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Meet the Science Jerk!

I Know Bleep! (and I learned it from Stephen Hawking)

In honor of Stephen Hawking's most recent release, 'A Briefer History of Time,' and Hawking's appearance Nov. 7 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, advice columnist the Science Jerk answers readers' toughest questions about life, the universe and everything

By the Science Jerk

DAMN, physics is easy. People go to college for years to learn about it, but if any of the millions of people who bought Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time actually took the time to read the thing all the way through, they'd know just how easy it is to become an authority on theoretical physics like I am.

If you don't like what I have to say about the universe, you're going to have to take it up with Stephen Fucking Hawking—the chosen one, born on the 300-year anniversary of Galileo's death, who also holds Isaac Fucking Newton's chair as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. Hella smart, and his wheelchair fighting technique is unstoppable. Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time, taught me everything I know about theoretical physics, and since The Man Himself is coming to the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts Nov. 7, this is the perfect time to open the floor for questions.

My wife of six years and I have decided to open up our relationship, and would like to know more about this 'Gang Bang Theory.' Also, I've heard that the universe is contracting again and will end soon. Does this mean I don't have to use protection?
Ha ha, very funny. I know you can't possibly be dumb enough to think your wife actually wants you to have sex with other women. It's obviously a trap. Regarding the Big Bang Theory, all you need to know is that the present evidence indicates that the universe is probably expanding with enough force to continue forever, but if it does collapse, it'll take at least another 10 billion years—plenty of time in which to suffer horribly from some ungodly STD and your wife's everlasting wrath.

If the theory of relativity is right, does that mean I can believe whatever I want about physics? My biological father won the Nobel Prize.
You've touched on a central problem with communicating physics—namely, that the terminology is sometimes misleading. The theory of relativity describes Einstein's insight that the laws of science should be the same for every observer. However, since the speed of light is constant, time can vary from observer to observer. Consider the well-worn mind-bender of the man tossing his Velcro-covered son onto the Velcro ceiling of a moving a train. Let's say the distance from the father to the ceiling is 1 meter, and the trip takes one second. To anyone on the train, the boy's average velocity was 1 meter/second. A Child Protective Services officer watching from outside the train would observe not only the boy's vertical motion—1 meter—but, since the train is moving, his horizontal motion as well, which we'll say was another 1.7 meters. To the CPS officer, the boy would have traveled diagonally at an average of 2 meters/second—twice as fast as the person on the train who reported the incident would have observed. But things start to get really freaky if you suppose the father threw his son skyward at the speed of light and the train was traveling near that speed. The CPS officer outside the train would still see the boy travel a slightly longer distance, but since the speed of light is constant, and speed is measured in meters per second, slightly more time will have elapsed for the CPS officer than the informant on the train, making it unlikely that the reckless father will ever be caught—even if he turned out to be a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. It's OK, you can cry now.

My son recently learned in his science class that Einstein actually had two theories of relativity, one 'general' and one 'special.' I find this deeply offensive, as I happen to coach a Special Olympics baseball team and know perfectly well that they obey the same laws of physics as everyone else ... don't they?
The "laws" of physics are actually just theories explaining observable phenomena, so when we're talking about the laws of physics, we're actually describing a theory that has held true for all observable phenomena—at least on a human scale. The theory of special relativity is the name given to Einstein's idea that the laws of science should be the same for all observers, while ignoring the baffling effect of gravity. As far as we know, nothing travels faster than the speed of light ... and yet the effects of gravity travel instantaneously across space. To resolve this problem, he later modified special relativity into what's known as the theory of general relativity, which envisions the universe as a four-dimensional (the fourth dimension being time) object called space-time. Imagine space-time as the surface of a bed with a vibrator on it. A women reclining in the middle of the bed will actually curve space-time, causing the vibrator to roll toward her—just like they do in the movies.

Are you sure we're not at the center of the universe? My magic 8-ball begs to differ.
Based on his analysis of the spectra of galaxies, Edwin Hubble found that nearly all of them he observed were moving away from us, which seems to imply that Earth is at the center of the Big Bang, and that by some infuriating fluke, your stupid 8-ball is right. But Hawking offers another explanation: The universe is expanding in such a way that no matter where you are, the universe is expanding uniformly away from you, except for that one tiny meteor which I hope will come crashing through your roof and knock some sense into you.

I just finished reading 'A Brief History of Time' and didn't understand a few things. For starters, what the hell was that shit about all those quarks? Up, down, strange, charmed, bottom and top quarks? And what's a glueball? Or a gluon? What's spin?
Oh come on, nobody's actually read A Brief History of Time! Who put you up to this? Was it Steve? Wait ... no, it was Todd, wasn't it? Todd, you bastard! You had me for a second there. Nice one, Todd.

My boyfriend told me if I gain too much weight, my body will collapse in on itself and create a black hole. That would totally suck! Is there anything I can do to stop it?
There is currently nothing you can do to fight the obesity epidemic, so just continue to sit there and eat cookie dough ice cream until someone finds a cure. Meanwhile, you'll be happy to know that even if all the nuclear energy in your body was spent and you were completely inert (which it sounds like you are), you'd still need a mass of about 1 1/2 times the mass of the sun to have sufficient gravity to collapse in on yourself. What are you now, a deuce? Deuce and a half? Sounds like you're my kind of girl; give me a call sometime.

Sometimes, when it's dark, I'm afraid there are killers waiting to kill me. How can I use physics to kill them first?
The problem you're describing is very much like the one physicist John Mitchell faced in 1783—how can we detect a black hole when it doesn't emit any light? The answer is, we have to find other phenomena that we can observe being warped by the black hole's gravity. Since you probably can't detect the gravitational effects of a killer, you're going to have to invest in night vision goggles. Or therapy.

I want a pet black hole that powers my city and sleeps in the center of the earth, and I want it NOW. Tell me how to get one.
You're in luck! The physicist John Wheeler said that if you took all the water of the world and built a hydrogen bomb out of it, you can compress matter in the center enough to form a black hole, which would probably be so dense that it would fall to the center of the earth. It would also give off enough energy to run 10 large power stations, which would of course be sucked into the black hole and stretched like taffy on their way to forever.

I just saw What the Bleep Do We Know!? and am anxious to start using quantum mechanics in my everyday life. How can I use my thoughts to pass though bank vaults, or to pluck unobserved money from its superposition and into my wallet?
What the Bleep Do We Know!? is a New Age self-help film, not a science film, but it does point to a fundamental problem in physics—namely, that there will always be crackpot New Agers who will use complex physics theories to dupe people into thinking they can travel past Heaven's Gate. Oh, but it also points to the fundamental problem in theoretical physics, which is that general relativity, which describes large-scale events, and quantum mechanics, which describes extremely small-scale events, contradict one another. Hawking is obsessed with the quest for the unification of physics, which would yield a "complete unified theory of everything in the universe." You should be obsessed with the quest to find a job, slacker.

I've been smoking so much dope lately, I can't tell yesterday from tomorrow. Does that make me a physicist?
No, but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you've somehow dislodged yourself from the arrow of time. Science doesn't really explain why we experience time as moving in only one direction, but Hawking tries by talking about the universe in terms of the second law of thermodynamics, which says that in any closed system, disorder increases with time—it's not likely that a puzzle shaken in a box will put itself together in time. Since this increasingly disordered universe gave birth to humanity, our experience of it—that Humpty Dumpty doesn't just fly back together again—moves in the same direction.

My friends say I'm a control freak, but I know deep down that I'm slowing down entropy, the gradual disordering of the universe. Shouldn't I be getting Nobel Prizes?
Take Hawking's example of reading his entire book (which nobody's actually done): if you memorized the whole thing, thereby increasing the order in your brain, you'd have meanwhile converted ordered energy (food) into disordered energy (heat) equal to 10 million million million times the increase in order in your brain—and that's not even considering the fact that you probably annoy everyone around you to the point that they have to break stuff just to feel better.

In the show Quantum Leap, did Scott Bakula's character ever make it home? He helped so many people set their lives straight; if he never made it home, that's pretty screwed up.
So is quantum physics. Why? Because it says you can't accurately measure an objects position and its velocity at the same time. But our understanding (or lack thereof) of quantum physics enabled modern computing, so we're just going to have to deal, just as Dr. Sam Beckett has to deal with the fucked up hand he was dealt forever, unless someone makes a movie that shows us otherwise.


The Origin of the Universe featuring Dr. Stephen Hawking will be held at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts Monday, Nov. 7, at 8pm. Tickets are $35-$125, available through Ticketmaster. The Science Jerk is a big jerk who knows a thing or two about science. About a thing and a half, actually. You may have heard him on NPR's 'Science Friday'; he is the drunken caller who starts to ask a question and then begins loudly singing the theme from 'Charles in Charge' until the host quickly hangs up on him. He also likes to drink at many of America's top scientific symposiums, which he crashes using fake credentials he stole from a Nobel Prize winner in 1994. He counts among his science credentials the walking tours he has taken at the nation's leading institutions, though he has since been banned from most of them, even the self-guided ones. When he is not pursuing his love for/barely concealed rage toward science, he can often be found raving at the television about cell phone radiation (he's for it).



Stephen Hawking

Hawking: The Man Behind the Mythos

By Mike Connor

DESPITE WHAT you may have seen and heard at www.mchawking.com, Stephen Hawking never was, and never will be, a gangsta rapper. He also hasn't built himself a robotic exoskeleton, as The Onion would have us believe. But he has become a cultural icon with intelligence and humor; he's been the subject of documentaries; he appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation as himself (the only person to do so); and has been on The Simpsons not once, but twice, delivering the memorable line, "I came here expecting a Utopia, instead I found a Fruitopia."

Hawking was born in Oxford, England, on Jan. 8, 1942, which happened to be the 300-year anniversary of Galileo's death. At 8 years old he moved to St. Albans, and eventually attended University College, Oxford, and pursued his Ph.D. in cosmology at Cambridge University.

In 1963, shortly after his 21st birthday, Hawking was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and was told he had only two years to live.

"My dreams at that time were rather disturbed," writes Hawking. "Before my condition had been diagnosed, I had been very bored with life. There had not seemed to be anything worth doing. But shortly after I came out of hospital, I dreamt that I was going to be executed. I suddenly realised that there were a lot of worthwhile things I could do if I were reprieved."

Soon thereafter, he was engaged to Jane Wilde and, two years after his diagnosis, he was doing well enough to get a job, and so continued his quest for a Ph.D. Over the next few years, he worked on expanding Roger Penrose's theorem that "any body undergoing gravitational collapse must eventually form a singularity," or black hole. Hawking developed new mathematical techniques to prove that the universe began with a big bang singularity—a theory that is still widely accepted today.

Hawking and Wilde had three children together, and up until 1974, he was able to get around more or less by himself, but soon took to giving research students free room and board in exchange for some help getting around.

In 1974, black holes were still believed to be phenomena from which nothing—not even light—could escape. But Hawking proved that black holes do in fact emit what is now known as Hawking radiation. His calculations also suggested that they should evaporate and eventually disappear.

Hawking caught pneumonia in 1985 and underwent a tracheotomy, which took away his ability to speak. For a while, Hawking communicated by raising his eyebrows when someone would point at the appropriate letter on a letter card. Walt Woltosz, a computer engineer living in California, sent Hawking a copy of his program Equalizer, which allowed Hawking to select words from a series of menus via a switch. He had it and a voice synthesizer installed on his wheelchair—a system which he continues to use to communicate. He can "type" about 15 words per minute.

Since 1976, Hawking has held the chair of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Hawking has now lost two bets he made with Kip Thorne and John Preskill about black holes—the first of which was that they don't exist. Hawking described the bet as "an insurance policy," since he had spent most of his life's work on black holes. If they turned out not to exist, he'd at least have a four-year subscription to Private Eye.

"There is now so much other observational evidence in favor of black holes," writes Hawking, "that I have conceded the bet. I paid the specified penalty, which was a one-year subscription to Penthouse, to the outrage of Kip's liberated wife."

In 2004, he lost another bet to Preskill. Although Hawking had long argued that all the information about mass was destroyed in a black hole, last year he revised that theory, explaining (or at least attempting to) that information about mass is conserved in a black hole and later released, albeit in mangled form.

The BBC News reported that "Preskill said he was very pleased to have won the bet but added: 'I'll be honest, I didn't understand the talk.'"



Briefer, Sexier, Cooler

With the new version of his book, Hawking finally got the message: 'Simpler, Please!'

By Mike Connor

Ulysses it's not, but Stephen Hawking's popular guide to theoretical physics, A Brief History of Time, has at least one thing in common with James Joyce's arcane behemoth: they sit prominently displayed on bookshelves, and yet chances are, their owners haven't actually read them cover to cover.

It's not their fault. The simple fact of the matter is that at about a third of the way through, both books veer into esoteric, nearly incomprehensible realms. With Ulysses, most readers accept (albeit bitterly) the intellectual defeat. But with ABHOT, which is pitched as a kind of Complete Idiot's Guide to theoretical physics, it's far easier for proud readers to pretend that, having plowed through Einstein's theory of general relativity with no problem, they're just not in the mood to think about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or the behavior of anti-quarks. Soon, the book somehow finds its way back to its prominent position on the shelf, and it stays there, two-thirds unread.

Nevertheless, ABHOT's publisher Bantam claims that in addition to a 237-week run on the London Sunday Times bestseller list, the book sold over 9 million copies worldwide in the 10 years after it was first released (on April Fool's Day, 1988). To celebrate, Hawking updated and expanded the original to include a sexy new chapter on wormholes and time travel, but he also included less-than-thrilling updates on progress toward a complete unified theory of physics and new data about fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation. Far from rekindling the mood for another tryst with physics, Hawking's update amounted to little more than an invite to a pocket protector party. That the updated version was even less accessible than the original apparently prompted a science writer named Leonard Mlodinow to help Hawking fix it.

The result, A Briefer History of Time, just released last month, is shorter and less technical, and includes full-color illustrations, one of which is a picture of the wheelchair-bound physicist situated on a graph alongside twin swimsuit-clad Marilyn Monroes.

Atta boy, Stephen.


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From the November 2-8, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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