June 24th, 2007

#447: Idle thoughts

Johnsonville beer bratwurst for dinner today. And they were perfect.

I always simmer them in beer before going anywhere near the grill. Fill a frying pan with cold beer, just enough to not quite cover the brats. Then turn on the heat, on the low side of medium, and let it warm slowly. Turn the brats once or twice. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes or until they've turned grey. Poke a hole in about the middle of each brat, somewhere down the side--just a small one--to let excess juices out.

If you use charcoal, light it before you put the brats on to simmer. If (like me) you use gas, get the grill nice and hot before you take the brats out. I turn the gas all the way up and close the lid, then turn the flame down to "low" a few minutes before I bring the brats out.

Grill the brats until they've browned, turning occasionally. Depending on the output of your grill, it should take about 15 minutes. If the brats start to split, the heat is too high. The idea is to cook them slowly; you just get the grill hot and then let thermal inertia do most of the work.

Done correctly, the bratwurst has a nice beer flavor--it tastes like beer smells--mixed in with all the other yummy flavors that are inherent in bratwurst, and the flavor is enough to reinforce your faith in God. Nothing could possibly taste so good without divine intervention.

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While grilling, I looked at the propane tank and wondered if one could be used to store helium. Then I thought that, duhh, they ship helium in steel tanks all the time--it's not going to migrate through the steel.

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Lately I've had some various physics imponderables going through my head, similar to the question "is neutronium a Bose-Einstein condensate?" (Though not quite as esoteric as that.)

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Recently I have learned of the existence of something called a "dumbhole". A dumbhole is the sonic equivalent of a black hole. I haven't learned anything else about the properties of a dumbhole, but it sounds like an interesting concept.

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Speaking of singularities, why can't there be singularities other than gravitational? It is possible to extend the space-warping properties of a black hole by charging it and then giving it spin, generating a "chargewarp"; what if you found a way to make a charge singularity? An electromagnetic singularity might be as useful as a chargewarp without all the pesky tidal and gravitational annoyances of a black hole.

And what about smaller scales? How about a weak force or strong force singularity? But I'm not sure you could even see a strong force singularity, simply because the strong force doesn't work across a distance longer than the diameter of a proton. And I doubt you could do much with a weak force singularity, either.

In fact, a charge singularity would be fairly compact, too--I find it doubtful that one could be much bigger than a mile across, maybe, if you were lucky--but at least it would be big enough to have an effect on the matter around it.

If the basic forces are unifiable, it seems that they should all be able to form singularities--shouldn't they?

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"Why can't you make a lightsaber?"

One of my team leads asked me this question Friday night. I had to explain it.

The idea of making some kind of beam which can cut anything that intersects it is not very hard to manage. Lasers were invented--when, 50 years ago?--and we're cutting all kinds of things with them these days.

But the light saber in Star Wars has several properties which make it complex.

First, the beam just stops about a meter north of the hilt. This isn't really a problem for quantum chromodynamics, because all you have to do is phase-entangle the photons so they just spontaneously reverse direction (due to destructive interference) at the far end of the blade. ("I like how you just say 'all you have to do'," my team lead said with a laugh.) But that's the easy problem.

Second, the amount of energy required to make a beam which shines in thin air would be enormous--enough that, when you turned on the lightsaber, it would vaporize the casing within milliseconds...and probably your hands. If you shine a laser pointer in a darkened room, you can't see the beam unless a dust mote reflects it. Add fog to the air and you can easily see the beam. In order for a light saber to be that bright, and that effective a weapon, there would have to be a lot of photons in the narrow space of the beam--probably gigawatts worth of them. There would be a noticeable thrust from the weapon; that's how many photons there would have to be.

Third is the issue of having a power source which can do that: pump out gigawatts of power, continuously, and be portable enough to be carried casually by one man.

That is, by the way, if the light saber is merely a laser with some unusual properties.

Long ago I reasoned that the light saber is not actually light. Oh, it emits light; but the light is either merely cosmetic and has nothing to do with the actual function of the weapon--it is there so the user knows where his sword is pointing, but in practice it's not really necessary--or else it's the result of edge effects. (Synchrotron or Cerenkov radiation, perhaps.)

The light saber is, instead, a vibrating field of some kind. The alternation/vibration of the field is what makes the characteristic "buzzing" sound, and this changing field somehow heats and cuts whatever it comes in contact with. Sink it up to its haft in metal and the light saber's beam will cut the metal, slowly. If it were a laser weapon, there wouldn't be any "slowly" about it--the metal would vaporize as quickly as the beam came into contact with it.

Ultimately, Star Wars is fantasy and I don't worry about the actual physics of how things work in those movies; I just accept it as "freakin' magic" and leave it at that. But my boss asked me, "Could we actually do that?" and I wanted him to understand why the answer was "no". But he wasn't disappointed, because he was pretty sure of the answer before he asked, and mainly wanted to know why.

* * *

Speaking of esoteric physics, today I watched a movie on IFC called Primer. It was about two guys who--attempting to build an anti-gravity machine--discover that their anti-gravity machine can also be used as a time machine.

Being a non-Hollywood film, the editing and dialogue were very "avant garde" and not exactly well-suited for an entertainment film--it was clearly an "indie" film--intentionally jumpy and jumbled, I mean, not the result of incompetence. There were a lot of "art" elements, such as people all talking at once, strange cuts in the film, and so on, and it tended to make the movie a little hard to follow.

But not very hard. It was actually fascinating. With a little less of a focus on being "artistic" and a little more on telling the story, it would have been a fantastic time-travel movie. As it was, it was very good, if a bit confusing in spots. The motivation of the characters was not always clear, nor was the exact action--some of that was intentional, probably much of it, but some was a result of trying too hard to be "artistic".

Parts were intentionally muddled--the physics of the antigravity-machine-cum-time-machine, for example--and parts were probably less deliberately so, like the sequence of events surrounding a party which nearly turned into a murder scene--but overall the story was complete and tightly plotted, and a second viewing (which I intend on, as soon as I can find it on video) may clear up some of this.

But what I could understand of the physics was logical. Accepting the notion that these guys had built an anti-gravity machine in their garage was the hard step; just accepting that, the physics seemed to descend rather naturally from there. There is no gravity without time, and the idea that time travel is merely gravity control at a 90° angle dates back to the SF of the 1950s, if not farther. So it's not a far-fetched notion.

As real, hard science fiction, it was really well-done.

* * *

I was also thinking about the guy who built a "jet-powered beer cooler".

What he actually did was build a "burner can" and hook it to an automotive turbocharger, such that the compressor would compress the incoming air, push it into the burner where it was mixed with propane, which burned, driving the turbine wheel. The thing used propane at such a prodigious rate that the propane tank would get very cold due to semi-adiabatic expansion. (Interesting note: propane makes an excellent refrigerant. Except for its flammability it has all the right properties.)

Put the propane tank into an alcohol bath and put your (warm) beer in there too. When the propane tank gets cold, the alcohol gets cold, and the beer gets cold.

But it occurred to me, today, that his beer cooler really isn't "jet powered" at all. All you need to do is get rid of the propane in the tank really fast--bleed off as much pressure as you can, in as short a time as possible. Just opening the valve and jimmying the safety interlock would do it, though it would create an explosion hazard. Make a really long "flame log"--drill holes in an iron pipe 8 feet long--and burn the stuff that way. Convert a V8 to run on it. Or just pump it into another tank. The tank will get cold as the gas expands and your beer will get cold.

Now, if the guy had built something which powered a refrigeration compressor with a jet engine, that would be a jet-powered beer cooler--but it would probably be beyond the means of most backyard mechanics.

I'm not trying to make fun of the guy. I'm just sayin', is all. There's nothing wrong with cooling your bear in 10 minutes with a loud and obnoxious machine, I suppose, although I'm glad he doesn't live in my neighborhood.

Besides, a styrofoam beer cooler, a 10-lb bag of ice, a couple gallons of hose water, and a handful of salt will do it in four minutes.

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The 17-year cicadas are almost gone. It'll be 2024 when they're here next.

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When I am in the Phlippines, the sun will be in the northern quadrant of the sky at noon.

That seems so strange. Where I am now, it's nearly overhead at noon around this time of year, so it's not like the sun will be that farther to the north. Still, it's a silly little thing that I am nonetheless looking forward to seeing.

I don't know if I'll be able to see the Southern Cross from where I'll be. I'm hopeful, though. And I'd also like to be able to see Alpha Centauri, too.

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...and there is an idle thought which I started this post specifically to discuss, and which has escaped me continuously for the past however-long-it's-been. So F it.