A Seinfeld Universe

What’s the deal with the universe? That’s a question comedian Jerry Seinfeld might well posit in one of his stand-up performances. It came from nothing, it goes back to nothing and in between the coming and going there’s a whole lot of nothing. Seinfeld became immortalized by the eponymous sitcom that famously billed itself as “a show about nothing.” Of course, from that show about nothing sprang a cornucopia of expressions that have become part of the lingua franca – re-gifter, sideler, close-talker, man-hands, master-of-my-own-domain, yada, yada yada. And out of the nothingness from which the universe sprang we got – well – the universe! From the infinite-to-the-infinitesimal, when it comes to actual material stuff, the universe truly is much ado about nothing.

From a good observational point on a clear starry night take a look up into the sky and consider all those billions and billions of stars that so entranced Carl Sagan. Then consider the following. Collectively, all those billions and billions of stars account for about five-percent of the composition of the universe. Through observation of gravitational effects, we know there’s another 25-percent of the universe made up of material stuff we are not yet able to “see” or detect and we have dubbed this invisible stuff as “dark matter.” As for the rest of outer space, that great black cosmos, when it comes to stuff, the universe has got nothing.

But it gets worse. If you paid any attention at all in your high school science classes – and I do mean any attention – you know that all us and the world we live are made up of atoms, the smallest bits of matter that have chemical properties. And if you paid slightly more attention then you know that atoms consist of a central nucleus made up of one or more positively-charged protons and possibly one or more charge-less neutrons, and that this nucleus is orbited by negatively charged electrons. Even if you did not know that before, now you do. What high school science classes seldom make clear is how much nothing there is inside of atoms. Let’s take a look at the simplest and smallest type of atom – hydrogen. Its nucleus consists of a single proton that is orbited by a single electron. If you were to create a scale-model of a hydrogen atom, and you personally represented the proton in the nucleus of that hydrogen atom, then your electron would be represented by a pea and it would be located approximately 13 miles away from you. In between you and your electron would be nothing.

Think about a time you met someone and came away thinking to yourself what an empty person that was. You were spot-on! But be careful about throwing bricks from your glass house. The physicist Brian Greene once calculated that if all the empty space in the atoms that make up a human body were removed – that is the space between the nucleus and the electrons of those atoms – every human being on the planet today could fit inside a teacup with room to spare. I think we can all agree that’s a lot of nothing. And don’t even get me started on all the nothing  inside protons and neutrons, which are essentially hollow bags consisting of three quarks and (more than half) empty space.

So much empty space begs the question as to why we aren’t like ghosts, spectral beings able to pass through the so-called solid objects in what is itself essentially a phantom world? To answer that question we must turn to quantum mechanics, but don’t worry, there’s no math involved and there won’t be a quiz. First, the picture of the universe inside the atom that most high school science classes present is one in which a small moon-like electron orbits a larger planet-like nucleus. This simplistic picture is shown to avoid quantum mechanics for reasons that will soon become obvious.

The universe inside the atom is not at like the macroscopic universe that we and our planet move through. An electron is a fermion, a particle of matter that also acts as if it were a wave. When we talk about an electron’s orbit, we’re talking about a discrete region of space away from the nucleus that is occupied by that wave. Because of the negative electrical charge carried in that wave, no other electron can occupy that same orbit at the same time. The rule is called the Pauli Exclusion Principle after Wolfgang Pauli, the Austrian physicist who discovered it in 1925. This discrete region of space occupied by an electron wave is defined by its energy (which can have an upper and lower limit) and by the attraction between the negative electrical charge of the electron and the positive charge of the nucleus.

Rather than one or more moons orbiting a planet, the picture inside an atom is more akin to a nucleus with a staircase made up of energy steps, each which may be occupied by a single electron. Under the rules of quantum mechanics, for any given energy step, an electron can physically be anywhere and everywhere on that step at once. Even if that doesn’t make sense from the macroscopic world our senses are engineered to perceive, the important thing to know is that no other electron can be on that step except for that one electron. Hence that energy step for that electron in that atom and every energy step for every electron in every atom in the universe is as “solid” as the earth beneath your feet.

This brings us back to the original question: What’s the deal with the universe? Is it really about nothing? Of course not. There’s something there alright and it’s HUGE. Before talking about that huge something I would like to refer you back to an earlier blog in which I discussed the meaning of the word “theory” and how scientists and the general public use the word in two very different senses. When most of us talk about “empty” space we mean that it is void of matter, which is defined as anything that has mass and takes up physical space. In science, however, thanks to Albert Einstein, we know that mass and energy are interchangeable, two sides of the same coin. So when we say that matter, both the matter we can see and dark matter comprise about 30-percent of the space in the universe, the rest of it is not actually empty but filled with energy.

Some of this energy, such as the energy produced from the thermonuclear burning of the sun and other stars, is intertwined with matter, but the energy that makes up the remaining 70-percent of the universe is a mystery that has been dubbed “dark energy.” This so-called dark energy acts as a sort of anti-gravitational force that accelerates the rate at which the space of our universe is expanding. The discovery of dark energy was announced at the start of 1998 by two teams, the Supernova Cosmology Project head by Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (my day-time employer) and High-z Supernova Search Team led by Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess. The three men shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery. No one knows what dark energy is but an awful lot of scientists are doing their best to figure it out because the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. But that’s another story.


It’s Just a Theory – Not!

During any given week, someone on a television show will be asked about the perpetration of a crime or some other mysterious act and in response will utter words to the effect of “I’ve got a theory about that.” What the person will mean is that he or she has a suspicion, a hunch, a guess based on little if any physical evidence. When scientists talk about a theory, they are talking about something entirely different.

I have a suspicion/hunch/guess that so many in the general public are so easily mislead on issues concerning climate change and evolution because they do not understand what the term “theory” means in science. My guess is that their understanding of the term “theory” comes from watching TV crime shows because most of them also seem to give far more weight to the term “law.” They don’t question the “law of gravity” as they do the “theory of evolution.” By this measure, since Newton’s ideas about gravity are expressed as a “law” and Einstein’s ideas are expressed as the “theory” of general relativity, Newton’s ideas must have been proven to be superior. But that’s not how it works in science, where for all intents and purposes, theories trump laws!

I think one of the major failings of science over the centuries has been its conscription of terms that are very much a part of the common vernacular but are put to use by scientists in completely different context. When scientists use the term “theory,” they are talking about an explanation of observed physical phenomena, facts, an explanation that fits all physical evidence and has been vetted over and over again. Most importantly, it is an explanation that has been successfully used to predict new observations and evidence. Contrast this to a “law,” which is a description of a well-observed phenomenon, and a “hypothesis,” which is probably the term that most closely approximates a guess, but a guess that is highly educated and based on observations and evidence. Some in the scientific community would dispute my equating a hypothesis with an educated guess and would argue that it, like a theory, is an explanation of a narrowly defined phenomenon.

This is not to say that scientific theories are set in stone. In the face of new and verified observations and evidence, theories can be refined or in some cases even discarded altogether. However, the longer a theory stands the test of time and repeated challenges, and the greater the number of new observations and evidence it has successfully predicted or explained, then the stronger that theory becomes. Let us take, as a prime example, the theory of evolution. This has become the favored punching bag of politicians who are either scornfully ignorant or shamelessly cynical. With a general public that was better informed, these politicians would be exposed and dismissed as the charlatans they are.

Since Charles Darwin set sail in 1831 on the HMS Beagle, and published in 1859 On the Origin of Species, scientists have made discoveries and advances in genetics and molecular biology that this extremely modest and unassuming English naturalist could not possibly have imagined. Darwin based his explanation of evolution most famously on his observations of finches in the Galapagos Islands, focusing primarily on how different species had adapted differently shaped beaks in response to different environmental pressures. Today, scientists can compare the DNA that comprises the human genome to the DNA that makes up the genomes of chimpanzees, mice and numerous other vertebrates. Through such comparisons, they can determine with remarkable precision when two different species last shared a common ancestor. For example, based on the number and location of conserved DNA sequences, mice and humans last shared a common ancestor about 75 million years ago. Humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor as recently as six million years ago. No surprise then that the human and chimpanzee genomes are 98-percent identical (the dramatic differences arise from how and when the genes are turned on/off and the combinations in which two or more genes act together).

Yet, despite the rigorous challenges that modern science has brought to bear on Darwin’s theory, the old naturalist’s original explanation of evolution has held up surprisingly well and is universally accepted by the entire scientific community. The slogan often bandied about by those ignorant and/or cynical politicians I mentioned a moment ago reads: “Teach the controversy!” There is no controversy. The notion that there exists an ongoing scientific controversy regarding the theory of evolution is a fiction fabricated and deployed to exploit the uninformed. Why would anyone foster such a fraud? For the same two reasons most frauds are fostered – political or monetary gain.

This leads me to a few words about “creationism,” but only a few as this blog is about science. Creationism is neither a theory, a hypothesis nor a law. It does not offer an explanation of observed phenomenon or physical evidence, nor does it describe any observations or evidence. It cannot be used to predict new observations or the discovery of new evidence. Creationism, and its twin-by-another-name, “intelligent design,” attributes the world in which we live to the actions of a supernatural being. End of story. There is no way to test the validity of this idea nor is there any need to conduct such test for no further understanding is necessary. The supernatural being did what the supernatural being did and that is all you or anyone else needs to know. Forget this trying to understand stuff and go do something useful – like mow the lawn or clean your house.

Let’s be honest. If you remove the religious element from creationism, what you have is magic. The idea of a supernatural being creating the universe and Earth within the past 10,000 years is as whimsical as the idea of a rabbit that once a year hides color-dyed chicken eggs for children to find, or an overweight elderly white man in a red suit delivering presents to those same children a few months later.

I have stones in my backyard that are more than 10,000 years old (radiometric dating of terrestrial and lunar rocks puts the age of Earth at approximately 4.5 billion years) but hey, it’s magic right? And when it comes to magic there are no rules and logic takes a holiday. I can see the appeal of magic because it is easy – all you have to do is believe. The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously noted that to a society of primitives, advanced technology will seem like magic. Apparently in a society of advanced technology, there will always be those members who prefer to stick with magic and remain primitives.

Global Climate Change and Barry Bonds

Any politician who tells you that global climate change is a hoax is either willfully ignorant or deliberately lying. Politicians have staff and one of the tasks for any politician’s staff is to get the facts on issues of importance to that politician. How the politician chooses to deal with those facts – accept, ignore or hide them – is another matter. Any Congressional staffer doing even the most rudimentary – bare bones – investigation into the science behind global climate change will learn the following.

Fact: Carbon atoms are the fourth most abundant element in the universe and the basis of life as we know it. As atoms go, carbon is also somewhat of a slut, an electron donor with four electrons available to form strong chemical bonds with any receptor atom that will  have it.

Fact: A carbon atom is happy to engage with multiple partners, most notoriously with two atoms of oxygen to form a molecule of carbon dioxide.

Fact: The carbon dioxide molecule by virtue of the energy and architecture of its electronic bonds is a voracious heat-trap. When infrared photons (heat) strike a carbon dioxide molecule, more of those photons will be absorbed than will pass through.

Fact: Carbon dioxide is a molecule with impressive staying power. About 20-percent of all the carbon dioxide molecules emitted into the atmosphere this year will still be there 800 years from now.

Fact: While carbon dioxide is a natural part of Earth’s atmosphere, it is naturally only a tiny part of the atmosphere. There’s just enough natural carbon dioxide to keep the atmosphere – like the porridge that Goldilocks ate – not too hot and not too cold. At the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, carbon dioxide made up about 0.028-percent of the atmosphere.

Fact: Today carbon dioxide makes up .039-percent of the atmosphere – a 28-percent increase since the Industrial Revolution launched an aerial carbon dioxide assault.

Fact: Human activity since the Industrial Revolution has released nearly one trillion tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels.

Fact: Half of this amount was added in the last 30 years.

Fact: Earth’s average global temperature has risen by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) since the start of the 20th Century.

Fact: Most of this increase took place since 1980.

Fact: The difference between the average global temperature today and the last Ice Age is about 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius)

Put all the facts together and do the math. It does not require a super-computer to determine the following: When you release a huge volume of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the atmosphere will heat up. It’s not politics, it’s chemistry.

What happens when the atmosphere rises to unnaturally high temperatures – the track we are currently on? Weather patterns change. You can think of it as weather on steroids or the Barry Bonds analogy. For those who do not follow sports, Barry Bonds was a professional baseball player, one of the best of his generation. Early in his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, his physique was sinewy and lean, like a panther. He hit 34 homeruns at the age of 28 in his best season at Pittsburgh. By 2001, he was playing for the San Francisco Giants and he was 36 years old, an age at which most professional athletes are well into decline. He had the physique of a grizzly bear and his head was the size of a watermelon. Just about everyone, including his ex-wife, believed he was taking steroids. That year he crushed 73 homeruns, the most ever by anyone in a single season and more than twice as many as when he was in his athletic prime. Did Barry Bonds hit homeruns before he allegedly took steroids? Yes. But after he allegedly took steroids, the homeruns became a much more frequent occurrence and many of them were titanic – “tape-measure” shots. That’s what happens to weather as the atmosphere continues to heat up. Storms of the century appear two or three times a decade, 40-year floods become annual events, the freakish becomes the norm.

What all of this means is that if we do nothing to dramatically slow down the rate at which our activities are spewing carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, our grandchildren might very well be seeing Christmas cards showing Santa at the North Pole sunning himself in a canoe. My former boss, the Nobel laureate Steve Chu, who at the writing of this post is the Secretary of Energy, used to draw the analogy between global climate change and the electrical wiring of a house. “If experts told you that over the next ten years, there’s a 50-50 chance your electrical wiring will catch fire and burn down your house,” Chu used to ask, “would you change the wiring or take your chances?”

Experts are telling us that over the next few decades, and maybe sooner, our carbon dioxide emissions will reach a tipping point and the Earth is going to become a different planet. What are we going to do about it? When my daughters were growing up, I told them that people change their ways for one of two reasons: They want to, or they have to. Politicians know what you want to hear and that’s what most of them will tell you. Scientists don’t care what you want to hear, they’ll present you with the best available data and the best available data on global climate change and the burning of fossil fuels says this: We have to change our ways.







About Scientists and the Shoulders of Giants

All discussions about science must at some point include some mention of those who are doing the science. We call these individuals “scientists.” There have been times during my career when I’ve felt like an anthropologist who has been set down in some remote location to observe a strange and most exotic tribe of humans. While this tribe shares many of the same phenotypical characteristics displayed by the rest of us, there are some characteristics that seem to be genetically hardwired into those who choose science as a career path. It is this special “scientist DNA” that drives some scientists into becoming diabolical lunatics hell-bent on world domination, and others to unleash some unspeakable creation that will force the rest of us to bow down in acknowledgement of their magnificence. It is this same unique DNA that causes scientists to go “BWAHAHAHA!” when they laugh.


For those of us who actually interact with scientists the notion that any of them would dream of being master of the world is absurd. The best scientists are so focused on their research they’re scarcely aware of the world outside of that work. True story: I once interviewed one the world’s foremost experts on fusion energy and when I dropped a casual reference to Star Trek, he asked: “What’s Star Trek?”

As for unleashing monsters that destroy the world as we know it, scientists live in the same world, if everybody’s gone who will provide for them? Scientists are notoriously poor hunters and gatherers and not so much at constructing shelters either. Has a scientist ever been featured on any of the Survivor television shows? Trust me, scientists are smart enough to know that in a world reduced to a primal state of existence, mesomorphs rule!

Also, contrary to what some in the political and theological arenas might have you believe, scientists are not self-congratulatory know-it-alls conspiring to wreck the socio-economic and moral fiber of human civilization. For one thing conspiracies require secrecy and scientists are notoriously bad at keeping secrets. Also conspiracies are usually spawned by cabals and scientists are notoriously non-cabalistic. They’re so absorbed in their work they’d forget to attend cabal meetings or pay their dues.

Finally, in 40 years of interviewing scientists, I have never heard a single “BWAHAHAHA!”

What I can tell you from personal experience is that scientists come in all shapes, sizes and dispositions. Some are deeply political (liberal and conservative), some are deeply religious, and some not so much on either of those topics. There are affable and empathetic individuals who seek human contact and interpersonal relationships, like the Leonard Hofstadter character on the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory, and there are those like the Sheldon Cooper character in that series, who would not know what a TV sitcom is and could care less that you  exist. As in all walks of life, the majority fall somewhere in between.

Some characteristics, however, are common to all the best scientists. They are obsessive and compulsive about their work and unflinchingly honest about the results they report because they have to be. Scientists seek to understand the rules of nature by asking questions and acquiring answers. They are like detectives only they don’t stop at who done it, they want to know why and how it was done and could it be done again only better. They propose answers based on a rigorous investigative method involving testing and analysis. These proposed answers are then made public for others to study and either refute or build-upon. This takes courage.

No one is tougher on a scientist than other scientists. Scientists do not want opinions, they want knowledge and personal feelings are seldom if ever spared in that quest. In that respect, science is a blood sport. When you publish research results that might represent years – maybe even a lifetime – of work to the intense scrutiny of your peers, the data will stand or fall on its own merits, but your interpretation of that data will be subject to challenges that may never go away. Every new question brings answers that not only raise new questions but sometimes resurrect old questions thought to have been settled. King Sisyphus and his boulder had nothing on science.

Finally, while those in the sciences are always loath to speak in absolutes, I can unequivocally tell you there are no dummy scientists. There are certainly naïve scientists and even more certainly there are arrogant and unjustifiably vain scientists, but dumb-bells need not apply. Science does not allow for frauds and poseurs, all such individuals are inevitably exposed and discarded into the bin of irrelevancy.

This is not true in the political and theological arenas from where the strongest critics of science and scientists seem to hail. I acknowledge that there are smart – even brilliant – politicians and theologians on the scene today, but there are also a great many individuals in both of these arenas that have proven themselves to be dumber than a bag of nails. Unfortunately, these individuals seem to draw the most attention from members of the media, an arena in which many of its members make those nails in a bag look smart (see Fox News).

Few scientists ever get rich. Even fewer get famous. But  every scientist who does get rich and famous owes some measure of their fortune and fame to the knowledge accumulated by many other scientists who came before them. As Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists in history, once wrote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

(Photo of JBEI scientists by Roy Kaltschmidt)