The Tree of Life Is Back

For those of you who grew up with a typology for biology as neat as the periodic table was for chemistry, you know the frustration that the various permutations the tree of life has undergone, including breaking into various zones — and we won’t mention that the periodic table has had its own reasons to be made more flexible. Frustrate no more! It looks like there’s an emergent synthesis that might make holding a visualization of the varieties of life in your head possible once more. (You are, however, going to need a slightly bigger head.)

Details are available at PNAS. (Link is to PDF.)

Everything Is Moving

I saw this on Reddit, and I wanted a copy of it for myself. It’s an archived answer from a user no longer on the site that another user dug up. It reminds of something a physicist said on a recent In Our Time podcast: “Everything wants to be iron.”1 (Ah, the role of desire in our imaginations.)

The answer below came in response to the question: “We all know light travels 186,282 miles per second. But HOW does it travel. What provides its thrust to that speed? And why does it travel instead of just sitting there at its source?”

Everything, by nature of simply existing, is “moving” at the speed of light (which really has nothing to do with light: more on that later). Yes, that does include you. Our understanding of the universe is that the way that we perceive space and time as separate things is, to be frank, wrong. They aren’t separate: the universe is made of “spacetime,” all one word. A year and a lightyear describe different things in our day to day lives, but from a physicist’s point of view, they’re actually the exact same thing (depending on what kind of physics you’re doing).

In our day to day lives, we define motion as a distance traveled over some amount of time. However, if distances and intervals of time are the exact same thing, that suddenly becomes completely meaningless. “I traveled one foot for every foot that I traveled” is an absolutely absurd statement!

The way it works is that everything in the universe travels through spacetime at some speed which I’ll call “c” for the sake of brevity. Remember, motion in spacetime is meaningless, so it makes sense that nothing could be “faster” or “slower” through spacetime than anything else. Everybody and everything travels at one foot per foot, that’s just… how it works.

Obviously, though, things do seem to have different speeds. The reason that happens is that time and space are orthogonal, which is sort of a fancy term for “at right angles to each other.” North and east, for example, are orthogonal: you can travel as far as you want directly to the north, but it’s not going to affect where you are in terms of east/west at all.

Just like how you can travel north without traveling east, you can travel through time without it affecting where you are in space. Conversely, you can travel through space without it affecting where you are in time.

You’re (presumably) sitting in your chair right now, which means you’re not traveling through space at all. Since you have to travel through spacetime at c (speed of light), though, that means all of your motion is through time.

By the way, this is why time dilation happens: something that’s moving very fast relative to you is moving through space, but since they can only travel through spacetime at c, they have to be moving more slowly through time to compensate (from your point of view).

Light, on the other hand, doesn’t travel through time at all. The reason it doesn’t is somewhat complicated, but it has to do with the fact that it has no mass.

Something that isn’t moving that has mass can have energy: that’s what E = mc2 means. Light has no mass, but it does have energy. If we plug the mass of light into E=mc2, we get 0, which makes no sense because light has energy. Hence, light can never be stationary.

Not only that, but light can never be stationary from anybody’s perspective. Since, like everything else, it travels at c through spacetime, that means all of its “spacetime speed” must be through space, and none of it is through time.

So, light travels at c. Not at all by coincidence, you’ll often hear c referred to as the “speed of light in a vacuum.” Really, though, it’s the speed that everything travels at, and it happens to be the speed that light travels through space at because it has no mass. edit: By the way, this also covers the common ELI5 question of why nothing can ever travel faster than light, and why things with mass cannot travel at the speed of light. Since everything moves through spacetime at c, nothing can ever exceed it (and no, traveling backwards in time would not fix that). Also, things with mass can always be “stationary” from someone’s perspective (like their own), so they always have to move through time at least a little bit, meaning they can never travel through space as fast as light does. They’d have to travel through spacetime faster than c to do that, which, again, is not possible.

  1. I believe the episode on “The Sun” is where I heard this. It has to do with how big an atom ordinary solar fusion can build: right up to iron, but no further. All heavier elements are the products of novas and supernovas. Gold, for example, is the product of supernovas that has been splattered, quite literally, across the galaxy. 

Real Science Sunday

What better way to spend a Sunday than watching some great videos that explain or treat science? Real Clear Science has you covered. I am particularly fond of the video of Schrodinger’s Cat. I am less fond of the Neil de Grasse Tyson’s response to the question of genetically modified foods. I think Tyson’s shows that expertise in one realm, astrophysics, does not transfer to other realms, biology. It’s my understanding, at least, that the kind of tinkering with the genome achieved through plant hybridization is different from that achieved through direct tweaking of genes. I’ve checked with biologists, and they say I’m right and Neil is wrong. Sigh. Neil, Neil, Neil.

A Laudable Failed Replication

Two scientists who previously had published about the possible cuing of memory by the presence of a partner have failed to replicate their own original results, which they had previously shared (data and all), and published their own failure to do so. This is science at its best.:

In an earlier study, coauthor Horton reported that the presence an individual who was associated with a previously learned object increased the speed at which the object was named. In other words, the partner’s presence served as an associative memory cue to enhance lexical processing. In a follow-up paper published this month in PLOS ONE, the researchers aimed to replicate these findings as a foundation upon which to further explore the mechanisms by which associative cuing facilitates naming. But to their surprise, a series of experiments modeled after the originals failed to replicate their prior results – the presence of the partner from the learning phase did not influence the speed of object naming.

Thank you, PLoS.

This Is What Happens

The Guardian has a translation of the Der Spiegel interview with Peter Piot who was a researcher at a lab in Antwerp when a pilot brought him a blood sample from a Belgian nun who had fallen mysteriously ill in Zaire. The title of the interview is misleading: Piot doesn’t claim to have discovered Ebola, only to have been part of a team, as well as a larger international effort, to understand what in fact the virus was.

The misleading title, misunderstanding the nature of science and scientific inquire, underlines something that Piot himself when asked Why did WHO [the World Health Organization] react so late?:

On the one hand, it was because their African regional office isn’t staffed with the most capable people but with political appointees. And the headquarters in Geneva suffered large budget cuts that had been agreed to by member states. The department for haemorrhagic fever and the one responsible for the management of epidemic emergencies were hit hard.

This is what happens when you politicize science, something usually accompanied by undermining science through de-funding the agencies that have made so much basic and applied research possible.

Imperial Measurements

rnelsonee offered the best explanation of the imperial measurement system I have ever read:

Imperial is similar to metric if you constrain yourself to one type of measurement. Like liquid volume uses power of 2 instead of 10:

1 dram x 2 ** 2 = 1 Tbsp
1 Tbsp x 2 = 1 fl oz
1 fl oz x 2 = 1 jig
1 jig x 2 = 1 gill
1 gill x 2 = 1 cup
1 cup x 2 = 1 pint
1 pint x 2 = 1 quart
1 quart x 2 ** 2 = 1 gallon

[The notation “2 ** 2” should be read as “two squared [that is, 4] or “two to the second power.]

But then Imperial gets all weird because entire different scales get mixed together. For example, a mile isn’t a terrible unit – it’s just a thousand paces (hence miles), and is more intuitive/easier to measure (when walking) than km. I like the foot and inch (thumb size) as well, even though people obviously have different sized feet (but hey, it’s not like the meter is easy to recreate with no tools). But no one has any business mixing inches and miles (at least they didn’t 1,000 years ago) because you’d measure troop movements in miles and your dick in inches. It wasn’t until we started doing a lot of ‘extreme’ levels/measurements with physics that we needed metric to easily convert between the two scales.

Of course, this was after this:

from Josh Bazell's "The Wild Things"

from Josh Bazell’s “The Wild Things”

And then this:

Imperial versus Metric by Bar Graph

Imperial versus Metric by Bar Graph