A Brief History of History

Note: this is the Forward ‘A Brief History of History’ from my 2014 non-fiction textbook Undressing Gaia – a History of Nature’s Law; it is an in depth look at some of the most important ideas and names in classical physics, covers the evolution of ideas towards what we think of them today, and looks at some of the men and women we have to thank for dedicating their lives to this age-old pursuit of knowing. It covers the development of physics over the course of 2000 years and ends with the discovery of quantum mechanics at the turn of the 20th century, as to be help us  

For the first 97% of our time on this planet, it doesn’t seem like we asked too many questions. It seems that we have inherited the God’s of old. For most of the history of our species, regardless of where we are born and live, we’re introduced to varying explanations of what was the reason or force behind the existence of the universe. These explanations make up the folklore that is found around the world. It is an established notion that wherever there is a group of people, living in isolation and autonomous amongst themselves, they will have a creation myth…

Some say that what scientists now have as a model of creation, from a culturally relativistic viewpoint, is no more valid than the creation myths of other human tribes. I disagree. If the moon were truly the rear of some celestial God, assuredly there would have been some sense of embarrassment when Americans landed on it and planted a flag and I’m also sure we would’ve known about it.

In African mythology, Achimi was the son of Itherther and Thamuatz, which were the first living creatures on the Earth. Achimi is adventurous and is almost caught by the first group of human beings. Baatsi, in another myth, was the first man, made out of clay by the Creator.; he covered him with skin and then, as a favor one would expect, he created a woman and demanded her to mate with Baatsi.

Millions of years after emerging on the plains of the African steppe, human beings have (or so we think) became more ‘advanced’ than ever before. The instruments of our education have been refined beyond compare; we travel from country to country wantonly, yawning in great planes; with a rudimentary cathode ray tube, we can receive signals transmitted from satellites in orbit, high above the Earth. We’ve gone to the moon and split the atom, and now live in an age where information is more available than it has been in the history of our species. This text can be transferred from one corner of the Earth to another with minimal effort. Holograms interact with people at airports, super-conducting nitrogen can be charged in order to allow for an opposite object to stay locked above the surface of it. This is an evolutionary descendant of Newton’s laws of motion, F=ma and gravitation. Gravitation didn’t explain it all, Albert Einstein realized, due to the observations made on Mercury’s orbit around the sun. This is abstracted; space is curved; objects of unimaginably warping it as it whirls towards nowhere. Time comes to life as more than just an abstraction measured by a clock.

With quantum locking, slender, super-cold disks whip around atop a circular track, kept in place by repellent forces in conjunction with superconductivity. By using properties in quantum physics, an object, specifically a superconductor, can be levitated over a source, specifically a quantum levitation track designed for this purpose. If you’ve not seen it, hearing it explained does not do it justice; you can find video of it online. It works because of something called the Meissner effect, discovered in 1933 by physicists Walther Meissner and Robert Ochensfeld. It can be briefly described: by creating small currents along the surface of a superconductor, which cancels out all magnetic fields that would come into contact with the material, all magnetic fields inside the superconducting material are negated.

Because of this effect and magnetic flux pinning, the superconductor in the magnetic field will always expel the magnetic field inside of it and bend the magnetic field around it. The problem is that of equilibrium; placing a superconductor on top of a magnet would only cause it to float away, like trying to balance two south magnetic poles of bar magnets against each other. Superconductivity and magnetic fields do not like each other and, when possible, a superconductor will expel the magnetic fields from inside, as the Meissner effect dictates. And since a superconductor is extremely thin, the magnetic field manages to penetrate in discrete quantities called flux tubes. Superconductivity is locally destroyed in each magnetic flux tube as magnetic tubes are pinned in weaker areas (grain boundaries) by the superconductor. The flux tubes can be moved by any spatial movement of the superconductor and to prevent that the superconductor is essentially trapped in midair. A superconductor is what a material is caused in which electrons are able to easily flow without resistance so magnetic fields, when close to a superconducting material, forms small currents on its surface and cancel out the incoming magnetic field, resulting in a magnetic field intensity of zero inside the superconducting material. If the net magnetic field lines were mapped they would be seen bending around the object.

Because of this, when a superconductor is placed on a magnetic track, the effect keeps the superconductor above it as it is pushed away by the magnetic field at the surface of the track. The power of magnetic repulsion has to counteract the force of gravity which defines the limit of how far above the track the superconducting object may be locked. A type-1 superconductor disk demonstrates the Meissner effect in its most exaggerated form, a version called perfect diamagnetism which contains no magnetic fields inside the material. As it tries to avoid contact with the magnetic field it levitates. There are problems, however, as the levitation isn’t lacks the stability to keep the object in place, and the same process can be used to levitate superconductors within a bowl-shaped concave lead magnet with the magnetism pushing against all sides equally.

Beside my bed I have a device with over a thousand books on it. This one pad is capable of carrying more books than could physically fit in my room. So, as I’m writing this, I’m using an input device that uses the programming code to render sentences, punctuation, and indentation.

If you don’t know the answer to something, the answer is two or three clicks away. You can get the impression of what I’m trying to convey by talking to anyone over sixty about what they’ve witnessed throughout their lifetimes in terms of technological advance. When I say we’re more advanced, what do I mean by more advanced? How do we define human progress?

There is a period in our evolutionary history called the Great Leap Forward, preceding the agricultural revolution, and it is thought that humans began to make and use figurative language as well as more complex and well developed tools. The historical awakening coexists with the advent of the written word. This was the beginning of a cumulative advancement, as knowledge could be preserved and passed from generation to generation. Cuneiform writing diverged into several idiomatic inflections, changing from one culture to another.

The historical awakening seems to have taken place within the last ten thousand years. Three hundred years, or 3% of the Neocene (our current epoch), have seen extraordinary development in the scientific disciplines; namely, the science of mechanics, which ushered in Newton’s laws and, along with them, the co-foundation of the mathematical system that Newton called ‘fluxions’ which we now call calculus. Calculus was developed at the same time, by two different people, and although Newton had a few more feathers in his cap, Leibniz is also credited with the first application of calculus. Calculus was a product of evolution, being the logical descendant of algebra and trigonometry.

Building upon the foundations in the Propositions of Euclidian geometry, Rene Descartes developed analytic geometry. ‘Cartesian coordinates’ still retain an allusion to its progenitor. This may seem an obscure, even esoteric factoid without much relevance, but since the advent of Cartesian coordinates engineers and architects have been able to more adequately plan and develop cities and towns. In 1859, a bookish, classically trained naturalist in Victorian England published what could arguably be the most important discovery of recorded memory: evolution by natural selection. There were ideas involving evolution before Darwin published, the infamous Lamarck, On the Origin of Species, and a Mr. Watson, as Darwin acknowledges in his Origin, came to the same conceptualization of natural selection while studying the Malay archipelago. People have been asking this question since questions were capable of being asked. You can read it as biogenesis, with nature as a blind programmer, programming you with just the right amount of ability to withstand her other creatures, as the carbon atoms have taken over Earth.

David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, famously vouchsafed free will and self sovereignty as a step away from the miracle and magic days. It is a pity he did not live to see the development of evolutionary biology, a product of the 19th century, as was Maxwell’s equations and theories: he advanced our ideas about the ring system of Saturn, and divined the speed of light by dividing the electric constant and magnetic constant between two poles. People were getting off horses and into carriages, ornately decorated and plush, as the leftover aesthetic value of the Italian Renaissance seeped into the intellectual culture of humanity.

Midway through the 20th century, physics had developed two enormously important systems of physical classification. I use this term instead of ‘theory’ because of the stigma the word theory invokes. Quantum theory, the laws governing atomic and subatomic particles, and the special and general theories of relativity which introduce concepts regarding the simultaneity of events, the reversal of causal effects for different extended the understanding of the universe to mind-bending extremes. The developmental history of quantum theory and an extension known as quantum electrodynamics were both born in the pure light of history, rapidly changing, shifting into different and ever changing shapes.

Ernest Rutherford, working with the grand poobah Niels Bohr, discovered the atomic nucleus by counting alpha particles as they passed through a thin metal leaf. The story goes that his assistant, Hans Geiger, and another man whose name I can’t recall, were sitting in the dim light of the laboratory counting alpha particles as they passed through the leaf and hit the photo receptor on the other side of it. In what he said was a ‘for the hell of it’ comment, Rutherford suggested that Geiger pay attention to see if any of the alpha particles were refracted, to see if any bounced back. This is how the atomic nucleus was discovered. An entire generation of physicists were forced to react to discoveries in real-time, as they were happening. In addition to relativity and quantum theory, another fundamental law was discovered. It is known as the uncertainty principle and it’s sort of a high water mark for the accuracy of concurrent measurements of subatomic particles.

In the 20th century we’ve seen the mass production of computers, automobiles, airplanes, televisions, telephones, radios–all things that didn’t exist in the 19th century–and all of these inventions employ the classification systems of modern physics. Max Planck discovered the quanta in 1900, and that is where the classical period ended, and new, even outrageous ideas became the standard. In special relativity, events can happen at different times for different observers when it comes to objects moving at the speed of light. Think of what this means for the commonsense notion of causality and impetus: an observer standing by a train is in the very middle of the train (its always a train when explaining relativity; it’s how I learned it and probably how a lot of scientists of my generation became acquainted with it) when two bolts of lightning simultaneously strike the front and rear of the train. To the observer from a different reference position, the events occurred at the same time. To a person at the front of the train, the lightning bolt that hit the front of the train is seen first followed almost instantaneously by the flash from the rear of the train. To a person at the back of the train, the lightning bolt that hit the back of the train flashes first and is then followed by the flash that struck the front. Coming to terms with such ideas ages one wonderfully.

When you look at it like this, you notice that for one person an event happens in a different order than for the other person. What does this say about the nature of causality? This is a gross and hurried sketch of special relativity, but the point is that position in space is attached to a time and further that space and time are a part of the same continuum, what every Star Trek fan knows as the space-time continuum.  Another example of relativistic weirdness can be explained by a thought experiment involving travel at near light speed. If two police officers were standing in the same place and a man passed them moving at the speed of light, lets say that one of the officers begins pursuit at the speed of light.

When traveling at the speed of light, or close to it, really funny things start to happen to the concept of time. What I got out of it was a calculation that I’m not really up to the task for, but I can explain it in general terms. In the pursuant police officer traveled after the criminal for, lets say twenty minutes, only twenty minutes will have passed for the officer in pursuit. But for the stationary cop, a considerably larger amount of time will have passed.

The point of this sketch is to illustrate what I consider advancement and progress. In showing progress, you inevitably come to the end of the sidewalk, so to speak, where there’s a limitation, or part of some system that isn’t yet understood. For the first fifty years of the 20th century, physics was in a flurry; Einstein writing to Schrödinger, Pauli writing to Heisenberg, Heisenberg and Bohr defending their interpretation (The Copenhagen Interpretation) of quantum theory–numerous offshoots and side-theories spawned from quantum theory. One is quantum electrodynamics, which I’ve already mentioned (The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard Feynman is a great introduction), the incompleteness theorem, the wave, the probability wave, the uncertainty principle, hidden variables (working within the parameters of the Central Limit Theorem one would think), Schrödinger’s wave equation, deBroile’s pilot wave conception of electron orbits, entanglement (a ‘spooky’ and instantaneous connection between two particles), m-theory, string theory, superstring theory, supersymmetry, quantum gravity, branes–the list goes on.

So how can these disparate responses and codified concepts fit together? How do these different theories relate to one another? Quantum theory and relativity are known to have their disagreements. Superstring theory is a proposed model of system classification that intends to reconcile the former with the latter by reducing particles to a type of harmonic oscillation along intangible strings that vibrate at different frequencies, resulting in different phenomena, as different chords in the chromatic scale can be arranged by fingering position. Each time you get a phone call or browse the internet or watch videos on Youtube, think about this before you get you’re pissed off about something about the signal: it  literally be coming from space. And without Ein And it communicates with satellites in mathematically precise coordinates in orbit, like other tools we’ve grown accustomed to, such as GPS; without Einstein’s relativity none of that shit would work and we use it to get precise driving instructions. The only drawback thus far for such a technology is the doom it would bring upon the “lost and refuses to ask for directions” sitcom / movie dad from 80’s comedies. And that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make, especially if that means letting HAL 9000 guide me to the closest McDonald’s. Sacrifices must be made.

One thought on “A Brief History of History

  1. Pingback: Essays | THE CHAMELEON'S MIRROR:

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