December 28, 2011

Absolutely clueless

 

Okay I’m having some trouble with Mr Fayer and his ABSOLUTELY SMALL.  Has anyone else read it?  In the first place.  His Schrodinger’s cats.  He suggests 1000 boxes with 1000 cats in them, one each.  The cats—ALL the cats, each and EVERY ONE of the cats—are a mixture of 50% alive and 50% dead.  Already I’m confused.  What do you MEAN 50% alive and 50% dead?   What?  How?  Why?  By what MEASUREMENT (which of course is The Question*) are they 50% alive and 50% dead?  What does this mean to the CATS?  And then, having shut up all these possibly ailing and distressed cats in boxes, which cannot be a positive reinforcement of whatever their level of well-being might have been before you did shut them up in the boxes**, you start . . . opening the boxes.  And by the fact of your opening the box and peering inside the cat magically—yes, I said magically—mutates into a pure state of either 100% aliveness or 100% deadness.  WHY?  THIS IS NOT HOW A CAT IN A BOX BEHAVES.***   Unless of course it DIES of a HEART ATTACK the moment it sees you.  And after the first few hundred boxes you have a nervous breakdown as a result of your sense of responsibility for the deaths of (approximately) 500 out of 1000 cats.  Not to mention the prospect of trying to support the liveness of 500 frelling cats until you can convince the RSPCA to come and take them away . . . and also try to convince the RSPCA that they shouldn’t sue the crap out of you for animal abuse, although, supposing they arrive before you run out of cat food, the vibrant, 100% healthiness of the 500 live cats should at least confuse the issue.

            I don’t think I’m getting out of this example what I’m supposed to be getting out of it.†

            And then there’s the whole ‘absolute’ size thing.  He goes through the business of how we interpret size as relative.  Something is large or small as soon as we have something to compare it to.  A photograph of two rocks with a blank background tells us nothing about the size of the rocks till the background is adjusted to have a piece of human being in it for scale.  I don’t myself see how this is a difference in kind with his ‘absolutes’ of ‘large’ being something you can set up an experiment to observe with a negligible alteration to the thing observed compared with ‘small’ being something you cannot set up an experiment to observe with negligible alterations—‘small’ means all experiments create non-negligible, which is to say substantial, alterations, no matter how clever you think you are, which pretty well futzes your experiment.  How is this not relative?  It’s relative to your ability to create an experiment with this or that outcome.  It’s relative to your size and galumphingness.  If we were the size of photons, we could create a sufficiently sub-photonic experiment to measure photons,†† photons being one of those absolutely-small things.  I get it (I think I get it) that large means you can straightforwardly create useful experiments and small means you can’t, but—to this English lit major—this just means some science bozo is inventing new definitions for ‘small’ and ‘large’.  That’s fine.  The small and large part works.  It’s the stuff around it I’m having some trouble with.

            And then . . . back to reality . . . He says, ‘Imagine that a small boy weighing 50 pounds runs into you going 20 miles per hour.’  WHAT?  How is this small boy weighing 50 pounds managing to run into you going 20 miles per hour?  Turbo-charged roller skates?†††  His parents should be had up for criminal negligence.  Then he says, ‘Now imagine that a 200-pound man runs into you going 5 miles per hour. . . . The small boy is light and moving fast.  The man is heavy and moving slow.’  EDITOR’S NOTE:  that should be slowly.  ‘Both have the same momentum. . . . In some sense, both would have the same impact when they collide with you.  Of course, this example should not be taken too literally.  The boy might hit you in the legs while the man would hit you in the chest. . . .’  Emphasis mine.  He never does mention the boy’s propulsion system.  I’m still worried about the chances of a small boy with negligent parents and turbo-charged roller skates living long enough to grow up and become a famous Olympic sprinter.

            And finally . . . the maths question.  On the VERY FIRST PAGE of the preface Fayer says that all we have to do is develop our ‘quantum mechanics intuition’ which is what this book is for.  He says:  ‘This lack of a picture of how [certain quantum-challenged] things work arises from a seemingly insurmountable barrier to understanding.  Usually that barrier is mathematics.’  To understand these things not immediately obvious to the unenhanced human eye ‘ . . . requires an understanding of quantum theory BUT IT ACTUALLY DOESN’T REQUIRE MATHEMATICS.’  Emphasis again mine.  ‘ . . . the presentation in this book is descriptive.  Diagrams replace the many equations with the exception of SOME SMALL ALGEBRAIC EQUATIONS—AND THESE SIMPLE EQUATIONS ARE EXPLAINED IN DETAIL.’

THIS IS MATHS! THIS IS TOTALLY MATHS!

 

 I don’t think it’s merely an excess of figgy pudding pressing on my brain here.‡ 

* * *

* See:  absolutely small, which means that you can’t create a means to observe it without also creating non-negligible change to what you’re trying to observe.  This is also a working definition of ‘spitchered’.  

** Speaking of altering what you were trying to observe. 

*** This is much more my experience of cats in boxes:  http://www.cafepress.co.uk/+womens_dark_tshirt,137590640 

† He says demurely ‘I have to admit to simplifying a little bit here. . . .’  Um.  But it turns out all he’s referring to is the number of live and dead cats.  You probably would not get exactly 500 of the one and 500 of the other.  Oh.  Okay.  Like that addresses any of my problems with this parable. 

†† And if he gets his totally-ignoring-reality Schrodinger’s cat metaphor then I get this totally-ignoring-reality itty-bitty extremely molecularly dense human metaphor.  

††† Aren’t there some physics, speaking of physics, about how fast it’s literally possible for a substantially shorter rather than a substantially taller person to run, aside from talent and fitness and so on?  Which means a small boy—fifty pounds is little—is even more unlikely to be going 20 mph.  Without turbo-charged roller skates. 

‡ EMoon:

Where is the digestion I had in my 20s, when immense amounts of anything I liked could be ingested without discomfort or weight gain or…whatever? 

The one . . . the one thing to be said for having spent the last forty frelling years fighting my own personal daily battle with my waistline is that when I hit menopause and the diet wars became dirty, scorched-earth and take-no-prisoners, I was to some degree ready.  I mean, I wasn’t ready, I’m appalled at how little I get to eat^ and how much I pay for it when I stray a spoonful of brandy butter over the line.  But I am used to the mindset of Calories Are the Enemy, and most of my menopausal friends weren’t, aren’t and won’t be.  I’m not utterly without, you should forgive the term, form in the matter of assuming all food is guilty until proved innocent.^^  This is not to say I won’t eventually get old and tired and say THE HELL WITH IT.  I WANT TO EAT TOAST AGAIN.  WITH BUTTER.  AND MARMALADE.    But at the moment—and this is a conversation I have had with myself at least every winter solstice holiday period for several years now, and at various less predictable times dotted about the calendar, and the situation is getting relentlessly more extreme—I’m still thinking about my rather ramshackle skeletal system, its weight-bearing capacity, and the hurtling of hellhounds, and I figure I can live like this a while longer.  Which is, I repeat, not to say there will not come a day when I decide on toast.^^^  But preferably after SHADOWS—or the PEGASUS trilogy—has made me a multi-zillionaire and I can afford to replace my entire wardrobe. 

^ And how much less than that I do in fact eat, so I can keep my CHOCOLATE and sugar in my tea. 

^^ And in this courtroom, it won’t be proved innocent.  

^^^ One might almost say ‘plump for’.

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