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Archive for June, 2011

In the previous post, we discussed the deep philosophical question of whether the glass is half full or half empty or several other choices. This time we tackle a philosophical riddle:

When is nothing stronger than something?

Well, one answer is: when the nothing is something that isn’t there any more.

Consider for example something that is nearly nothing: Air. Imagine the amount of air in a decent sized balloon. It’s hard to appreciate how powerful that air is until you take it away. Thanks to gravity (that fundamental force that’s always getting us down) pulling on the little invisible air molecules, the Earth’s atmosphere weighs in at about 11 trillion-trillion pounds. At the surface, that’s about 14.7 pounds per square inch. That adds up, so that an open newspaper has a few tons of air pushing down on it.

Fortunately this air pressure pushes on things in all directions, so we don’t notice it so much until it gets removed. Suck the air out of a pop can and it would collapse from the surrounding pressure. But if you make a strong enough container that won’t collapse, you can earn a small place in the history books.

In the 1650’s the mayor of the German city of Magdeburg, one Otto von Guericke, figured out how to make a vacuum pump. With the flair of a modern-day infomercial producer, he sought a demonstration to dazzle the crowds with the power of the nothingness that his pump could produce.

He fashioned two bronze balloon-sized hollow hemispheres (about 1.5 ft across). When placed together, they could be easily separated. But with the air between them pumped out, the resulting vacuum held the two hemispheres tightly. So tightly that in various showings he was able to take 8 to 30 horses, split into two teams pulling the resulting sphere in opposite directions, without separation. Once the air was let back in, the hemispheres fell apart.

And so nothing proved to be stronger than at least several horses.

Nothing like Search Trivia

As you may know, searching in Google or Bing using “double quotes” forces the search engine to find the exact phrase, instead of variations that change the word order or may use less than all of the words. Before this post was posted, if you searched for “nothing is stronger than something” with those double quotes, Google gave only one hit (here) and Bing found zero matches. In the modern world, this is nearly impossible and means that this phrase must be Special. If you don’t use the double quotes, you’ll get hits for things like ‘nothing is stronger than love’ and other non-Special things like that.

Should we conclude that Bing has figured out the power of the vacuum since it had zero hits? Maybe. And if you know other cases of strong nothingness, please comment.

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Half-full, half-empty, or ... ???

We could tackle the easy questions like why anything exists, or how one could know there is a God, but today we’re going all out. It’s time to solve the haunting dilemma: Is the glass half full or half empty???

I will offer you a set of choices.

Half full: the glass is half-way full of the liquid.

Half empty: the top half has no liquid, it’s empty up there.

Full (#1): The glass is full, half way with water and half way with air.

Empty (nearly): In either the liquid or the air, consider the molecules and atoms that make up the contents. The atoms are made up of sub-atomic  particles such as protons, electrons, and neutrons. The size of these, in the particle sense at least, makes up only a teensy tiny fraction of the space. The protons and neutrons are tightly packed at the atoms’ cores, with the much smaller electrons buzzing around in the vast emptyness of the remainder of the territory that comprises the atoms. These account for such a small volume that the atoms (and hence the glass) is about 99.9999999999999% empty. (OK, maybe that last digit was supposed to be an 8, I’m not sure.) And that’s 0.0000000000001% full for you incurable optimists.

Emptier than that: Most of the volume of the atom’s particles is found in the nucleus. But the protons and neutrons in the nucleus are made up of 3 quarks each, and the quarks are extremely tiny themselves, so that the protons and neutrons could be thought of as mostly empty space. In a sense.

Emptier yet? Maybe. This emptiness may continue “all the way down.” Here’s a discussion of trying to look into quarks: click here.

Full of fields

Full (#2): The glass is full of fields. There are electric, magnetic, gravity fields and waves everywhere inside that glass. Just lower a compass inside either the air or the water to realize this.

Not recommended: lowering your iPhone in to see if its built-in compass works under water. But if you do safely float your phone inside the glass, you’ll find that you can call it, thanks to the electromagnetic waves that make their way through the glass, liquid, and air.

Full (#3): The sub-atomic particles, according to quantum theories, are constantly exchanging things like photons and “bosons”. Because they like to. Kind of like playing catch, in a very small and quantumy sense.

Empty and Full: Hold onto your brain. The quantum world knows of virtual particles, which come in pairs (like electrons and positrons). These tiny something-or-other pairs  pop into existence and then re-combine lickety-split and go back out of existence. That keeps the quantum accountants happy. It’s worth noting that these are virtual particles in the sense that they’re not real particles, but as it turns out they’re real, too (click). Ouch.

If we consider any bit of the glass contents for a very short time, we can’t be sure there aren’t some virtual particles there, making a temporary existence (and generally partying it up for a billionth of a trillionth of a second). As one physicist puts it, referring to an ’empty’ box, it’s “… both empty and full of all manner of particles, at the same time.” That’s due to a gift from the superposition notion of quantum physics. Here’s a quote worth committing to memory and sharing with your friends:

“In quantum physics, even a perfect vacuum is a constant storm of activity, with “virtual particles popping  into existence for a fleeting moment, thanks to zero-point energy, then disappearing again.”

This is one of those comments that would be funny if the physicists weren’t so confident that it’s been verified to high precision.

And just in time, you can get yourself a T-shirt appropriate to the topic.

Any other views on the glass? Let us know. We (obviously) need help.

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Sources: For emptiness of the atom, see Frank Close’s Nothing: A Very Short Introduction pg. 26.

For the physicist quotes, see Chad Orzel’s How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, the Virtual Particles chapter.

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