Wednesday, August 25, 2004

String Theory

You may have read about physicists proposing that everything is made of vibrating strings. It’s hard to get an intuitive grasp of this concept, but perhaps the following will help get you started.

Light can be thought of as a particle or a wave, depending on what experiment you do to detect it. If you look to see how it exposes a photographic plate or hits a screen, you discover that light particles, photons, have one-to-one collisions with molecules and land in a specific place on the screen (rather than wash across a screen like a wave washes up on a beach.) If you check to see how light passes through tiny holes you see interference patterns, places where light waves cancelled and reinforced.

It turns out that all particles (not just light) have a wave nature. For example, electrons travel through slits and produce interference patterns. You’ve heard of the electron microscope, which uses electrons rather than light to view tiny objects. The electron’s wavelength is smaller than that of visible light, so we can us electron waves to detect smaller objects.

Three formulas, two formulas from Einstein, and one from de Broglie, are helpful here. The first is Einstein’s famous E=mc2, which tells how much energy is needed to create a particle of mass m, or how much energy will appear if a particle of mass m vanishes. (c is the speed of light.) The second, also from Einstein, is E = hc/λ, where λ is the wavelength of the wave associated with that particle. This gives the energy of a particle with a given wavelength.

The third formula is λ = h/mv, where λ is a particle’s wavelength, h is a constant, m is the particle’s mass and v is its velocity.

String theory? Here goes.

First, get the idea of strings made of atoms out of your mind. Forget what they are made of and just consider them to be imaginary. Here’s how they work, in a nutshell.

Consider a tiny particle, like an electron, proton, muon, whatever. The particle has a mass. When moving, it has a wavelength (equation 3) and an energy (equation 2). Now picture two girls turning a skipping rope. They are making a standing wave. Their shoulders are nodes, hardly moving. Most of the energy of the wave is near the centre of the rope where the amplitude is greatest. Picture a particle to be equivalent to a standing wave: the “probable location” of the particle is where the energy is greatest. But the particle does not actually exist in a spot, its energy (and mass, equation 1) are spread out all the way between the nodes.

If the girls wiggle their arms differently, they could set up a standing wave with two loops and a stationary point, a node, in the middle. (You never actually see this when kids are skipping, but you can do it with your stretched-out phone cord if you try. Turn it at twice the rate of the “skipping rope” turning.) In this case there are two high-energy locations, the loops or antinodes. This wave is the first overtone of the original, which is called the fundamental. Buglers (and all brass instrumentalists) make use of the overtones to get different notes without changing their fingers. (Buglers can’t change their fingers: they have no valves!)

Now the intuitive step. What if the overtone represents a different particle from the original? That is, since every particle has a wave nature, we could think of particles as different resonances of a vibrating string, different frequencies where standing waves can be set up. The more massive the particle, the more energy (equation 1). The more energy, the smaller the wavelength (equation 2). The more massive particle could be a standing wave of higher frequency or an overtone of the wave associated with the less massive particle.

String theory is much more complicated than this, of course. But the idea here is to turn on a little light bulb in our brain, a little spark of intuition. Because of the wave-particle duality of light and matter, perhaps we can think of particles as resonances of strings. It is space itself which is resonating, not actual pieces of thin rope.

To test out the theory we can use some symmetry considerations to predict a resonance that no one has seen before. This leads to a frequency and wavelength prediction. That gives an equivalent mass and velocity (equation 3). When we let high speed particles race down linear accelerators and smash into atomic targets, tiny particles are produced. They don’t last long, and when they vanish, they give off a burst of light. The photon will have an energy equivalent to that particle’s mass (equation 1). This energy has an associated wavelength (equation 2) which translates to a colour. So, when we fire up our linear accelerators, synchrotrons, and cyclotrons (“atom smashers”) we can look for a burst of light of that colour. If we see it, we can say that we have discovered a new particle and announce its mass.

Alternatively, if we have a tiny understanding of string theory, we can say we have witnessed a new resonance of one of the strings of which the universe is made.
Women with guns.

How many TV shows have you seen where the woman gets the bad guy's gun and points it at him, trembling? He steps slowly toward her. "You won't shoot. Give me the gun." And she ends up giving it to him, giving away her only advantage. Sound familiar?

Everytime I see that I think "Don't give it to him. At least shoot him in the leg so he can't chase you." But she never does.

I watched one movie, a pretty good one, actually, for this genre. The woman got the gun away from the guy whose accomplice was holding her daughter. The idea was that the girl would be killed if the bad guy didn't telephone in every hour. What could she do but give him back his gun? And of course she did!

I decided to write an alternative version. What follows is an off-the-cuff account of what I figure the woman should have done. I backed it up a bit to show how she might have got the gun away from him. See if you think it's reasonable.

Don't Give Up The Gun

[Man with gun is in woman's appartment. His accomplice has her daughter in an unknown location. She dare not leave or cause trouble, or her daughter might be killed. Story resumes.]

With apparent carelessness, Barb came out of the kitchen carrying two mugs of coffee. Hearing her approach, the man turned his eyes from the television screen and watched her cautiously. She tried not to let her rising nervousness cause her hands to shake; she had to keep him from guessing her intentions. The fingers of his right hand drummed the nearby table, beside the gun. She tried not to look at it, staring instead down at the coffee. While preparing the coffee in the kitchen she had decided that she had only one chance. She fought the nausea bubbling up from inside, trying to stay focussed, to appear as if spilling the hot liquid on the rug was her biggest worry.

She jiggled a little coffee on the table, grimacing “Ow, that’s hot!” she exclaimed, hoping that just the right amount of anguish was in her voice. She was right in front of him now. Slowly she offered the mug to him, coffee filled to the brim. She was holding the mug's handle, so he’d have to put his hand around the mug. “Careful, it’s full”, she warned him. Please let him take it in both hands, she pleaded silently, as she extended it toward his his left hand.

The ruse worked. His fingers closed around the mug, and she released it. As she hoped, the scalding hot mug was too painful for his fingers. The man brought his right hand up quickly to take the mug by the handle. Just as he pulled the mug out of his his fingers she acted. She flung her steaming hot coffee in his face.

The man screamed and jerked back in the chair, involuntarily bring his left hand up, too late, to protect his eyes. Years of habit worked to prevent him from dropping the mug for a split second. An instant was all Barb needed. She grabbed the gun and jumped back out of reach.

Cursing, the man flung away the cup of coffee and grabbed for her, but missed. “Freeze, asshole” she yelled, and levelled the gun at his face.

“God damn it! You bitch.” he cried, wiping coffee from his eyes. “You’ve had it. Your little girl’s dead now.” He took a step toward her.

She pointed the gun at the ceiling and pulled the trigger. The boom was deafening, causing her to gasp and step back. Quickly she lowered the gun and pointed it at him. “Don’t come any closer!” she screamed.

The blast worked. The man’s survival instincts kicked in, and he froze. “OK. OK” he said. “Take it easy.”

Time stopped as they eyed each other, wondering what was going to happen next. Then she spoke sharply. “Sit down” she commanded. The man didn’t move and she made a motion toward him with the gun.

“OK,” he said, and he eased back into the chair. He took a big breath, and let his face relax. Inside, he was seething, furious at himself for getting taken by this woman. Doing his best to look confident, he smiled “Good move,” he said. “I’m impressed.”

Barb snorted with disgust, her eyes shooting daggers at him.

“No, really,” he continued. “That was a smooth move. You’ve got guts, I’ve got to say.” He paused, and the smile faded. “But playtime’s over. Put down the gun.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Barb replied grimly.

“You’re forgetting. My partner Barney’s got your daugher. If I don’t phone Barney to say that your husband’s wired the money, he kills her.”

“I’ll kill you.”

“No you won’t,” he said. “You can’t chance it. You’re not going to trade your daughter for me, are you?” He smiled confidently, as he saw the tears well up in her eyes. “Who’s more important to you? Me or her?”

“ up,” she stammered, but kept the gun aimed at his nose.

“He might phone to see if everything’s OK any minute. If I don’t tell him everything’s fine, he’ll kill her and split town. Think carefully.” He watched her carefully as she burst into tears, watching the gun waver in her hand, looking for the right moment to leap.“You’ll never see her alive again”, he taunted.

“I said shut up,” Barb wailed. “Let me think”, she shouted. For a moment they stared at each other, then she waved the gun.

“Reach the phone and tell him to bring her here” she ordered.

“Can’t do that, Missy. He’ll smell a trap.”

“Do it anyhow.”


“I – I’ll kill you.”

“No you won’t. Like I said, you can’t take that chance. You might as well give me the gun.”

“Here’s how I see it,” Barb replied, her voice steadier now. “I figure you are going to kill us anyhow.”

“No, we just want the money.”

“I’ve seen your face. My daughter’s seen you friend’s face. You’re going to kill us.”

“Of course not. You won’t tell because we have accomplises that will kill you, your husband, and your little girl if you do.” He shrugged. “But not me. I’m not a killer, just a business man.”

She stared at him. He had a handsome face, could have been a tennis player, she thought. Or the guy next door. His little smile mocked her. Amazing that he was so cool, considering she had a gun pointed at him. She looked deep into his eyes and shivered. The eyes told the real story. He hated her guts. He’s a charmer, that’s for sure, she thought. But those eyes.

A surreal calm seemed to come over her as she came to a decision.. “Here’s what I’m going to do,” she announced calmly. She took a step toward him, and took a deep breath. Suddenly, she pointed the gun down at his right thigh and pulled the trigger.

She was ready for the blast this time, but the man jumped in surprise and pain. He howled. “Oh! Shit! Shit!” He grabbed his leg. “You shot me! Oh, shit that hurts” Blood poured through his fingers. He moaned, and continued to curse.

“Hurts more than they pretend on TV?” she asked.

“God, yes! Why did you do that?” he demanded angrily. “That’ll cost you. You daughter’s dead. Do you understand me?”

“If she dies, so will you,” Barb replied, matter-of-factly. “Perhaps you should put your belt around your thigh before you bleed to death.”

“Put your hand on this while I take my belt off?”

She laughed. “Not a chance.”

He glared at her, then reached for a nearby pillow. He placed it over the wound and held it there with his elbow while he struggled to pull his belt off. She watched as he fed it under him and pulled it tight around his thigh.He wiped his bloody hands on the pillow, a little triumph.

She shrugged. “Now you’re going to phone your friend and tell him to bring back my daughter.”

“Won’t work. He won’t do it.”

She shrugged again. “Better hope he does, or you’ll bleed to death.”

“You bitch!” he spat. “I never hurt you!”


She walked over to the corner table and took the remote phone from its cradle. She tossed it into his lap. “Phone him,” she directed.

The man eyed the phone then stared at her insolently. He made no move to pick it up.

Without any warning, she stepped forward and fired, hitting him in the other leg below the knee.

“God! Damn you! Oh, God!” he shrieked. “My leg!” She waggled the gun. “OK. OK” he moaned.

“Phone him now.”


She squatted by the phone jack as he dialed. She could hear the phone ring on the other end. “Hi, Bud?” He looked at her carefully, then started to shout. “Bud, this bitch …”

Quickly she pulled the phone cord out of the wall. “That was a mistake,” she said, calmly. “Which arm do you want me to shoot?”

The man’s incredible confidence seeped away quickly. “N-n-no. No. Sorry,” he shrieked. “Don’t do that.”

Suddenly, her calm state cracked. “Then get me my daughter back, you asshole,” she shouted. “The next shot goes through your crotch. You’ll sing soprano if I let you live. Are you ready to try again?”

He nodded.

“Is there a donut shop or all-night convenience store anywhere near there?” she asked.

“Ya, a Mac’s Milk.”

“Then tell him there’s been a change in plans, that I’m going to pay a huge ransom. and that he’s to drop her at the Mac’s Milk and drive away. Tell him that when the owner of the store calls to say that she’s safe, you will leave here with the money.

“Do you think you can do that?” she asked, pointing the gun at his gut.


“You’d better, or you die.”

“You’re still playing with your daughter’s life. If my pal smells a rat, she’s in trouble.”

“Then see that he doesn’t. I think your life is worth more to you than my daughter’s is to you, isn’t it? Didn’t I hear you say something like that before?”

He grunted, then, after she plugged in the phone cord, he dialed. “Hi Bud. Sorry about that. She started to run, and I had to chase her. Stupid bitch…Ya…How’s the girl? OK…Good…Look, something’s come up.”

Barb got ready to pull the plug.

“The bitch has some jewels, and a lot of money right here in a safe. If you bring back the girl she’ll open it. No, I can’t make her…No, don’t threaten her with the girl…No, she’s looney. She’s convinced we’re going to kill the girl anyhow and she figures this is her only chance…Here’s what you have to do.”

He told the man the new plans.

“She’ll open the safe when she hears from the store guy.”

“And my daughter.” Barb called.

“Ya, after she speaks with her daughter she’ll open the safe…Sure she will, or she dies…Ya, I’ll kill her. She knows that. All she cares about is the kid….Don’t argue, just do it….OK.”

As the man clicked off the phone, Barb nodded approvingly. “Good job. Throw me the phone.”

She caught the phone and dialled 9-1-1. “Get me the police….Yes. My daughter’s been kidnapped. The kidnapper’s accomplice is here, and he will tell you where she is being held. She’ll either be there, or the kidnapper will be taking her to a nearby Mac’s Milk…Yes. This is no joke. I’ve got a gun on him. I’m going to put him on and he’ll tell you where she is…What if he lies?” She laughed grimly. “I think he knows what will happen.”
Thoughs on whether God exists

I often think how lucky I am to be born a Canadian. I could have been born one of India’s teeming impoverished children. I could have had to grow up in the middle of sectarian warfare in Ireland, Serbia, or Iraq, or under a tyrannical dictatorship in the U.S.S.R. or North Korea. How fortunate I was that my parents happened to be Canadians!

The fact that the majority of citizens happen to have the citizenship of their parents is obvious and of little significance. Yet, when applied to religion, the observation leads to some serious questions in my mind. The vast majority of people end up following the religion of their parents. Of course some people convert to other denominations, Anglican to United. Some cross larger chasms, converting from Judaism to Christianity, or Christianity to Buddhism. It is surely safe to say, though, that most people who grow up in a family of a given faith become members of that faith themselves. That is, they accept the beliefs of the faith of their parents, or at least their surroundings during their formative years.

At first glance, this observation seems of as little significance as the citizenship “coincidence”. After all, how can you accept the beliefs of, say, Muslims, if you haven’t been exposed to that faith? The difference comes, though, with the importance believers of a faith usually place on the truth of their beliefs. Canadians do not go about announcing that Canada is the only true country. But many religious believers proclaim that their faith is the only true faith. That is, they feel that their God is the only God, or the practices or beliefs of their faith provide the only way to reach God or heaven, The Roman Catholic Church has, with no embarrassment, openly proclaimed itself as the one True Church. Devout Christians seize upon the word “only” in the scriptures and state that the only way to salvation is to accept Christ as the Son of God. Jehovah’s Witnesses tell the world that those who survive the coming apocalypse will be from their ranks only.

It is at this point that the coincidences become a little too much to accept. The good luck of being born Canadian pales compared to the good luck of being born into the only true faith.

When I think deeply about religious matters, such as the existence of a Creator, whether there is an afterlife, or whether there is a God who can hear your silent prayers, I wonder about the certainty that many believers possess. When I see good, intelligent, devout people disagreeing on what constitutes the absolute truth in these matters, I wonder what right have I to assume that my beliefs are the true beliefs? The conclusion that I have the monopoly on truth seems of low probability, and quite egotistical or chauvanistic.

I would like to pose some questions to religious people about this point. Because of my lack of knowledge of the other world religions, I will address the questions to fundamentalist Christians who consider their beliefs to be absolutely true. But I believe my questions have general applicability to other faiths, if tailored to their specific beliefs.[1]

Question 1: Does it concern you that you happen to believe what your parents believe? Do you ever worry that such a “coincidence” could be the result of indoctrination rather than free choice, uninfluenced by your superiors or upbringing?

Certainly, no one can be uninfluenced by his or her upbringing. No one is, or should be, brought up empty of knowledge and void of concepts of right and wrong. After all, that’s why we have universal education. Suppose, though, a button could be pressed which causes all preconceived notions about religion could be wiped from a 25 year old’s brain. (Perhaps the Men in Black have one!) Gone would be the suggestion that there is a God. Gone would be the assumption that the Bible is the literal truth (the question was addressed to fundamentalist Christians, remember.) I anticipate that the majority of such mind-blanked people would attain a belief in God. There seems to be a universal human nature or need to feel that someone is looking out for them, or there is life after death, or that their presence on Earth has a grand purpose. But would most pick up the Bible and say “You know, I this script seems to be the actual Word of God.” My guess is that many would see the Bible as representing something else: what ancient people thought was the word of God, or what early religious leaders wanted their flock to think was the word of God, or what early devout leaders though God would say if He were currently speaking to them. The point of my question and this subsequent impossible (some would say ludicrous) hypothetical scenario is to try to find out if fundamentalist Christians accept (their interpretations of) the teachings of the Bible because they have been told the Bible is absolute truth or because they have concluded, independent of their upbringing, that it is absolute truth.

I would be more satisfied intellectually to accept claims of religious fundamentalists if I felt that their ideas and passions did not come from parents or upbringing. Please remember that I am not claiming that the beliefs of religious fundamentalists, or any religious people for that matter, are untrue. I am saying that if I were to hold these (or any) beliefs myself, the “my parents thought that, too” coincidence would give me pause.

Question 2: Have you ever wondered what changes in your beliefs would results if the Bible were not absolutely true? Or, more to the point, have you ever wondered if the Bible might not be the literal Word of God?

Again, I would be more impressed with a fundamentalist’s convictions if he or she concluded that the Bible was literate, historical truth after honestly and fairly considering the question. I fear that it may be impossible to fairly question a fundamental tenet of faith that has been part of a person’s upbringing from day 1. True, some people convert to other religions, which suggests that open-mindedness is possible. On the other hand, conversion might indicate that they never actually accepted the article of faith in the first place. Unfortunately, this leads to a situation with no solution:
Convert: Yes I accepted it…now I reject it.
Skeptic: You never accepted it, you just think you did.
Convert: No, I actually accepted it.
Skeptic: No, you just think you actually accepted it…

It worries me that belief in God, based on the Bible’s claim of God’s existence, is subject to circular reasoning:

Person A: God exists.
Person B: How do you know?
Parson A: It says so in the Bible?
Person B: How do you know that the Bible is true?
Person A: Because God wrote it.
Person B: But how do you know that God exists in the first place?
Person A: It says so in the Bible.

Is it possible to come to accept that the Bible is the literal Word of God without first being told that it is? Perhaps. A fundamentalist might say “I get evidence for this every day, throughout my life.” My worry here is that such acceptance occurs in other situations which are too similar to be ignored: the concept of the self-fulfilling prophesy, the Rorschach ink-blot test, vision of God in the clouds or the devil in the smoke from the World Trade Centre, the “my horoscope sounds like it applies to me” claim. My grandmother says “I’ve played Bingo all my life and I think I’m a little ahead.” No bingo player thinks otherwise.

[1] (For the purpose of this essay I am defining fundamentalist Christians as those who believe that the Bible is the absolute word-for-(Hebrew)-word literal truth. This would take in standard Baptists and Nazarenes. Fundamentalist, but not Christian, would apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpretation of the Old Testament. For example, they would say that there actually was a Daniel in a lion’s den who plucked a thorn from the lion’s paw. Anglicans and Catholic standard doctrine would see the same passage as a fable showing the value of belief in God and charity to your enemy. For a non-fundamentalist, the Bible’s truth would be of a more general nature: a moral or educational truth, rather than a literal one. Similarly, for a fundamentalist Adam and Eve were real people. For a non-fundamentalist, Adam and Eve were characters in a creation myth that tells us many truths about how God wants us to behave. Of course there are many Anglicans and Catholics, and people of other faiths, who would consider themselves fundamentalists, so the questions that follow are not directed solely toward Baptists.