Thursday, September 20, 2012

19th century simplified REALITY but 20th century "complexed it up" again ....

photo of actual ATOMS
At the beginning of the 19th century, most people saw Reality as made up of literally millions of different kinds of objects : from all the species and types of animals to all the different kinds of minerals and rocks to all the different types of weather events.

By the end of the 19th century, they all knew that all of Reality was fundamentally simple : made up of no more than about 80 different, elemental, building blocks called atoms of elements.

19th century : reality complex and unstable at macro level, stable and eternal at atomic micro level.

The surface complexity and instability of wood rotting to humus and rocks eroding to clay was merely an illusion - Reality, at the basic level was simple and stable.

These relatively few elements and atoms were permanent and eternal and universal : they couldn't be created or destroyed - merely arranged and re-arranged in an endless variety of patterns to create all the old world that Nature created and all the coming new world that Man's mind could invent.

Chemistry became the new Queen of Science and chemists saw their job as stripping Reality down into 80 (100% pure) basic building blocks and reassembling those blocks in interesting new ways.

Nature's attempts, they said, often failed because her "pure compounds" really ended up as "impure mixtures".

But under Man's command, purity was real, desirably and obtainable.

Purity became the chemists' - and the Age of Modernity's - Holy grail.

This thought became a basic meme of High School and undergraduate education by the 1890s (and is still with us 125 years later).

But ironically, cutting edge science began to feel it simply wasn't true by those same 1890s , a feeling that grew ever stronger among researchers in the basic sciences as the 20th century played itself out.

But their new knowledge failed to make it inside the door of the high school Chem Lab and still hasn't - and the resulting cognitive break between what we are taught and what is true is literally killing our planet.

We still act like we can easily control Reality for fun and profit ; Climate Change suggests we can't.

High School teachers, whether they know it or not - accept it or not - are killing us all.

On Earth, post Peak Oil, we may feel that Matter (all the soil and rock of this solid planet) is abundant and Energy is scarce, but in the total universe, the reverse is true.

Day to day ordinary matter is actually very scarce and most of the Universe seems to consist of ordinary energy, dark energy and dark matter.

Only under a relatively rare set of conditions does some of that energy become the stable atoms of  80 or so stable elements we know of on Earth.

20th century: Reality unstable at micro level, is most stable in appearance, at the macro level.

Underneath the elements ( which turn out to be composites or mixtures not at all elemental : think isotopic mixtures), are hundreds and hundreds of weird building blocks that may only exist under unbelievably extreme conditions and even then only for a trillionth of a second.

Reality, at the fundamental level turns out to be anything but simple and stable.

Even Earth's semingly stable elements are not in fact stable - while some will outlast the expected life time of the Universe , others are quite willing to break up into smaller more stable atoms and elements (think of uranium).

Day to day Iron is ever ready to rust away at the drop of a hat, but as an element, it is very reluctant to break up via natural radioactivity and so is the most stable of all the elements.

It is plunk in the middle of the periodic table in effect : too big to be easily mashed into a bigger element, too small to easily break apart into smaller elements.

So purity is absolute only as a mental construct ---- nothing in the world is 100% pure for very long : even those bars of metal in vacuum in Paris that represent the mass of a kilogram are no longer pure - they have seen some of their atoms spontaneously self destruct into smaller atoms and a bit of loose energy ; ie they now weigh LESS than a kilogram !

Purity and stability fundamentally are blue sky scientific illusions ; all matter and energy is in a state of constant eternal flux - down at the level of the basic building blocks of atoms and elements.

Surprisingly, as ordinary non-scientists, ie for the bulk of us, stability is best found away from basic science of the chemists and found instead in the geologists' lumps of minerals we see everywhere .

True they will eventually become soil and wash into the sea - but not in our's or our great great grandchildren's lifetimes.

At the macro level, we don't see a big piece of a mineral as slowly but steadily changing into something else at the individual atom (micro) level and we can enjoy thinking of it as stable enough for us and our purposes ---- to use as a building material for a 'permanent' monument for example.

Reality, under the Second Law of thermodynamics, turns out to be stable and simple at the macro level but unstable and chaotic at the fundamental building block level - a surprising and total reverse of what the First Law of thermodynamics taught the 19th century chemists .....

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