Entropy and Minty Fresh Breath

Have you ever fallen into the clutches of the minty fresh breath quest obsession?

If yes, then you know what I’m writing about. If not then there’s little point in you reading this article. This one is for all fellow mild obsessives and borderline autistics or just plain old folks who want to give out only fresh scented kisses on demand.


Image courtesy of: http://www.shoeboxblog.com/

The fresh minty breath quest obsession has little to do with wanting to have fresh breath when talking to others, although that’s how the obsession might begin. Once fully developed however, it becomes a personal matter. Having fresh breath and a clean taste in your moth becomes important to you alone, regardless of anyone else. It becomes a personal quest, and you may even begin to feel acutely annoyed hours before the sour taste of stale food, and the microorganisms built-up during sleep in your mouth, reach their highest tolerable concentrations.

You want it, but you cannot have it.

The reason is you are fighting against a law of nature. Your body is one large complex machine for producing rot and decay. But it does a reasonable job of expelling a lot of the decay products. But why?

The thing is, to live and work and be fantastic your brain needs energy, and in a human this energy has to come from food. But food is corpulent horrid stuff, and what your body has to do to food to extract useful nutrient and energy from it is burn it (slowly at low temperature, chemically). But no biological organism has yet evolved with a perfectly efficient food burning metabolism, and none is likely ever to evolve. The reason is the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a mathematical result which comes from applying precise statistics to the fundamental laws of physics. The curious thing is that the fundamental laws of physics allow for the possibility of a perfect food burning organism. The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us rigorously that a perfect food burning metabolism would require either extremely hot body parts or extremely cold body parts, and these extremes are biologically incompatible with life on Earth. Although, admittedly, some bacteria come close to being clean waste emitters, and without vast temperature extremes. They do not scale up to human size though. The larger the organism the harder it’ll become to produce clean waste from food.

The reason is because the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a statistical result about the maximum possible efficiency of any energy transformation process. Eating food is such a process which our brain requires. So it has a maximum theoretical efficiency, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics works out that this efficiency is dictated by the coldest and hottest temperatures at which our body consumes and excretes it’s energy. Food is the incoming, and our breath, and heat radiated from our skin, and our poop and pee are the out-flow. Their temperature differences are not great. Hence the efficiency of human biochemical energy use cannot ever be close to perfect. One price for this imperfection is the nastiness of the chemical waste products. And the bacteria which have co-evolved in symbiosis with us which break down a lot of the left-over remnants of food in our bodies which we do not usefully use-up.

The funny (and frustrating) thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way!

Why is Natural Breath so Nasty?

Waste chemicals do not have to be nasty. Look at plants. What is their main waste product (while they are alive)? It’s oxygen. Oxygen is actually a nasty substance, it combusts easily emitting lot of nasty heat, and it is toxic to life, and yet animals need oxygen to breathe. Oxygen is useful for animals because it is toxic. It is ununstable molecule and yet just stable enough to be a viable breatheable gas. But it is useable because it locks a lot of energy away in it’s chemical bonds. If a process breaks those bonds then a lot of energy is released, and free energy is what drives machines and life.

Free energy allows a system (in principle) to produce order, or in more specific terms, it allow living things to, well, live! Living is a process of turning useless stuff into useful stuff, and this violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. How?

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a statistical law of nature. It is true on average. Which means any particular system can violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics provided somewhere else the Second Law of Thermodynamics is anti-violated. What does anti-violation mean, you might ask?

To answer we need a numerical statement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This involves the concept of entropy. Entropy is a measure of the amount of information in a system. The more information the higher the entropy. Perhaps paradoxically (or psychologically bemusing more like) increasing entropy creates more randomness and chaos. Why? Well, think of the reserve.

Imagine a box of identical balls, except for colour. Each ball can be either black or white only. Then you can “encode” a message using the balls, say by spelling out words in Morse code, or writing literal alphabet letters using geometric arrangements of the balls like ink jet printer dots. When would such an information carrying box have low entropy — Answer: when it cannot carry much information. Zero entropy would be a system that cannot carry any information. This would be like a box of all white balls, jam packed so they could not be spread out to spell out any message. Lowering information thus corresponds to maximising order in a system. Too much order means no information can be conveyed, in fact perfect order (maximal order) is completely useless for transmitting information. So the converse is that maximum disorder corresponds to the most information content. In fact a random arrangement of the black and while balls would be a high amount of information. It might be totally incomprehensible, but it is the most useful. Think of it like this: although writing Shakespeare’s play Hamlet in black and white ball lettering would look random to some alien observers who have never seen English, to us it would carry a lot of information. But that would not be maximal information.

Imagine now rearranging the manuscript for Hamlet into a compressed code, like the LZA algorithm used to compress computer files. All the information in Hamlet is still there, but we’ve used a more efficient code, and probably will have lots of un-used black and white balls, with which we could encode Hamlet and The Tempest, say. But then even to our eyes, the black and white ball array would now look totally messed up and random. We just know it’s not, because we can use reverse LZA to decompress it whenever we want to read it by sight.

There is a mathematical definition of information measurement, known as Boltzmann’s entropy. Actually, there are many useful ways to measure information, and any one of them could be chosen as a definition of entropy. The point is that entropy=disorder can be rigorously defined and hence mathematically–physically measured.

So that’s entropy and information in a nutshell. What’s it got to do with Minty Fresh Breath Quests?

It’s about the Second Law of Thermodynamics which seems to imply nastiness for our breathe, because our breath is a waste product of living. You see, a quantitative way of expressing the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and inf act the best way, because it comes directly from the statistical analysis of the fundamental laws of physics, is that The Second Law says that the entropy of an isolated system can only ever increase or stay the same in a time-averaged measure.

Notice the loop-hole for life? Time-averaged. Which means for small intervals of time, even an isolated system could lower it’s entropy. The Second Law tells us that with high probability (and one can calculate the probability if given the amount of lowering of entropy) no system can remain in a lowered entropy state for very long.

But there’s an even bigger loop-hole for life. Can you see what it is?

It’s the “isolate system” condition. Living things tend to interact with the world around them, they take in stuff and excrete stuff out. Which means, considered as a closed system they are not isolated. So the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not apply to the interacting organisms. It can lower it’s entropy in order to maintain it’s cellular structure and brain memory or photosynthetic machinery or whatever it needs, by expelling positive entropy to the surrounding environment. In a general sense this is what all life must do, otherwise it will die and decay into high entropy random mess. Decaying is what decomposing bodies do, they massively increase in entropy. There’s a lot of information in a dead body, but it’s not much use, not as much as the ordered lower information in a living brain’s memory.

So life is entropy lowering. Death is entropy increasing. And the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that in order t live a system must emit net positive entropy to it’s environment, to keep the whole universe in a state of increasing entropy. Life is relative order, low information, and peace. Death is disorder, maximum information and chaos.

Is there a limit to this? Yes. but there is so much information in the atoms and photons of our universe that it will take a very, very, very long time for entropy to max-out. Stars will have extinguished by then. So this horrible sounding relentless increase in energy and chaos is actually going to be a rather slow cold silent and extraordinarily peaceful death to the universe.

The thing about life is it’s balance. Life also ceases when there is too much order and not enough information and too low entropy. Life arises in genesis from lower entropy conditions. But to get life of any kind you need a little bit of information. So lowering entropy too much also kills life, but in a different way to increasing entropy too much. Increasing entropy is like heating stuff up, so it causes chaos and life cannot gain any stable structure. Lowering entropy is like freezing everything to a stand-still and then life cannot get going and has no Life needs stability (low entropy) but it also needs information (high entropy). Life is one of those cool things. It sits in a special region between low and high entropy. Like a diplomat or counsellor mediating between two antagonists. life is awesome. I think it was the computer scientist Chris Langton who said, “Life exists at the edge of chaos.” Or, more reasonably, one might say, “life exists somewhere between the border of too much order and too much chaos.” Whoever first said that, they were right! Profoundly right.

Living is an entropy lowering process because for life you need a bit of biochemical order. Sure, cells and muscles and brains and lungs etc., all seem to be remarkably complex things. But if they were graphically compressed by LZA then our body would need a very sophisticated processor to function, and frankly that’d be next to impossible. Imagine how slow it would make us, and life on Earth is precarious at the best of times, so speed in life is good, or at least highly useful. So evolutionary it makes sense that bacteria, plant and animal organisms have to have a high amount of order and coherent structure.

It seems a bit weird doesn’t it? Life is low in information content! Low in entropy. Thus violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics is what life seems to do. Only it doesn’t. Life trades in entropy. It takes in low entropy food and expels higher entropy waste, and it gains in the process a little bit of negative entropy, which it uses to maintain it’s stability. Biologists call this homeostasis. Overall the entropy of the universe increases a little bit because of the existence of life. But while we are alive we greedily lower entropy inside ourselves, and expel high entropy waste.

And that’s the Law of Minty Fresh Breath.

You can gain minty fresh breath only if you expend a lot of energy to emit positive entropy elsewhere. It does take effort to brush your teeth.

But why is “bad breath” so nasty in the first place?

Earlier I wrote it doesn’t have to be this way but I have not fully explained why.

The Future of Minty Fresh Evolution

The Second Law of Thermodynamics means we must excrete high entropy waste. But high entropy does not make things nasty. It is not Second Law of Thermodynamics that makes poop smell bad or morning breath smell so rank.

It’s the bacteria in our poop and other bacteria in our mouths. They are what’s responsible for the rank odours. But why? The thing is, there is no such thing as a “bad odour”. Odours are just odours, they are not moral concepts. Good and bad are psychological terms. What makes a particular odour “bad” is the effect it’s molecule has on our olfactory sensors and the way our brain is wired to respond. To strong smells we are evolutionarily conditioned to respond with revulsion (for stinks) or delight (for sweet perfumes).

It is easy (although ethically dubious) to switch around these brain-wired responses. One technique is called behavioural reconditioning. If you expose a human to a really “bad” smell and reward them each time with some nutritious tasty food or a nice buzz from a drug, then over a short interval of time, perhaps a week or less, they will no longer be revolted by the odour. You will have completely turned a “bad” smell into a “good” smell. But only for that person. You haven’t changed any chemistry. You’ve just re-wired their brain.

That is the reason why poop and vomit smell so bad to us. To a dog they might smell quite savoury, who knows?

Why again? Because natural evolution design an animal to avoid it’s own waste products. We need low entropy to survive. So doping ourselves with our high entropy waste is, … well, … wasteful! I mean, things tend to die if they accumulate high entropy. So it is an adaptive survival advantage to stay away from one’s own waste. However, your waste could be some other organisms low entropy source of nourishment. There’s a scale of high to low entropy within which various life forms can survive and prosper. But no life form will prosper if surrounded by entropy higher than what it naturally excretes.

The lucky bacteria who get to feed on human waste produce their own waste chemicals. These can have odours of course, and our noses, or rather our brains, are evolved to be extra sensitive to such chemicals, specifically we have evolved rapid repulsion responses to such smells. You might have had no idea of the science reasons for this, you thought that bad smells were just plain bad and unfortunate. But they’re not, I hope you now realise! They are only bad to you and me, because they signal our own type of waste, which we must avoid in order to live healthy and long.

The only accidental bad smells (for us) are those that are not human wastes but which happen, by pure chance, to have molecular structure and vibrational resonances that are close to our body waste products. Such accidental molecules will smell “bad” to us. But only by accident, because they happen to mimic our bodily waste smells.

And there are some people who have had brain damage or genetic mutations who cannot smell odours. They can live reasonable lives, but their ability to avoid hazardous substances is greatly reduced. So they are said to be not as well adapted for survival as someone with a fully functioning sense of smell. Niece smells play other important roles in life as well.

Perfume is a signal that someone is interested in making friends. Perfumes come in turn from odours that occur naturally which signal good low entropy, like nutritious plants (their flowers) or nicely cooked meals, the smell of a clean warm cuddly baby, or clean ocean water, and so on. Minty fresh breath is a good signature of someone who takes care and who is clean, for instance, and therefore a safe person to be around, since they are less likely to carry diseases.

And that’s the guts of it. That’s the original evolutionary reason why you might get captured by the Minty Fresh Breath Quest obsession. It’s built into the genes that wire-up your brain. It’s part of your nurturing as well. Smelly people tend to be bad dates and tend to pass on diseases. Not always, but statistically it is so.

But, you see, although chemicals cannot change without messing up their function for life, smells can change. Smells are brain responses, and brains’ are flexible and adaptive systems. So people can be behaviourally altered to enjoy and even love the smell of bad morning breath and stale tooth-pasteless breath. Trouble is, their dental health will probably suffer severely!

So what can be done about this?

Well, now that science has evolved we (humans that is) no longer need to be alerted by our nose to the dangers of bad smells. So there should be a scientific fix for the Minty Fresh Breath Quest.  And there is, in principle, a really good fix. Perhaps more than one.

Here is one plausible fix.

Genetically engineer the bacteria in our mouths to produce minty smelling chemical waste. But also genetically engineer a gene switch in the bacteria that shifts back to disgusting smelling bacterial waste excretions when the population of bacteria (concentration of them) exceeds the dental hygiene recommendation, but pre-morning breath concentrations. This way we will still have to protective evolutionary mechanism built-in to our brains which repels us from folks who do not take care of their teeth and who have disgusting eating habits. But normal folks will enjoy a nice kiss in the morning with minty freshness.

I wouldn’t be fussed about doing the same for poop, i.e., intestinal bacteria. Poop is so bad, it has nasty heavy metals and other shit in it, haha! So being repulsed by poop is good, why mess with that end? Unless you enjoy kissing your partner down there?

Such genetic engineering will be regarded as “cosmetic” and thus out of reach from most people for a long time. Plus, it is truly difficult to make good gene switches for waste product engineering. But the harder science is to engineer waste to have a minty odour. That could be very hard. But not impossible. It would require finding a new mint flavoured molecule that has higher entropy than the usual bacteria waste chemicals made from sulphur or nitrogen or phosphorous.

BTW, sulphur is a very common element of bad smells for humans — why do you you think? Rotten eggs is the answer. We are adapted to be revolted by rotten eggs wince a rotten egg caries some nasty, nasty bacteria which can kill a human. The smell doesn’t kill us, it is merely a signal, and we’ve adapted to be highly sensitive to that signal smell, for such life-preserving reasons.

Bacteria have no use for mint chemicals, so in principle, provided the mint molecules have higher entropy than the normal bacterial waste, then this sort of genetic engineering of waste odours is plausible. The vectors for such GE could even be embedded in toothpaste. Wouldn’t it be so much nicer to have your mouth bacteria excrete mint, rather than having to paint it on your teeth and tongue with toothpaste whenever you feel stale? I know it’d free up my time and allow my entropy to be spent in wiser ways! All good science fiction should be close to future science fact. At least I think so. The Minty fresh Breath Quest does have some science fact future I believe. But no one is actively working on such research. So before this genetic engineering revolution arrives in full, what can you do about the quest?

Hey, I just thought “The ultimate” was somehow mandatory for a didactic article like this! But I’m not going to defend it in court, right!

You find that brushing your teeth is not sufficient, and you run through dental floss at a higher than average rate, and you may even discover the optimum teeth cleaning cycle, which is this:

  • Brush with a vibrating tooth-brush. Using small circular motions and keep pressure light to avoid hurting gums.
  • Then brush your tongue fairly firmly.
  • Rinse thoroughly with water.
  • Floss thoroughly.
  • Rinse thoroughly with water.
  • Brush again with a rotating tooth-brush.
  • Spit out most of the toothpaste foam but do not rinse.
  • Gargle a minty mouthwash, or if you have none then leave the toothpaste as is, do not rinse, just wipe your lips clear.
  • Optionally apply a small amount of lip gloss so the toothpaste does not dry out your lips.
  • Optionally, use chewing gum. Sugar-free can do weird things but is ok in moderation. Sugar-sweetened gum is not bad, there is less sugar than in a biscuit. Or you can go organic and chew mint leaves or similar herbs.

You might be amazed at how fresh your breath is in the morning. It will still offend you if you have the minty fresh breath quest obsession, but you will still be delighted at the effectiveness of that cleaning cycle. Particularly if you repeat it during the night if you wake up to use the bathroom.

And yet repeating this cycle up to four times a day might still not seem sufficient in your quest. There has to be more, right?

And there is. Diet becomes important, since a lot of what you eat effects your breath. You may discover that sugars are the enemy. Carbohydrates less so. Proteins somewhat. Water is a friend. Mint tea is a friend. But here are some other smaller secrets. Avoid dairy and soy milk. Use rice milk instead, it is remarkably fresh and clean.

Funnily, hard cheeses are good, but not soft cheese. And the less fermented the cheese the better, so use cheddar, smoked is ok, but not blue-vein or heavily aged cheese.

If you crave ice-cream, buy the expensive coconut-milk ice-cream. Firstly, it is expensive so you will not indulge too much, and secondly it has no bad aftertaste, it is a very, very clean dessert, and delicious. (It’s not horrid, not like the terrible chocolate substitute called carob.)

Chocolate is ok, but only if 60% cocoa or higher, and reasonably low percentage of sugar. Purchase the lowest sugar content chocolate brand. In New Zealand this is usually Whittakers, unless you find some boutique chocolate maker, which is unlikely to be distributed in all supermarkets.

Bad news is garlic and onions are out, even if well-roasted. I love roasted garlic and onions, but the after taste is not worth cooking them up. Have them when you are in a good mood, or when you cannot avoid them, such as when dining at a restaurant. Similarly, other rich and sweet foods have to be part of off-days when your quest for fresh minty breath is on an hiatus. I guess if you wish to remain sane, or resemble a state of relative sanity, then you should schedule a few off-quest days. Make good use of them, by not over-eating, but by eating a moderate and satisfying amount of the most delicious items on the menu. That night you will of course institute the tooth-brushing cycle, which will ensure you feel fine in the morning.


Clock Time, Cosmic Time, and Free Time

This is about time and transformation and what changes and what never changes.  It began with reading a novel.


Courtesy: Lisa D. Anness Butterfly Garden.

Recently I had some rare free time to read fiction. While reading Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Black Girl, White Girl which I had found in a stack of withdrawn library books, I came across the following quotation recited by one of the characters in the novel, Minette Swift,

“That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been;”
— from Ecclesiastes, 3:15.

Here is a bit of the context. The narrator is the main character, the “white girl”, Genna Meade. Minette is her roommate at University.

*        *        *


But no, Minette couldn’t be reasoned with. Minette knew that things were “meant to be” and some things were a “test” of how you could take them.

There was weakness, and there was strength. Oh, in the smallest thing!

“Do you believe that everyday is a `test,’ Minette?”

Minette sniffed, fixing me a look confident as Reverend Virgil Swift’s at the pulpit. “Every day? Every minute.  Why’d you think, we are here on earth in clock time?

I asked Minette how else we could be here, except clock-time, and Minette said briskly, ” `That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been.’ ” This was a reply I could not challenge for I had no idea what it meant.
— from Black Girl/White Girl, Joyce Carol Oates, page 50–51.

*        *        *

There are other cool biblical excerpts concerning time. I won’t list them all. I do not do bible studies a’ight!

Ecclesiastes 3:14. “I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him.

3:15 “That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 6:10. “Whatever exists has already been named, and what humanity is has been known; no one can contend with someone who is stronger.”

King James Bible: “That which has been is now; and that which is to be has already been; and God requires that which is past.”

*        *        *

OK, so what’s that all about? Is if some kind of pre-modern scifi? haha!

Well, I often think of some of the great prophetic books of ancient times, like the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tripitakas, the Zend Avesta, the Bible and the Q’urân, as works of science fiction in disguise. I think the reason is that all those scriptures were written in allegorical language. You simply cannot read them literally or you will fall into the pit of fanaticism.

Countless in number are the people who read the Bible literally and then use it as an excuse to do crazy murderous things, or just plain crazy things. Likewise with the Q’urân. It’s not that these books are evil. Quite the contrary if you read them with spiritual metaphorical eyes. But if you take their meanings literally then you will be led into all sorts of paradoxes, confusions, delusions and ultimately madness, only you won’t think you are mad, you will think you are doing the work of God“, which is the most tragic irony because you will probably be doing the exact opposite!

One thing for sure I know, in my heart, is that the bible and the Q’urân teach tolerance and kindness as quintessential attributes people should strive for as default behaviours and inner states of mind. Yet time and again Biblical literalists (people who preach the gospel’s of the great scriptures directly as if every sentence had a direct literal meaning) turn in to people who are intolerant, didactic, unsympathetic and cruel. Witness that they will often insist their word is law, or their God offers the only truth, and their truth is the word of God. It’s all madness, yet they see it not as such. Fanatics like this are easy to recognise. They seem so proud of their ”faith“ that they hold on to it in the face of all contradictory evidence, and they twist facts to fit their warped view of religion, and will insist all other views of religion are the warped ones. It is so pathetic, I truly feel sorry for such souls.

And that is one reason why I think treating these Holy books as science fiction is a profitable venture. It may not be what the authors or inspirer’s for those scriptures intended, but it is healthier and, I think, more helpful to think of them in terms of science fiction than to read them literally.

Well, what else can you do with allusions like, The Moon will turn blood red and the stars will fall from heaven?  There is no other rational option other than scifi, right? Or at lest you can treat such passages as allegorical poetry, full of hidden allusions, and interpreted in terms of spiritual reality rather than the literal physical reality in the bare words.

Thus, one scifi reading of “the stars shall fall from heaven” can be assumed as follows: the stars of religion are the clergy and priests of former dispensations. When they “fall” this means they become egotistical and threatened by a new dispensation of religion, a new prophet, and they seek to murder the new religion, kill it off (either literally or figuratively I suppose! It has happened, the attempt at least, to quell a new revelation, in fact it seems to happen regularly in history whenever a new prophet arises). The “stars falling” is thus the debasement in spiritual station of the revered elders and clergy of previous religious establishments. That’s the scifi reading.

And the “Moon turning to blood” might refer metaphorically to the sacrifices a prophets’ followers may make in the formative years of a new revelation, their blood (meaning their energy and spirit) is spent in the effort to teach and establish a renewal of religious laws and teachings and guidance. There may be other good interpretations equally valid. You just need to figure out what “blood” symbolises in religious canons, and what the Moon symbolises. I’m not an expert on these matters, but I’m sure someone can full in a decent scifi interpretation of such biblical passages. A lot of the weirder stuff appears in Revelations, so I’m sure someone has studied this in the correct non-literalist light.

But my purpose in this essay is to look at the quotation about past and future and “now”. It’s good stuff because it is not all scifi. There is some interesting science fact in it as well.

How the Future Has Already Been

So far this is just a warm-up to the quote about past present and future. This took my fancy because I used to work in a Time Standards laboratory with atomic clocks. And although that job did not involve time travel or other cool scifi, it was a cool job for me because I’ve always been fascinated by time and general relativity and cosmology. In time and frequency standards you do not get to explore cosmology, and general relativity is sort-of hidden behind all the software and atomic clock internals.

Time and frequency standards plays a very important role in modern technology, especially in GPS and stock market trading and airline scheduling and navigation. This is all fine and good, but the truly interesting physics only happens at the research frontier, which unfortunately was not in my job brief (my research was supposed to be on microwave measurement standards, but I never got hooked on it).

Cosmology, the large scale features of the universe, is intimately connected to time. And no one really understands time. It is perhaps the most common concept in physics, but also one of the least understood. Einstein’s theory of general relativity, for example, tells us that the future has already happened, and we are merely creatures with past-only memory cells in our brains which makes us think we are experiencing a flow of time, when in fact we are merely observers, watching our completed life as if through a movie reel, one frame at a time.

This is why we can say the future has already been. From the proverbial “god’s eye” view into our universe, all future events are connected to the past by the geometry of spacetime. In Einstein’s theory space cannot be separated from time, in fact, they are merged together in a deep way. Experiments confirm Einstein’s insights. One of which is the observation that an object travelling close to the speed of light measurably ages slower, but it’s spacetime velocity (4-velocity) never changes. In fact every object, even objects at rest, have a constant 4-velocity which is always equal to the speed of light (300 million metres per second).

Einstein explained this by postulating that our universe is not just an isolated sequence of “nows”, but is rather a continuum of all times over all space, and our entire universe must be regarded as a complete four-dimensional geometry. When we move we simply shift from maximum velocity through time (called “ageing” rather than “moving”) to part movement through time and part movement through space. At the extreme and object might move only through space and not at all through time, and such things do exist, they are called photons (or particles of light). Since photons move entirely through space and not through time they never age.

To visualise this, think of an object as having a 4-velocity vector (an arrow pointing in it’s direction of motion). The four directions are three of space and one of time. So you might try to imagine four perpendicular axes, but if that’s too hard, imagine space is squeezed down to just 2D or 1D, and then you can draw time as an axis on a sheet of graph paper. An objects’s 4-velocity is a vector (arrow) measuring the objects direction of motion in all four directions.

When at rest this 4-vector is pointed only into time. Then as it starts moving, say after being pushed by a motor, it’s 4-velocity doesn’t change in length, it just rotates so that now it points a little bit into space and still mostly into the time direction. Then as the object picks up speed and gets faster and faster it’s 4-velocity still never changes but rotates further into space and less into the time direction.

So in general relativity, the theory of our cosmos as a whole, time and space are inseparable. And aging is just another word for motion that is motion through time.

So the Future is Out There

The future is just events in space time ahead of the events in spacetime you are currently experiencing. But what does “currently experiencing” mean? It means there is a local notion of “now” which is the time on a clock travelling through life with you. This could be any clock. Your biological clock is a good one. You can measure the age of a person by examining their DNA damage or their bone cross section structure and/or other indicators, a bit like a tree’s age can be measured by examining core’s of it’s trunk which reveal growth rings.

But “now” for you is not “now” for me as I write this essay. Your “now” is in my future since you cannot be reading this until after I finish typing and posting this.

Which is why “now” has no objective meaning. It’s a purely subjective and relative notion. And such concepts, while accessible to science, are not part of fundamental physics theory. Physics deals with only objective reality.

The objective reality is that space and time are a single connected continuum we should call spacetime. And so all of your subjective “past” is connected to your “future” and so the future exists already and is in an anthropomorphic sense waiting for you to experience it. It’s dangerous to use anthropomorphisms in scientific explanations, but I think there is little danger here. Most people understand what this means. The “future” is not a thinking entity which can “wait for you”. But it is a bit like film frames on a movie reel that are waiting to be run through the projector when you will then see them on screen in your subjective “now”.

So “future” is entirely relative to your “now”, and what you consider to be “now” is purely an invention of your brain and it’s senses. It’s changing all the time, right?!

Your conception of future is thus largely an objective fiction, although subjectively it is very real and perfectly natural. Part of your nature. But not part of the nature of the cosmos as a whole.

What is objectively true is that the cosmos encodes your future for you. It all unfolds in your timeline, and your brain’s memory gives you it’s conscious perception of an unfolding universe through time. This is a subjective fact for you, but an objective fiction for the cosmos.

Or rather, to be more precise, it is not an objective fiction. Imagine yourself to be a “god of our universe”. You can look at all of spacetime as a completed structure. You can slice space along some direction, and then all perpendicular coordinates become a relative past or future to the slice that you’ve created or picked out. So future and past can be generated by simply choosing some spacetimes coordinates for a “now”.

Thus, for theological scifi we can get quite close to scifact by using general relativity. The future already exists, and you are just watching and otherwise sensing it flow into your life and memory.

Foreknowledge and Free Will

There is an apparent conflict between general relativity cosmology and quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is an undeniably established feature of physical reality. It tells us that the future cannot be predicted with pure certainty. Experiments confirm this. Quantum mechanics dictates that we can only ever have statistical knowlegde of the future. The universe evolves in time only probabilistically. The amazing thing about quantum mechanics is that it can be experimentally confirmed with certainty that the universe and the future unfold non-deterministically.

The future is totally uncertain, but odds and likelihoods about the future can be computed precisely. So the future is not all chaotic and chancy. Certain weird thing could happen, but with exceedingly small odds. The laws of quantum mechanics mathematically tell us what all the odds are, the odds the Sun will still rise in the East tomorrow, for instance. (That’s one event with near 100% probability, but it is not absolutely exactly 100%, would you believe! No kidding. And I’m not talking about human government officials overnight deciding to redefine the direction of “East”.)

This is great for those who wish to believe in free will. Since it means the future could be partly determined by decisions made by conscious creatures, which is what we normally refer to as “free will”.

But it seems to conflict with general relativity which, as I’ve mentioned above, implies the future already exists. How is this paradox resolved?

The interesting thing is that physicists do not have an agreed resolution. General relativity and Quantum Mechanics have not been fully unified. Physicists still seek a unified theory of all reality. It is a great unsolved problem in physics.

Also, the future is locked-away from our knowledge because the way our brain memory works is limited. It can only store information about the past. Some other type of entity might have two-way memory, of past and future. But not our biological brains. So we cannot access the future even if it does already exist. Of course, we actually do access the future all the time, but it is very poor access, it is serial sequential access. That’s another way of saying that psychologically time seems to “flow in one direction”, towards the future.

There are some fascinating issues about the psychologically perceived “flow of time” which relate to statistical mechanics and the Second law of Thermodynamics. But I do not want to expand them here. I will probably leave them for future articles!

One point I should make is that there is no logical puzzle in the fact that the future is unpredictable and yet maybe pre-existent. So logically quantum mechanics and general relativity could be in complete harmony. The reason is that quantum mechanics does not dictate the future universe is non-existent. It merely tells us that we cannot predict the future with any certainty, only with prescribed probability.

But you see, if a thing can be subject to accurate and empirically confirmed probability estimates, then it is a reality which will happen, and who can say it has not already happened? Like making bets on a horse race in a movie that has already been filmed. Provided none of the audience has access to the film reel, they can have a fair betting game. This is basically what our universe does to us scientists! Why? Because our physics seems to forbid time-travellers. If time-travelling were allowed then it would completely mess up the foundations of quantum mechanics, and general relativity would win the theoretical battle. That’s because time-travel would in principle allow perfect prediction of the future, whereas quantum mechanics says (in it’s core mathematical development based on many good experiments) that no measurements can ever be used to determine the future exactly. But as I’ve hinted, there is no logical reason why the two theories cannot be fully compatible.

It is perfectly logically reasonable for the future to be entirely unknown to present measurements, and yet entirely pre-determined. One way to see how is to imagine tachyons — influences on our past or present which have arrived from the future. Since we do not have memory or measurements of the future, because we cannot observe tachyons, we cannot use them to construct precise predictions of the future. And yet the future can be “out there”, pre-existent. It would just be inaccessible to our measurement instruments. This could be the big key to understanding quantum mechanics. But is is not established accepted physics yet. The trouble is most tachyons are indistinguishable from anti-matter.

Ironically, if such a reconciliation between relativity and quantum mechanics could be established it would probably mean we’d be able to detect tachyons, i.e, confirm they carry future information and are not merely anti-matter particles. And if we could confirm they were in fact tachyonic (carrying information backwards in time) then would we not thus have access to future information and thus enable predictions of the future, and thus overturn the principles of quantum mechanics? These are interesting philosophical questions. But no one can foresee the answers!

So our future is already determined, but we cannot know it because our memory works only in one direction through time. It cannot encode tachyonic information. And in a deeper way the laws of quantum mechanics forbid our knowledge of the future because of the way information from future states of the cosmos are locked-away in structures which our present measurements can only ever, even in principle, detect using probability.

For theology one can say that although God may see all future and past as one completed whole, just as Einstein theory of general relativity would allow, we sentient thinking conscious creatures nevertheless have a sense of free-will because our future cannot be foretold within spacetime.

Caterpillar to Butterfly Metamorphosis

Purely by accident, while I was writing this article i was listening to an episode of RadioLab called “Black Boxes” (radiolab podcast 2014-01-17). It was an entire podcast devoted to various black-box phenomena. These could be anything at all for which something known goes “in” and something knowable comes “out” but for which what happens in between going in and but is mysterious = a black box.

There was a cool one about a pair of Aussie radio broadcasters back in the 1950’s who did a telepathy trick which no one has ever discovered the secret for.

But the black box which interested me a lot more was the podcast about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. This is still a largely mysterious biological process. If you slice the pupa of a caterpillar mid-transformation, you see just a lot of yellow-white goo, like snot. But within this goo are bits of the caterpillar’s brains and nerves, which can survive the liquification process and impart some residual memory for the butterfly. What butterfly’s do with this memory is fairly primitive, but adaptively useful. For example, a caterpillar can be trained to respond to avoid certain smells, e.g., by behavioural association of a certain previous neutral smell with some kind of nasty induced shock, like an electric shock or simultaneous exposure to a bitter chemical.

This was pretty cool science, the fact that a humble caterpillar can actually be behaviourally conditioned. Normally only higher conscious animals can be behaviourally conditioned. But now I learn insects can be conditioned crudely.

But what was really interesting turned out to be that some dude back a century go sliced a caterpillar length-wise along it’s body and showed that inside the caterpillar, were embryonic butterfly wing and antennae structures — near transparent fine structures close to the caterpillar’s skin. And when slicing a young pupa open similarly length-wise you can see the wing and antennae and other butterfly parts are initially squeezed up against the inside of the outer shell of the pupa.

That’s so cool. Especially since while listening to this podcast I was writing about transformations of past to present and to future.

So a caterpillar already contains within itself the image and form of it’s future adult butterfly.

But when you think about it, so do we all. Within our cells is hidden an almost complete image of what we will look like in old age, provided we survive so long, and neglecting injuries and such-like.

How the Past is Now

The other half of the biblical quote is also true. And is a little easier to understand.

Most of your immediate past is still with you, in the form of memory patterns stored in your brain’s cells and neurological structure. Actually, nerve cells in the brain do not store memory, it is the connections between brain cells which constitute memory. Yeah, but memory is not perfect, and so your brain does not record the past history of the entire universe.

There is a deeper scifact way in which the “past is now”. Do you know what it is?

Now is a Boundary on the Past

The basic idea is classical physics. The laws of physics dictate how one state of the universe transforms into a future state. But you can run this script in reverse, and so use current state of the universe to “predict” or may “postdict”, what had to have been the immediate prior state, say one second ago, or a millisecond ago, or whatever resolution in time you desire.

No one can reconstruct the past like this perfectly, which is why history is largely a humanities topic, not a scientific or physics topic, other than the stuff studied in geology and astrophysics and archeaology.  But the physics idea is that the present is a boundary on the past, and from this boundary one can in principle reconstruct all of the past.  All the past universe gets encoded in information on it’s boundary.  In a slightly different guise, in modern physics this concept of information for an entire volume being encoded in it’s boundary is known as the Holographic Principle, and it has been extended well beyond the classical physics paradigm in order to complement Superstring Theory and add to our understanding of Black Holes.  But that is another topic for another time.

Memory has been mentioned already, and this is another illustration of how the past is always “with us” in some sense. All events in the past contributed to our present conditions, and if anything had been different in the past then by the laws of physics the present would not be the same as it is. So, in principle, even though not even remotely in practice, one can conceive of reconstructing the past from only the knowledge of the present.

Scientists cannot do this for the universe as a whole, not even for a glass of water, but an imaginary all-seeing God could do such a trick if they knew the precise laws of physics and the precise arrangement of all molecules in the universe at just the present time. So it’s science baby, not scifi!

The Encoded Past and the Decoding Future

In information theoretical terms, our past is present with us, but trapped within all the results of history mingled together, unravelling it is a decoding process. Running the outcome of the laws of physics in reverse. Curiously, in our known universe, those reversed laws of physics are precisely the same as the forward laws of physics. Amazing huh? Not kidding you. But to explain this — to explain why it is surprising — would be another excursion into statistical mechanics, which I will not take.

Likewise, our future is already determined, but we cannot know it because our memory works only in one direction through time. Yet from our present, given the laws of physics, these laws are constantly decoding the information about the past and somehow (no one really knows the how of it, how does it happen, are we inside a computer simulation, a Matrix, or something more bizarre?) these laws, or whatever it Is that rules them, is ceaselessly and relentlessly generating the reality of our present and near future. At least this is how we psychologically perceive the universe unfolding. The reality is more likely that the future already exists and we are merely walking into it with perennially uncertain knowledge of it.

And in a deeper way the laws of quantum mechanics forbid our knowledge of the future because of the way information from future states of the cosmos are locked-away in structures which our present measurements can only ever, even in principle, detect using probability. We cannot access hypothetical tachyonic information from the future.

Aside: This thing about an inherently probabilistic universe raises an interesting didactic point I feel like remonstrating about for a paragraph: a universe ruled by quantum mechanics is deeply an fundamentally a universe of probability mechanics, in fact this is probably a better description, why people say “quantum mechanics” is an accident of history, arrived at because the first clues that our universe is ruled by probability mechanics came from experiments revealing atomic spectra — which are due to light emitted from atoms from transitions between quantized energy levels of electrons orbiting atoms. (When an electron drops in energy level it emits a photon.) There were also experiments on electron magnetic properties which revealed that electrons have a type of spacetime symmetry property called “spin” which is also quantised (electron spin is discrete, in fact it is either +1/2 or −1/2). These experiments are why the newly emerging quantum mechanics. Yet there are plenty of things with energy or with symmetry in nature which are not quantized like this, and yet everything in nature obeys the probability principles which are the true foundation of quantum physics. Hence the theory should properly be called probability mechanics. Or since Isaac Newton’s name is often associated with classical (pre-quantum) mechanics, perhaps another famous physicist could lend their name to the modern theoretical structure, although it is hard to think of a name which resonates — Heisenberg, Bohr, Dirac, Schrödinger, de Broglie, Pauli, maybe Feynman? Feynman was not one of the first inventors of quantum mechanics, but his name sounds the nicest to my ears, the others are too harsh or exotic. The dudes who actually discovered the mathematical mechanics of quantum mechanics were Heisenberg and Schrödinger, and their respective formulations are often used, they are “matrix mechanics” and “wave mechanics”. In Heisenberg’s formulation the probabilities are represented by matrices (specific types of arrays of numbers). In Schrödinger’s formulation the probabilities are represented in wave amplitudes. OK, that’s all for this aside. I guess we are stuck with “quantum”.

In summary, I guess I just want to emphasise that biblical quotations should be treated a little more like scifi than as literal fact. But I’m being mischievous here. What is more serious is to read the great works and scriptures of theology with an open mind and an open heart and try to extract spiritual meaning from them before any literal meaning. I’m fairly certain there is nothing truly literal intended in the holy scriptures. The original authors (or inspirer’s) surely were writing (or inspiring) from the vantage of a far highly plane of reality than the mere physical. So their “Moon” and “stars” and “Sun” and “heaven” and “blood” are almost surely nothing to do with the (physical) cosmological stars and galaxies and creatures. I think our future civilisation will prove me right, but I can only place a probability on it.

*        *        *

Like the caterpillar, we all carry our future with us, and from our present cells we can in principle decode our entire past, in more detail and with superior fidelity than our memory.

*        *        *

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Spaghetti Monster with Green Ears — “We lef’ some’in’ unduhn marty”

True Detective.  Best miniseries ending ever! 😉  You have to watch the series to appreciate how misanthropic and utterly cynical Rustin Cohle was before his brief brain death after being stabbed by the serial killer.


So here is the final dialogue.

Marty (Martin Hart): “Talk to me, Rust.”

Rust (Rustin Cohle): “There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark, that something … whatever I’d been reduced to, not even consciousness, just a vague awareness in the dark. I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind — it was deeper — warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel … I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go, man. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there. Even more than before. Nothing. Nothing but that love. And then I woke up.”

[Rust breaks down, sobbing.]

Marty: “Didn’t you tell me one time, dinner once, maybe, about how you used to … you used to make up stories about the stars?”

Rust: “Yeah, that was in Alaska, under the night skies.”

Marty: “Yeah, you used to lay there and look up, at the stars?”

Rust: “Yeah, I think you remember how I never watched the TV until I was 17, so there wasn’t much to do up there but walk around, explore, and…”

Marty: “And look up at the stars and make up stories. Like what?”

Rust: “I tell you Marty I been up in that room looking out those windows every night here just thinking,…”

For the last few lines I’ll use some of: Mah Lousaana ahksent spellin’ ‘sh d’librat.) 😉

Rust: “Ish juhz one story, the oldest.”

Marty “Whash that?”

Rusty: “Light vershus dark.”

Marty: “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but, appears to me tha’ the dark has a lot more territory.”

Rusty: “Yeah,… you’re right about that. …. Hey listen… hey…”

Marty: “Yeah what?”

Rusty: “W’ shyuu you point me in the direction of the car man. I spend enough of my funckin’ life in a hospital.”

Marty: “Jesus. You know what? I’d protest, but it occurs to me that you’re un-killable. You wanna go back get y’ clothes or anythung?”

Rusty: “Nah, anything I left back there I don’ need.”

Rusty:: “Ya know you’re lookin’ at it wrong… tha’ sky thing…”

Marty: “Howz that?”

Rusty: “Well, once tharr was only dark… You ashk me, the light’s winning.”

Marty: “hehehe.”

[Pan up to the stars… fade to black …]

[The drums begin … to “The Angry River“]

“The emptiness that we confess
In the dimmest hour of day
In Automatown they make a sound
Like the low sad moan of prey

“The bitter taste the hidden face
Of the lost forgotten child
The darkest need the slowest speed
The debt unreconciled

“These photographs mean nothing
To the poison that they take
Before a moment’s glory
The light begins to fade

“The awful cost of all we lost
As we looked the other way
We’ve paid the price of this cruel device
Till we’ve nothing left to pay

“The river goes where the current flows
The light we must destroy
Events conspire to set afire
The methods we employ

“These dead men walk on water
Cold blood runs through their veins
The angry river rises
As we step into the rain

“These photographs mean nothing
To the poison that they take
The angry river rises
As we step into the rain”

*        *        *

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A Recipe for Heart and Mind with Six Packs

A friend asked me how I achieved a “six pack”.  So I wrote her this post as my reply in an email.  If you read carefully you can glean a bit of my philosophy too, it’s not hidden, just obscured by the physics.  haha!


(Yoga.  Illustration courtesy of Kiran Shahid. http://tribune.com.pk/story/535869/yoga-is-about-the-mind-body-and-soul/ )

All you need is around fifteen to thirty minutes a day and a healthy appetite for pain and discomfort.  The theory is to work your muscles all over your body to maximum power.  This way you burn loads of energy, but will not feel exhausted an hour later, in fact you might feel sleepy but fairly relaxed and happy.

The Intellectual Beginnings

To feel really good, begin your exercise routine by FIRST doing some thinking work, e.g., write a few paragraphs for a novel, solve a brain-teaser puzzle, or whatever you enjoy for mental exercise.  For me, the brain needs exercise as much as the body, and this sort of pre-physical exercise routine makes a wonderfully holistic exercise experience.   Of course, if you’ve had a hard day at work then you can count that as your mind exercise if you like.

Also, to feel good about exercise you should know your bodies limits.  If the goal is aesthetic that’s fine, you should not feel vain.  Looking your best is a spiritual thing provided you do not expect it of others and know that deep down it is becaue you enjoy beauty.  It’s really about inner beuaty, wanting to be your best.  Having “six pack abs” is only the shallow result of this deeper aesthetic sensibility.  Some people exercise only to look like a supermodel, and that is not so healthy for your soul.

Also, there are genetics to consider.  In particular, the only thing I can reliably comment upon, are genetic components  (1) metabolic differences, and (2) gender differences.  These are intrinsic factors you cannot escape.  Some people have “slow metabolism” which is scientifically definable, if you have such genes you probably get obese very quickly, and have a huge appetite for food.  Your body does not burn food as efficiently as other people.  You will struggle to get six-pack abs, and the battle will be more mental than physical.  You’d need to battle hard to overcome your biochemical urges for dietary satiation.  In other words, you have to exercise a lot more will power to eat only what you need, not what you think you need.  It’s tough.  One of my brothers has such a  metabolism.

The other main comment is for women.  Women have an extra layer of fat cells than men.  Now fat cells only looks fat when they have plenty of energy stored in them.  Women need lots of energy for childbirth, since their metabolism is feeding two people for about nine moths.  That’s why women have evolved extra fat cells.  But even if a woman exercises like a dude, they will find it hard to look “ripped” even though they might have superior muscle tone to the equivalent man.  It’s because even with minimal fat storage their fat cells will still be present.  Fat cells cannot be created or destroyed much after adolescence, you are stuck with them, unless you resort to liposuction (not recommended).

So women have extra fat cell layers and this acts like a blanket, hiding their muscle tissue, and giving them smoother looking skin.

My advice to women is not to worry about this.  Smooth skin on a woman is beautiful.  Ripped prominent muscle tissue close to the skin is not as sexy on women as on men.  If your boyfriend likes the ripped muscle look then ditch him, because he is probably verging on sheer vanity and Narcissism, he likes you to look like him!  That’s not good for a relationship.  And one thing this article is about is philosophy of exercise and beauty.  True beauty starts from within.  So women, please enjoy and love your smooth beautiful healthy bodies.

The Physical Bits

Eat an orange or watermelon rind (soothes sore muscles, citrulline malate) or tangerines I think have higher levels of citrulline malate, grapes are also good for citrulline. Eat chocolate (muscle power, cocoa) and nuts (protein for muscle building).  Drink water (cleanses the body).

Then use very heavy weights.  Almost as much as you can lift.  Do a variety of exercises lifting weights, e.g., bench press, curls, laterals.  Work any muscle groups that you’d like to tone.

Do some “power sit ups” too, these are the hardest sit-ups you can manage, hands behind head, knees up, lift through stomach not legs, legs should be relaxed and not propped against anything.  But it doesn’t matter how you do the sit-ups so much, the critical thing is to do them as fast and as tough as possible, make it hurt real bad as quickly as possible.

If you don’t have barbells, then for your legs just do power squats (squat down crouched so you can touch the ground with a straight back, then spring up jumping as high as possible keeping your back straight, repeat fast for about a minute or until you cannot possibly jump one more time).  For lateral and bicep strength do pull-ups if you don’t have dumbells.  (It only costs a few dollars to attach a pull-up bar to a wall.)

Do this with all exercises: do them so fast and with such heavy loads that you quickly reach your body limit and can do no more.  It should really hurt your muscles.  This should only take about 30 seconds each exercise, because you should be doing them fast and flat-out.  Don’t forget you have to breath and recover for a minute after each exercise.

After doing abut a dozen different exercises you are finished for the day.  Maybe, for great results, do once after breakfast and then again after dinner.  Each exercise session takes only about 20 minutes.

The Spiritual Completion

The complete health routine is best finished with spiritual exercise.  This can be anything you find helpful to feel at peace with the universe.  Meditation is good.  Reading a good book.  Prayer.  A walk in the park.  Cooking a nice dinner.  Helping a friend or neighbour or stranger (e.g., go online and answer one of the un-answered questions on Answers.com or any other well-read forum, or contribute your expertise to Wikipedia).

*        *        *

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Superhero Puzzle #6 — Explain Hulk’s Strength and Invulnerability

Actually, the Hulk is not invulnerable to harm.  He feels some pain, and his skin and inner tissues can be damaged, but they repair super-fast.  That’s part of what this puzzle is set to explain.  The other part is the way Hulk gets stronger the angrier he gets.

The Hulk

The madder he gets, the stronger he gets. It’s all about nuclear energy storage and release. But how? 

In Marvel comics Bruce Banner is a nuclear physicist who saves the life of a young kid who wanders accidentally into a “gamma bomb” test facility.  In saving the kid Banner receives a full blast of gamma radiation.  Instead of killing him,  as all the laws of physics suggest it should, it triggers mutations in his DNA or radical alterations in his physiology and neurology which enables his body cells to exponentially enlarge and strengthen, but only when his rage or anger hormones, pulse rate, and neural activity peak.

This already has some fascinating physics and biology potential.  For instance, there is some kind of implied biochemical — nuclear physics link, which is extraordinary, because biochemistry operates at the level of electrons around atoms, whereas gamma radiation effects influence primarily the nuclei of atoms, and there is a massive gulf in length and time scale between nuclear and atomic physics.  Atomic physics is (in time scales) to nuclear physics like glacier motion is to photon torpedoes.  And in length scales atomic physics is to nuclear physics like the Grand Canyon is to an Ant Hill.  In energy levels atomic physics is like a tickle from a ducklings feather compared to uranium-tipped missile impacts of nuclear physics.

Another Hulking condition which is fascinating to try to explain with realistic science is the way Hulk gets almost infinitely stronger the angrier he gets.  So he literally has never truly been beaten in a fight, not even by Thor and Mjolnir, or more malevolent gods and demons, since the longer and more brutal the fight, the stronger he gets.

Gamma Rays

Gamma rays are just very high energy light waves, or photons.  (Light has this dual characteristic, sometimes acting like waves, sometimes like particles which we call “photons”.  It’s a mystery to modern science why light has this dual nature, so I will not discuss it here, since it’s a science topic of it’s own.)

Not all light waves/particles are visible to our eyes.  For instance, infrared is lower energy then red light and is invisible to our eyes, but not to our heat sense.  Ultraviolet light is higher energy than blue light and is invisible to our eyes, but not to the eyes of honey bees.

X-rays are higher energy than ultraviolet, which is how they can penetrate soft tissues and are useful for medical imaging and remote sensing.  Gamma-rays are the generic name for all light waves/particles higher in energy than X-rays.  So gamma-rays cover a massive energy range.

Absorption of Gamma Ray Energy

Over the decades The Hulk has exerted so much force and strength and healing that the total energy he has used would greatly exceed that of the initial gamma ray energy dose form the nuclear test accident.

Quick Calculation: prove this “fact” using some rough estimates.  Include reasonable uncertainties to back up the fact.  (A solution will be published in a later article.)

So one of the first puzzles is to explain how The Hulk can continue being super-strong.  This has to be related to the biomechanism of his hulking condition.

The other main puzzle is to explain how come his hulking state is triggered by anger, rage and stress.

You Won’t Like Me When I’m Angry

Anger, rage, stress — are all physiological responses to external stimuli.  The body’s response occurs via the relay of the stress signals to the brain.  So the primary response is neurological.  Sometimes the stimulus can be direct nerve impulses, like heat, cold, cuts, punches and other pains and stresses.  Other things can trigger the same neurological responses, such as emotional pain.  The commonality is the part of the brain that responds.

In all such responses to stress the brain fires nerve impulses to glands which produce stress hormones, like adrenalin, cortisol, histamines, epinephrin, norepinephrin, glucocorticoids, catecholamines, and others.  But none of these hormones can grow muscle cells, or enlarge and toughen body tissue like in the Hulk’s condition.  So we need to postulate some rather unique biology to account for the Hulk.

But the neurological stress response and the associated hormone response is the start.  The main problem I think is that this is all chemistry, whereas gamma-ray energy (the source of the Hulk’s power) is all nuclear.  But that needs some elaboration.

One of the types of hormone released in stress responses are growth hormones, such as certain steroids and prolactin, and maybe stuff like creatine.  These can be a big factor for Hulk.  Since we have to explain rapid muscle growth.

For the Hulk, these have to be somewhat super-charged hormones.  They must act thousands of times faster than they do normally.  So for this we need a nice tight nuclear-to-electrical response pathway, one that accelerates hormone effects, by-passing a lot of the “slow chemistry”..

Gamma Ray Energy is Nuclear Energy

The tricky thing about gamma rays is that they have such high energy that chemically, and hence biologically, they are just plain destructive.  Chemical processes operate at much gentler atomic or electrical energies, which are about hundreds to thousands of times lower in energy than nuclear energy levels.

So for Hulk to be powered by gamma-ray energy his body would need to be radically altered from normal human condition so that his atoms can store nuclear energy.  It has to be nuclear, it cannot be the gentler electrical-atomic type of energy.  The binding between atoms is purely electrical in character.  So all chemistry is electrical.  Hence all biology is electrical.  There is really nothing nuclear about chemistry.

All the nuclear force contributes to chemistry si the stability fo the positively charged atom nuclei.  The nuclear forces holds protons and neutrons tightly packed in the nucleus of every atom, and the nucleus is where 90% of the mass of an atom is packed.  But aside from the positive electric charge of the protons, the nucleus plays no other role in chemistry.  It is simply the positive attrctive kernel of every atom which holds the negatively charged electrons in orbit around the atom.  Aside from this concentrated positive electric charge of the nucleus, all chemistry is all electrons.

That’s why chemistry is not a good basis for the Hulk’s superpowers. This is because the force of electricity is much weaker (about a million times weaker over short ranges) than the nuclear force.  By the way, if you need words, the usual name for the nuclear force is “the quantum chromodynamic force“, or just QCD for short.

Gamma ray energies correspond to transition within nuclei.  They are typically millions or more “electronvolts”.  An electron volt is just a convenient unit of energy, it corresponds to the energy gained or lost by one electron moving through a voltage difference of one volt.  So it’s not much, but when packed into a single photon it is a super-dense amount of energy.  A million electron volts is still not much energy, if it struck your finger in the form of a spark of electricity it would hardly register on your skin, but again, when a million electron-volts is packed into one tiny particle then it is a super-super-dense packing of energy.  So gamma-rays are just such ultra-dense packets of energy.  That’s why they are harmful, since one gamma-ray can disrupt atoms and hence tear apart chemical molecules, and so can cause mutations in DNA.  Normally such damage from gamma-rays is just plain damaging, and also a bit unpredictable in effect, other than that you can predict fairly certainly it will be harmful.

But somehow the nuclear energy received by Bruce Banner triggered obvious biochemical changes in his physiology. Not just catastrophic chaotic damage.  So the trick to providing some plausible science for The Hulk is mainly in figuring out how nuclear energy can be stored and regenerated and then transferred into chemical energy.  This is a hard puzzle, because the electric force and the nuclear QCD force do not easily interact.

The QCD-nuclear force operates on time scales of billionths of a second, whereas the electric-chemical force operates on time scales of microseconds. The QCD-nuclear force operates over length scales of billionths of a micrometer, while the electric-chemical force operates over lengths scales of millimetres to micrometres to metres or even sometimes kilometres, a billion times longer range than nuclear-QCD forces.  So it’s a problem coming up with a mechanism for transferring nuclear energy into electrical energy.  Some sort of bridging mechanism is needed.  What could it be?

Nuclear to Atomic Level Transitions

The tiny dense ultrafast world of the nucleus is so far removed from the gentle swirling spacious world of atomic electrons that there seems no way to bridge thee divide.  It is analogous to bridging the separation between  a droplet of water and an entire ocean.  Or like comparing a giant fierce star with a tiny candle flame.

But energy is ubiquitous and is nature’s natural currency.  So there has to be some way to get the dense highly dangerous nuclear energy stored in Bruce Banner out and up-level to the slower lower level of chemistry of Hulk.

The stored nuclear gamma-energy has to be in the form of highly exotic and normally unstable nuclear systems, these are at the tiny dense heart of every atom.  Normally unstable exotic nuclear states decay rapidly, releasing bursts of gamma-ray energy or other radiation products, like alpha particles or beta particles.  But in Bruce Banner these exotic states have to be so intricate that they have become self-stabilising, and yet still loaded with excess energy like highly coiled springs.  Super-springs really,  Super-super-duper springs.

So what’s really going on?  Well, it has to be something to do with the exotic physics of Superstrings and $n$-branes.  These are the hypothetical elements of all particles found in nature.  Every particle, from electrons to photons, are really tiny vibrating strings or membranes, like ultra-ultra-ultra-microscopic stringed instruments, only with any instrument backbone, just the stringiness.

Superstrings are supposedly non science fiction either, there is good reason to suppose they are truly what physical matter is composed from.  And here’s the key thing:  if a superstring is excited by a huge amount, it vibrates differently, and this is a form of compactly stored energy, in fact so compact that it will easily do the job of explaining how Bruce Banner can have so much energy packed inside his body.   The trouble is, the physics of superstrings takes place on much, much, much smaller length and times scales than even the incredibly dense and compact realm of nuclear physics.  Superstrings are a whole new deeper level of reality.

But, the same physics governing superstrings and $n$-branes is reproduced at the much large (yet still atomically tiny) nuclear level of the QCD force.  So we can postulate that highly exotic nuclear structure is somehow self-stabilised in Bruce Banners body, storing vast quantities of energy, like incredibly tiny but super-tensely wound springs.  The subatomic particles involved are the quarks and gluons which are what all  nuclei are made up from. But in Bruce Banner we are postulating extremely exotic states of such matter, normally too unstable to exist, by somehow stabilised by Banner’s exposure to the intense gamma radiation.

So I will call this sort of energetics quark-gluon-super-springs. It really has to be exotic too.  Like, if normal nuclei are plain mono-frequency musical notes, then the nuclear matter in Bruce Banner’s body is like a Mozart symphony.    And somehow this energy is released and catalyses his hulking state via a new type of nuclear-to-chemical energy transition mechanism, which also has to be incredibly exotic.

Since the nuclear physics has to involve nuclei, not atomic electrons, the way hulking can happen has to be through a network of nuclei, and this network has to be virtually the entirety of Banners body.  His body has become one vast nuclear battery, or super-network of “nuclear-springs” (to use the super-spring analogy).

This network must become “excited” by his hormones and emotive neurological states, which must cause global patterns of atomic-nuclei vibrations, and it can only be at a global level that it starts to effect chemistry, since electrons (the prime particles involved in chemical processes) move and vibrate at much larger spatial and longer time scales than nuclei.

Think of the electrons as little gusts of wind, and the nuclei as an array of swings or pendulums.  If the gusts of wind act in concert they can produce vibrations of the pendulums, and if the pendulums swing in orchestrated ways they can generate gusts of wind.  This is the sort of cross-level physics we need to pass energy from nuclear levels up to larger slower chemical levels.

What orchestrates this interplay of vastly different levels of physics are the unique molecules in Banner’s body which we have to postulate were fabricated somewhat miraculously (and on a strictly one-time only basis, which is really what “miraculous” means in this context) by the gamma-ray nuclear test accident he was involved with which gave him hulking powers.

How did such miracle proteins or biomolecules get “fabricated”?   Well, here we are truly into fantasy land.  I would suggest (to a conscientious comic book scifi writer) that the miracle proteins were formed in a complicated highly intricate self-organising milieu of gamma-ray energy and nuclear excitations and chemical transitions, which must have occurred in Banner as a response to the extraordinary high does of gamma energy he received.

But “self-organising” is far too flippant a phrase.  It can be used to justify almost anything semi-miraculous.  And when you have a phrase that can justify almost anything you really have no explanation.  It’s like invoking a “hand of god”.  So there has to be a lot more science involved in trying to explain the self-organising chaos which led to Banner’s unique condition.

Unfortunately, I am going to have to invoke another almost meaningless piece of science.  Darwinian evolution!  It’s not that this is bad science, not at all.  The problem is that Darwinian evolution is such a  general explanation that it really is no explanation.  It is just an umbrella concept for all biological evolution in living systems.  But I will use it anyway.  However, I have to give it a nuclear twist.

Nuclear Darwinism

Here I’m going to use some crazy ideas.  I’m happy with my conclusion, but I’m not sure others will find it palatable.  Here goes.

The thing is, processes at the nuclear scale happen so fast that there could be life at that level of physics but we’d never know it.  The lifetime of a nuclear living system would be so short it would be born and die of old age in the time it takes for us to have a cup of tea and contemplate an experiment to detect such life.  Before we begin the experiment the life would be gone, and a whole new nuclear civilization might be born and then decay before we could communicate with it.  For their part, the nuclear life would think we were so vast and expansive and slowly evolving they’d think we were dead entities, assuming they could somehow detect us.  They would not be able to detect much movement or motion in the world at our level of life..

So here’s how Banner’s body reacted to the gamma ray energy.  It triggered an entire civilisation worth of nuclear life.  And artifacts in the nuclear scale evolution of this life within his nuclei were systematized and coordinated by the vast global does of radiation his entire body received.  The nuclear life used all this energy like it was golden rays of sunlight (to use a solar analogy).  And in an instant to us, their nuclear universe evolved centuries or millenia.

With such huge spans of nuclear time, this life was able to delve into the (to them) incredibly slow world of molecular chemistry, and they (the nuclear life) intelligently fabricated the unique biomolecules in banners body and endowed them with the capacity to globally channel nuclear energy in the form of highly unstable exotic super-spring states which the nuclear sentience also was able to manipulate.  They created a stable nuclear-to-chemical monster mechanism. Only to this life, there would seem to be no monster.  The Hulk was in fact a side-effect which worked on a length and time scale so foreign to the nuclear life that they could not even learn much abut it.

The hulking states is, to this nuclear life, a massively prolonged condition (taking millenia in their subjective psychological time) to form and pass.  In fact, they view the hulking state as a sort of long-term seasonal or climatic event.

What Nuclear Darwinism Has to Achieve for The Hulk

The spawning and chance evolution over the course of a few seconds of a nuclear civilisation which spans Bruce Banners entire body, allowing a global transformation of his physiology.

The nuclear life evolves sentient intelligence which is able to manipulate Bruce Banners biology to trap the gamma ray energy.

In order to replenish the energy spent by Hulk the nuclear intelligence must engineer a mechanism of energy transitions on two directions, one releasing energy into Banner’s cells, causing ultra-strength and super-fast healing.  The second type of cascade must replenish the spent nuclear energy, this would be a slower process.

The super-fast healing would be comparatively trivial for the nuclear intelligence to engineer, once they have energy transfer mechanisms in place, since on the Hulk’s biological time a matter of seconds to would seem like centuries of time to this intelligence.  In fact, to this nuclear sentience the Hulk’s healing would seem exceedingly slow.

They engineer all this because they are symbiotes, they live off the gamma ray energy stored up in Banners atomic nuclei.  They prevent it’s release because it is to their advantage to keep it stored.

Banner’s hormones act as a global channel for the energy transfer, possible in both the directions up and down in energy level cascades.  This is the trickiest pseudo-science aspect to finesse though, and I have not really finished it to my satisfaction.

There are real protein structures in our brains called microfibrils, which have, in some scientific circles, been postulated as channels whereby quantum mechanical states can amplify their exotic character up to macroscopic molecular level.  So why not the same with pure energy?  The physics here needs a bit more thought.  The crude idea is that if microfibrils can amplify superposed quantum states up to macroscopic dimensions, then maybe similar protein structures, acting perhaps in orchestration with exotic hormones, could amplify super-spring energy locked up in Bruce Banner’s nuclei up to macroscopic dimensions enabling his cellular chemistry to tap into this energy.

To summarise so far, I am postulating that the Hulk has superpowers that derive from the initial gamma-ray energy which has been stored deep in the heart of his atomic nuclei, where vast quantities of energy can be wrapped up in tiny volumes of space occupying less than 1% of the space of a typical atom.  But we need more than just energy storage, we need a mechanism of energy transfer and release.  My invented mythology postulates a nuclear sentience that rapidly evolved inside ruce Banner ina  mere few seconds or minutes, and which, for it’s own survival, re-engineered Banner’s physiology on a global scale, so that his entrie body became a condit for storage and release of exotic nuclear states of matter, primarily in the form of nuclear dimension superstring like strucutre, which i am calling “super-springs”.

More then Energy

The hulking superpowers require more than mere pure energy.  To be put to special uses, like cellular repair, super-toughness and super-power metabolic muscle action, the stored nuclear energy needs to be spent on toughening Hulk’s skin and increasing the toughness and strength when his anger hormones and neurological processes become amplified.

My theory is that this amplification happens also primarily on the nuclear level, and only propagates up to the chemical–cellular level as a relatively slow side-effect.  This slowed-down energy release and utilisation stops Hulk from literally burning up from rage.  If his body is analogous to an intricate nuclear-power battery, then when this battery energy is released it would create enough waste heat to vaporize normal body cells.

So Banner/Hulk’s hormone, endocrine and neural system act in a highly fine-tuned way to channel the trapped nuclear energy into raid cell restoration, regrowth, and active toughening.

Why “active toughening”?  The reason is that I have a problem imagining increased muscle bulk alone would make hulk so strong.  I mean, he can lift a Tank for heavens sake, and throw it about a kilometre through the air.  He can survive in the vacuum of space without bursting from the pressure differential, and can swim underwater for prolonged periods.  So his energy utilization is incredible and sophisticated.  It has to be either controlled by some inner symbiotic sentience inside his nuclei, or has been engineered by such sentience to endow him with these amazing survival characteristics.

He is not quite at Wolverine’s level of damage repair and regeneration, but he comes close to it.  Wolverine’s power was a genetic mutation.  In Hulk, I am saying it is a mutation at a nuclear level, not genetic.  It would just be far too improbably that the gamma-bomb radiation magically triggered just the right genetic/DNA mutations to give him hulking powers.  Although, still relatively magical, the nuclear level sentience is, for me personally, the better scifi mythology.

Finally, the active strengthening and toughening is necessary because muscle bulk does not scale in the required way for explaining Hulk’s incredible strength.  If you scale normal human strength up to Hulk’s muscle size, you would get a human capable of lifting maybe a small car, or punching through a 10 inch thick concrete wall.  But Hulk has far stronger strength.  So I postulate that his strength is not proportional to muscle mass, but is rather due to activated muscular energy.  His muscles amplify nuclear power and act like hydraulic systems, only nuclear-hydraulics, not fluid hydraulics, the difference being that nuclear activated systems have millions of times more power than fluid systems.

So Hulk’s strength derives mainly from energy release rather than muscle chemistry.  His muscles are merely a further conduit, along with his neurology and stress hormones, for amplifying the stored nuclear energy in his atomic nuclei.

And the same with his tissue structural toughness.  His toughness is a direct response to pressure and stress on his body and cells, it actively repels bullets and shock waves and lasers, his skin does not merely deflect or absorb shocks, it actively responds to shock, so that the greater the forces penetrating his skin and tissue, the faster the triggered responses his nuclear-energy amplification mechanisms respond — both in absorbing the shocks and storing the energy of them.  This helps explain why Hulk’s nuclear energy is never depleted.  All his fights and battles just re-store most of the energy he uses.  Pretty much in every Hulk story, if you total the amount of energy he is bombarded with, it is easily way more than the total energy he expends to win his battles.

Using Nuclear Darwinism in Scifi

There’s a good “hard scifi”  novel by Robert L. Forward called “Dragons Egg“.  It is the story of one civilization of nuclear-based life forms living on a neutron star which drifts close to our solar system and is discovered by a team of astronauts.   I loved that story because it has no overt violence or gratuitous sex or murder and so forth.  it does have life and death, but in the context of an evolving society and epochs of a civilisation.  It is the story of a civilisation which develops on the neutron star, under the crushing gravitational field and immensely strong magnetic field enveloping the star, and it’s discovery of human life and it’s eventual transcendence.  The human astronauts spend only a few months studying the star, and during this time the life on the star evolves from primitive life equivalent to protozoa, and then human cave-people, and then rapidly (by human time frames) evolves into a modern scientific society and then after a few months of human time, this nuclear life has grown too advanced for the human’s to comprehend.  At first, after about a week, the nuclear life works out how to communicate with the humans, who at first they thought of as gods, but by the end of the next week the nuclear civilisation regards the humans as primitive, and they understand all about human beings.  At the end of the story the nuclear life on the star is god-like compared to the human astronauts.  Thousands of generations of nuclear people have lived and died while the astronauts have aged only a few months.

The crazy idea that Bruce Banner was saved by a similar form of life living inside his body at a nuclear level is sheer fantasy of course, but I think within the parameters of the superhero puzzle game … perhaps only just!  I would just add one more element to the Banner/Hulk mythology.

Completing the Hulk Mythology

The issue is that the gamma-bomb accident took place in a  matter of seconds, which although centuries in nuclear civilisation terms (multiple generations of life and death to nuclear sentience) this is still a bit to fast for a complex scientific civilisation to have evolved.

I think for the evolution of the nuclear sentience inside Banner’s atoms to evolve, it needed to be seeded by some sort of genesis event before the gamma-bomb accident.  So I would add the The Hulk mythology the low-level gamma-radiation doses received during the benign research phases of Bruce Banner’s physics experiments.  This is crucial because it gave Banner a prolonged very slow low-level exposure to the special energetic gamma-rays that he would later use for his protoype gamma-bomb.  (It’s a so-called “non-destructive weapon”, which is a  gross misnomer, since it is designed to knock out life forms, but not buildings, so in fact it is incredibly destructive to life).

The crucial thing is that Banner was exposing himself to the special type of low-level dose, and his entire body received the doses.  This global dosing was what i hypothesise, allowed the nuclear life to evolve inside his atoms, in the heart of his nuclei.  His gamma-ray experiments were like the Sun for our Earth to this nuclear civilisation.  His body’s atoms were It’s continents and planets.

So the gamma-ray bomb accident was more like a propellant, a supernova for the nuclear life that had already evolved inside Banner’s body’s atoms.  They used this event as a super-powered source of tremendous energy they needed to make large-scale sweeping physiological changes to their entire universe.  Their universe is, of course, Banner’s body.  They cannot exist anywhere else by, say, jumping to another body, like fleas, because nuclear life cannot exist where the nuclear energy is lacking, and Banner’s atoms had gradually become tuned to the gamma-ray energy so that highly exotic nuclear structure, in the form of quark-gluon super-spring energetics, and no other human had developed the same adaptations because no one else had been as close to his physics experiments.

The thing is, despite the apparent absurdity of nuclear sentient life, it is not scientifically impossible.  So it falls within acceptable hard scifi parameters, and is thus admissible in the Superhero Puzzle game.  and the cool thing about it is that nuclear life really would have this ultra-fast time evolution according to human perspectives.  They really would evolve from cave-people to modern scientists within days of human time.  And now that we have this concept in our pocket (so-to-speak), we can re-use it for other superhero myths.

It’s a great bit of scifi since it can be re-used for multiple effects when needed.  Anytime we want something with gamma-ray types of energy to do intricate delicate things on a chemical level, then this is your answer.  Use nuclear life, nuclear Darwinism, imagine a world within our world which views us as almost frozen galactic beings, and have fun with this within reasonable scientific parameters.


This post was hard to write because there were so many diversions I wanted to take and expand upon, which, for brevity, I had to resist.  Also, when I get carried away with the science then the humour tends to fall away too.  So I apologise for that.  I’m sure a bit later, when I revise some of these posts, some humour will creep back in.

I hope readers will pick up on a few and write their own extensions.  For school science you can pick pretty much any part of this new Hulk mythology and run with it to imagine a lot more detail to the story.  Superstrings and nuclear life are however firmly in the realm of scifi, and might remain that way throughout time in our universe, but that does not mean you cannot use real physical laws and principles to write some amazing scifi fantasy.

One place to begin learning about the superstring type “super-springs” is Professor Leonard Susskind’s book The Black Hole Wars.  He uses the “spinning propellers on tips of propellers on tips of propellers … ad infinitum” analogy to describe string theory energetics.  Also, check out his freely available lectures on String Theory delivered at Stanford University. They can be downloaded from iTunes or from YouTube or directly from Stanford University online courses.  Susskind does an ok job of describing the analogies between superstring excitations and quark-gluon nuclear dynamics, which is the basis for my hulking theory.

Most physicists will know this part of the history of superstring theory.  The idea that nuclear forces involves string-like excitations arose from empirical data from nuclear energy data.  It turned out that quarks (which are what protons and neutrons are made out of) are indeed held together like tiny springs, and the biding force is mediated by gluons.  But when the theory of string excitations was worked out for a full-blown quantum theory it failed, because it predicted unseen excitations, unseen particles.  When it was realised that one of these unwanted particles had a spin=2, and if the strings were imagined to be billions and billions of times smaller than supposed from the quark-gluon interactions, then the idea of superstring theory was born.   The idea of Strings was abandoned as a theory for the nuclear forces, but became instead reborn as a fundamental theory of all forces of nature, not just the nuclear forces, and including the gravitational force.  this was a huge deal, because no one has since found any better quantum version of gravity.  So the unwanted nuclear scale spin=2 particle  was reinterpreted as the highly desirable gravtiton, the hypothetical carrier of the (quantum version) of the force of gravity.

The “spinning propellers on tips of propellers on tips of propellers … ad infinitum” model relates to superstring excitations.  The basic idea is that experimental physics can only probe up to certain energies, currently this is around a trillion electronvolts.  Any higher energetic physical processes involving single particles lies beyond current experimental technology.  But physicists, and their engineering colleagues, are always trying to extend these boundaries. The problem with superstring thery is that the smallest energy excitations of superstrings are like spinning propellers on the tips of large slow propellers, and the smallest interesting energetics are frustratingly  beyond current experimental limits.

Aha!  But for scifi that gives us a lot of “wiggle room” for imagining exotic physics.  And this is something like what I’m proposing happens with Bruce Banner/The Hulk.  His body is utilising extreme stringy energetics, deep within his atomic nuclei.

To “experimentally see” all the excitations of superstrings is like trying to see a fast spinning propeller on the tip of a bigger propeller which is spinning slowly.  Only with fundamental strings (of the kind physicists imagine matter is truly composed from) we would be needing to look at tinier propellers spinning ultrafast on the tips of the tiny propellers.  And in string theory there are even tinier propellers spinning on the tips of those tiny propellers, and so on, down in scale to all orders.

The smaller the propeller the faster it spins.  The faster it spins the more energetic is is, and the harder to detect, since it’s motion will be so blurred it will seem invisible.  For superstring theory, with the superstrings modelled as the spinning propellers, each single fundamental string being one propeller with all of it’s sub-propellers on the tips, this implies that all foreseeable experiments would not be able to detect more than a blur in the motion of the lowest energy excitations or largest visible tip “propellers”.

The model of stringy-interactions for nuclear physics is actually still very useful.  But it has become an approximate theory, or a rough model, not an exact theory.  When the string theory is miniaturised to the Planck scale (a billion-billion times  smaller than the nuclear scale) and a certain type of symmetry is included in the physics (implying the existence of so-called super-partner particles for every known particle in nature) then the nuclear String theory morphs naturally into modern Superstring Theory.

Superstring theory has big problems though, one of which is that the length and time and energy scales involved in studying superstrings is far, far beyond current experiments.  So physicists cannot really study superstrings with experiments, it is currently studied only mathematically, which is a great weakness for the theory, since no one can tell which branches of the mathematics to explore, and superstrings seem to allow so many mathematical options.  It has become a thorny minefield of theoretical physics and is in desperate need of experimental supporting evidence (or contrary evidence, since for healthy science practice one should never have emotional hopes for a theory).

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Superhero Puzzle #24 — Explain Spiderman’s “Spidey Sense”

Another one of Peter Parker’s abilities after being bitten by the radioactive spider, is that he can sense danger. It’s like a sixth sense, he gets a nervous tingling when there is human danger or crime about to happen.


“That tingling sensation…”

To give this a plausible scientific basis you need to understand a few things. First, the spidey-sense seems to only operate when human beings are involved. Secondly, it has to be local, it has a radius of effectiveness. And third, it is not very specif, it just gives Parker a sense of imminent danger, and if specific at all it is only in that it is normally something sinister, not something like an accident about to happen. So what is your take on the plausible science behind this super-power?

I conjured up a shortlist of candidate explanations, some way are more scifi than sci-fact.

  • Psionic fields?
  • Mind-reading?
  • Thought-wave sensitivity?
  • Precognition, a sense of events in the near future in spacetime?
  • Odour reception sensitivity?

Psionic fields are the most mythical. Their basis in realistic physics is discussed in other Superhero puzzle articles, namely those about Professor Xavier and Jean Gray.

Precognition is not completely outlandish. The past or present is indeed influenced by the future according to modern quantum physics. The trouble with the real science in this case is that quantum mechanics forbids us from using information about the future in any useful way. But it at least provides a cool scifi loop-hole for some sort of low-level precognitive superpowers. The superhero’s mind would merely need to be ultra-sensitive to information encoded in electromagnetic fields on a quantum scale, and there is some cool physics there involving real effects like entanglement and superposed states of systems. But I want to leave that science for another article. It’s not how I would write a good mythical explanation for Spiderman’s spidey-sense.

Mind-reading can be dismissed since that’s not what the spidey sense is about. If it was it’d be a bit weird, like mind-reading without the ability to know the thoughts in the other’s mind, only their vague threatening quality and that alone.

Which leaves thought-wave sensitivity or odour reception sensitivity. These are my two preferred choices. But what are thought waves and how would they work as the means for spidey-sense? why is odour sensitivity on the list?

Odours are the primary means for low level emotional triggering of neural pathways in brains. But my short-list should have used the term “pheromones” perhaps rather than “odours”. This happens in humans as well as other animals and even plants (though not with brains in pants of course! In plants odour reception is not olfactory of course, it is a far more direct cellular-to-cellular response). Odours trigger very deep but very simple and primitive emotions, which is why it matches spidey-sense, since Parker’s sensitivity to threats is very vague and low-level, so low level that he can never pin-point what the threat is exactly, it is just an alert signal like a police alarm bell. Also, insects and arachnids are highly sensitive to volatile chemicals like pheromones. Humans also possess sensitivity to pheromones but this sense is often completely swamped by our other stronger senses. Still, pheromone sensitivity acts pretty much in an olfactory mode, so like a smell in other words, it’s just we have no conscious sensation of the smell of pheromones, they operate on our brains in a more primitive way.

Actually, as an interesting aside, this sort of non-conscious response to environmental stimuli is a god illustration of how it’s possible for animals to look conscious when in fact they are not. Not all animal responses involve conscious activity. So we really can have little idea of the type of level of sentient conscious awareness possessed by other species. Although, it is entirely reasonable to suppose animals that have a sense of smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight experience similar conscious qualia to humans. But the exact nature and characteristics of their conscious inner thoughts is very mysterious. It’s possible most animals have no conscious thought, since if they did then they’d probably be capable of much greater levels of communication and abstract thinking. But this is another topic. Back to spidey-sense now.

Now, to complete the pheromone explanation for spidey-sense we need to just add that plenty of trace volatile chemicals are excreted by human’s when we are under stress or hightened emotional states. In fact, many biologists will tell you that fear can be literally smelled. People who are extremely fearful will excrete volatile hormone-like chemicals, which are really natural by-products of their bodies response to a threat, typical is the release of adrenalin. But although adrenalin might not have a detectable odour, other chemical by-products of the bodies response the fear will have a smell or low-level olfactory receptivity which can faintly, almost subconsciously, be detected by other people, or even the person themselves. I’ve often smelled my own fear or anxiety.

What Peter Parker received from the radioactive spider bite is a whole bunch of spider-like abilities, amplified by his human DNA and transmorgrified into super-powers. The spidey-sense is utterly plausible, and perhaps is the easiest to believe.

You can also conjure up an explanation involving thought-waves, wince thoughts are associated with neurological activity, electrical activity, and this is easily detected by medical equipment for instance. Spiderman might have a simple enhanced receptivity and sensitivity to electrical fields, and thoughts will produce subtle qualitatively discernible pattern in electric fields in surrounding space around a person’s skull. The trouble with this as an explanation for spidey-sense is that metals block electric fields, and electric field intensity decays rapidly with distance from the source of the electrical activity. Why is that, do you know?

Paradoxically it is because electricity is a very strong force. Electric charges which are what respond to electric fields, move so fast and are effected so powerfully by even weak electric fields that they all move and accelerate and settle into configurations which rapidly set-up cancellation effects in surrounding space. Electric charges that are free to move thus cancel out effects of electric fields in nearby space.

I like the following analogy for this paradoxical strength of the electric force: a really sexy person attracts people of the opposite sex so strongly that they very soon have a sexual excitement cancellation effect, since who wants to be put under the spell of a sexy person who is already engaged, am I right? You desire someone who is available. Or at least you will if you are sane.

Why do we say thought waves are “waves” by the way? Thoughts are not anything physical really, but they are closely correlated with physical brain activity, neural activity, flows of ionic signals through our brains, nerves impulses. It’s all pretty electricla in nature, but facilitated by chemicals that open and close ion channels in our nerve cells. These facilitating chemicals act very fast, they are called neurotransmitters. But what truly “transmit“ neural messages around in our brains are ionic (often metallic) salts. Sodium, calcium and potassium ions for instance. They aren’t really waves. They are patterns of electrical ionic activity, plus the neurotransmitters emitted rapidly by neuron cells, in the brain. But these patterns of neural activity have been studied and recorded, and you can see wave-like patterns in them, when plotted by computer software they can come out looking like music or voice recordings, they look like sound waves, but only because some computer engineer has graphed them in a similar way. Really they are nothing like sound waves.

It is true that all common signals in nature of any kind can be described by mathematical functions, which mean plotted on a graph on an appropriate scale will look a lot like voice or music signals. Such signals can always be decomposed into simple frequencies, which can thus be termed “waves” even though they might not be generated by anything we would think of as producing waves.

This can lead not an introduction to Fourier Analysis—the mathematical theory of how any signal, no matter how complex, can be decomposed into a bunch of simple waves and thus then can be compressed into a simpler data stream to be broadcast or transmitted efficiently.

But I don’t think thought waves are a good candidate for the medium of spidey-sense. So at another time I might be able to expand upon the topic of Fourier Analysis. Not sure for what Superhero though?

So why not thought-waves for spidey sense? One reason is their complexity, and spidey-sense is, remember, not very complex, it’s a fairly vague tingling produced by people’s thoughts. But thoughts have greater influence over distance on hormones and pheromones than on electric fields, and electric fields are the only sure way to detect thought waves.

BTW: have comic writers ever used the following interesting character of spidey-sense: which is that it’s a totally hidden superpower. No criminal would ever know Spiderman has this power, since it’s not visible, it is never clear in it’s operation, and manifests only as an uncanny ability of Parker’s at being able to be super-frosty and alert. In theory, this is one superpower only Peter Parker need ever know about. I’ve never read of this hidden nature of spidey-sense being used overtly in the plot of a story, perhaps because it is really implicitly used each time Peter Parker feels the tingling sensation. How could you write a plot-line where it is absolutely essential that he uses spidey-sense for it’s hidden character? Maybe when a friend or enemy is so close and insidious or veiled and menacing a threat that Parker cannot do anything other than get a warning out to an ally about the threat.

Actually, when I think about it, I’m sure there is a story where something like this happens. Nice excuse to go and browse a good few years worth of back issues.

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Superhero Puzzle #00 — Who is Your Favourite Superhero?

Ha! A quiz only you know the answer to, that’s the kind of test they should hand out in school. Seriously!

This post is just a backtrack, to explain the whole Superhero Puzzle series. These are little essays on comics and scifi that I began when writing physics and mathematics education resources. Trouble is, a lot of it turns out to be biological, so did not quite fit into my resources. There is still some cool mathematics and physics. But since I do not often get to teach biology I thought I’d publish this stuff online here on WordPress for anyone to copy, shamelessly steal, borrow, alter and use in whatever way they see fit.

I will use the word “Superhero” for both masculine and feminine characters.

Writing Superhero Puzzles or scifi quiz material is a game. The rules are to try to explain superpowers or their uses, using only published comics or scifi books or movies, and to do so using the most realistic and plausible science possible.

There are no winners and losers in such a game, and it can be real fun, sometimes even really funny, which is the type of game I like. You can easily extend the game into something more competitive or serious if you like, by including a quiz, or some required calculations.

One way I prefer to have the game extended is to read someone’s comments and their suggestions for improvements, or their critique. It’s a strange concept though — to critique fictional literature! But that’s again, part of the fun of this game. Fiction can be critiqued. To me, a fantasy story that is more believable is the better story. Some readers and movie-goers prefer plain eye-candy, more sex, more violence, more gags. If that’s your preference then the Superhero Puzzles are probably not your cup of tea. To enjoy Superhero Puzzles you probably will likely enjoy fantasy, but you will also enjoy realism and mixing life with art, and for maximum enjoyment you would probably be the type of person who tries to live their fantasy. And to live your dreams and fantasies you have to keep them well within the known laws of physics. We all know what happens to people who try to defy the law of gravity.

The numerical order of the puzzles is entirely chaotic. Some form short related sequences, but most of the time they just correspond to the order the ideas have occurred in my mind. And I will not post them in order, since I want to be happy with them before posting them online.

That’s about it for this introduction. My favourite superhero’s when I was a kid were, in roughly order of favourites, The Silver Surfer (aka. Norrin Radd, because he was cool and yet tragic), The Submariner (Prince Namor, because I loved swimming in the ocean too), The Flash (Barry Allen, because I loved pure natural speed), Iron Man (the armour tech is so cool), Thor (duh! A god! And I loved Greek mythology too, but the Marvel version of Hercules was not as cool as Thor), and Mon-El (the teenager in the Justice League who had Superman’s powers but could only use them one at a time, plus he could see through lead, and he was not affected by kryptonite). Now, as a mature adult (ahem!) my favourites have veered more towards the feminine: Emma Frost, Psylocke (Elizabeth Braddock), Wanda Maximoff, Natasha Romanov (The Black Widow), to name a few. I was always too much of an idealist to have any favourite supervillians. Galactus is a good one though, since his “evilness” is based upon his station of near deity-hood (humans are like ants to him), which is one argument for why Thor could also have turned out bad, and thus equally it’s an argument for why Thor is so noble and good.

The megalomania of Magneto always irked me. How could a Jewish kid who survived the holocaust become so much like Hitler? I never “got” that, despite the obvious irony of it. It’s a psychological flaw I suppose, in my character, since even writing that last sentence was stressful for me. I’ve always had severe psychological trouble writing the name of that historical dictator from Germany. It’s my “Macbeth” word. It’s so tainted with real evil in my mind that I want to retract that sentence as I write! So, I will probably not write much about supervillians. But wherever there are some interesting scientific possibilities, then I will give it a go, and Magneto does have some scientifically interesting powers.

Namor, the Submariner

Prince Namor, alias The Submariner. One of my favourites.

When I was younger I read that Namor was in love with Sue Storm for a while, this was before he married his Atlantean princess sweetheart, Lady Dorma. But before he was married I resented Reed Richards for ruining this human-atlantean romance. It’s funny how Stan Lee’s comic world seemed so full of real emotion, even though it was so much violence and action. I really enjoyed the stories more than the action scenes.

The superhero’s featured in my Superhero Puzzles will no doubt reflect my biases. So I apologise in advance for that. I hope a few readers send in their own suggestions for scientific appraisal.

Thor, by the way, poses immense problems for good Superhero Puzzles, because Asgardian technology is often considered to be akin to “magic”. And what can a scientist do when confronted with magic? Well, I’m sure we can think of a few things.

So go ahead and write back a comment. Who’s your favourite superhero, and why?

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There’s a lot more to write about telepathy. It’s a cool superpower because it involves the most mysterious phenomenon known to humankind, namely our own minds.

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Superhero Puzzle #9 — How does Prof Xavier’s Mind Work?

Hope y’all enjoy this one. It’s a bit more philosophical than other superhero puzzles.

First, here’s a tiny amount of non-fiction: one of the best books you can currently read on “How the Mind Works” is titled How the Mind Works. It’s written by the linguist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker. It’s a great book, so read it! But sadly it will not tell you a single thing about how human beings can think thoughts. It’s about brain and psychology, not about thinking and g=cognition. The difference is crucial to understand if you want to be a scientist who specializes in psychology and related fields. The brain’s workings are almost purely physical, involving neural systems and impulses received to and from sensory organs. And at a high level of connection the human brain exhibits psychological traits, such as emotions, neurosis, language, mathematical skill and so forth.

But thinking, the thoughts that cross your mind, the mind, sentient consciousness, all these subjective states of human existence are not touched upon at all by Pinker’s opus. So it is really a book on how the brain works, although at a very high level of neurology and psychology. But it has nothing to do with the mind. The mind is that subjective aspect of thinking and consciousness. The mind cannot easily be studied scientifically because there is no firm definition of mental phenomena, precisely because by auxiliary definitions these phenomena (thoughts, ideas, abstractions) are entirely abstract and non-physical. They exist for each of us only as subjective qualia, not as objectively tangible objects that we can point to or touch or see or smell. Just to be perfectly clear, the brain waves revealed by electro-encephelographs and CT scans of neural activity are objective physical things, so they are not mental events. They are physical events that are merely correlated with your subjective perceptions. In philosophy the subjective content of minds are the things that cannot be physically communicated, and they are termed “qualia”, or plural “qualé”, they are things like the actual “redness” of things coloured red, the “greeness” of things coloured by green light, the “blueness” of blue coloured pills, the raw searing thing you feel when in pain, the raw qualitative feeling of flavours in food and odours, the inner knowledge of te reality of physical impossibilities like the existence of a perfect circle or transcendental numbers like π.

These ideas are fairly important for a rational discussion of the completely fantastical and irrational phenomenon involved in superhero and scifi stories about telepathic and telekinetic superpowers. These are tow very different superpowers. Telekinesis is the power to move physical objects with the mind or brain. Telepathy is the power to read or perceive in some way, the thoughts of other people, or the power to “get inside their mind” to manipulate their thoughts or project illusions into their minds.

This article is about telepathy. Telekinesis will be discussed in another Superhero Puzzle article.

Who is your favourite telepath? I don’t have one, though I quite like the character Psylocke (Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock). She uses ”psi-waves“, which in one story were shown to be pretty darn powerful, Betsy was tricked by the Shadow King into producing a psi-wave removing all mutant telepathy and allowing him to control every mind on Earth. Often telepathy and telekinesis are linked. For instance, in a foolish mistake, the Shadow King expanded his powers dangerously allowing his personal nexus to be exposed. Betsy defeated Farouk, sacrificing her telepathy to keep him trapped within her astral shadow form. Jean Grey attempted to help Betsy regain her powers safely. But in the process, she gained vast telekinetic abilities instead.

Psylocke, Elizabeth Braddock.

The awesome Psylocke, Elizabeth Braddock. (She’s British!)

The shadow King’s psionic nexus is an interesting concept dreamed up by Marvel writers. I think I can make use of it in the discussion of realistic science behind telepathy and telekinesis.

Psionic Nexus

The Marvel mythology states that,

“The Shadow King is allegedly a multiversal manifestation of the dark side of the human consciousnesses, spawned by the first nightmare. When the mutant Amahl Farouk power developed, Farouk psychically controlled those around him, feeding on the shadows in their souls and secretly merging with the Shadow King, who had been transferring from host to host since the dawn of humanity.”

The psionic nexus is the subspace of the psychic realm where the Shadow King merges all the darkness in human consciousness. the “psychic realm” is of course all the thoughts and feeling of sentient beings. Sometimes this realm is accessed only in real time, but other telepaths can enter it with their mind to explore memory, and sometimes the future. How? The future of human memory, that’s how. This is conceivable if we suppose physical time-evolution is only loosely linked to physical time. And as we will see, since the physical and the psychic can be considered to be distinct aspects of reality, this is all fairly plausible, although more in the domain of speculative philosophy than empirical science.

This is really fascinating for comic book geeks. You see, this psionic nexus idea links-in nicely to the philosophy of abstract realism which I will explain below when i get to the section on Mind–Brain interaction and then some pseudo-science behind telepathy.

Other Telepaths and Related Characters

When I was a teenager I liked The Vision (the good-guy android son of ultrabad android Ultron), whose superpower is density alteration, but he also has heat beams from his eyes, hence his name, and so naturally I liked Vision’s lover, Wanda Maximoff. Although she did not have telepathy, she had “probability altering” power, which was funky because it was not entirely predictable.

Another true telepath is Emma Frost, another X-Mutant. But here powers are strangely coupled, she can make her body as hard as diamond, and hence impermeable to bullets and (oddly) shock resistant, go figure that one! But when she does the diamond form she cannot use her telepathy, and vice versa. So somehow here body structural morphism is coupled to her telepathic powers, so one turns off the other.

But I guess the most famous telepath in comic literature is Professor Charles Xavier, aka. Professor X, founder of the X-Men Academy, the school for superhero mutants. Xavier teams up with “The Beast”, Hank McCoy, who is a brilliant scientist, a genius in fact. They build a device called Cerebro, which amplifies Xavier’s telepathic powers, and in addition enables him to locate the position of any mutant human on Earth. Quite a handy machine if you mission is to save fellow mutants form harm and foster young mutants who have been neglected by society, which indeed is Xavier’s self-imposed mission in life.

Charles Xavier (Professor X)

Professor Xavier, he’s confined to a wheelchair since he is only telepathic, not telekinetic.

Xavier’s most gifted student is Jean Gray, a “level 10” mutant (which means “totally off the superpower scale”, in other words, the limit of her power is so great that it is unknown). Jean can not only read minds, she can implant thoughts and memories and false reality into another person’s consciousness, indelibly altering their brain. Puzzle: why would I claim this?

Jean Gray (alias, the Phoenix) also has telekinetic ability, her mind is so powerful at can span vats distances and move physical objects. The puzzle for today is to provide a plausible scientific explanation or mythology for the powers of people like Xavier and Gray.

Jean Grey, The Phoenix

Jean Grey, aka The Phoenix. a “Level 10” mutant.

There are a few other interesting telepathic characters, but I won’t list them all here. No doubt I’ll find occasion to write about them in other contexts.

Brain and Mind Interaction

It is a mystery to current science how the brain and mind interact. Some scientists believe fully that the brain’s neural activity gives rise to the emergence of mind. But many deeper thinking philosophers tend to argue that the Mind is more fundamental and it is what influences the brain. So there is a totally unknown science here, and possibly a forever unknowable mystery, because the mind cannot really be studied scientifically, at least not fully, because it is not an objective phenomenon.

It’s important for the scifi to understand this clearly. You are free to define the Mind as merely equivalent and identical to the patterns of brain activity which occur when a human (or other sentient creature) experiences qualia. But please try to understand that that would not be my definition. You might as well give that definition of “mind” a completely different word, like “superbrain” or “memon” or whatever. It is certainly not what I mean by the word “mind”. At one level this is mere vocabulary and semantics. But it makes a big difference to a discussion!

So for me, “mind” is equivalent only to the nonphysical aspects of mental impressions, in other words, mind is the purely subjective content of consciousness. It correlates with objective physical brain states, but only in a statistical manner. And there is no logical way in which an objective physical pattern of activity can give rise to emergence of subjective qualia. It just cannot happen. Having objective reality originate subjective reality would be like having a tiny droplet of water spontaneously turn into a fire-breathing dragon, or probably even more illogical and unlikely, perhaps more like a politician who hates people and will do anything possible to offend as many people as they can at all times, or like an astronomer who does not believe in the existence of stars, or a stock-broker who has a deep phobia about making money, or a … well, … I’m sure you get the idea.

My point is that if there is no reality to the nonphysical aspects of sentient thought, then there is no such thing as mind by my definition. And I’m happy with this, because I’d rather have a clear-cut definition of something that might not be real than a sloppy confused definition of an entirely superfluous notion. The idea and alternative definition whereby mind is equated with physical patterns in a brain is bogus because it adds nothing truly new or important, it is merely a new label for a special bunch of neural patterns. And it is not what I wish to discuss in this scifi puzzle.

And since we are discussing scifi here, we can take the reasonable supposition for our superhero mythology, that Mind and Brain have a strong interaction and feedback. This is the main thesis behind telepathy and telekinesis. There has to be a strong Mind–Brain interaction. The brain states (which are neurological and biological) influence mental states (which are subjective qualia). But how? Let’s delay the answer to this for a few paragraphs. Have a think about it and read on.

So if you can alter the brain activity of a person then you can, in principle, influence their thinking because you will be able to imprint sensory information upon their short or long term memory. This is easy to understand, provided you do have, (1) the ability to control the electrochemical activity of a person’s brain, and (2) the supposition that Brain states feed and trigger qualia in Mind.

The ability to influence brain activity is not science fiction, it is medically possible, and has been demonstrated in published research. It’s a bit freaky, but giving a person “fictional” sensations is entirely possible. But it begs the question of whether the sensations are really fictional or not! Obviously, to the person who’s brain is being messed with, the experiences are not fiction, they are totally real, and you can see this in the way their brain responds to the stimulus of the neurologist. Such experiments of course are highly controlled and are done only with the permission of the patients, or sometimes occur under controlled conditions but accidentally during brain surgery such as removal of brain tumours.

The Telepathy Mechanism

The main response to this puzzle that I had was that there is no mechanism. Not a conventional one. At first you seek a physical explanation, because even in comic fantasy a good physics explanation is always the most satisfying. But the usual forces of nature will not work in the case of telepathy, because the spatial extent of forces is not sufficient for strong teleapathy, and Xavier and Jean Gray are telepathic over vast distances, and with Cerebro they basically can cover the whole planet Earth. So an explanation using one brain’s electromagnetic influence on another, no matter how intricate, is simply not going to pass mustard, because the physical effects are far too weak to be believable. But I will mention one loop-hole that is worth discussing at another time.

The loop-hole would be that telepaths have reserves of energy which allow their brains to have neurological influence over distances that surpass normal laws of physics. The idea here is that scifi telepathy does not have to alter the known laws of physics too much, it just has to require that telepaths have a unique ability to extend control over brain processes that in some way jump across vast distances in space. So you need to invent some mechanism whereby telepaths can, in effect, merge their brain impulses with another human, targeting them across reasonable spans of space. And how would this be possible (in closest plausible science terms)?

Have a think about that, it’s another puzzle. How to extend the spatial reach of brain wave interference, et cetera.

Today I want to explore a different mode of telepathy. And don’t forget, it’s cool to have similar superpowers which originate from quit different modes. Superman’s strength originates from our “yellow” Sun. The Hulk’s strength from his rage hormones hyper-activated on gamma-ray energy.

The Other Telepathy (Non-Mechanism)

For me, the better form of fantasy telepathy results from the Mind. The human mind is amazing, and we do not appreciate how amazing it is, because we live with one all day, and it seems to make us feel pretty stupid most of the time, right? Well, if you have a tough job or are studying advanced mathematics, then for sure it will make you feel stupid most of the time.

The truly special thing about the human mind is that it escapes routinely away from physical reality and explores the realm of abstractions. This is what mathematicians do for a living, but artists also have highly developed imaginations. When you imagine fictions or impossible creations (impossible physically, not logically) then you will be in the same mental state that I’m trying to describe. You might not think it is so amazing, since you will seem to be able to escape into pure thought as easily as closing your eyes to dream.

You will admit though, that having a truly original and brilliant thought, maybe something no one has ever thought of before, is quite hard, and no amount of hard effort will necessarily help your mind to conceive of such a beautiful idea. But it does happen. Besides, don’t be too humble. Just because someone has already had the thought you’ve just thought of does not make it any less beautiful. Provided it was your own thought and not a memory form having read or heard someone else mention it. You can still claim originality. You should claim originality. I think this is one of the triumphs of human life, to have such original thoughts. It simply doesn’t matter that in time someone may have had the thought or idea before you. You should own it anyway. Time is irrelevant — unless you seek fame, so just don’t worry about fame — just be free and detached from such vanity, then you can truly enjoy your amazing mind.

The crucial thing for my puzzle solution is that thoughts and ideas are essentially abstract. They exist independently of any physical world. Numbers and geometric objects have worldy names we all learn about in school, but those names change form culture to culture and classroom to classroom, the idea of the numbers and shapes do not change. This is because what the languages point to is abstract, it is independent of any language. Sentient aliens across the galaxies will have the same abstract idea of “threeness” that we have when we learn about triangles, and they will have the same abstract feel of perfect rotational symmetry that we have when we think about circles and spheres, only aliens will not call them “circles” or “spheres” or “numbers” or “triangle” or use the same symbols like “3”. It doesn’t matter what you call an abstraction. It will have it’s own essence. In geometry this comes out as an imperfect rendering when we try to draw a shape, with numbers the essence is closer to being revealed when a child makes three brush strokes to indicate a score of “3”, or gathers three small pebbles to say the same. This is what abstractions are about. They are pure essence. They are spiritual realities of a sort. And we can only ever approximate their essence. And they exist where we do or not exist, they exist without any Mind embodied in a physical creature to think of them and imagine them.

Computer software, or rather, the algorithms that software implements, have a similar sort of existence. They are pure ideas, and a computer scientist merely pulls them out of the realm of ideas and instantiates them in some sort of coded language which a computer can “interpret”. What’s important is not the particular software, but the pure idea of the algorithm behind the software. The same algorithm could have been written in any of hundreds of known computer languages.

So here, briefly, is my take on how this abstract realm form of telepathy could operate. The telepath uses their Mind to influence the realm of abstractions. This is the amazing power. altering abstract reality is not easy. They cannot just go and change the numerical value of π for example, nor change the idea of a perfect circle or the three-dimensionality and six-faceted nature of a cube. such abstractions are fixed and immutable by collective sentient societal contracts of reasoning (conventions, linguistics, dictionaries, etc.).

But what can be altered are the fluid abstractions. And what is a fluid abstraction? It is an idea that is not fixed. What’s an example? Well, it’s hard to say or think of many, but there is one obvious type of abstract phenomenon which is fluid, and that is the soul of a sentient creature. The thoughts and identity, the subjective personality, the Mind of a person. This is a fluid abstraction. So telepaths use their Mind to influence other Minds. This is “performed” not in physical space, but in the space of Ideas. My favourite term for this realm of ideas is the Mindscape.

I prefer “Mindscape” to “Mindspace” because the realm of ideas is not of fixed dimension or geometry, it transcends geometry and other such notions, because it actually contains such ideas as sub-spaces, or sub-scapes.

This, in summary, is how ultra-telepaths can be mythologised. Their power is due to where Mind’s roam free, a place that really is no place, but is a world without boundary, a realm we all inhabit whenever we think, but (the scifi myth goes) only telepaths can get into this realm and mess it up for others, and thus mess with your mind. A scary power for sure, but one that has a terrific scifi pedigree. If only more writers used this deeper philosophical pseudo-scientific background explanation. It’d be way cool!

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There’s a lot more to write about telepathy.  It’s a cool superpower because it involves the most mysterious phenomenon known to humankind, namely our own minds.

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Superhero Puzzle #23 — Explain Spiderman’s Webbing

Peter Parker (alias Spiderman) gets bitten by a radioactively treated spider, which ends up giving him superpowers such as an ability to emit super-strong silk thread from newly formed glands in his wrists, and immense stamina and superior  strength and agility.   It’s the spider web he emits from his glands that is the curiosity for today.


I do not really enjoy trying to explain miraculous biology as much as other superhero oddities, but probably not for the reasons you might at first suspect.  So go on, suspect for a second!  Done?  OK, let me continue.

Biological effects boils down to cellular effects.  And cells are just incredibly gnarly things.  You ordinary body cells in fact are just so freaking amazing in what they do that I’d call them miracles of nature, except that everyone has these superpowers, so we just call them body cells and think of them as pretty boring things we try to learn about in school biology for a year or two.

But talk to any professional biologist and you might be amazed (or bored all over again–it depends on how enthusiastic they are, try to find a live-wired biologist to talk to) at how fantastic the cells of your body are.  They do things that science cannot yet fully explain.  They operate on so many levels of chemical complexity that it is mind-boggling.  The subject of cell biology should really be a totally separate science because it is so complicated.  Only it cannot be separated out because it is intricately linked to very low-level chemistry, even low level physics, and high-level physiology of the whole organism and it’s environment.  Think of how an odour wafting through a room can effect every single person in the room, just a  simple molecule, drifting randomly in air currents.  It attaches to receptors in our nostrils and can have all sorts of knock-on psychological and physiological effects.  all because of the miracles of our cells.  Got it?  Cells are awesome, just awesome, awesome, awesome.

That’s why I have such a hard time figuring out realistic fantasy scifi for biological superpowers.  Often i just have to give up.

With Peter Parker, obviously we start from a point of totally realistic science. Spider’s do spin silk threads to make their webbing.  It can be either super-sticky or super-smooth.  And pound-for-pound silk is tougher than hardened steel.  steel ain’t so tough!  The only reason steel stops bullets is because it packs a lot of metal atoms in a small volume.  But that makes steel very heavy.  Spider silk is much superior, since it is stretchy and can absorb energy amazingly well, so only a small volume of silk can be spun into a bullet-proof vest which weighs not much more than a thick woollen jersey, and which would be thinner and more fashionable than a woollen jersey too.

Yeah, Superman (Kal-El) should be named The Man of Silk, not the Man of Steel!

Anyway, spiders do ooze silk out of glands.  So somehow the spider’s activated DNA gets spliced into Parker’s human DNA at a cellular level.  OK, the radiation can help this, since gamma radiation is powerful enough to alter chemical bonding with ease.  The intricacy required to genetically engineer a complex organism like a human is of course just total scifi fantasy nuts!  At some level you have to suspend disbelief a’ight!  And this is the level for Spidey.  Somehow, we know not how and do not wish to ask God the why or wherefore, the spider DNA gets transcribed into Parker’s.

With that done, it’s no problemo admitting Parker’s ability to emit super-strong silk thread from newly developed glands, since his body cells obviously have gained some spider powers, all completely rational and logical huh?

But spiders glands in near their butt-holes, or where their butts would be if they had arses.  So why does Parker’s silk spinning originate from his wrists?

Sure, spiders manipulate their thread with their mandibles and limbs.  But that’s not where the stuff gets excreted.  So what is your answer to this puzzle?

You can’t tell me the comic publishers simply did not want a superhero with a super-arsehole power.  I know that is the proper explanation. But it’s too boring, and besides, it violates the scifi code of finding a scientific explanation from within the myth.

So for ages I’ve been stumped by this one.  So I tried putting myself inside the comic. Some guy walks up to Peter Parker and who knows his alias, say it’s a smart-arse friend.  He says, “So Parker, how come you spin spidey web from your wrists, not from a gland in your butt?  I mean, isn’t that where the radioactive spider gland would’ve been?”  What does Parker say?

“Well David, I do not need to know where my thread gets spun to be a superhero.”

Neehhh, not so good.

What about, “Well David, I was bitten in the arm, so I figure the potency of the spidey power is concentrated there, and in the embryonic stem cells which mutated the fastest the silk excretion glands naturally grew near my arms, but at extremities as with real spiders. It’s all a matter of cellular differentiation.  Look it up in a bio textbook.”

Nahhh,..?  I think that’d be my official version though.  It’s the sanest response.  Still not completely satisfying?   But then there’s this explanation:

“Well David, I actually do spin it out my butt, but in my suit I get it passed through low viscosity tubes in my superhero costume and so it only emerges from my wrists by appearance.  Here,… I don’t wanna show you, but just take a sniff of it…”

Yeah, I think that does the job of scratching the butt-itch that I’ve had about Spiderman’s web glands for sure.


Sorry these Superhero Puzzle posts are going to be all out of order.  Just ignore the quiz numbers!  I only post those that I’m happy with, and so many superhero science is tricky to “get right” paradoxically, since we’re dealing with a fictional world here!  Still, it is harder to do since sometimes in a fictional world, you have fewer constraints, and more imagination, but that makes the science harder to get entertainingly plausible and satisfying.  Which is, of course, half the fun of this!)

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Superhero Puzzle #161 Why can’t Reed Richards stretch his hair?

Hey there, yes you! — If you can turn this post into a funnier one then I’ll donate $1 to your favourite charity.  Otherwise this will turn into a biology lesson, so quick with the joke …, ohhh, too late, here comes the lesson!

Comic book background

Reed Richards - Mr Fantastic

Is it “Richards” or “Richard”?  Forgive my slack research, I’m writing this extemporaneously ok!

Reed Richards is MR Fantastic of the Fantastic Four superhero team.  he is a brilliant scientist, who, along with his astronaut colleagues, experienced a supposedly lethal dose of radiation on a space mission, only instead of killing them it mutated their DNA, giving them each unique super-powers.  His fiancé Sue Storm gains force field manipulation ability, allowing herself to surround herself by force fields, one type of which can render her invisible.  That’s the power I’d want out of the four of them.  Her brother Johnny Storm gets the ability to become a living solar flame, and along with it the ability to fly from the propulsion of the flame energy.  Their friend Ben Grimm gets the only permanent configuration, which is a body of solid rock-like material, making him super-strong and invulnerable to bullets and other explosives.  Reed gets the ability to stretch his body to an unlimited degree, giving him the nickname of “Mr Stretch”, but out of respect he is called “Mr Fantastic” since he is the brains behind the team.

Possible Answers

This one is for biology geeks.  The mundane answer is that Richards never tries to stretch his hair.  A scientific explanation is that hair consist of basically dead cells.  So how come hair grows?  It doesn’t really, the hair collagen fibres remain knotted and platted together, and it’s only at the base of a hair follicle that living cells actually excrete the collagen, this pushes a hair out of the follicle, making it seem as if it’s alive, when it’s not.

Here’s an obligatory question for science enthusiasts who like a bit of fantasy.  How would you explain Reed Richards’ superpower using conventional science?

I’ve never read a good explanation, so I had the following thoughts.  Maybe readers can contribute better ideas or improvements.  I hope school teachers use such fantasy in practical classroom lessons for students who might be interested in learning their science this way from time to time.

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Well, it’s got to be in the elasticity and cohesion forces in Richard’s cells.  He is still human, capable of conceiving a baby with Sue Storm (yes, they get married and are devoted to each other).

If we assume Richard’s cannot stretch his hair then it’s probably because he can only super-stretch living cells.

If we assume the source of their superpowers was the identical radiation accident, then Richards’ body probably has a similar ability to Sue Storm’s of manipulating force fields around him, but his ability seems to be limited to within his cells, since he never exhibits the ability to stretch other objects, only himself.

So Richards has an innate sensory ability linked to his thoughts of generating extended force fields throughout his body, but restricted to his living cells.  His cells therefore act as kind of super-force vectors, maintaining cohesion even when pulled far apart.

Richards never seems to need to stretch all the way around the planet, and we are not certain of the limits to his stretchiness, so that’s a tricky puzzle, which we can return to a bit later when we think about the nature of the way he controls the cohesive forces.

The amazing thing is that he seems incapable of snapping.  A crocodile could tear at his arm or leg and spin it around in it’s vice-grip to no avail.  The crocodile would just get dizzy, and Richards would simply stretch to accommodate the crocodile bite and thus feel no pain.  This is because along with stretching he never feels the pain of it, so his nerve cells must also naturally stretch and not get activated when they are stretched.

This has to be because Richard’s body is manipulating electromagnetic fields in his body so that spacetime distortions are naturally conformally accommodated, so that to us it looks as though for all practical purposes his body is stretched and deformed, when in fact his cells are all still in perfect conformation.

This kind of deformation of objects is the mathematical study of topology.  but topologists do it with abstract spaces and numbers, not with physical objects or living systems.  To deform a living system to such extremes as Richards’ can experience and survive with no difficulty or obvious stresses is outside the domain of mathematicians.  It is a biophysics puzzle.

However, it makes some sense to suppose Richards’ deformations are topological.  So he cannot actually mix up his bodies cells like in a blender.  They all remain connected in exactly the same order, it’s only their space extents which alter geometrically, not their topological configuration.  When two or more objects are topologically invariant this means they can be stretched and squeezed into the same shape without any ripping or tearing or cutting and re-pasting.

but Richards’ is not the pure Topological Man, since he cannot pass his body through himself.  Topological deformations in mathematics are allowed to ghost through themselves.  Not so in real physics topological deformations, so in fact Richards is not the Topological Man, he is more accurately described mathematically as the Diffeomorphic Man, since diffeomorphisms are the types of physically realistic deformations that can turn smooth objects into morphed smooth objects without ripping or cutting.

But these are just words.  Topological.  Diffeomorphic.  Conformal Invariance.  All these terms have precise mathematical meanings, but they do not help us much in understanding Reed Richards’ condition.

What we need is a bridge between mathematics and physics.  And this is provided by the theory of fundamental forces.  At a certain level of physical description all fundamental forces arise from the influence of fields which pervade all of space an time.  The fields exist everywhere, even though their intensity in certain places (localised regions) can be near zero momentarily, in other places their intensity can be enormous.  What generates force fields are charged particles.  And what experiences a force whenever their is an intense field nearby is another charged particle.

Mathematically the fields are smoothly varying, even though over small distances they can appear to change drastically, there is always a smaller region over which the field varies smoothly from small intensity to high intensity (or negative value to positive value sometimes).  A negative field value as opposed to a positive value is not simply a mere calibration issue, it corresponds to a reversal of the force felt by any particular charged particle.

So this is the connection we need to understand Reed Richards’ superpower.  Also, it should help explain Sue Storm’s power as well and maybe also Johnny Storm’s.  But Ben Grim’s orange-rocky super-strength power is just too weird for me to explain without further fantasy.  We could have a go at it another day.

There is still a lot of work to be done to provide more detailed science behind Reed Richards’ stretch power and Sue Storm’s force field manipulation. It should be fun.  The key is to not get too serious, but to play around in a sensitive way with some of the laws of physics.  The good thing for most students at school is that you should refrain from too many equations, since they will usually destroy  the scifi fantasy, but to allow a little mathematics into the play so that you can say that you’ve really done the best you can to justify the scifi.  That’s the game, a’ight.

Some further things to consider for instance are:

  • How they (the fantastic Four) use their mind to control the powers.  (This question can apply to most superheros, e.g., how Superman can use heat vision or X-ray vision, but not all the time).
  • What limits might there be to Richards’ stretchiness, or is there some way scientifically you can think of that would allow him to be infinitely stretchy?

Although this sort of musing seems like fantasy, I hope you can appreciate that it’s a good way to teach science too.  Science is not all just about uncovering facts and performing methodology and getting things clinical and precise, in fact that’s hardly what science is about at all, that’s only the polished published book version of science.  In everyday practice, to be a good scientist, you need a good imagination and whatever helps stimulate your imagination can potentially help you become a better scientist.  All you really need to compliment a good imagination is a willingness to put your ideas to rigorous tests, and eventually learn how to make good tests.  But that’s for another time.  Today I just hope you have fun wondering about the super-powers of the Fantastic Four.

Stan Lee is one of the writers of the past century who we can truly treasure without getting too overwhelmed by literary pomp and pretension.  He wrote, and inspired other writers, for pure enjoyment.  And that’s what also makes him one of the most surprising people who I would say has had a great and yet unfathomable influence on science.  No one will ever be able to calculate his scientific worth, but for a guy who never published a single science article, and who probably never even co-authored a single non-fiction article written in earnest, I think he still could be counted as a hero of many scientists from all fields.  A remarkable accomplishment, and so much more so I think because of his influence on so many people whom he would never have met and who themselves may not even realise or consciously acknowledge his unseen influence on science.  In part, this is just a small beginning to my humble homage to Stan.  Hopefully I’ll have time to write a few more Superhero Puzzles over the next few years.   Even if it doesn’t stretch my knowledge of physics it will stretch out the fun.

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