David Amerland
Strange things illustration for the Sunday Read by David Amerland

Strange Things

Logically we shouldn’t care if the universe is expanding or contracting, if there is background radiation in space or if water can co-exist in three distinct phases at the same temperature.

Yet, all these things are important because they use physics and physics allows us to understand the world around us and make projections about it that reflect our certainty that it will still be there tomorrow when we wake up.

Despite our long history of science and physics, and in spite of the fact that some things, like water, we have been working on for a long time; there are still a gazillion things we don’t understand. In acknowledging our ignorance we begin to get a grasp of the limits of our current knowledge (and the tools we have at our disposal). We also begin to grasp the boundaries of our understanding and how we are working to expand them.

In a way that is what maintains our sense of wonder in the world. As a chemical engineer I was fascinated by the fact that something as intuitive as heat transfer which is governed by the first law of thermodynamics is so fundamental that we have barely understood its implications.

Is life heat, in a sense, just like heat is energy? The moment you start thinking like this you open the doorway to a host of other questions. Questions that seem designed to make us realize that we understand how things work (sometimes) but not why.

Ice, for instance, may have more than one phase of existence. and Indeed, ice itself may yield more than one crystalline type. These are Feynman type problems but the root of the questions they are raised from is childlike.

A sun that’s stranger than we thought, for instance, gives rise to different perspectives. Different perspectives about nature affect all of the natural phenomena we experience, including that of water and heat transfer and give rise to fresh possibilities we hadn’t thought of before.

Speculation always gives rise to ideas. Some of which are bound to be incorrect.

Yet speculation also opens up possibilities. If everything is energy, for example, could a being exist in a pure energy form? Current physics says, with typical uncertainty, probably not and points to the second law of thermodynamics as the fundamental law of the universe

Consider how something as fundamental as fire can still be confusing when analyzed. As our new experimental tools allow us to peer into the quantum universe we discover that our classical understanding of the world is not quite backed by what we see.

Maybe, just maybe, the second law of thermodynamics is truly immutable. Then we could, potentially, connect thermodynamics to everything.

That’s where we’re at now. We know enough to be ‘dangerous’. Still understand very little. And we keep asking questions. I have, for some time now, been bridging the gap between the fundamental questions asked by science and the less obvious ones raised as a subtext by activities like SEO and marketing.

I will continue to do so for some time in the foreseeable future. Physics is important even if we don’t understand it because it allows us to understand our everyday life. Big questions and a deep interest in strange things are key because they provide the background against which our more mundane assumptions and expectations operate in.

The world is, still, a truly amazing place. We have only scratched the surface of our journey as sentient species seeking to comprehend our origins and our environment so we can manage our destiny.

I hope you made the right decision; collapsed the probability wave of infinite possibilities and are now, coffee in hand, sweets in the form of donuts, cookies, croissants and chocolate cake; within reach, contemplating the brain-twisting miracle of scientific knowledge and scientific endeavor. Have an awesome Sunday wherever you are.

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