How Everything Works
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Page 10 of 11 (103 Questions and Answers)

1374. I've heard that there are only four basic forces in nature: gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. Is this true, and if so, what are the basic differences? — SH, Purdue, Indiana
The number of "basic forces" has changed over the years, increasing as new forces are discovered and decreasing as seemingly separate forces are joined together under a more sophisticated umbrella. A good example of this evolution of understanding is electromagnetism—electric and magnetic forces were once thought separate but gradually became unified, particularly as our understanding of time and space improved. More recently, weak interactions have joined electromagnetic interactions to become electroweak interactions. In all likelihood, strong and gravitational interactions will eventually join electroweak to give us one grand system of interactions between objects in our universe.

But regardless of counting scheme, I can still answer your question about how the four basic forces differ. Gravitational forces are attractive interactions between concentrations of mass/energy. Everything with mass/energy attracts everything else with mass/energy. Because this gravitational attraction is exceedingly weak, we only notice it when there are huge objects around to enhance its effects.

Electromagnetic forces are strong interactions between objects carrying electric charge or magnetic pole. While most of these interactions can be characterized as attractive or repulsive, that's something of an oversimplification whenever motion is involved.

Weak interactions are too complicated to call "forces" because they almost always do more than simply pull two objects together or push them apart. Weak interactions often change the very natures of the particles that experience them. But the weak interactions are rare because they involve the exchange of exotic particles that are difficult to form and live for exceedingly short times. Weak interactions are responsible for much of natural radioactivity.

Strong forces are also very complicated, primarily because the particles that convey the strong force themselves experience the strong force. Strong forces are what hold quarks together to form familiar particles like protons and neutrons.

1380. I am a mentor to a 7th grader who is doing a report on Einstein. How do I explain his theory in a way that will be relevant to her? — MG
The basis for Einstein's theory of relativity is the idea that everyone sees light moving at the same speed. In fact, the speed of light is so special that it doesn't really depend on light at all. Even if light didn't exist, the speed of light would still be a universal standard—the fastest possible speed for anything in our universe.

Once we recognize that the speed of light is special and that everyone sees light traveling at that speed, our views of space and time have to change. One of the classic "thought experiments" necessitating that change is the flashbulb in the boxcar experiment. Suppose that you are in a railroad boxcar with a flashbulb in its exact center. The flashbulb goes off and its light spreads outward rapidly in all directions. Since the bulb is in the center of the boxcar, its light naturally hits the front and back walls of the boxcar at the same instant and everything seems simple.

But your boxcar is actually hurtling forward on a track at an enormous speed and your friend is sitting in a station as the train rushes by. She looks into the boxcar through its window and sees the flashbulb go off. She watches light from the flashbulb spread out in all directions but it doesn't hit the front and back walls of the boxcar simultaneously. Because the boxcar is moving forward, the front wall of the boxcar is moving away from the approaching light while the back wall of the boxcar is moving toward that light. Remarkably, light from the flashbulb strikes the back wall of the boxcar first, as seen by your stationary friend.

Something is odd here: you see the light strike both walls simultaneously while your stationary friend sees light strike the back wall first. Who is right? The answer, strangely enough, is that you're both right. However, because you are moving at different velocities, the two of you perceive time and space somewhat differently. Because of these differences, you and your friend will not always agree about the distances between points in space or the intervals between moments in time. Most importantly, the two of you will not always agree about the distance or time separating two specific events and, in certain cases, may not even agree about which event happened first!

The remainder of the special theory of relativity builds on this groundwork, always treating the speed of light as a fundamental constant of nature. Einstein's famous formula, E=mc2, is an unavoidable consequence of this line of reasoning.

1398. I am intrigued by your assertion that the speed of light is the fastest speed in the universe. It seems to me that we wouldn't be able to determine the fastest speed achievable in the universe, just as we can't find the final number in math. When we're counting, there will always be x+1 so why would calculating the speed of objects in our universe be any different? — GL
Your comparison between the limitless counting numbers and the limited speeds in the universe is an interesting one because it points out a fundamental difference between the older Galilean/Newtonian understanding of the universe and the newer Einsteinian understanding. The older understanding claims that velocities can be added in the same way that counting numbers can be added and that there is thus no limit to the speeds that can exist in our universe. For example, if you are jogging eastward at 5 mph and a second runner passes you traveling eastward 5 mph faster, then a person watching the two of you from a stationary vantage point sees the second runner traveling eastward at 10 mph. The velocities add, so that 5 mph + 5 mph = 10 mph. If the second runner is now passed by a third runner, who is traveling eastward 5 mph faster than the second runner, then the stationary observer sees that third runner traveling eastward at 15 mph. And so it goes. As long as velocities add in this manner, objects can reach any speed they like.

At this point, you might assert that velocities do add and that objects should be able to reach any speed. But that's not the case. The modern, relativistic understanding of the universe says that even at these small speeds, velocities don't quite add. To the stationary observer, the second runner travels at only 9.9999999999999994 mph and the third runner at only 14.9999999999999988 mph. As you can see, when two or more velocities are combined, the final velocity isn't quite as large as the simple sum. What that means is that the velocity you observe in another object is inextricably related to your own motion. This interrelatedness is part of the theory of relativity—that observers who are moving relative to one another will see space and time somewhat differently.

For objects traveling close to the speed of light, the failure of velocity addition becomes quite severe. For example, if one spaceship travels past the earth at half the speed of light and the people in that spaceship watch a second spaceship pass them at half the speed of light in the same direction, then a person on earth will see the second spaceship traveling only four-fifths of the speed of light. As you can see, relativity is making it difficult to reach the speed of light. In fact, it's impossible to reach the speed of light! No matter how you combine velocities, no observer will ever see a massive object reach or exceed the speed of light. The only objects that can reach the speed of light are objects without mass and they can only travel at the speed of light.

So while the counting numbers obey simple addition and go on forever, velocities do not obey simple addition and have a firm limit—the speed of light. The additive counting numbers are an example of a mathematical group that extends infinitely in both directions, but there are many examples of groups that do not extend to infinity. The group that describes relativistic, real-world velocities is one such group. You can visualize another simple limited group—the one associated with walking around the surface of the earth. No matter how much you try, you can't walk more than a certain distance northward. While it seems as though steps northward add, so that 5 steps north plus 5 steps north equals 10 steps north, things aren't quite that simple. Eventually you reach the north pole and start walking south!

1404. In your discussion of event horizons, you stated that light falls just like everything else. I thought that light does not speed up when falling but just gains energy—that it is blue-shifted. Conversely, when it rises in a gravitational field, it does not slow down but just loses energy—that it is red-shifted. Is that correct? — B
Yes. For very fundamental reasons, light can't change its speed in vacuum; it always travels at the so-called "speed of light." So light that is traveling straight downward toward a celestial object doesn't speed up; only its frequency and energy increase. But light that is traveling horizontally past a celestial object will bend in flight, just as a satellite will bend in flight as it passes the celestial object. This trajectory bending is a consequence of free fall. While the falling of light as it passes through a gravitational field is a little more complicated than for a normal satellite—the light's trajectory must be studied with fully relativistic equations of motion—both objects fall nonetheless.

1408. If one metric ton of antimatter comes into contact with one metric ton of matter, how much energy would be released? — TC
Since the discovery of relativity, people have recognized that there is energy associated with rest mass and that the amount of that energy is given by Einstein's famous equation: E=mc2. However, the energy associated with rest mass is hard to release and only tiny fractions of it can be obtained through conventional means. Chemical reactions free only parts per billion of a material's rest mass as energy and even nuclear fission and fusion can release only about 1% of it. But when equal quantities of matter and antimatter collide, it's possible for 100% of their combined rest mass to become energy. Since two metric tons is 2000 kilograms and the speed of light is 300,000,000 meters/second, the energy in Einstein's formula is 1.8x1020 kilogram-meters2/second2 or 1.8x1020 joules. To give you an idea of how much energy that is, it could keep a 100-watt light bulb lit for 57 billion years.

1439. How certain can I be that modern physics applies to distant places? Shouldn't I wait until reputable scientists have performed experiments way off in outer space? — JS
Fortunately, you don't have to wait that long. From astronomical observations, we are fairly certain that the laws of physics as we know them apply throughout the visible universe. It wouldn't take large changes in the physical laws to radically change the structures of atoms, molecules, stars, and galaxies. So the fact that the light and other particles we see coming from distant places is so similar to what we see coming from nearby sources is pretty strong evidence that the laws of physics don't change with distance. Also, the fact that the light we see from distant sources has been traveling for a long time means that the laws of physics don't seem to have changed much (if at all) with time, either. While there are theories that predict subtle but orderly changes in the laws of physics with time and location, effectively making those laws more complicated, no one seriously thinks that the laws of physics change radically and randomly from place to place in the Universe.

1453. If I knew the initial (exact) conditions of the throw of a die, could I throw a 6 with certainty? How does the Heisenberg principle affect my ability to control the outcome? — TW
In the classical view of the world, the view before the advent of quantum theory, nature seemed entirely deterministic and mechanical. If you knew exactly where every molecule and atom was and how fast it was moving, you could perfectly predict where it would be later on. In principle, this classical world would allow you to throw a 6 every time. Of course, you'd have to know everything about the air's motion, the thermal energy in the die, and even the pattern of light in the room. But the need for enormous amounts of information just means that controlling the dice will be incredibly hard, not that it will be impossible. For simple throws, you could probably get by without knowing all that much about the initial conditions. As the throws became more complicated and more sensitive to initial conditions, you'd have to know more and more.

However, quantum mechanics makes controlling the die truly impossible. The problem stems from the fact that position and velocity information are not fully defined at the same time in our quantum mechanical universe. In short, you can't know exactly where a die is and how fast it is moving at the same time. And that doesn't mean that you can't perform these measurements well. It means that the precise values don't exist together; they are limited by Heisenberg uncertainty. So quantum physics imposes a fundamental limit on how well you can know the initial conditions before your throw and it thus limits your ability to control the outcome of that throw. How much quantum physics affects your ability to throw a 6 depends on the complexity of the throw. If you just drop a die a few inches onto a table, you can probably get a 6 most of the time, despite quantum mechanics and without even knowing much classical information. But as you begin throwing the die farther, you'll begin to lose control of it because of quantum mechanics and uncertainty. In reality, you'll find classical physics so limiting that you'll probably never observe the quantum physics problem. Knowing everything about a system is already unrealistic, even in a classical universe. The problems arising from quantum mechanics are really just icing on the cake for this situation.

1501. I have heard that we "know" the universe is expanding because everything is moving away from everything else. My question is: if this situation is like ink dots on a balloon, then we should be able to point to the direction of the universe's center. Which way is that center? - BS
The "ink dots on a balloon" idea provides the answer to your question. In that simple analogy, the ink dots represent stars and galaxies and the balloon's surface represents the universe. Inflating the balloon is then equivalent to having the universe expand. As the balloon inflates, the stars and galaxies drift apart so that an ant walking on the surface of the balloon would have to travel farther to go from one "star" to another. A similar situation exists in our real universe: everything is drifting farther apart.

The ant lives on the surface of the balloon, a two-dimensional world. The ant is unaware of the third dimension that you and I can see when we look at the balloon. The only directions that the ant can move in are along the balloon's surface. The ant can't point toward the center of the balloon because that's not along the surface that the ant perceives. To the ant, the balloon has no center. It lives in a continuous, homogeneous world, which has the weird property that if you walk far enough in any direction, you return to where you started.

Similarly, we see our universe as a three-dimensional world. If there are spatial dimensions beyond three, we are unaware of them. The only directions that we can move in are along the three dimensions of the universe that we perceive. The overall structure of the universe is still not fully understood, but let's suppose that the universe is a simple closed structure like the surface of a higher-dimensional balloon. In that case, we wouldn't be able to point to a center either because that center would exist in a dimension that we don't perceive. To us, the universe would be a continuous, homogeneous structure with that same weird property: if you traveled far enough in one direction, you'd return to where you started.

1540. I have a large commercial superconducting magnet and am looking for a high-value-added product or manufacturing process to pursue with it. Is there anything you have learned in your research that would be worth producing? PT
As a general observation, the bottleneck in scientific research and technological innovation is almost always the ideas, not the equipment. Occasionally, a revolutionary piece of equipment comes on the scene and makes a whole raft of developments possible overnight. But a commercial superconducting magnet isn't revolutionary; you can buy one off the shelf. As a result, all the innovations that were waiting for magnets like that to become available were mopped up long ago and any new innovations will take new ideas.

Coming up with good ideas is hard work and if I had them, I'd have gotten hold of such a magnet myself. Although science is often taught as formulas and factoids, it's really about thinking and observing, and good ideas are nearly always more important than good equipment. Good ideas don't linger unstudied for long when commercial equipment is all it takes to pursue them.

1541. My eight year old daughter asked me, "If light is the fastest thing in the universe what is the second fastest thing in the universe?" JPW, Lancaster, PA
Your daughter's question is a cute one. I like it because it highlights the distinction between the speed of light and all other speeds. The speed of light is unimaginably special in our universe. Strange though it may sound, even if light didn't exist there would still be the speed of light and it would still have the same value. The speed of light is part of the geometry of space-time and the fact that light travels at "the speed of light" is almost a cosmic afterthought. Gravity and the so-called "strong force" also travel at that speed.

OK, so there is actually a multi-way tie for first place in the speed rankings. Your daughter's question is what comes next? The actual answer is that it's a many-way tie between everything else. With enough energy, you can get anything moving at just under the speed of light, at least in principle. For example, subatomic particles such as electrons, protons, and even atomic nuclei are routinely accelerated to just under the speed of light in sophisticated machines around the world. The universe itself has natural accelerators that whip subatomic particles up until they are traveling so close to the speed of light that it's hard to tell that they aren't quite at the speed of light. Nonetheless, I assure you that they're not. The speed of light is so special that nothing that has any mass at all can possibly travel at the speed of light. Only the ephemeral non-massive particles such as light particles (photons), gravity particles (gravitons), and strong force particles (gluons) can actually travel at the speed of light. In fact, once photons, gravitons, and gluons begin to interact with matter, they don't travel at the speed of light either. It's sort of a guilt-by-association: as soon as these massless particles leave the essential emptiness of the vacuum and begin to interact with matter, even they can't travel at the speed of light anymore.

That said, I can still offer the likely second place finisher on the speed list. I'm going to skip over light, gravity, and the strong force traveling in extremely dilute matter because that's sort of cheating if you take something that naturally travels at the speed of light and slow it down the very, very slightest bit, of course it will come ridiculously close to the speed of light. In real second place are almost certainly cosmic ray particles. These cosmic rays are actually subatomic particles that are accelerated to fantastic energies by natural processes in the cosmos. How such accelerators work is still largely a mystery but some of the cosmic ray particles that reach our atmosphere have truly astonishing energies once in a while a single cosmic ray particle that is smaller than an atom will carry enough energy with it that it is capable of moving small ordinary objects around. Even if it carries the energy of a fly, that's a stupendous amount of energy for an atomic fragment. Those cosmic ray particles are traveling so close to the speed of light that it would be a photo-finish with light itself.
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