly twice the absolute magnitude of the charge of the Down antiquark.
  4. The coincidence that the absolute magnitude of the charge of the Up quark is exactly the same as the absolute magnitude of the charge of the Up antiquark.
  5. The coincidence that the absolute magnitude of the charge of the Down quark is exactly the same as the absolute magnitude of the charge of the Down antiquark.
  6. The coincidence that the absolute magnitude of the proton charge is exactly the same as the absolute magnitude of the electron charge.
  7. The coincidence that the electron mass exactly equals the positron mass.
  8. The coincidence that the proton mass exactly equals the antiproton mass.
So that leaves us with a total of eight fundamental numerical coincidences in nature – cases where two numbers match exactly, even though the chance of them matching in a random universe would seem to be very, very low. When I say “exactly match” in the above list, I mean to ten decimal places.

Do We Know of Some Explanation for the Match Between Antiparticles and Particles?

I'm sure that some people will try to explain most of these coincidences simply by evoking an “every particle has an antiparticle” principle. But “every particle has an antiparticle” is an empirical generalization, not an explanation.

Some may claim that there are theoretical reasons why there need to be antiparticles. They may claim that physicist Paul Dirac predicted the existence of an antiparticle (the positron) before it was discovered. So doesn't that show that there is some theoretical reason why antiparticles must exist?

Not really. The situation in regard to Dirac and the positron is more complicated than it is usually described. Dirac's “prediction” of the positron came in 1931, one year before the official discovery of the positron in 1932. But he did not plainly say that the particle exists – he basically just said that it might exist. So it wasn't really a prediction. Also, at the very time that Dirac made this supposed prediction, another scientist named Patrick Blackett was accumulating photographic evidence that the positron exists – evidence he had not yet published, but which Dirac was familiar with. This calls into question whether Dirac deduced the positron's existence on purely theoretical grounds. Another interesting fact is that Dirac's “prediction” of the positron was made within the context of a larger theory that is not widely accepted today – ideas such as negative mass, negative energy, infinite charge density, the theory that the universe is filled with an infinitely dense sea of negative energy particles, and that there are “holes” in this sea. So the theoretical basis that Dirac advanced for suspecting the existence of an antiparticle doesn't seem to have been an explanation that still holds up today.

In 1986 physicist Richard Feynman gave some extremely complicated lecture called The Reason for Antiparticles. However, according to this analysis by a physicist, Feynman's explanation for the existence of antiparticles was very different from Dirac's. Feynman's explanation for antiparticles is based on the idea that an antiparticle is a regular particle traveling backward in time, but that curious idea is subject to criticism and is doubted by quite a few. Commenting on his lecture, one physics buff says, “Funny that Feynman, who is normally perceived as a master of exposition, is not able to come up with a convincing story here.”

In his book Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe (page 234), physicist Leon M. Lederman offers this attempt to give a reason for antiparticles:

Quantum theory forces electrons to have both positive and negative energy values for any given value of the momentum. We would say that the negative-energy electron is just another allowed quantum state of the electron. But this would be a disaster as well, since it would mean that ordinary atoms, even simple hydrogen atoms, could not be stable. The positive-energy electron could emit photons, adding up to an energy of 2mc2, and become a negative-energy electron and begin its descent into the abyss of infinite negative energy. Evidently the whole universe could not be stable if negative-energy states truly existed.

But this does not seem to be an explanation for why antiparticles have to exist. It's basically just a statement saying that it is convenient for antiparticles to exist.

It is often claimed that special relativity implies the existence of antiparticles (or that the combination of special relativity and quantum mechanics implies the existence of antiparticles). One sees statements such as this: antiparticles are needed because of very subtle reasons buried deep in the fabric of special relativity and quantum mechanics. But virtually no one who makes such a claim explains what such reasons are, and as a general principle one should perhaps be suspicious about reasons described as deeply buried very subtle theoretical reasons.

In the book Mathematical Quantization (page 159), Professor Nik Weaver at the very prestigious Washington University at St. Louis makes these statements: "A related argument claims that relativity implies the existence of antiparticles.. This argument is wrong...Thus the most that one can say is that relativity implies the existence of phenomena that are reminiscent of multiple particles or antiparticles. But even this seems misleading."

On this  page a physics PhD admits that “Quantum mechanics plus special relativity does not necessarily require antiparticles: although it naturally accommodates them.”

We can't explain the coincidences between the masses and charges of antiparticles and particles just by saying that they are required by the Standard Model or predicted by the Standard Model. The Standard Model evolved after the discovery of different types of antiparticles, so in this regard it simply reflects the coincidences that had already been discovered.

We also cannot explain any of the above coincidences by evoking some principle of symmetry, whether it be a CPT theorem or any other principle of symmetry. Such reasoning would be circular. Certain types of symmetry in nature may be possible because of the near-exact correspondence of the features of particles and antiparticles, but that does not explain such a near-exact correspondence. If X makes Y possible, we generally don't explain X by mentioning Y. For example, a student's high SAT scores may explain his admission to Harvard, but his admission to Harvard doesn't explain his high SAT scores.

We might have some explanation for why the masses and charges of antiparticles match the masses and charges of their corresponding particles if we knew of some mechanism for charge flipping, the changing of a negative charge into a positive charge. Then a scientist could say, “Why, of course the absolute magnitude of the charge of the positron is the same as the absolute magnitude of the charge of the electron, and of course their masses are identical – it's because the charge of one particle just flips, and then you have the antiparticle.” But no such thing happens. Scientists do not believe that particles ever change into antiparticles, nor do they believe that antiparticles change into particles. Scientists believe that what happens is that both a particle and an antiparticle are created from a collision of high-energy photons.

It seems that there are really no theoretical a priori reasons why a universe has to contain any antiparticles. If one were to cite some formula or equation that implies the existence of antiparticles, that really would not be equivalent to showing any necessity behind the existence of antiparticles. Such an equation would merely reflect that we happen to live in a universe in which antiparticles exist. Given a million external random universes with a million random characteristics and a million random set of laws, it would seem there is no reason to think even one of them would be a universe in which there are only a few stable particles with every particle having an antiparticle that is exactly the same in mass but with an exactly opposite charge.

I may conclude this section by noting that even if one were to have some completely convincing explanation for antiparticle/particle coincidences, we would still be left with no explanation for items 2 and 6 on my previous list of coincidences, both of which are not really explained by any widely accepted theory.

Other Coincidences

In this post I have merely discussed the coincidences involving stable particles, particles with a very long lifetime. There are also many similar coincidences involving unstable particles which I have not even mentioned. I may also note another coincidence involving the apparent net electric neutrality of the universe. Protons are 1836 times more massive than electrons. Judging from the intuitive principle that smaller things tend to be more common than more massive things, we might expect that electrons would be perhaps one or two thousand times more common than protons. But instead the number of protons and electrons in the universe seem to be equal, a fact referred to as the net electric neutrality of the universe.

All in all, there are too many mysterious exact numerical coincidences here, which may suggest that a deeper or more complete explanation of things is needed.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Aging Reversed, but There's a Catch

If you are as much of an ancient relic as I am, you probably as a general rule don't get too excited about news reports of experimental progress in reversing aging in lab animals. The reason is that these type of stories have been coming out for many years. I've been reading for a good 40 years that scientists have been making interesting progress in learning about aging. The stories often tend to make it sound as if an anti-aging pill may be just around the corner. But after 40 years of such stories, there's still no anti-aging treatment for humans.

But I must admit my eyebrow raised when I read this week's story about a new experimental treatment in mice. In the study (done at Harvard University and the University of NSW) some two-year-old mice were given a compound which caused them in several ways to appear or act as young as six-month-old mice. The mice were injected a compound called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide or NAD. The drug works on the mitochondria, which is called the “powerhouse” of a cell.

The most amazing thing about the treatment is how fast it worked. The mice started looking and acting younger after only one week.

Upon reading these facts, my hopes were raised. This is just what I was hoping for to revitalize my tired old wrinkled body – a simple injection. No need for some lengthy treatment involving long hours of sitting on a hospital bed; just a nice simple injection as easy as a vaccination.

When the news article suggested that human trials might start as early as next year, my hopes were further raised. But then I came to one little detail in the story that made the whole thing burst like a child's balloon.

Near the end of the story it mentioned that the cost of the treatment would be 50,000 dollars a day.

So apparently what we have is an “age reversal for billionaires” kind of treatment. Nice if you're Bill Gates, but not terribly relevant if you are an average guy like me.

I hope very much that no taxpayer dollars are used to fund research on any treatment with a cost of 50,000 dollars a day. If billionaires want to fund research for insanely expensive age-reversal drugs, for their own benefit, they should be allowed to do so. But the average man should not be funding research for drugs that only the super-rich will be able to afford.

rejuvenation
Rejuvenated 95-year-old, but wait until he gets the bill!

Friday, December 20, 2013

A New Environmental Rallying Cry: Remember the Shoe Man

When it comes to rallying cries, nothing works better than a call to remember something. “Remember the Maine” worked like a charm as a rallying cry during the Spanish American war. “Remember Pearl Harbor” worked even better as a rallying cry during World War II. Now there is a possibility for a new rallying cry in the war against global warming, overconsumption, and ecological ruin. The new rallying cry: remember the Shoe Man.

The Shoe Man is a term we may use for the poor troubled soul who recently had to accompany his girlfriend on an excessive shopping trip. After buying lots of expensive stuff, the woman wanted to go to one more shoe store to buy more shoes. The man complained that the woman already had enough shoes to last a lifetime. After arguing with the woman, the man then jumped to his death from the seventh floor of a shopping mall, crashing into a display counter on the ground level, as described here.

The death of the Shoe Man is a kind of miniature metaphor that may symbolize the peril of our consumerist creed, the unofficial religion preached to us by many a slick television commercial. The Shoe Man died unexpectedly, as a side-effect of reckless overconsumption and runaway consumerism. The same thing may happen to many millions of humans if man continues his current ways, in reckless disregard of the ecological limits of our planet. We may shop and spend our way to an environmental hell, as our planet gets hotter, our water supplies diminish, and our oceans get more and more acidic.

Every time you buy something, it increases your annual carbon footprint, which is basically how much you are contributing to the global warming problem. The carbon footprint of a pair of shoes is between 20 and 200 pounds. Buying a pair of leather shoes might easily be the equivalent of dumping your body weight in carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Sadly we do not have imprinted on our brains the message “Respect the planet's limits.” Madison Avenue has imprinted on our brains the mindless message: for the rest of your life, accumulate more and more and more stuff.

Consider the common case of a person who labors long hours to fill up closets with clothes worn only a few times, and fill up a kitchen with appliances not used very often. Such a person is rather like the silly squirrels who spend so much of their time working very hard to gather acorns, and then end up using only 25% of the acorns they store.

But perhaps the Shoe Man may not have died in vain. We can use his death to help keep in check the kind of reckless overconsumption that pushed him over the edge. Here's how it could work.

When your husband asks for some cash to buy another electronic gadget he doesn't need, just because the gadget is the hot new thing, say to him: remember the Shoe Man.

When your wife asks for the credit card to buy another outfit she doesn't need, just because all her friends are dressing that way, say to her: remember the Shoe Man.

When your child asks for some money to buy some useless plastic thing he doesn't need, mainly because he can make a picture of it and use it as a cool Facebook post, say to him: remember the Shoe Man.

And if any of these people ask you, “Who is the Shoe Man?” you can answer like this: the Shoe Man was a poor guy who jumped to his death from the seventh floor of a mall, because his lady love bought too many shoes – don't make me into the next Shoe Man! 

shoe man
 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Universe's Batting Average

People love simple numbers that serve as a measure of someone's level of success. When you are a high school student and you start worrying about getting into college, the first thing you find out is that colleges are primarily interested in two numbers: your SAT score and your GPA number. In the world of baseball, the all-important numbers are batting average (an indication of hitting skill) and ERA (an indication of pitching skill).

But is there any way to “scale up” this concept of “one number as a measure of success” concept? Can we compute a single number that we might call America's batting average? Or can we compute a single number that we might call Earth's batting average? I have no ideas on how someone might compute either of these. But I do have some ideas on how we might compute the universe's batting average.

My general strategy for computing the universe's batting average is as follows:
  1. We identify some highly desirable physical occurrence, outcome, or characteristic, with great significance to life in the universe.
  2. We calculate in what percentage of the cases that highly desirable occurrence or outcome happens.
  3. We scale that percentage to get a statistic similar to the batting average (a number such as .500).
Let's look at three different ways in which we can apply this strategy.

Relevant Fraction #1: The Percentage of Galaxies That are Spiral Galaxies or Irregular Galaxies

Galaxies are collections of millions or billions of stars. There are three main types of galaxies: spiral galaxies, irregular galaxies, and elliptical galaxies.


Types of galaxies (Credit: NASA)

Elliptical galaxies can be considered rather inferior for two reasons. For one thing, most elliptical galaxies have relatively little free-floating gas and dust, and are apparently not forming new stars. This means that the very old stars that make up elliptical galaxies may not have enough of the heavy elements needed for life. It is believed that the amount of heavy elements in a galaxy is proportional to how many generations of stars there have been in that galaxy.

Also, from a purely esthetic standpoint, elliptical galaxies are lacking. Elliptical galaxies are just boring blobs that aren't nearly as beautiful as spiral galaxies.

Irregular galaxies and spiral galaxies do have lots of dust and gas, and do form new stars. So from the standpoint of life, we can regard both spiral galaxies and irregular galaxies as being more of a “sign of success” than elliptical galaxies.

The internet has differing estimates of the percentage of galaxies that are elliptical, spiral, or irregular. I will take this NASA web page as authoritative, and it says, “Like more than two thirds of the known galaxies, the Milky Way has a spiral shape.” Other sources say that 70% of the galaxies near our galaxy are spiral galaxies. We can therefore estimate that the total percentage of galaxies that are spiral or irregular (not elliptical) is about 70%. This gives us our first batting average for the universe.

Cosmic Batting Average Number 1: .700

This percentage is actually one of the most important success indicators of the universe. There are quite a few reasons why slightly different cosmic parameters (or slightly different laws of nature) would have resulted in either zero galaxies in the universe or a very low fraction of life-favorable galaxies.

---------------

Relevant Fraction #2: The Percentage of Stars That Have Planets

Another important fraction-type indicator of the degree of success of a universe is the percentage of stars that have planets. Of course, it wouldn't do any good to have a beautiful spiral galaxy if there weren't any planets revolving around the stars in that galaxy (or at least the only good of such a galaxy would be the esthetic good its beauty would provide to observers in other galaxies).

Before it developed problems with its gyroscopes, the Kepler Space Telescope did years of observations that allow us to estimate the percentage of stars having planets. There is also a technique called microlensing that astronomers have used to detect planets revolving around other stars. One recent scientific paper by a large team of scientists stated: "We conclude that stars are orbited by planets as a rule, rather than the exception." Based on that study we can estimate that at least 60% of stars have planets, which gives us the following batting average:

Cosmic Batting Average Number 2: .600

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Relevant Fraction #3: The Percentage of Natural Elements That are Non-Radioactive

Another very important fraction-type quality indicator of the universe is the percentage of elements that are non-radioactive. If a large majority of the elements were to be radioactive, it would be incredibly difficult to have much of a life living in our universe. You might live for a short time, but all that radioactivity would quickly give you cancer, so you wouldn't live for long.

Since you know that most people older than ten do not have cancer, you can guess what the answer is here. The percentage of naturally occurring radioactive elements is only about 20%. There are some 98 naturally occurring elements (or 92, according to other estimates). Some 80 of these elements are not radioactive. (In any case in which an element has a stable isotope and a rare but radioactive isotope -- for example, carbon—I am counting that as a non-radioactive element.)

Since there are about 98 naturally occurring elements, and about 80 naturally occurring non-radioactive elements, the percentage of non-radioactive elements is roughly 80%. This gives us our final batting average:

Cosmic Batting Average Number 3: .800

I may note that we should not at all take for granted that we live in a universe with relatively little radioactivity. You could modify the universe's fundamental constants just a little, and we would not be so lucky. A decrease of only about 20% in the strong nuclear force would cause almost all elements to be radioactive. If that were the case, you would probably not reach the age of 20 without dying of cancer.

-----------------------
Conclusion

If we add up these three numbers and divide by three, we get an average number of .700. So that is our final estimated batting average of the universe: .700.  As batting averages go, that is very good (much better than Ty Cobb's lifetime average). 

There are two other important fractions that would be nice to learn to make a more definitive calculation of the universe's batting average. The first fraction is the approximate percentage of Earth-sized planets (in the habitable zone of a star) where life appears. The second fraction is the approximate percentage of life-bearing planets on which intelligence evolves. Both of these fractions have a great importance when considering the overall “degree of success” that the universe has. Unfortunately, we currently do not know what either of these fractions are. They could have any value between .000000001 and .999.

We might one day have a basis for estimating these fractions, particularly if we ever achieve radio contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. But for now the value of these fractions is completely unknown. So it will be a good long time before we can make a more definitive calculation of the batting average of the universe. All that can be said for now is that the preliminary indications are that the universe's batting average is very high.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Manhattan Megastorm, Part 2: A Science Fiction Story

This is the conclusion to yesterday's story, Manhattan Megastorm, Part 1. The narrator is Troy, age 12.

So here's the rest of my story of what happened when the megastorm hit Manhattan back in 2072. In case you missed the first part,  I'll tell you that my Dad and I were just about to reach a subway station when the flood waters came rushing down the street full blast. My Dad threw me onto an awning to save me,  but he got swept by the flood waters down the stairs of a subway station.  He took shelter in the little fare booth near the stairs, but was then trapped down there as the flood waters submerged the whole station under water.

There I was, lying on the building awning as the flood waters rushed past me. The rising waters reached my knees. I held on to a piece of metal so I wouldn’t be carried away by the water. Even though I could swim, I thought if I was carried away by the waters, no one would ever see me again.

After a minute or two, I saw a window open about 30 feet above me. Someone stuck his head out the window. He yelled, “Hold on, kid! We’ll try to save you!”

A little bit later I saw the man lower from the window what looked like a rope. It wasn’t actually a rope, but a series of thick electrical cords tied together. The man lowered this series of electrical cords down to me.

“Tie the cord in a loop around your waist, and make a knot! We’ll pull you up!” he hollered.

This seemed like a kind of crazy thing to do. What if the knot came undone, or I slipped out of the loop around my waist, when they had pulled me most of the way up to the window? Then I might fall to my death. But I couldn’t just stay there and let the rising flood waters rise above my head. That would be even more dangerous.

As the flood waters rose up to my waist, I made the electrical cord into a loop around my waist, and tied it into a knot. “Pull me up,” I yelled. Then the man above me started to pull.

There was nothing I could do now but hope for the best. The man pulled me higher and higher into the air. This is not a situation you ever want to be in, when your life depends on some stranger, and there’s not a thing you can do to make yourself any safer.

As the man pulled me up in the air, I could see more and more of the destruction caused by the hurricane and the flood. All kinds of stuff was floating around in the water, and people were being carried away. Seeing all this scary stuff as I got pulled higher and higher up in the air, I got more and more scared.

Finally the man pulled me up to the window. I was about 40 feet up in the air. He reached out his hands, and pulled me into the office behind the window. I plunked down on the floor of some office.

“Thank you!” I said. There were two men there who had pulled me up. I later learned their names were Tim and John.

“This flood is horrible,” said Tim. “The flood barriers must have been breached."

“My Dad got carried away by the water," I moaned. "I don’t know where he is now.”

Tim saw the blood on my arm, and he ran and got a first aid kit. He wrapped a big bandage around my arm, and taped it up.

Sitting by myself on the floor, I started to think some angry thoughts. Why didn’t the grownups stop this kind of thing from happening when they had a chance? They knew for a long time that this global warming thing was going on, that the sea levels were rising, and that it was caused by all the pollution. They had many years to fix the problem by cutting the pollution. But they hardly did anything. Now the rising oceans had punched out our city, and I didn’t know whether I’d ever see my Dad again. How could the grownups have been so stupid?

After a few minutes, my cell phone rang. I thought it was going to be Mom, asking me if I was okay. How could I tell her that Dad had been carried away by a million gallons of water?

But it wasn’t Mom. It was Dad!

“Troy, it’s me,” Dad said.

“Dad, where are you?” I asked. “Are you safe?”

“No, I’m not," said Dad. "I’m anything but safe. The flood waters carried me down the stairs of the subway station. I got into that little fare booth, you know that little room where they sell the subway cards. But now the whole station is underwater. I’m trapped here!”

My heart sank. “I’ll try to get some help, Dad.”

I told what had happened to Tim and John, the two men who had pulled me up from the flood waters. Tim said, “Let’s call 911 for help.”

Upon calling, we found the line was busy. The line said that due to a surge in calls, we would have to wait.

“This won’t work, kid,” John said. “Look at the street below, the whole thing's flooded. A big part of the city is now underwater. The policeman and firemen and ambulances must have got a thousand calls at the same time.”

“We can’t just leave my Dad down there, underwater!” I screamed. “We have to do something.”

“Let’s go down to the second floor,” Tim said. “We might be able to find a spot that’s close to that subway entrance.”

We walked around a bit on the second floor, and finally found a window that was just above the subway entrance. We could look down into the murky water, and see the stairs leading down to the subway. We were thinking about what to do next when my cell phone rang again.

It was Dad. His news was not good.

“Troy, I’m in real bad trouble here," said Dad. "The flood water is seeping through cracks in the front wall of this little glass room. The booth is filling up with water! I have to get out of here soon or I’m going to drown. The water’s up to my waist already.”

Horrified, I asked, “Dad, why not open up the door to the booth, and swim up the stairs?”

“I can’t,” Dad said. “When the water carried me down the subway stairs, it injured my legs very badly, and my left arm is hurt too. If I push open this door, I won’t be able to swim fast enough to get out of here before I drown.”

I felt like crying, but there was no time for that. I had to act fast, or my Dad was going to die.

“Do you have any rope here?” I asked Tim and John.

“Hold on, I’ll hit the supply room,” said Tim. “Run!” I hollered. Tim soon came back with a ring of thin cord, that yellow type that’s very strong.

While Tim was finding the rope, I had thought up a plan, and I told the two men about it.

“Here’s what we have to do," I said. "One of you has to tie this rope in a loop around your waist. You swim down those subway stairs, open the ticket booth door, and pull the loop around yourself and my Dad. Then me and the other one of you will pull up the both of you.” It was kind of a crazy plan, and it was way too dangerous. But it was the only idea I could come up with.

“I can’t do that,” Tim said. “I don’t know how to swim.”

I looked at John. He seemed like my last hope.

“Kid, I can’t do that,” John said. “I can swim, but I can’t go swim way down there and risk my life for a stranger. There’s a darn good chance I could drown trying a stunt like that. I have a wife and two kids to look after, and who knows what kind of trouble they’re in during this flood. They’ll need their father to help them get through this thing.”

I put my hand on my forehead, and groaned. At first I thought my Dad was doomed. But then I realized there was one last hope.

“Then I’ll have to do it myself,” I said.

“Are you kidding?” Tim said. “That has to be a 40 foot swim down to that fare booth. You’re likely to drown on the way down, or on the way up.”

“I have to do it!” I yelled. “When the flood waters came, my Dad saw there was an awning he could reach to save himself. But he didn’t climb up there himself. He threw me up there. He risked his life to save me, so now I’m going to risk my life to save him!”

My cell phone rang again. It was Dad again.

“Troy, the water is up to my neck. Goodbye. I love you.”

“Dad, I’m going down to get you!” I said. “When you see me, open the door of the booth.” I knew he would tell me not to come, so I closed the cell phone.

I tied one end of the rope into a loop, and I put it around my waist. I gave the other end to Tim.

“Hold on to this,” I said. “When I get down to my Dad, I’m going to put this loop around both of us. Then I’ll pull the rope two times. When you feel me pulling my end of the rope, start pulling your end like crazy. Keep on pulling until you pull us all the way back up.”

“Don’t do it! It won’t work!” Tim said.

I opened up the window, and climbed up to the opening. I had only a few seconds left to save Dad.

“DO LIKE I TOLD YOU!” I yelled as loud as I could. “When you feel me pulling my end of the rope, pull your end!”

I climbed out the window, and then plunged into the flood waters, down toward the subway stairs.

When I hit the water for some reason I bit my tongue very bad. But that was the least of my problems. I had to get down those subway stairs real quick, or I would drown. Luckily gravity was on my side. After dropping out the window, I just kept plunging down pretty fast. The water was icy and dirty. I was scared as hell. But I had to find that fare booth, or my Dad was going to die.

After about 15 seconds I had swum to the bottom of the subway station stairs. I looked around in the murky waters. I almost panicked, because at first I couldn’t recognize anything. But then I saw Dad just outside the little glass fare booth. I swam a few more feet toward him.

subway swimmer

So much water had seeped into the booth, that it had risen above Dad’s head. Dad had now opened the door, and was trying to get out, but wasn’t getting very far because of his busted legs.

My lungs were now aching real bad, but I had to go on. I swam up to Dad, and pulled the rope loop off of my body. I pulled the loop around both of our bodies. Then I pulled the rope two times, as I had told Tim I would do. I had done all I could do. Now it was up to Tim and John.

I felt the rope pulling me and Dad away from the fare booth. It was working! But then the two of us hit the stair rail at the bottom of the stairs. We were stuck! For a few seconds, we stopped moving upward, even though Tim and John were still pulling the rope.

I had almost blacked out, but I used my last bit of energy to push our two bodies away from the stair rail. That got us unstuck. We then kept going up the stairs, as Tim and John kept pulling the rope.

And then I died.

Well, not really. Just sort of.

I lost consciousness completely. I totally blacked out.

I have no memory at all of Tim and John pulling me and Dad out of the water, and back up to the window on the second floor of the building from which I had jumped.

The next thing I remember I was laying on a floor, coughing up a bunch of water. I saw 3 faces above me. One of those faces was real close. It was Tim. He had been giving me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, like the lifeguards use at pools to save someone who has almost drowned.

My crazy plan had worked. Tim and John had kept pulling on the rope, and had pulled both me and my Dad out of the water.

Lying on the ground, I looked up at the three faces looking down at me. There was so much muck and sludge in my eyes, that it was hard at first to recognize anyone. But then I recognized the face of Dad.

“We made it, Troy! You saved me!” he said.

For a few seconds I just lay there gasping for breath. Then I finally found enough strength to say:

“I did it. I did it!”

Up until this moment I had pretty much always felt like a little kid. Now suddenly, for the first time ever, I felt like a man.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Manhattan Megastorm, Part 1: A Science Fiction Story

global warming

My name is Troy and I'm 12. Let me tell you about my experience when the super-hurricane hit New York City back in September, 2072.

My family first heard about the big hurricane on September 12. Some guy on TV said that a very large hurricane was heading north in the Atlantic Ocean, close to the eastern coast of the United States. Nobody knew where it would hit the land: maybe North Carolina, maybe Maryland, maybe even farther north.

On September 13 there were all kinds of “special reports” on TV. People were saying there was a fair chance the hurricane would hit New York City or Long Island. “Hey, it looks like I might get a 3-day weekend out of this – not bad,” I joked. But Dad knew too much about hurricanes to think this was funny.

Soon the TV guys started saying that the big storm was a “Category 5” hurricane, which is the biggest, meanest, windiest storm there is. Another guy said that the storm heading for us was a “superhurricane,” and that the earth had been getting more and more of those in recent years, because of global warming.

Dad got some extra food, and he bought a flashlight in case the power went out again. Mom came home early from work, and we sat in our apartment watching the path of the hurricane on TV. The satellite picture showed a gigantic white swirl, about as big as the state of Texas, heading right for our city. It was like this monster storm was thinking, “I love New York.”

Before long it got very rainy and windy outside. On the TV it said the gigantic hurricane was speeding right into New York City like a Metro North train.

Dad was upset. He knew that this could be trouble like this city had never seen before. He began to tell us that the flood walls around the city might be breached. They had built the huge flood walls at three places, one near the Verrazano-Narrows bridge. The flood walls were designed to keep the rising oceans from ever flooding New York City.

Dad was so busy worrying about those flood walls on the edges of the city that he failed to think enough about how to protect us right here in the apartment. He should have got a big thick roll of duct tape, and he should have taped up all our windows. But he didn’t think of that. Of course, it’s always easy to think of these things when you’re thinking about it a long time afterward.

Over the course of a few hours, the wind started howling louder and louder. We watched TV, and saw a bunch of talking heads on TV saying there would be winds of more than 100 miles an hour in New York City. They also said that the wind would be a lot worse the more floors up you were.

I thought it was kind of cool when I looked out the window, and saw a piece of paper floating by our window, being blown by the heavy winds. We were 6 stories high. A piece of paper could only get up to our apartment if the wind was blowing real hard.

Before long, more and more stuff started to float by our window: trash, paper, leaves, and lots of different things. The windows started to sway back and forth, as if an invisible giant was pushing them with his hand.

Foolishly we stood there by the window, watching the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of all the stuff swirling around outside our window. This was just plain dumb. We should have thrown everything out of the closet, and squeezed everyone in there. It would have been very boring, but it would have been safe.

Suddenly something hit the window very hard. I don’t know what it was. It happened too fast. But it smashed the glass in the window real hard. There was glass all over the floor of our apartment.

Dad asked, “Is everyone okay?” Quickly I said, “I’m okay.” But then I looked at my arm, and saw that I wasn’t okay. Several pieces of glass from the window had lodged in my arm. My arm was bleeding.

“Oh, no! You’re bleeding!” said Mom. She ran to get the first aid kit.

“This is too serious for us to handle ourselves,” Dad said. "We’ve got to get him to a hospital.”

“You can’t take him outside now!” screamed Mom. “It’s a hurricane out there.”

“I know it’s a hurricane,“ Dad said. “But he has a pretty serious cut, and his arteries won’t wait for the hurricane to pass. We’ve got to risk it. It’s only a short walk to the subway, and we’ll be safe once we get down there.”

“No, you’ll get hit by all that stuff flying around!” said Mom.

“Dad, I got an idea.” I said. “Why don’t we grab a couple of trash can lids from the trash room. We’ll use them like shields. They’ll protect us from the stuff that the wind is blowing around.”

Mom reluctantly agreed. Dad and I put on our coats, and left the apartment. Mom cried as we left. “Go inside the closet, you’ll be safe there,” Dad said to Mom as he left.

She was worried, and she would have been much more worried if she had known what was happening at this time in other parts of the city. That’s because at about the time that we left the apartment, the flood walls were bursting in several places around Manhattan. The flood walls had crumbled like a sand castle in a rising tide, just like Dad said they would. The storm surge had raised the sea level much higher, and the sea water was now pouring into the city, over and through the broken walls. A billion gallons of trouble started to race down the narrow streets of lower Manhattan.

Dad and I took the stairs down to the first floor, and grabbed some garbage can lids to protect us. We opened the glass doors, and started running outside. “Come on, it’s only a few blocks to the subway,” Dad said. We put the garbage can lids in front of our faces, to shield them from flying objects. It was hard to walk that way, because you couldn’t see straight in front of you.

We had to just look down at our feet to see where our next few steps were taking us. The wind was blowing all kinds of stuff all around us. It was the strongest wind I had ever felt.

At one point I felt myself being pulled away by the wind, but Dad grabbed my clothes, and pulled me back real hard. A few times I felt something banging real hard against the trash can lid I was using to shield my face.

We struggled onward, pushing against the howling winds. We reached the street where the subway entrance was. We thought all we had to do was push on for another 20 feet, and we would be safe.

“There’s the subway entrance,” Dad said. “Come on, just a little way further.”

We pushed forward, but with the howling wind it was like trying to walk ahead when a football linebacker is blocking you.

Then my Dad looked down the street, and saw the most terrifying thing he had ever seen.

It was a gigantic wall of water, racing down the narrow street we were on. We were about to be buried by a million gallons of water!

It was as if some hose the size of the Holland Tunnel had suddenly been turned on full blast. The water was rushing between the buildings on our right and left, and heading straight for us as fast as a car.

Dad had only an instant to act. He could either try to save himself, or try to save me. There was no time to save both of us. He chose to save me.

Looking to his left, he saw the building next to us had an awning. An awning is one of those metal things hanging above the front door of a building, which protects you from the rain if you stand right outside of the front door. Dad grabbed my hand, and yanked me toward the awning. He put his foot up on a big stone thing below the awning. Then, pushing with all his might, he lifted me up and threw me to the edge of the awning. “GET UP THERE!” he bellowed as loud as he could. I landed on the edge of the awning, but was able to scoot myself to a secure spot on top of it. The awning was held up by 2 metal chains, and I grabbed on to one of them.

Then I saw the most horrible thing I have ever seen in my life. I saw a million gallons of water smash into my father, and carry him away.

“Dad!” I screamed as the flood waters carried him away.

I watched in horror as the water dragged Dad down the stairs of the subway entrance we had almost reached. He disappeared from sight.

I stood there on the awning of the building, terrified. The water was slowly getting higher and higher. I hollered for help at the top of my lungs.

If Dad had wanted to save himself, he could have done it by climbing up to the awning himself, and leaving me behind. But he hadn’t thought about his safety. He put my life above his, and threw me up on the awning, even though he knew that it might cost him his life. That’s something I will always remember.

I later learned exactly what had happened to Dad. The flood waters had pushed him down the stairs of the subway entrance we had almost reached. After reaching the bottom of the stairs, he was near the little glass room where they sell the subway cards you need to get into the subway. The man in this fare booth had ran away when all the water poured down the stairs, and had left the door to the little room open. Trying to save himself, Dad had rushed into the booth and closed the door. But this wasn’t such a great idea. The flood waters quickly rose up, trapping Dad inside the little room. The subway station was completely submerged under water, and my Dad was trapped down there, in a little pocket of air inside the ticket booth.

Will young Troy be able to survive the Manhattan Megastorm? Will his father survive? See tomorrow's blog post to find out.