Thursday, June 17, 2010

Inquiring minds

Maybe I'm just in a bad mood, but the main headline on the cover of the latest Scientific American magazine bummed me out. It said: "The Universe is Leaking." (The story was about the fact that light waves are red-shifted as they cross expanding space, therefore losing energy in apparent contradiction of the Law of Conservation of Energy." Where does the energy from those now-weaker photons go?)

Make no mistake. I am no physicist. Maybe I still could factor first-year-algebra-class equations (or maybe not), but my understanding of advanced math is at the earth-worm level. (For instance, popular-science books teach a kid by the time he reaches middle school about Einstein's famous "energy equals mass times the speed of light squared" - and we kids get it (a little mass, a hell of a lot of energy). But wait a minute: why is it the speed of light "squared?" Why not cubed? Why not the power of pi? Why not something, anything, else?

OK, I know it is because the math comes out that way, and that putting the reason into middle-school English is essentially impossible.

But it seems to me that the Scientific American cover does little but take advantage of our mathematical weakness to sell magazines. (Oh no, the universe is leaking energy! Gasp! Is Brad back with Jen? Is Angelina pregnant? Is Bigfoot the father?)

As it turns out, as the article lucidly explains, the question of the conflict between energy conservation and the energy loss of light waves is meaningless. It's all a matter of perspective. As our friend Albert would say, it's all relative. Because the total amount of energy in the universe is beyond our ken, and any conceivable measurement must take place in a galaxy moving in a specific and unique direction and speed, the answer to the question remains fundamentally out of reach.

This might seem like a bunch of gobbledygook - sorry about that - but I still feel bummed. Why put such a simplistic headline on the cover of a leading magazine like Scientific American? (Sure, the answer is obvious ((selling mags, do you suppose?)), but inquiring minds still want to know ... or at least bitch about it.)

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