Are We Smarter Than a Tree? by Zachary Copfer

NPR: The Wisdom of Trees The above article from NPR highlights yet another example of how amazingly intricate the turning gears of the universe are. The branching forms of trees have long been observed as a symbol of elegance, an embodiment of a complexly simple beauty. In Eastern philosophy, the tree stands as a reminder to remain flexible, to sway with the winds of life instead of fighting them. Many cultures contain references, including Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, depicting trees as old and wise beings.  Well now, thanks to Leonardo da Vinci and Christophe Eloy, a modern day physicist, the world has new insight into the innate knowledge possessed by these ancient organisms. It turns out that the mathematical pattern all trees follow when they are forming their branches just happens to lead to the most aerodynamically stable configuration possible. The collective knowledge of humanity took hundreds of years studying the math and physics of aerodynamic engineering only to reach a solution that was "known" by trees long before the first human admired their beauty. Once again, a pursuit of science leads to the discovery of poetry.

His Favorite Artist?... Einstein by Zachary Copfer

Being in graduate school for fine art, I am constantly asked to identify contemporary artists whose work inspires me, my heroes of current art. Shawn Brixey is a name that always ends up making an appearance on my list. In the piece pictured above, he converted the sound of voices reading poetry into a beam of light. This alone is unremarkable considering a great deal of the electronics we use everyday do this very same task. However, Brixey then shot this light at a vacuum chamber containing small graphite particles. When hit with the light, the graphite particles overcame the force of gravity and began to float in the center of the chamber. At this state, the particles mimicked the physics of celestial bodies, free from Earthly gravity and in a vacuum. Unsurprisingly and yet still magically, the graphite particles took on the familiar forms of galaxies. These tiny graphite galaxies were shaped by a beam of light that was infused with poetry. So in a sense, the miniature galaxies were a physical manifestation of the poetry itself. Tiny shimmering galaxies of poetry that elude to the less literal but equally moving poetry that formed our very own Milky Way Galaxy.

What really strikes me about Brixey's work is his admiration for the science he uses in his work. Many contemporary artists using science aren't saying much about science itself. They just use technology to make interesting pieces without regard of what is being said for or about the science behind them. Some even go as far as to achieve what I consider the bastardization of science (Alba the DayGlow bunny). Brixey was once asked who was his favorite artist. He replied very simply, "Einstein". He then went on to discuss how, if polled, scientists would agree that Einstein's work was art but if one were to ask artists they would of course call it science. This belief that science is art is what Brixey's work seems to boil down to at its core. He often uses literal poetry, science and technology to stimulate the creation of an awe inspiring and naturally beautiful phenomenon. His work serves to remind us that true poetry is rooted in the processes of the universe around us and is not limited to text printed on the page of a book.

Neutrinos faster than light, take two by Zachary Copfer

[vodpod id=Video.15717499&w=425&h=350&fv=] This clip from NewsyVideos provides a nice summary of the chatter surrounding the recent discoveries going on over at the LHC (really expensive machine that smashes protons into one an other). Although this story originally broke back in September, I decided to post about it now because the folks at CERN (the research group working the LHC) have conducted a second experiment which confirmed their original findings.

Back in September CERN released a paper stating that they found a particle which could possibly maybe travel faster than the speed of light. You see, when they smash protons together they get these wonderful little particles called neutrinos. Just for fun they decided to direct a stream of these neutrinos to a detector located under a mountain in Italy 732 Km (about 454 Miles) away from the LHC.

The neutrinos arrived at the detector more quickly than expected. In fact, when they crunched the numbers they found that in order to make the trip as quickly as they did the neutrinos must have traveled faster than the speed of light. This is of course  against the known rules of the universe. Back in the early 1900's Einstein set the cosmic speed limit to c (the speed of light). Because of the gravity of the implications this find could have on our understanding of the physical world, CERN has been uber careful in checking and rechecking and rechecking their results. Actually they made about 15,000 measurements. Recently, they even tried modifying their test by firing the neutrinos in short bursts separated by large breaks. The reason for this was to decrease the margin of error in the experiment and provide a much more precise measurement. They obtained the same results.

Even with this new confirmation, the scientific community is extremely skeptical of this finding. First of all, it very much goes against what physicists have believed for over 100 years. But more importantly, as of now, the tests have all been conducted by the same group on the same equipment. Until another group independent from OPERA carries out a totally different experiment and gets the same results scientists will not take the notion of particles zooming past light seriously. The media however, seems to be having a field day with this. And why not? Anything that gets science in the headlines and gets people talking about the implications of physics on our daily lives in our daily lives is a good thing.

So what are the implications of a particle which travels faster than light? Most seem to be reporting that this finding, if confirmed, would turn our world upside down. As though suddenly the world might implode. The more likely scenario is that after the initial hoopla we will find that most of the theories currently in place will still accurately describe the universe. Equations and theories will shift and settle a bit but all that we currently believe will not be thrown out the window. I keep hearing talk that this will completely upset special relativity. And it will, but only sort of. You see most of special relativity is actually based on the fact that light travels at a constant speed. So, even if this constant speed of light isn't the universal speed limit it still, according to our perspective, means that time and space are relative. One possible bit of fun that could come from particles traveling faster than light is time travel. The speed of time, at least for us, is basically the same as the seed of light. This is because when an event occurs there is no way for us to know it until the light reaches us. You can think of it as though we are traveling into the future at the speed of light. So, if we could send something faster than light it would move faster than we would into the future. Now clearly we can't build spaceships made of neutrinos and zoom off faster than light. However, we could, in theory, package information into neutrinos and send them flying into the future.

As exciting as all of this might sound, it is still much more likely that we will find the neutrinos in fact do not travel faster than light. Even if that is what finally comes of this at least the process could prove to be a wonderful chance to teach the importance of the scientific method. And in the meantime allow us to dream about what kind of message we might send to the future. Of course if we were to send a message into the future, the people in the future would already know what it says because the message was written and sent in their past.

Do you believe time travel is possible? Do you think the above statement about knowing the message is true or do you have a different view of how time travel might work?

Mix a drink and pop some popcorn cause NOVA is on tonight by Zachary Copfer

[vodpod id=Video.15699036&w=425&h=350&] Yep, tonight is another night to pour a gin and soda and pop some popcorn because Brian Greene will be on NOVA again. Tonight (check local listings for times) PBS will air the third of four installments from Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos series. If you missed the first two here is what you need to know:

1) Empty space is in fact not at all empty, it has structure and objects will mass warp that structure

2) Time is not a constant, it is completely relative to your perspective within the universe

After the one hour segment on The Fabric of the Cosmos PBS will rerun the second installment of Green's series on The Elegant Universe. These are both a must see for anyone interested in a fairly easily accessible explanation of the current theories of the universe. Feel free to come back here and post comments on the show after it airs!

Here is a link to NOVA, I'm pretty sure you can watch the past episodes in their entirety on the website!