To bit, or not to bit

A dualistic assessment pulses at the heart of cyber-sprawl. Our computer universe revolves around a persistent question delivered in rapid-fire succession. We call tiny, indivisible parcels of information bits. Bits answer one question, again and again: Does it exist? If it does not exist, it takes an identity based on a powerful idea often taken for granted in the rudimentary arithmetical grind.

The concept of zero arose in the wake of the agricultural revolution, most likely in South Asia. Nothingness, as a distinct mathematical entity, logged into history about the same time our ancestors first built cities. Nonexistence equates mathematically to the absence of value—zero.

Humans speciated about 300,000 year before present (ybp). We abandoned hunting and gathering approximately 10,000 ybp. The concept of zero didn’t manifest until more like 5000 ybp. The concept of zero most likely snuck into existence under the cover of flashier history: Egyptian pyramid construction, Babylonian hanging gardens, and the preponderance of pottery in human settlements across the Fertile Crescent.

We many never know zero’s precise origin in space and time. Most likely, the numerical value of nothingness arose again and again among geographically disperse cultures, throughout separate eras. Without reliable and more precise evidence, 5000 ybp serves as a sufficient estimate. Humanity has reaped the fruit of zero for roughly 2% of its time as a distinct species.

If a bit exists, we assign it the least magnitude, just enough to establish its presence. The symbol “1” represents existence.

A true or false also answers the bit’s existential query. But this is just a more complicated restatement of the answer rendered above. The use of a string of characters, a word, like “true” or “false” adds contextual meaning and alleviates the anxiety of the mathematically averse. True or false successfully answers the existence question. As simple as answering true or false may seem, imagine repeating the process hundreds, thousands, millions, or even millions of millions of times.

Many people would instinctively switch to “T” and “F” in place of writing four or five letters for each query. A single letter suffices to state the existence of something. Continue along this line of logic and some people—probably the mathematically inclined—will substitute a 1 for T, and a 0 for F. This transcends language barriers, removes ambiguity, and adds quantitative value for more complicated manipulations of our nascent data.

binary_pile_Mark-Ordonez

photo courtesy of Mark Ordonez

The concept of zero wields power in ways that often escapes even the most mathematically gifted. Humans prefer ten digits (0-9) that repeat infinitely in a cycle up, and down, the number line. A zero initiates the process: The origin on a number line has no value. Moving up, we count to nine; further progress requires a reset of the ones place to zero, and then the addition of a one to the tens place (1 ten plus 0 ones is 10). Repeat the process until we reach nineteen (1 ten plus 9 ones is 19); now, replace the one in the tens position with a two, and reset the ones to zero—20. Without the concept of zero, we have no natural origin, or means to recycle our counting system at a convenient interval.

Computers operate with only two digits. Remember: the most basic element of a computer is a bit with two possible states—existence, or not. Humans prefer ten digits because modal humans have four fingers and a thumb on two hands. Base ten is natural for us because we typically inaugurate our mathematical experience tallying small quantities on our hands. Computers don’t have appendages. Instead, computers recognize existence or lack thereof; on or off; 1 or 0.

binary_window_Chris-McClanahan

photo courtesy of Chris McClanahan

Math isn’t partial to any number of digits. As long as the absence of value is expressible, only two fundamental numbers can effectively represent any quantity. Two digit numerical systems employ binary code.

Here’s a string of binaries beginning with the absence of value: 0, 1, 10, 11, 100, 101, 110, 111, 1000, 1001, 1010. You don’t need master spatial perception to discern the pattern at the end of the previous sentence. Let me translate into more familiar base ten notation: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

The same principle governs all positional numeral systems. In binary, we recycle the process using only two digits; base ten counts nine distinct quantities before an abrupt return to the concept of zero. The first position has no value, then it does. Since we only have two possible values, we have to reset the value to zero and progress by adding value to the next position. Then we add value to the initial position. This process can repeat forever creating an infinite series of magnitudes.

Tedious repetitions, like writing and manipulating binary code, strain human attention spans and raise the probability of error. Also, we’re slow when it comes to mundane tasks. Fortunately, humans designed computers to flawlessly iterate simple instructions. According to a loose interpretation of Moore’s Law, processing speed doubles about every two years. My processor executes 2.2 billion (the same as 2.2 thousand x 1 million, or 2.2 thousand million) instructions every second.

By the way, base ten 2,200,000,000 is the same as 10000011001000010101011000000000 in binary. I think. Just transcribing a 32 digit quantity, regardless of base, carries a high probability of a simple mistake.

If you enjoyed reading this piece, check out An Electron Story or Hunter Gatherers in the Quantum Age.

Mountain Pine Beetles, and Political Polarization, Subvert American Greatness

Ten men have presided from the oval office during my life.

Of all 45 US presidents, only four grace the granite outcrops of Mount Rushmore: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

Before I hypothesize which of my ten are most likely to earn a giant bust overlooking the dying forests of South Dakota, I have a question: Why isn’t Franklin Delano Roosevelt already up there? Our longest serving, and arguably greatest president’s absence on Mount Rushmore mystifies me.

I’ll get to the focus of this piece, soon, but first, let me share an episode from my honeymoon, last summer: Returning to Iowa from of our meandering journey through the mountain west, we stopped for a few nights in western South Dakota, and during one day, we hiked on a rugged trail near the shadow of Mount Rushmore.

My wife, a Kenyan national, was in the midst of immigration; I had never visited Mount Rushmore: We hoped a pilgrimage to the foot of the great American monument might garner some good luck to her immigration proceedings.

me-n-g_MR1 - 2

The volume of dead trees leaning at perilous angles, and littering the ground produced a post-apocalyptic visage that clashed with the mood of our romantic trek across mid-America.

Mountain pine beetles continue to ravage forests across the western USA. The insects leave behind a fungus after burrowing into bark to lay eggs. The fungus interferes with a tree’s ability to distribute water and nutrients: Eventually, after a few weeks of attack, a tree starves.

mtnpinebeetle2

Mountain pine beetle. Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Services.

Frequent droughts since the 90’s deprived trees of water and further weakened their defenses against pine beetle intrusion. Lower frequency of cold winters allowed a greater survival rate for pine beetles. More warm days over several years allowed a succession of longer breeding cycles further increasing the pests’ population.

The large number of rotting trees threaten to fuel a fire, given a timely spark. It’s strange I should suggest building another giant sculpture on Mount Rushmore when the federal government isn’t capable of funding an effort to clear away a large hazard to South Dakota’s tourist industry, and the regional ecosystem.

If viewing Mount Rushmore requires passing through an expansive wasteland, in the near future, there may not be enough visitors to view any proposed additions to one of USA’s greatest memorials. But, assuming there is still a collective psych, and fiscal will, to add another face to Mount Rushmore, my logic for and/or against my ten presidents follows:

Lyndon B. Johnson  He essentially quit by refusing the Democrat’s nomination in 1968. He retreated to his Stonewall, Texas ranch, chased by a leftist revolt: LBJ captured little of the Kennedy’s idealistic verve, and his constituency turned on him because of his support of the Vietnam War.

It’s unlikely he would have been elected president in 1964 without the tragic assassination of his boss, so it’s remote that he’ll ever have his face carved into Mount Rushmore.

His legislative prowess influencing passage of civil rights laws is impressive and favor his longterm value, but his perceived deficiencies are likely to forever outshine his accomplishments.

Richard Nixon  If a high IQ were the only consideration, it’s probable Nixon could score in the top five of all presidents, and lead my ten’s intellectual power ranking. Unfortunately, for him, he’s the only POTUS forced from office, so far. Nixon has zero chance of gracing (Should I say tainting?) Mount Rushmore.

Gerald Ford  A decent man and steady public servant. Ford was a fundamentally boring man, who failed to win his only presidential election. His association with, and pardon of, Nixon renders him ineligible for Mount Rushmore.

Jimmy Carter  Unfortunately for Carter, Mount Rushmore projects images of two revolutionaries; a former colonel who first achieved fame leading a charge up a hill during an unnecessary and aggressive war; and the man whose orders led to untimely, often violent, deaths for over half a million Americans.

Appeasing, and avoiding war with a newly minted Islamic Republic (Iran) is unlikely to even long-list Carter for Mount Rushmore. We shouldn’t expect too much from Carter. He inherited mission impossible: Nixon’s resignation would have doomed even the most talented politician running for presidential reelection so soon after Watergate.

Ronald Reagan  He bestrode USA’s political landscape the entirety of my teen years, and his presence carried over into my time in college under the governance of his chosen successor.

Opposition politics seemed like a waste of energy during the Reagan era because of his reelection mandate in 1984—Reagan won every state except his opponent’s home.

election-84

Reagan exerted power and influence unlike any other Cold War politician.

With the Reagan mythology initiated during the Clinton Administration that continues to metastasize under Trump’s peculiar banner, Reagan’s memory-turned-legend demonstrates the kind of mystique necessary to earn a bust on the South Dakotan pantheon.

Not to mention, Reagan’s tough talk at the USSR is in line with the four aggressive personalities already on Mount Rushmore.

Love him, or hate him—and it’s often one extreme, or the other—Reagan is the most probable addition to Mount Rushmore among my ten.

George HW Bush  He was the best moderate politician of my lifetime, but he’ll always be remembered as Reagan’s wimpy backup. Since there’s no logical path to sculpt Reagan and the first Bush on Mount Rushmore, we can write off HW. It’s a shame because he impressed with his ability to make the UN function properly as the New World Order congealed after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Bill Clinton  Possibly the most talented politician since FDR. Unfortunately for Clinton, the waning years of the twentieth century yielded no significant challenges for the baby boomer political prodigy to navigate.

It’s a pity Clinton and Bush II couldn’t switch historical circumstances: The placid historical waters of the 90’s suited a “compassionate conservative” like W; imagine how great Clinton could have been if he had a real crisis during his administration. Clinton’s handling of 9/11 would have certainly amazed historians, and probably, even his contemporary detractors.

Unfortunately, we’ll remember Clinton most for his female associations: detailed, over publicized infidelities in the corridors of power, and, even more, for his marriage to the first woman nominated by a major party, but, shockingly, lost to Trump.

Clinton is another write off for Mount Rushmore.

George W. Bush  Creating a Jeffersonian democracy, by force of arms, between the Tigris and Euphrates was ambitious, bordering on quixotic; of course, if this ever succeeds in any meaningful way, W’s bust will overlook the fruited plain, posthaste.

We won’t know the full effects of invading Iraq for several decades, or centuries. Perhaps USA won’t even exist in the same way once we feel the full brunt of consequences initiated by W’s Mesopotamian maneuvers. It seems Bush II will go down in infamy, or praised as a visionary.

I suspect George W. Bush’s presidency will escape definitive, unbiased classification for the remainder of my life; so I won’t speculate his odds of scoring a spot on Mount Rushmore.

Barrack Obama  Post-racial America fizzled, and regressed—Perhaps racial nirvana was a hope-laden illusion?—but Spockish 44 will look savory in Chaotic 45’s historical wake.

Although Obama, during his second term, imitated Carter’s Iran weakness in Syria, Obama will always be the first US president that wasn’t a white male (this assumes we never discover evidence that another president before Obama was black). Obama’s racial classification seems irrelevant according to modern political correctness, but when looking at Obama through the larger prism of several centuries of presidential history, his election should be a significant turning point.

Obama would be the most passive personality on Mount Rushmore, but we can’t possibly know how the first black president looks in the grand sweep of US history from the viewpoint of 2117, or 2217. If we plan to recognize the political progress of black people in America with an eternal presence on Mount Rushmore, Martin Luther King, Jr. seems like a superior candidate—I’m sure Obama would agree. But, MLK’s lack of a presidential pedigree would make him a bit out of place, so it’s unlikely he could do an end run on Obama.

The Affordable Care Act seems expensive to many of our contemporaries; availing quality healthcare for all humans will be a no-brainer, soon, I hope. If government—or some other surrogate on the cusp of existence—ultimately provides health care for all citizens, the ACA will be landmark legislation. Obamacare in tandem with being the first non-white male elected president makes Obama a probable addition to Mount Rushmore.

Let’s call Obama a dark horse—no pun intended—to earn a bust next to his ideological predecessor, Abraham Lincoln.

Donald J. Trump  If our current president lives up to his detractors, Trump may be distinguished as the last white male POTUS. In that light, we could view Mount Rushmore as a memorial to USA’s faded (Perhaps I should say explosively self-destructive?) era of white supremacy. If that’s the case, and Mount Rushmore eventually becomes a monument to a debunked social hierarchy, Trump is a safe bet for the last spot on Mount Rushmore.

After less than 100 days in office, it’s difficult to say if Trump does or does not have what it takes to get a bust on Mount Rushmore, but if he does, and he has some influence over the construction, he’ll certainly ask for a bigger face. Maybe he’ll manufacture a steel reinforced concrete sculpture on top of the current monument.

In my opinion, the last ten presidents produced two bonafide candidates for future sculptures on Mount Rushmore: Obama and Reagan; both seem worthy according to my arguments above.

Unfortunately, few of my compatriots are capable of simultaneously appreciating the merits of Reagan and Obama. Those who advocate for the greatness of Obama, demonize Reagan. A modern day US citizen who lights a candle at Reagan vigils, believes Obama embodied an existential threat on par with the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany.

In the currently polarized atmosphere of US politics, it may be difficult to muster the kind of community spirit necessary to develop a common narrative to honor another president on Mount Rushmore.

All the while, mountain pine beetles thrive at the expense of American greatness.

Similar post: An Evolving Universe III—The Insurgent

Circular Political Spectrums

sanders-trump

Many pundits say Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are political opposites. Bernie is a leftist and Donald is right wing. What does that mean?

Models are valuable tools that elucidate difficult concepts. Models clarify abstractions in fields riddled with uncertainties. Political scientists employ linear spectrums when modeling affiliations and governing behaviors of elected officials.

Liberals reside on the left side of the spectrum. Progressive is synonymous with liberal  because liberals favor brisk and continuous political progress. Liberals tend to promote government spending and levy more taxes to cover the cost of programs to spur progress.

Extreme liberals see business as a means to achieve humanity’s preferable end: Utopian actualization motivated by government influence in the form of funding and regulation.

The right side of the spectrum harbors conservatism. Conservatives caution for slower progress and portray government as restrictive on freedom and productivity. Conservatives believe government is fundamentally wasteful, enables sloth, and undermines civilization’s driving force—the profit motive.

Extreme conservatives abhor progress to the degree of time-reversal. They promote a return to a mythical past. Humanity cannot find its way forward because it has forgotten what brought it here; we will never achieve our destiny now that we abandoned what works best.

These fundamental philosophies clearly diverge. Using the linear spectrum model, the distance between the two dispositions widens as each political journey progresses. The effect is a palpable sense of polarization.

Where does the linear spectrum lead our disparate philosophies? Do conservatives succeed in reversing time’s arrow? Does liberalism collectively teleport us to heaven on earth?

Extreme politics, right or left, share crucial characteristics: policy ignorance and inability to compromise. Extremism relies on the force of will: Extreme personalities lead extreme politics. The end result of extremism is failure to achieve ridiculously optimistic short-term goals. Once failure is certain in the public perception, tyranny remains as the only option to loss of power.

The path of of extremists, left and right, converge in authoritarianism. The political spectrum is not a line; it is a circle.

The circumference of a circle is a linear measurement. If a circle is large enough relative to the our senses, it appears straight when traversing its surface. Straighten a meter of string. Now, shape the string into a circle. That’s how easy it is to change your thinking from linear to circular politics.

Here’s another way to look at it: Earth seems like a flat plane to our senses. We’re so small compared to our universe, and planet, that we failed to realize earth’s true geometric shape for most of humanity’s existence. A sphere is a three-dimensional circle. Before modern mathematics and the scientific method, common sense indicated walking in one direction would lead to an edge, or a walk without end. Now, we know walking in one direction on earth eventually brings us back to the starting point.

If you liked Circular Political Spectrums, try these: Poles Apart, A republic if you can keep it.

Stormy Dreams: Cyclone Basketball 2016

I had a nightmare: Fred Hoiberg abandoned Iowa State to become head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

hoi-bulls

It had to be a dream. What are the odds Iowa State’s most beloved son, a legend, nicknamed The Mayor of Ames (seat of the Cyclones) would duplicate Tim Floyd’s abandonment?

floyd_net

Certainly, Hoiberg would remember that Floyd’s arrival in Chicago coincided with Michael Jordan’s second retirement and the end of Phil Jackson’s tenure in Chicago. Floyd resigned  from the Bulls midway through his fourth season in Chicago with a record of 49-190. Floyd gave it another go in the NBA with New Orleans (2003-2004); the Hornets fired him after losing in the first round of the playoffs. Looking back at an NBA career record of 93-235, Floyd once remarked, “I wasn’t very good at it.”

Floyd was 81-49 as a Cyclone. Other than Hoiberg (0.671), Floyd (0.633) is Iowa State’s winningest coach.

Hoiberg would never forsake his hometown to chase a dream without a precedent of success. Several NCAA coaches–other than Floyd–have tried the NBA switch, but none made deep playoff runs.

Then, the dream got worse: Injuries to star players crippled the Bulls’ roster and the team’s leader made negative comments in the media about Holberg’s coaching–or lack thereof.

There was a bright side to Holberg’s departure from Ames, though. He left a strong roster and a team predicted to make the 2016 Final Four. AP ranked Iowa State high in the preseason:

1_preseason_cy

If you’re not #1, everything’s relative. Kansas was ranked higher–as usual–but the Cyclones were still ahead of Oklahoma, so the season looked encouraging.

After a few heady weeks beating up on weak teams and narrowly escaping intrastate rival, Iowa; the Cyclones rose to #4:

2_week5_peak_4

Kansas was still looming near the top though.

Then, the dream turned nightmare. The Cyclones lost to Northern Iowa… In front of a home crowd… At Hilton Coliseum… Hilton Magic? Iowa State dropped out of the top ten while Kansas and Oklahoma held positions in the top four:

3_week_7_rank_11

I wish I could say the nightmare ended on a high note, but Iowa State’s loses started to accumulate: Oklahoma came from behind to beat the Cyclones in Norman; then, Iowa State lost to Baylor, at Hilton. Iowa edged over Iowa State in the AP Poll:

5_ui_isu_week10

Fortunately, I started to wake up when the Cyclones dropped another road game to Texas, and Kansas and Oklahoma became #1 and #2:

ku_ou_week_10

I didn’t go back to sleep. I was afraid the nightmare would resume. What could have been next? Maybe the Hawkeyes would crack the top ten as Iowa State dropped out of the top 25? Perhaps the Cyclones might finish in the bottom half of the Big 12, and then lose during the first round of the NIT?

7_big12_standings_week_10

Oklahoma comes to Ames on Monday, January 18; the same day AP updates their NCAA rankings…

If you liked this post, give Cy-eye the Hawk-clone a try.

Stars on Earth

Sun worship is at least as old as the Great Pyramids. It’s tough to trace the development of sun deities in Egypt and other ancient cultures, and it’s even more difficult to say for certain how sun worship continues to influence modern theology, and science. Here is one of many possible depictions of Ra–apparently, the first Ancient Egyptian sun god:

ra

At some point, Ra combined with the sky god Horus:

horus

Pharaoh Akhenaten tried to streamline the Egyptian pantheon to a single god, Aten:

aten

Akhenaten was King Tut’s father. Akhenaten attempted what appears to be a revolutionary theological simplification; he even moved the ancient Egyptian capital to facilitate a complete cultural transformation. Akhenaten failed to convince his people of the need to abandon all the other deities, and after his reign, Ancient Egypt returned to a more traditional pantheon.

Sun worship wasn’t confined to the fertile crescent: Spanish conquistadors found the Aztecs paying homage their version of the sun god, Huizilopochtli. The Aztecs practiced mass human sacrifice on the conquered tribes that circumscribed their borders. It seems Huizilopochtli had a flair for ornamental fashion:

huitzilopochtli

The Aztecs apparently believed Huizilopochtli died each day at sunset evidenced by the blood stained western sky. Huizilopochtli needed large volumes of human blood to facilitate his rebirth the following morning. This is one of the more interesting theologies I’ve encountered during my slapdash study of religion, archaic and modern. Unfortunately, it’s also the most frightening:

human_sacrifice

Modern science confirms the importance of the sun. Our star makes up over 99% of the solar system’s mass. Earth’s free energy is based on photosynthesis. The calories that power human activity, initially made an eight minute journey across the vacuum of space as photons (particles of light), and then, plants converted the light into more usable energy. Eventually, that energy worked it’s way up through the food chain.

What is the sun, scientifically? The sun is one of billions of stars in our galaxy, The Milky Way. Our galaxy is one of billions in the universe. There are approximately a billion trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars in the universe. Many are similar to our sun; most are different. All stars are similar in one way: They fuse hydrogen atoms to generate even more energy; immense quantities of heat energy raise the temperature and push together hydrogen atoms.

Most observable mass in the universe is concentrated in nuclei. Hydrogen is the most common type of atom; a large portion of the universe’s mass looks something like this hydrogen atom:

hydrogenatom

Actually, it doesn’t really look anything like that, but it’s a great model that helps us predict how hydrogen behaves, which is a primary goal of science.

If we add a lot of energy to a large concentration of hydrogen, the electrons escape the nuclei creating a mixture of charged particles, positive and negative, called plasma. It’s important to recognize that a hydrogen nucleus and a proton are essentially the same thing. There are other possible nuclear arrangements for hydrogen; we call them isotopes, but most hydrogen is protium.

hydrogen_1-2-3

It’s common for hydrogen to concentrate at distant intervals in space and time. As hydrogen concentrations grow under gravitational pressure, their temperatures increase. Temperature is a measure of how fast the particles move in a substance. (The specifically correct definition of temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of the molecules of a substance, but that’s not important to discuss here.)

Protons, like all charged particles, repel other particles, or groups of particles, with positive charge. Protons exert forces on each other that keep them from “touching”each other. As the protons move faster and faster, they get closer and closer. Eventually, they move so fast that they “touch”.

Protons and neutrons inhabit the nucleus, so they are termed nucleons. Nucleons have a kind of velcro covering their surface. Do nucleons really have velcro on them? No. Nucleons don’t have surfaces the way we experience them with our senses. We’re constructing a model that will help us predict behaviors of small unseeable things, not to paint a perfect picture of subatomic particles.

The mythical velcro on nucleons creates strong attachments to other velcro covered things. The velcro represents a phenomenon called strong nuclear force (SNF). Strong as SNF may be, it has a profound weakness: like velcro, SNF has minimal reach, it only acts on other nucleons, and those nucleons must be very close. Once SNF is in play, it’s about 100 times stronger than the electro-repulsion, so it’s possible to build some rather large and complicated nuclei. SNF attracts all nucleons. Here is an image of the largest naturally occurring nucleus, Uranium-238:

u235

The weirdest thing about nucleons is that their mass changes depending on how many there are and what kind of nucleons are near. If we could–we can’t, by the way–break apart the Uranium nucleus into its 238 nucleons, they would add to a different, higher total mass. It seems this would allow the creation or destruction of mass, but it doesn’t because we know, thanks to Einstein, energy and matter are interchangeable. If there is less mass after the nucleon dispersal, then a commensurate amount of energy took its place. Mass increases require the addition of energy.

The mass of two isolated deuterium (see hydrogen isotope images above) nuclei have more mass of the same four nucleons in a helium nucleus:

helium

That means if we push two deuteriums together, energy is created to compensate for the mass lost. We can calculate the precise amount of energy released using the famous formula, E=mc². Take mass and multiply it by the speed of light, and then multiply that product by the speed of light again. Since the speed of light is a large quantity, a small amount of mass equates with much more energy.

It all sounds simple but the trick is getting enough heat energy to raise the deuterium temperature high enough so the hydrogen nuclei can get close enough for SNF to take over. That why it’s called a thermonuclear fusion; thermo means heat.

Fusion creates the tremendous release of energy in a hydrogen bomb.

fireball

That’s not a setting sun, it’s a hydrogen bomb’s rising fireball. Scientifically speaking, a hydrogen bomb is a man-made star.

Here is a video of the history’s largest artificial release of energy. The Soviet Union detonated the Tsar Bomba on October 30, 1961.

This post is the last of a three-part series; here are links the two preceding posts: The Atom Bomb Goes NuclearDoomsday Machines.

Doomsday Machines

We all love a movie about a mad scientist that creates the means to end humanity, posthaste. James Bond, for example, has faced a long line of literary megalomaniacs with apocalyptic designs.

drax2

The Star Wars Saga frequently entails a climax with selfless warriors swarming around a huge embodiment of a maligned, civilization-destroying power–“Starkiller Base” is the most current example in The Force Awakens.

starkiller

Throughout much of history, humans have only been able to imagine that level of destructive power. Now, we live not with a singular, hulking manifestation of doomsday destruction, but instead, with a proliferating and compartmentalized technology that has a similar aim. The hydrogen bomb, as it’s termed in media, could truly end human civilization or at least make those who survived a thermo-nuclear war wish humanity was finished.

It’s beyond anticlimactic to inform billions of humans that our civilization’s climax passed before most people on Earth in 2016 were even born. Oppenheimer indicated his suspicion that the apocalypse might be near when his team detonated the first “atom” bomb in a New Mexican desert. During a TV interview, he quoted an ancient Hindu text: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

It was, at the very least, an annoying grammatical construction. Originally written in Sanskrit, a nearly dead language, Oppenheimer would have struggled to find more apocalyptic words to usher in the nuclear age. Oppenheimer had the peculiar distinction of being a fluent reader of Sanskrit, so we should assume his translation is a good as it gets.

Oppenheimer didn’t trace his ancestry to South Asia–both of his parents were areligious Jewish-German immigrants to USA–but he was obviously intrigued by Vedic Theology. Oppenheimer’s statement was haunting. To make it easier for me to comprehend Oppenheimer’s words, I assume “become” is more of a noun than a verb making “become death” an embodiment as opposed to a process.

Oppenheimer was JV, or perhaps we should say a warm up for the main act, Edward Teller.

teller_edward

Teller was the principle progenitor of the Teller-Ulam configuration. Evidently, the process was first brainstormed by the famous nuclear physicist, Enrico Fermi. In the interest of keeping this explanation as simple as possible, let’s just say Teller-Ulam uses a fission bomb–media and popular culture like to call it an atom bomb–to trigger a larger fusion explosion.

The “hydrogen bomb” is an apt and precisely correct name. The fuel is hydrogen, the simplest atom. The process is challenging not in its complication, but in the energy necessary to light the fuse, so to speak. Without the mastery of fission weaponry, fusion bombs are impossible–until we have an alternative to Tellar-Ulam. To create a hydrogen bomb, just “push” a bunch of hydrogen nuclei together to form half as many helium atoms. Helium is the second simplest atom.

USA detonated Ivy Mike, the first hydrogen bomb, on November 1, 1952 near the Marshall islands.

ivy_mike

To say Ivy Mike had a ten megaton yield is meaningless to most. I might deepen your confusion if I were to say that’s the same as 10,000 kilotons. Let’s use a clarifying example: Little Boy, the fission bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was 15 kilotons.

hiroshima

Here is a video from the documentary Hiroshima that will put August 6, 1945 into a more humane perspective; it’s over eight minutes but worth the time investment.

Once again, to make it as simple as possible, Ivy Mike had the energy of nearly 667 Little Boys.

Why are fusion weapons (aka hydrogen bombs) so much more energetic than fission weapons (aka atom bombs)? It has to do with the peculiar nature of strong nuclear force and how it changes mass into energy under  certain circumstances…

If you liked this post, you might enjoy this one, too: Hunter Gatherers in the Quantum Age.

 

 

The Atom Bomb Goes Nuclear

After Little Boy exploded 600 m (2000 ft) above Hiroshima, people in the 1940’s said “USA has the atom bomb.”

ATOM BOMB

To call Little Boy an “atom” bomb wasn’t wrong but it’s not precise. Here’s a simple model of the atom with the fewest number of parts, Hydrogen.

hydrogenatom

The defining characteristic of Hydrogen is the single proton in the nucleus. Hydrogen has other isotopes–the same number of protons, different number of neutrons.

hydrogen_1-2-3

A nucleon can be a proton or a neutron. The nucleon number doesn’t affect the chemical properties of an atom; only the proton number can change how an atom interacts with other atoms. Most of the time, there are the same number of electrons “orbiting” as there are protons in the nucleus. The number of electrons determines how an atom reacts with other atoms. Essentially, chemistry is the study of how the electrons of different atoms interact. These atom interactions are commonly called chemical reactions.

Most bombs create energy from interactions between the electrons–chemical reactions–and since electrons are part of the atom: All bombs, are atom bombs.

What made Little Boy different from all the other bombs detonated throughout history? First off all, Little Boy was the second atom bomb. Trinity Test was first.

trinity

Of course, atoms were involved in the energy release during Trinity and Hiroshima, but virtually none came from electron interaction. The energy source was the nucleus.

Little Boy used a much larger atom than Hydrogen: Uranium-235 (Trinity used Plutonium, another atoms with a fissionable nucleus). Uranium’s proton number is 92; the 235 stands for the number of nucleons. If you take the number of protons and subtract it from the number of nucleons, it will give you the neutron number. Here’s a model of U-235. (This isn’t what U-235 really looks like; no one can say for certain because it’s so small that we’ll never be able to see it in the way we see a spherical collection of small balls.)

u235

It’s somewhat correct to say the atom bomb gets its energy by splitting the atom. First of all, we split the nucleus; it’s true that the electrons end up coming along in the process, but what’s taking place with the electrons is irrelevant once we start tinkering with the nucleus. We don’t really split the nucleus either. The goal isn’t to break the nucleus apart like a rack of billiard balls. What we need to do is destabilize the nucleus so it falls apart. We destabilize the nucleus by facilitating a neutron absorption to a U-235 nucleus.

u236

Protons have positive charge and neutrons are changeless. Like charges repel more strongly the closer they are to each other. In a nucleus, the protons are extremely close; they should accelerate away from each other, not maintain a tight, orderly arrangement. This is how we know there must be some other, attractive force in play. It’s called strong nuclear force (SNF). As the name indicates, SNF is quite strong: more than 100 times stronger than the repulsive forces between protons. As of now, SNF is the strongest force we know.

Adding a neutron creates U-236, an unstable nucleus that falls apart quickly. U-236 is unstable because repulsion between protons briefly gains an advantage over the SNF binding all nucleons; this drives the nucleus apart and into smaller, stabler fragments. Energy is released because the new particles move away with relatively more kinetic energy.

The explanation for where the energy comes from is abstract. SNF is so strong, and peculiar in nature, that it can change mass into energy, or energy into mass depending on the arrangement of the nucleons and the type of nuclei they form. The fission of U-236 causes a nuclear rearrangement that releases energy.

u235_fission

The fission byproducts are often unstable, radioactive. The squiggly arrows with a greek letter gamma at the heads represent gamma decay–one of three types of radioactivity. It’s these byproducts that create the infamous radiation sickness long after the blast fades.

The fission of a single nucleus doesn’t produce much energy. But if each neutron flying away from a preceding fission finds another U-235, there can be a chain reaction.

chain_reaction

There were over a billion-trillion U-235 nuclei in Little Boy. Although each nucleus was part of an atom, it’s more precise to call Little Boy a nuclear bomb because the energy arises almost exclusively from the rearrangement of nucleons and the creation of smaller nuclei.

If you liked this post, you might like this one, too: An Electron Story.