How Everything Works
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Page 9 of 11 (103 Questions and Answers)

1219. When I buy a role of undeveloped film, it has a particular weight. After I have taken a picture but before I develop the film, does it weigh more or less? Does it matter what I take a picture of? — CV, Warrenville, IL
I think that a small number of atoms leave the film when it's exposed to light, so your exposed film probably weighs less than it did when you bought it. That's because light causes charge transfers within the grains of silver salts, changing silver-halide molecules into silver atoms and halogen atoms, and the halogen atoms probably leave the film or allow other atoms to leave instead. The silver atoms remain in the film, where clusters of three or four of them form the latent image—a cluster triggers the complete conversion of a silver-halide grain into silver during the development process. But the halogen atoms don't remain in the silver-halide grains. While it's possible that these halogen atoms are stabilized in the emulsion, so that the emulsion's weight remains constant, my guess is that they either diffuse out of the film or displace other atoms in the emulsion. Those displaced atoms would then leave the emulsion. Overall, I suspect that atoms leave the film when it's exposed and that the film becomes ever-so-slightly lighter.

I should point out, however, that the energy absorbed by the film does have a weight and that if the only effect of exposing film to light were that the film absorbed this additional energy, then the film's weight would increase by a fantastically small amount. But the chemistry that results from this energy absorption certainly swamps the weight of the light energy.

1229. I would like to get your opinion of the general subject of "healing science." This has come up as a topic of conversation in our family. I've seen many articles on this subject which often contain references to physics terms, such as vibrational healing" and "energy medicine." They sometimes claim the existence of a human energy field, or aura, which "penetrates and surrounds the physical body, and contains the template for the body, the thoughts, the emotions and the spirituality." Imbalances, blockages and distortions in the flow of the energy field have a direct correlation to physical, emotional, mental and spiritual "dis-ease" and problems, it is claimed. Furthermore, it is claimed that one can learn how to sense and correct an energy imbalance before it expresses itself as physical illness, as well as recover emotionally and physically from an illness you may already have. Some even claim that long-distance healing works. "Based on Einstein's theory that time and space are relative," they say, "not only can the energy field be worked on by directly placing hands on the body or a few inches above the body, but also from across the room, or across the continent. Long-distance clientele experience the healing work as if they were in the office." While these claims would seem to have no foundation in scientific fact, I pause when I see endorsements by supposedly educated people such as Richard Gerber, M.D., author of Vibrational Medicine, and Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit (who has her B.A. in Journalism, her M.A. in Theology, and her Ph.D. in Energy Medicine). Reportedly, "Harvard-trained neurosurgeon C. Norman Shealy estimates Myss' 'medical intuitive readings' to be 93% accurate." This reminds me of something I recently saw about Albert Abrams, M.D.—a reputedly brilliant and well-respected American diagnostician. In the early 1930s, in an apparent effort to clone his talents so he could handle his patient overload, he invented two machines based on his theory of radionic diagnosis. One was the "Dynamizer" that could diagnose any illness and the other was the "Oscilloclast" which could cure any illness by restoring the person's harmony. Through a series of double-blind tests conducted by Scientific American, these devices were conclusively shown to be sheer quackery. Amazingly, Abrams is still held as a "true genius" in some circles, e.g., (See chapter 1 — Albert Abrams and Radionics Diagnosis) What do you tell your college students — and other people who may be naive to science — about this stuff (without being disrespectful)? — JB
You have every reason to be skeptical about this sort of activity. Despite its length, I have included your entire question here because it gives me an opportunity to point out some of the differences between science and pseudo-science. You have written a wonderful survey of some of the quackery that exists in our society and have illustrated beautifully the widespread view that science is fundamentally nothing more than gibberish. I cringe as I read your review of "healing science" because in that description I see science, a field that has been developed with care by people I respect and admire, tossed cavalierly into the gutter by self-important know-nothings who aren't worth a moments notice. That these miserable individuals draw such attention, often at the expense of far more deserving real scientists—or worse, by "standing on the shoulders" of those real scientists—is a tragedy of modern society. It's just dreadful.

Let me begin to pick up the pieces by pointing out that terms like "human energy field", "vibrational medicine", and "energy imbalance" are simply meaningless and that the use of "Einstein's Theory" to justify healing-at-a-distance is typical of people who don't have a clue about what science actually is. The meaningless misuse of scientific terms and the uninformed and careless misapplication of scientific techniques is an activity called pseudo-science. Pseudo-science may sound and look like science, but the two have almost nothing else in common. Among the benefits of a good college education is learning how vast is the world of human knowledge, recognizing how little you know of that world, discovering how much others have already thought about everything you can imagine, and finding out how dangerous it is to venture unprepared into any area you do not know well. Most of these pseudo-scientific quacks are either oblivious of their own ignorance or so arrogant that they dismiss the work of others as not worthy of their attention. Either way, they make terrible students and, consequently, useless teachers. You'll do best to leave their books on the shelves.

Because real science is not buzzwords, simply stringing together the words of science does not make one a scientist. Science is an intense, self-reflective, skeptical, objective investigative process in which we try to form conceptual models for the universe and its contents, and try to test those models against the universe itself. We do this modeling and testing over and over again, improving and perfecting the models and discarding or modifying models that do not appear consistent with actual observations. Accurate models are valuable because they have predictive power—you can tell in advance how something will behave if you have modeled it correctly.

In the course of these scientific investigations, concepts arise which deserve names and so we assign names to them. In that manner, words such as "energy" and "vibration" have entered our language. Each such word has a very specific meaning and applies only in a specific context. Thus the word "force" was assigned to the concept we commonly refer to as a "push" or a "pull" and applies in the context of interactions between objects. The expression "the force be with you" has nothing to do with physics—the word "force" in that phrase doesn't mean a push or a pull and has nothing to do with the interactions between objects. As you can see, taken out of its applicable context and used carelessly in another usually renders a scientific word completely meaningless.

Alas, the average person doesn't understand science, doesn't speak its language, and cannot distinguish the correct use of the language of science from the meaningless gibberish of pseudo-science. As anyone who has spent time exploring the web ought to have discovered, highly polished prose and graphics is no guarantee of intelligent content. That's certainly true of what appears to be scientific material. I am further saddened to see that even the titles of academia are deemed fair game by the quacks. While the physics term "energy" and the biological word "medicine" can appear together in a sentence about cancer treatment or medical imaging, that's not what the person claiming to have a Ph.D. in "Energy Medicine" has in mind. That degree was probably granted by a group that understands neither physics nor medicine. There may be a place for non-traditional medicine because medicine is not an exact science—there is often more than one correct answer in medicine and there are poorly understood issues in medicine even at fairly basic levels.

However, physics is an exact science, with mechanical predictability (within the limitations of quantum mechanics) and only one truly correct answer to each question. Its self-consistent and quantitative nature leaves physics with no room for conflicting explanations. Like most academic physicists, I occasionally receive self-published books and manuscripts from people claiming to have discovered an entirely new physics that is far superior to the current one. And like most academic physicists, I flip briefly through these unreviewed documents and then, with a moment's sadness that the authors have wasted so much time, effort, and money, I toss them into the recycling bin. It's not that we scientists are close minded medieval keepers of the dogma, it's that these "new physics" offerings are the works of ignorant people who don't know what they don't know. Unlike real scientific revolutionaries like Galileo and Einstein, these people don't understand the strengths and weaknesses of the current scientific models. Their new offerings are usually inconsistent, fail to correctly model the real universe, add unnecessary complexity to simple phenomena, or all three. It's extraordinarily unlikely that anyone will ever successfully overthrow the basic laws of physics, not because no one will accept a new physics if it's actually correct but because the current physics already explains things with such incredible accuracy and predictive power. Developments in physics come almost exclusively at its frontier, where the current understanding of physics is known to be imperfect or incomplete, and that is probably where those developments will probably always occur.

So to return to your question, I would tell my students that I think that the "healing sciences" as you have identified them are neither.

1262. I recently read in a sales brochure for a major international energy services company that the speed of light had been exceeded in 1995. Is this true? If so, could you explain how this was accomplished? — TS
For very fundamental reasons, the speed of light in vacuum cannot be exceeded. Calling it the "speed of light" is something of a misnomer—it is the fundamental speed at which all massless particles travel. Since light was the first massless particle to be studied in detail, it was the first particle seen to travel at this special speed.

While nothing can travel faster than this special speed, it's easy to go slower. In fact, light itself travels more slowly than this when it passes through a material. Whenever light encounters matter, its interactions with the charged particles in that matter delay its movement. For example, light travels only about 2/3 of its vacuum speed while traveling in glass. Because of this slowing of light, it is possible for massive objects to exceed the speed at which light travels through a material. For example, if you send very, very energetic charged particles (such as those from a research accelerator) into matter, those particles may move faster than light can move in that matter. When this happens, the charged particles emit electromagnetic shock waves known as Cherenkov radiation—there is light emitted from each particle as it moves.

I suppose that the brochure could have been talking about this light/matter interaction. But since that effect has been observed for decades, there is nothing special about 1995. More likely, the brochure is talking about nonsense.

1265. How does one find out the speed of a quark? Is it 7000 times the speed of light? — D
It seems that quarks are forever trapped inside the particles they comprise—no one has ever seen an isolated quark. But inside one of those particles, the quarks move at tremendous speeds. Their high speeds are a consequence of quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle—whenever a particle (such as a quark) is confined to a small region of space (i.e. its location is relatively well defined), then its momentum must be extremely uncertain and its speed can be enormous. In fact, a substantial portion of the mass/energy of quark-based particles such as protons and neutrons comes from the kinetic energy of the fast-moving quarks inside them.

But despite these high speeds, the quarks never exceed the speed of light. As a massive particle such as a quark approaches the speed of light, its momentum and kinetic energy grow without bounds. For that reason, even if you gave all the energy in the world to a single quark, its speed would still remain just a hair less than the speed of light.

1269. Does gravity have a speed at which it acts upon another body? — CP, Billings, Montana
Yes, the speed of light. The gravitational interaction between two objects can be viewed as the exchange of particles called "gravitons," just as the electromagnetic interaction between two objects can be viewed as the exchange of particles called "photons." Gravitons and photons are both massless particles and therefore travel at a special speed: the "speed of light." Since light is easier to work with than gravity, people discovered this special speed in the context of light first. If gravity had been easier to work with, they might have named it "the speed of gravity" instead. Sometime in the not too distant future, gravity-wave detectors such as the LIGO project will begin to observe gravity waves traveling through space from nearby cosmic events, particularly star collapses. These gravity waves will reach us at essentially the same time as light waves from those events since the gravity and light travel at the same speed.

1310. I'm grateful for your work and the availability of your site. Though I think that your ignorant condemnation of the work of other professionals about whose work you know absolutely nothing is contemptuous. Once again the arrogance of the established order and refusal to open-minded investigation. I would not have this opinion if you had used the careful, open-minded, systematic investigation that you espouse before you let your ego expose your ignorance. Carolyne Myss, with a verifiable accuracy rate of 93% percent, should not be called a quack. I wonder if, in your answers on this site, you could attain that rate of accuracy. I sincerely doubt it. In fact, with your over-blown ego, you could really benefit from her work. So stick to the information about lightning and CDs and stay away from that which you obviously are quite ignorant! — Unsigned
This comment, which responds to a previous posting on this site, points out one of the most important differences between physical science and pseudo-science: the fact that pseudo-science isn't troubled by its lack of self-consistency.

Physical science, particularly physics itself, is completely self-consistent. By that I mean that the same set of physical rules applies to every possible situation in the universe and that this set of rules never leads to paradoxical results. Despite its complicated behavior, the universe is orderly and predictable. It's precisely this order and predictability that is the basis for the whole field of physics.

In contrast, pseudo-science is eclectic—it draws from physics and magic as it sees fit. It uses the laws of physics when it finds those laws useful and it ignores the laws of physics when they conflict with its interests. But the laws of physics only make sense if they apply universally—if there were even one situation in which a law of physics didn't apply, physics would lose its self-consistency and predictive power. That's just what happens with pseudo-science when it begins to ignore the laws of physics on occasion. Moreover, the new rules that pseudo-science introduces to replace the ones it ignores make the trouble even worse. Overall, pseudo-science is inconsistent and can't be counted on to predict anything.

Pseudo-science might argue that the laws of physics are correct as far as they go, but that they're incomplete. No doubt the laws of physics are incomplete; physicists have frequently discovered improvements to the laws of physics that have allowed them to make even more accurate predictions of the universe's behavior. But in the years since the discoveries of relativity and quantum physics, the pace of such discoveries has slowed and what remains to be understood is at a very deep and subtle level. It's extraordinarily unlikely that the laws of physics as they're currently understood are wrong at a level that would allow a person to bend a spoon with their thoughts alone or predict the order of a deck of cards without assistance. Just because I haven't dropped a particular book doesn't prevent me from predicting that it will fall when I let go of it. I understand the laws that govern its motion and I know that having it fly upward would violate those laws. Similarly, I don't have to watch someone try to bend a spoon with their thoughts to know that it can't be done legitimately. Again, I understand the laws that govern the spoon's condition and I know that having it bend without an identifiable force acting on it would violate those laws. I also don't have to watch someone try to predict cards to know that it, too, can't be done legitimately. Without a clear physical mechanism for transporting information from the cards to the person, a mechanism that must involve forces or exchanges of particles, there is no way for the person to predict the cards.

1313. What is an event horizon? — KRH
An event horizon is the surface around a black hole from which not even light can escape. But to make it clearer what that statement means, consider first what happens to the light from a flashlight that's resting on the surface of a large planet. Light is affected by gravity—it falls just like everything else. The reason you never notice this fact is that light travels so fast that it doesn't have time to fall very far. But suppose that the gravity on the planet is extremely strong. If the flashlight is aimed horizontally, the light will fall and arc downward just enough that it will hit the surface of the planet before escaping into space. To get the light to leave the planet, the flashlight must be tipped a little above horizontal.

If the planet's gravity is even stronger, the flashlight will have to be tipped even more above horizontal. In fact, if the gravity is sufficiently strong, light can only avoid hitting the planet if the flashlight is aimed almost straight up. And beyond a certain strength of gravity, even pointing the flashlight straight up won't keep the light from hitting the planet's surface.

When that situation occurs, an event horizon forms around the planet and forever separates the planet from the universe around it. Actually, the planet ceases to exist as a complex object and is reduced to its most basic characteristics: mass, electric charge, and angular momentum. The planet becomes a black hole. and light emitted at or within this black hole's event horizon falls inward so strongly that it doesn't escape. Since nothing can move faster than light, nothing else can escape from the black hole's event horizon either.

The nature of space and time at the event horizon are quite complicated and counter-intuitive. For example, an object dropped into a black hole will appear to spread out on the event horizon without ever entering it. That's because, to an outside observer, time slows down in the vicinity of the event horizon. By that, I mean that it takes an infinite amount of our time for an object to fall through that event horizon. But the object itself doesn't experience a change in the flow of time. For it, time passes normally and it zips right through the event horizon.

Finally, event horizons and the black holes that have them aren't truly black—quantum mechanical fluctuations at the event horizon allow black holes to emit particles and radiation. This "Hawking radiation," discovered by Stephen Hawking about 25 years ago, means that black holes aren't truly black. Nonetheless, objects that fall into an event horizon never leave intact.

1329. When people are able to bend spoons or move tables with their minds (if this is actually possible and not just a hoax), what sort of force is being exerted on the object? Is it possible to create forces with the mind?
I'm afraid that spoon bending is simply a hoax. While there are electrochemical processes going on in the mind that exert detectable forces on special probes located outside the head, these forces are so small that they are incapable of doing anything as demanding as bending a spoon. Spoon bending and all other forms of telekinesis are simply tricks played on gullible audiences.

1362. Is it physically possible for a baseball player to hit a baseball that has been pitched 60 ft away at 90-95 mph? If so, why are the highest baseball records between 3 and 4 out of ten?
If the ball was pitched straight and true, the same way every pitch, good batters could hit every one. There is enough time in the wind-up and pitch for the batter to determine where and when to swing and to hit the ball just right. But the pitches vary and the balls curve. That limits the batter's ability to predict where the ball is going. There aren't any physical laws that limit a batter's ability to hit every ball well, but there are physiological and mental limits that lower everyone's batting average.

1373. Is it true that a person in space doesn't get as old as if he was on the earth? — ASB, Chiapas, Mexico
The effects you are referring to are extremely subtle, so no one will ever notice them in an astronaut. But with ultraprecise clocks, it's not hard to see strange effects altering the passage of time in space. There are actually two competing effects that alter the passage of time on a spaceship—one that slows the passage of time as a consequence of special relativity and the other that speeds the passage of time as a consequence of general relativity.

The time slowing effect is acceleration—a person or clock that takes a fast trip around the earth and then returns to the starting point will experience slightly less time than a person or clock that remained at the starting point. This effect is a consequence of acceleration and the changing relationships between space and time that come with different velocities.

The time speeding effect is gravitational redshift—a person or clock that is farther from the earth's center experiences slightly more time than a person or clock that remains at the earth's surface. This effect is a consequence of the decreased potential energy that comes with being deeper in the earth's gravitational potential well.
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