No Snark Sunday: Your Lucky Stars

At the Museum of Science in Boston there is a device that demonstrates the most important function in our universe: probability. It’s in “The Hall of Math” and is way less sexy than the tyrannosaurus or the IMAX theater, but without it neither would exist.

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It’s a simple device called a “Galton Box” or a “Bean Machine.” With a  piece of wood, some nails an a jar of marbles you could make one in less than an hour.

One simply releasees the jar of marbles at the top of the pattern of nails and the marbles ping their way down as they fall. Some ping themselves out to the sides, most ping their way down to the middle and make a neat pattern of distribution we all know as “The Bell Curve” It’s actually a demonstration of a wave of probability.

It’s so familiar to us we don’t even think about it but we know it intuitively: most of the marbles will land in the same general place, some do not. You can’t predict where any one will go, but you can safely predict where most of them will go. Every time.

Boring, right? Wrong.

When you look at something that happens consistently in the universe in a specific way you have to ask “why?” Why does it happen like that over and over? Why does probability allow us to predict how large numbers of things will interact, but never individuals? While we may never get to the exact “why” what physicists discovered in the early 20th century was even more disturbing:

Though they didn’t want to admit it, everything turned out to be a product probability waves. Everything as in you, or at least the stuff that makes up you. Nothing exists in a hard and fast way, it only tends to exist based on the chances of it being in a certain location at a particular time. Atoms are not, as most of us were taught in sixth grade,  little solar systems acting like tiny Legos, building everything up from the smallest components. The reality is at the deepest level its more like the swirling clouds of the Earth from space. It’s dynamic and fluid, with defined patterns emerging but with plenty of chaos as well.

You only exist in one place consistently because you’re made up of so much stuff (trillions of atoms) that the tendency for you to remain constant is amazingly strong. You’re the expression of an impossible-to-comprehend number of probabilities coming together at once. You’re a big pile of poker hands, doors on “The Price is Right” and scratch tickets.

Pictured: You

Pictured: You

I’m not being poetic here or weirdly metaphysical, this is hard science. Taking advantage of these principles is how computers and cell phones work. You can actually see it happening every time you go outside because a strange quirk of probability distribution powers the Sun.

The Sun, or any medium-range star, in reality does not have enough fuel to operate the way it does. As you probably know stars work because huge amounts of hydrogen clump together and when it gets all clumpy it ignites and burns. But our Sun really isn’t hot enough to sustain fusion reactions, which is the “burning” part. Fusion is basically the process of mushing stuff together to release energy. It’s so hard here on Earth to make happen we actually have to heat things to thousands of times the actual temperature of the Sun, which is a pain in the ass. Our Sun makes up for this lack of temperature by having an incredible amount of stuff, but all this matter creates a tremendous barrier of electromagnetic forces created by all those atoms upon atoms smooshing together, acting like a big repulsor, a shield to more stuff coming in.

The thing shouldn’t work. It should have burned out after only a few million years. It confused scientists for a long time.

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However, here is the trick: As we said, the Sun has an incredible amount of stuff in it. You could fit a million Earths in the Sun. It’s 98% of the mass of our solar system. So if we take our example above of the falling marbles, you can imagine that even though most of them go to the middle of the curve, there is still a substantial number who wing out to the side and do their own thing. For some of them (and this is where it gets even weirder) even the barriers of forces don’t seem to matter, they just bounce into the electromagnetic field and shoot a little puff of energy over to the other side. It’s not unlike ramming a dock with your boat, most of the energy is taken up by the boat and dock collision, but a little goes to make waves on the other side. Some of the energy passes right on through, dock notwithstanding (but in our case, there is nothing touching anything else- it’s as if the dock wasn’t even there. It’s weird, but true)

The Sun is powered by improbability.

The same sun Sun that serves as the singular reason why you and I and anything alive in this solar system exists.

It gets even weirder still, but I’ll leave it here, suffice to say that those probability waves only turn into real, hard stuff when you measure them and the ability to measure them requires a conscious observer and conscious observers only exist because there are stars like our Sun to beget them.

Let that roll around in your brain for a while.

We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us. —Neil deGrasse Tyson


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