Category Archives: Cramer Explains the Universe

In this series of articles, I give my spin on the mysteries of the universe.

Cramer’s Special (Education) Theory of Gravity

Albert Einstein created the General Theory of Relativity to explain and mathematically model gravity. As he was finishing it, he had an oh-shit moment and realized it wouldn’t balance out properly unless he shoved in an arbitrary number that he called the Cosmological Constant. Without this number, his theory would show that the universe was expanding instead of being static. Years later, physical evidence was obtained that the universe was, indeed, expanding. This evidence was the “red shift” – the color shift towards the red of the returning radiation from distant stars in comparison to closer stars. This shift is due to the Doppler Effect. This is the same effect that causes an ambulance’s siren to sound differently to us when it is coming at us than when it is traveling away from us. Eventually, Einstein acknowledged his mistake and removed the constant. The funny thing about this is that he was originally right, but then a simple assumption of the way the world worked did him in.

Einstein’s theory about gravity has something to do with curved spacetime and other nifty things like that. It’s odd but it is well proven experimentally and universally accepted these days. I have a different way of looking at it, one that is not mathematical but conceptual and probably quite wrong, but I am sharing it just the same. I want to stress that this is not generally excepted science and I am just pulling a theory out of my ass. Still, although it certainly has its flaws, you may find it intriguing.

At the heart of my theory is the very thing that Einstein fudged, the expansion of the universe. If you believe that the universe is expanding, that is, everything in the universe is traveling away from everything else, then you might suppose that at one time everything was all lumped together in one very tight, very dense blob and then “exploded” away from each other. This is a crude rendition of the Big Bang Theory. I’ll discuss that in another article. For now, let’s not worry about the origin, but concentrate on the here and now. If you want to visualize our expanding universe, put a few thousand dots on an un-inflated balloon. Start to blow it up and watch the magic as all the dots move away from each other.

So what is gravity? Gravity is a force brought on by acceleration. When you mash down on the gas peddle of your car, you feel a force pull you back in your seat. Gravity works the same way, but how? First, we must accept that everything exerts its own gravity, but the small items we encounter from day to day don’t exert enough for us to notice. This means that as far as gravity is concerned, fat chicks are more attractive than skinny ones, but we don’t notice either way. We certainly notice the gravity of Earth, though.

So where is all this acceleration coming from? How is the Earth accelerating in all directions at once? Wait, we just said that the universe is expanding in all directions at once. Ah, that’s how it’s doing it!

But wait, that’s crap, right? Shouldn’t we be “expanding” away from Earth just like everything else is expanding away from everything else? Not quite, and here is why: The matter in the universe is distributed unevenly. I’ll get into why I think this is so in another article, but let’s just deal with the implications for now.

You are expanding right now. Your body is expanding, the cells that make up your body are expanding, the atoms that make up your cells are expanding, the electrons, protons and neutrons that make up your atoms are expanding, the quarks that make up those particles are expanding, and I’m sure whatever undiscovered crappy particles that make up quarks are expanding as well. The outside of your body, however, is expanding faster than its component parts. How? To visualize this, put your hands by your side. Now push your hands out towards your sides at a constant rate. We will call that the expansion of one of your cells. Now, put your hands back down at your side and have a nerdy friend stand beside you. Hold hands. Now kiss. Sorry, just kidding. Hold hands, then both of you push your hands out towards your sides at the same constant rate that you just did alone. You’ll have to side-step away from each other as you do this. Your hands moved apart at the same rate and your friend’s hands moved apart at the same rate, but your outer hand and his/her outer hand moved apart twice as fast! If you had a hundred people doing this on rollerblades (wheels pointed to the side) and everyone shoved at two miles an hour, the guys on the end would be doing close to two hundred miles an hour away from each other. Now that’s a fun Saturday afternoon. So anyway, the hands of the dudes at the end would be the outside of your body. Get the picture?

So here we are, a small, expanding object on the surface of a much bigger object, the Earth, which is expanding much faster than we are. It is pushing us out of the way, accelerating us! And to some extent we are pushing back, but not a hell of a lot. But we notice the difference between how much one object pushes versus another. We call it weight. An object with twice as much mass weighs twice as much. This is because the heavier object has twice the number of little people pushing their hands out in all directions. Tada! Gravity.

Now consider that it is believed that the universe will eventually stop expanding and start to contract. What happens when the universe lets the air out of our balloon? What will happen then? Even though the universe would be contracting, objects like, say, the Earth and us may go flying off in different directions! We’ll probably have to start gluing stuff together and staking it all down to the ground.

I hope you enjoyed my explanation of gravity. Now please forget it because it is silly.


Cramer Explains How to Mod an XBox with Quantum Mechanics

Quantum mechanics is the study of the relationship between energy and matter. It provides us with accurate descriptions for many previously unexplained phenomena such as black body radiation and stable electron orbits.

But quantum mechanics is a desperately crazy and interesting science that contains several preposterous sounding theories that are surprisingly being proven correct day by day. I’ll touch briefly on some of these.

First, we have Planck’s constant. Planck’s constant is used to describe quantization, a phenomenon occurring in subatomic particles such as electrons and photons in which certain physical properties occur in fixed amounts rather than a continuous range of possible values. This constant shows that there is an inherent graininess to our world. I made a statement in a previous article that I thought that if there were a God, he/she/it was disguised as Plank’s constant. I believe this to be the source of all the randomness, diversity, and uncertainty in the world – but that is the subject of yet another article.

Second, we have the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is the statement that locating a particle in a small region makes the momentum of the particle uncertain, and conversely, measuring the momentum of a particle precisely makes the position uncertain. It explains that there is an inherent uncertainty, an inherent fuzziness to our world. It tells us that there are limits to the measurements that we can make of the world, not because of limits in our technology but because of limits in nature itself. The world, it seams, can only be described through probabilities and not hard numbers. Interestingly enough, the uncertainty of our observations (measured as the standard deviation of the measured value from its expected value) is always in multiples of Planck’s constant. On another side note, our buddy Einstein didn’t like this principle very much and said that he refused to believe that God rolled dice. It now appears that God has quite a gambling habit. Don’t worry big guy, we all have our vises.

Third is the observer effect. The observer effect refers to the fact that the mere observation or measurement of a phenomenon will alter it. Even stranger, if the phenomenon is simply put into a position where observing it is possible, without actual observation taking place, it will still (theoretically) alter it.

Yet another one is wave–particle duality. Wave–particle duality is the concept that all matter exhibits both wave-like and particle-like properties. All particles are supposed to also have a wave nature. This phenomenon has been verified not only for elementary particles, but also for compound particles like atoms and even molecules. In fact, according to quantum mechanics, wave–particle duality applies to all objects, even macroscopic ones but we can’t detect wave properties of macroscopic objects due to their very small wavelengths.

Here is the big one: Entanglement. Entanglement is so wacky that Albert Einstein, along with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen formulated the EPR paradox, a quantum-mechanical thought experiment with a highly counterintuitive and apparently non-local outcome to show why quantum mechanics could not be a complete/correct theory. This paper was so well thought out that it is still sited as a reference source in almost all papers written on entanglement. But like Einstein’s cosmological constant, he was wrong for all the right reasons. He assumed that quantum mechanics was bunk because it allowed for non-local effects, or “spukhafte Fernwirkung (spooky action at a distance)” as he called it. But once again the universe has proved itself to be just a little crazier than Einstein wanted to believe.

Quantum entanglement is a phenomenon in which the quantum states of two or more particles have to be described with reference to each other, even though the individual particles may be physically separated. For instance, say we have two entangled electrons with one on one side of the galaxy and one on the other. Before we observe any of their quantum states, say their spin along the Z-axis, they both exist in an indeterminate state. Each electron is said to be in a superposition of states in which it can be thought of as the sum of both possible states: spin up and spin down. We can only characterize it by probability, which in this case is a not so surprising 50/50. The interesting part happens when you observe the electron’s spin. Once you observe one electron and find it to be spin up, the other one instantly collapses out of its indeterminate state and, when observed, will always be spin down – even on the other side of the galaxy. What’s really interesting is that you can entangle more than two particles at a time.

Now for some fun with quantum mechanics. Here is an experiment that will drive home just how odd quantum mechanics can be. I have largely copied this from Wikipedia because I am tired and lazy, but I have tweaked it here and there. It’s sad – I’m an adult now but I still copy from the encyclopedia to do my homework assignments.

In the double-slit experiment, light is shone at a solid thin plate that has two slits cut into it. A photographic plate is set up to record what comes through those slits. One or the other slit may be open, or both may be open.

When only one slit is open, the pattern on the plate is a diffraction pattern, a fairly narrow central band and dimmer bands parallel to it on each side. When both slits are open, the pattern displayed becomes much more detailed and at least four times as wide. This is an interference pattern – something that only happens when waves cross paths.

Now, with both slits still open, if something is added to the experiment to allow a determination that a photon has passed through one or the other slit, then the interference pattern disappears and the experimental apparatus yields two simple patterns, one from each slit. The interference pattern disappears! Just by observation we have forced the light to exhibit its particle nature instead of its wave nature.

The most baffling part of this experiment comes when only one photon at a time is fired at the barrier with both slits open. As the pattern is recorded by the film, one photon at a time, again we see an interference pattern emerge. The clear implication is that something with a wavelike nature passes simultaneously through both slits and interferes with itself — even though there is only one photon present. (The experiment also works with electrons, atoms, and even some molecules too.)

There are other intriguing experiments and applications of quantum mechanics – many of them using entanglement. One of them is quantum teleportation, where the state of a particle can be transmitted from one place to another. Another closely related application is quantum cryptography – sending unbreakable codes by using entangled particles coupled with a “classical channel” of communication. The classical channel information is useless without the entangled particles so eavesdropping is impossible.

Another interesting application is quantum ghost imaging. In ghost imaging, entangled photons head off in opposite directions. A mask is placed in front of the path of the photons heading in one direction, with a bucket detector behind it to count when a photon makes it through the mask. If detectors are also set up in the other path, the image of the mask is surprisingly retrieved by recording the joint detection events of the entangled pairs.

This finally brings us to quantum computing. Using entangled particles it is possible to perform some computations like integer factorization and discrete logarithms in an exponentially faster manor than traditional computer architecture allows. These computers will also be terribly good at “brute force” computations where several guesses must be checked before a final answer can be found. With these uses alone, you can say goodbye to even the most hard-core encryption schemes that exist today.

So what about your Xbox? How can you use quantum mechanics to improve its gaming performance? That is a fantastic question. The answer is for you to put down the controller and start paying attention to the world around you. I guarantee that the universe has far better problems for you to solve than any video game. Maybe start paying a little more attention to your math and science teachers. Do a little research every night when you get home. With some work, you can figure out how to build a quantum Xbox. And when you get your award for extreme cleverness, don’t forget to thank Cramer for the inspiration.


Cramer Explains Why Metal Feels Cold

Nature is a whore. It likes to spread itself all around until it’s been everywhere. Most everything in nature seeks a balance, a point where it is evenly distributed. The greater the disequilibrium, the more it tries to even the score.

The water on the Earth is constantly seeking a common level. This causes the formation of rivers and streams to channel the water from high to low. The more water there is upstream, the more the rivers will flow. Electrons seek a common level as well. Whenever there is a pool of electrons, you can be sure that they are trying to disperse themselves and when they do, you get an electric current. The more electrons you have in one spot, the greater the electric current will be when they disperse. Heat is the same way, constantly trying to even itself out. The greater the source of heat, the quicker the heat will transfer itself to somewhere colder.

But that is only half the story. It is true that the greater the disequilibrium, the greater the drive for nature to equalize it. And it is true that this greater drive causes quicker action. But, there is another factor in the speed at which nature equalizes itself: resistance.

Some materials conduct electricity better than others, just as some conduct heat better than others. Metals happen to be good conductors of both heat and electricity. Other materials like rubber are poor conductors of both heat and electricity. We call those types of materials insulators.

Your body is in a constant state of thermal disequilibrium with its environment. Our bodies are happiest at a temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, but we prefer to live in an environment of about 72 degrees (which we refer to as room temperature). Everything around your house that is at room temperature is actually cold compared to you. That is why we mammals are said to be warm-blooded. It seems strange, but we actual prefer to live in a cold environment.

The heat in your body is constantly escaping, constantly trying to reach a balance with its environment just like the rest of nature. This turns out to be a good thing because your body also makes a ton of heat, most of it from muscular expenditure. Have you ever heard of burning calories? Calories are a measure of the energy content of food. One of the ways to measure calories is to set the food on fire and measure the amount of heat it generates. In fact, calories are a measure of heat. One calorie is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. As your body uses food for energy, heat is released as a by-product. If this heat did not dissipate into the environment, you would boil yourself to death, and no one wants that.

The human body tries very hard to maintain its internal temperature of 98.6 degrees F. If you run around and generate too much heat, you sweat. Your body opens up holes (pores) in the skin to allow some of its water to evaporate, carrying heat along with it. If your internal temperature starts to drop below 98.6, you shiver. This burns calories to generate more heat. But you won’t shiver for long because your body will send a signal to your brain as well. This signal conveys a simple message: COLD! When your brain gets this signal it will probably respond by putting on a blanket or more clothes (insulation) or by turning the heat up in the house. Both of these actions achieve the same goal of slowing down the transfer of heat from your body to the environment, but they achieve it in different ways. The blanket works by physically slowing down the transfer of heat because the cotton, wool, or plastic that the blanket is made from is not a good conductor of heat. On the flip side, turning the heat up in the house works because it lessens the temperature difference between your body and its environment and therefore lessens nature’s desire to equalize that difference.

When your body is dissipating heat at the same rate in which it is generating it, then it feels comfortable. When it is generating more heat than it is dissipating, then it feels hot. When it is dissipating more heat than it is generating, then it feels cold. This means that when you touch an object, it feels hot or cold not solely based on its temperature but also on how fast or slow it conducts heat away from your body. If you pick up a pillow at room temperature, it will feel normal because it conducts heat from your body at about the same rate as the air does, but if you pick up a metal pan at room temperature it will feel downright chilly because it is conducting the heat from your body much faster than air, triggering your body’s COLD! signal. And that, my friends, is why metal feels cold to us – because heat is a whore that really likes metal. Or something like that.


Cramer Explains Alternate Dimensions

I’m sure most of you are aware that we live in a world with three standard dimensions – length, width, and height (or X, Y, and Z if you are a mathlete.) Less of you are probably aware that there is also a fourth dimension. No, it isn’t a wormhole in your clothes dryer in which socks escape from our reality. It’s much simpler than that. The fourth dimension is time. Time is a funny one because it relentlessly progresses in one direction. Lots of scientists say you can slow it down by traveling really fast – much faster than even I drive on the highway – close to the speed of light fast. But none of them has figured out a way to make it go backwards, though. Thank Bob for that one! I’d probably end up spending most of my days going back in time and slapping myself silly for something dumb I was about to do, and that would get tiresome for all of me.

Douglas Adams, a writer of humorous science fiction, has suggested several times that the fifth dimension is probability. I’d say there is a 50/50 chance he is right. Brian Cramer, another writer of humorous science fiction, has suggested that there is a seventh dimension, and it smells like old salmon. I think he is probably wrong about that one. Several other real scientists believe that there are as many as eleven dimensions, possibly more.

What I want to know is: where are these dimensions and why can’t we perceive them? Scientists like to explain this away by saying that some are too small to be detected or they loop back on themselves. To me, they are just cheating to get the right answer. It’s like saying 6 x 9 = 42 … if you use base 13 instead of base 10 (our normal numbering system.)

So I was trying to picture what another physical dimension would be like, and of course I couldn’t. So I went backwards and tried to think of how a creature that could only perceive two dimensions would perceive our world, and what it would be missing. Here is what I came up with.

A two-dimensional viewpoint can be represented by a plane, a flat sheet. Imagine a clear sheet of something slicing through your living room, not really cutting it but simply merging with your stuff to draw your attention to just the objects it touches. Now imagine that you were a creature that could only see the part of your living room that the sheet is going through. You would see a slice of your couch, a slice of your TV, a slice of a chair or two. Inevitably though, there are objects in your living room that did not get “sliced” by the sheet. So, our creature is seeing some of what we see but in a different way, and it is also missing other things altogether.

Now, what if this creature could shift its universe over a tad along its unknown dimension? In other words, imagine the sheet slides over an inch or two. What it now sees will probably be similar to what he used to see. It will see a slice of your TV, a slice of your couch, a slice of a chair or two – but what it sees will also be subtly different – a slice of a different TV component, a different cushion of the couch, and maybe a chair leg pops into its world. If it moved its slice over a hundred feet, chances are that its world would look completely foreign.

Back in our world, if you really stretch your imagination you may be able to picture your world shifting in an unknown direction just a bit. Now, some things would be a little different; some new things would all of the sudden exist while others disappeared. If you shifted your world enough, it would probably become unrecognizable to you.

Now we can get a little supernatural with all of this. Say we live in one slice, and other people (or things) live in a slice right beside ours. Maybe once in a while there is some bleed-over. Maybe once in a while one of them somehow puts his elbow over the line, or even pops in and back out of our slice. Perhaps that is the phenomena of ghosts? Maybe ghosts are not dead souls roaming around, but simply our dimensional neighbors who sometimes like to borrow our space.

If you can draw any conclusion from this thought experiment, it’s probably this: If there really are other dimensions out there, chances are that there is a whole lot to the universe that we are missing, and therefore virtually everything we know and believe to be true is probably wrong.