42: A personal confession (part 1/4)

I have a confession to make: I suck at maths. Alright. Fair enough. Here’s why clicking that link may have given you a slightly awkward feeling: I’ve got a Ph.D. in physics.

Getting there was quite the interesting journey.

Imagine yourself a freshman at university, taking courses in Engineering Management. High school still well within memory, of course, you find out that you are the only student who is younger than thirty years of age. It took me longer than I care to admit to realise that I would be better off doing something else. I decided to do so.

Fine. But what to do? I’d been successful at high school with the following thought: I’ll major in physics and maths. That’s what I don’t know how to do, so I can learn the most. I repeated that line of thought after deciding to quit what I considered to be a geriatric class of elders. At the time. I’m older now than most of them were then. The point is: I started studying physics.

Goes to show how stupid logic can be sometimes.

See, when I showed up in Tübingen in Germany to study physics, I ended up being the only one in my class without a study group at the end of the first semester. As Kevin (not his real name) told me once: You don’t fit here — either, as I am wont to add almost automatically.

I wasn’t enough of a genius, I guess.

Still, I decided to give it a shot. After all, how often was I going to change studies? To boot, I was interested in how nature worked. I did want to learn. I just wasn’t very good at physics and maths — and I felt that that wasn’t an excuse to stop. Still, I needed something to keep me going during those, er, dark years.

Enter “42”. The amazingly accurate answer to life, the universe and everything.

I can’t say that I know everything. What little I know about life, I try to use as well as possible to make every day count. The universe, though! I could at least attempt to get a hold of the universe. Yes, there was a bit of subconscious hubris in that thought.

Here is how we, as of today, think the universe works:

1280px-CMB_Timeline300_no_WMAP
Source and credit: NASA and WMAP science team (click here)

In the beginning, there was I-dunno-what. As the universe came to be, it expanded rather faster than anything you could ever imagine. It didn’t bang, though. “The radiation expanded and cooled” as the saying goes.

When things cool, stuff happens. Mostly, we know this from, for example, water becoming ice, but it’s just as applicable to things like radiation turning into matter because things aren’t quite as hot as they used to be. With time, lots of time, things cooled down enough for matter to not just exist but bond into something like the universe we see today. There’s a lot of science, and story I might add, bound up in this, and you can read more about it here. It’s all a bit weird, to be honest.

Scientists check what may be false, and need reasons to think something may be true: The Big Bang theory predicts the so-called redshift. We found the redshift. It also predicts something called cosmic background radiation, and we found that, too. But then, of course, there is dark matter.

Exploring dark matter and what it may or may not be, I found myself confronted with, of all things, particle physics. If you want to know where stuff comes from, you always end up with particle physics.

Which would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that we talk, you know, particle physics. Just look at this diagram:

WhatParticle3
Source and credits: Sean Carroll (click here).

Oh, man…

…to be continued.

Now read this:  42: A personal confession (part 2/4)


© 2018 Alexander Biebricher All Rights Reserved
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