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Questions about Life, the Universe and Everything

I am primarily a student of literature, history, religion and suchlike -- the narratives we construct about ourselves and the world. I love my field(s). And the STEM fields are not among them.

But that does not mean they do not hold a particular sort of fascination. When I was 16 I went travelling through Eastern Europe. I was a bit of a pretentious teenager, and in my backpack I had a couple of books by Nietzsche and Wrinkles in Time by George Smoot and Keay Davidson. It was thrilling stuff; I still remember the feeling of finding out how things worked, realising that there were all these questions you could ask and reasonably expect answers to.

We have talked occasionally about the expanded ideal of Bildung, one in which the educated person, regardless of speciality, should know not only the basics of literature, history and social sciences, but also be able to talk sensibly about (and perhaps more importantly, be able to critically interact with claims about) the sciences.

On one level this should be obvious. A world in which scientists do not reflect on ethics is a horrible idea; and likewise a world in which their grasp of history is too rudimentary to engage with how their innovations may influence it. Conversely, we in the humanities cannot reasonably expect to be taken seriously in our attempts to bring our expertise to bear on the world if we cannot grasp the basics of central features of it? Technology is ubiquitous in the social debates.

But even outside the direct application to the world around us and how we affect it, the humanities are enriched by the input and imagery of the sciences; and we in return offer useful ways of spotting the way blind spots develop when you construct narratives or rely on socially constructed categories of thought. That, and remind them not to build doomsday devices (a full time occupation in our household).

But the main appeal of this expanded Bildung is not purely instrumental. It lies in the joy of expanding horizons and finding new things. It's FUN. At least if you can escape those endless calculations. Thankfully I do not have to deal with them in order to find out how the world works: I married a physicist, and it is now his job (beware what you sign at the wedding) to explain the world to me by translating calculations into sensible everyday language.

I have therefore made a List of Things that Tor should Explain. And what better forum than Calcuttagutta?

I expect to add to it as time goes by. If anyone else has questions, feel free to contribute in the comments section.

Why is the speed of light the fastest?
I do not mean to inquire why light is the fastest, as that makes sense (I know it is pure energy). What I want to know is why the speed limit is 300 000 km/s.

Is it precisely that? And if so, why? Why not 350 000 or 800 000? Or 300 547,76, for that matter? What is it about that speed which makes it a limit?

What colour do mirrors have?
I think of mirrors as silver-coloured (in a word: grey), probably because they look like they are made of metal. Are they? Do they reflect light perfectly? Are they white, if they do? Or do they not have a colour?

What is fire?
Someone told me once that fire is one of the great mysteries of physics. It is certainly pretty. What is it that makes it weird and wonderful?

What makes glass transparent?
Why do some things absorb light and other not? And how can they both be transparent and reflective? And why couldn't my aunt's cat see me through the window?

Should the Battlestar Galactica crew be travelling in time?
There are several different ships and smaller vessels, travelling hither and thither at insane speeds (using FTL (faster than light) drives). The different ships then meet up at new coordinates, while one or more of them have been taking detours.

Should their clocks show different times? And doesn't faster than light travel mean they are travelling backwards in time? Other science fiction references are welcome.

What is this gravity thing, anyway?
And why can't it travel faster than light? I have been informed that if the sun disappeared, the gravitational pull would not disappear before the light did. But why, if gravity is the warping of space and time, does that have to be true?

I have heard the "no communications faster than light" ban, but that could do with some elucidation. And by elucidation I mean "how the hell would you communicate with gravity, anyway?" as well as the more traditional "but if it is not a thing travelling, but the thing that dictates how things travelled, why do the same rules apply?".

How can you have upside-down rainbows?
(I saw a picture once.) And as a corollary: I once read a cartoon about a strong bear and a clever turtle, and they were high up in the air and saw the rainbow as a circle. Is this based in True Science?


I'll link Tor's answers here once he writes them up sensibly.
Are, Karoline, Ole Petter, Anja likes this


Karoline,  17.12.13 11:15

Love it. Denne artikkelen har jeg troa på.
Tor,  17.12.13 22:10

Perhaps I'll have some time during Christmas. They're not all easy questions to answer.
Camilla,  17.12.13 22:12

Once you are done with those, you could get to grips with this dark matter/dark energy nonsense.

Ole Petter,  20.12.13 18:40

Excellent questions! Though somewhat overwhelming (some of them require book-length answers) :)

Mirrors are (usually) white/grey, though silver would probable be more correct. I had never thought of the difference between grey and silver (as colors) before I saw your question, but Wikipedia had interesting answers:

I started sketching an answer to the speed-of-light questions, but I have so much I can write about this issue that I got a bit lost. I'll see what I can do later this Christmas.
Camilla, Are likes this

Are,  21.12.13 13:18

Well done, brilliant idea. Looking forward to the articles :)
Last edited by
Camilla, 19.05.14 20:13