The complexity of the eye is frequently pointed to by creationists as proof that evolution didn’t happen, because it cannot possibly have resulted in such improbably effective organs. The argument goes something like this: “Just look at this thing. I mean, come on! What the heck?”
In fact, there is a pretty decent record of the evolution of the eye, from simple light-sensitive cells to the bafflingly awesome balls of goo we’ve all got stuck into our skulls. But despite this evidence, I suppose anyone might be forgiven for being impressed.
Why do things look bigger or smaller or otherwise distorted when seen through a lens?
Lenses have been around for a very long time. This isn’t too suprising – as soon as humans starting working with glass, it’s not hard to imagine someone looking through a curved piece and noticing that it made things look strange.
The most likely uses for lenses through most of history were to see small things more clearly and to start fires. The latter use is fairly easy to understand: lenses are very good at focussing beams of light. Since we know that light tends to increase temperature, it makes sense that a highly focussed beam of light could be strong enough to start a fire.
But why does focussing rays of light make objects appear magnified?
The main reason that light has always been so hard to figure out is that it follows its own rules.
For example, we’re used to things having mass. People, ferrets, churches, very small rocks – all are made up of matter and thus do things like resist acceleration (according to Newton’s Second Law) and create gravitational fields.
Light, on the other hand, has no mass. It’s made up of… nothing, it would seem. And as a result, it neither exerts a gravitational pull on massive objects nor ever slows down.[1. Don’t get clever and tell me that light slows down when travelling through something other than a vaccuum, by the way – it’s not really slowing down, as I’ll explain eventually.]
We’re also used to dealing with waves. While solid objects run into each other and generally follow Newton’s Laws of motion, waves interfere with each other and generally don’t.
But when scientists developed the technology to look more closely at light, they found that sometimes it behaved like a wave – interfering with other light, for example – and sometimes it behaved like a particle, in that it seemed to come in countable numbers of separate objects.
Once we started to make sense of all this, we had to assign light to a whole new category – neither wave nor particle but wave-particle, something which exhibits characteristics of both. And we eventually named the light wave-particle the photon.
If you want to really understand just how weird light is, you have to imagine the perspective of someone from a long, long time ago.
Why not choose, for example, a farmer in Southeast Asia a few thousand years ago. Put yourself into the farmer’s shoes – unless this is a barefoot farmer, in which case I’m speaking only metaphorically. You’re relaxing after a long day of work. Feel the rough, scratching fabric of the shirt on your back. Feel the soft evening breeze blowing through your hair as you watch the sun set over the countryside of what is now Vietnam.
As the daylight slowly fades, what do you see? Well, if you’re a particularly perceptive farmer, the answer is: quite a lot.
Why does the sound of an ambulance or car engine seem to change as the vehicle passes by?
Why do we hear a loud bang when a supersonic jet flies by?
What does all this have to do with the Big Bang?
I’d like you to do me a favour. This is especially important if you’re in a public place, surrounded by lots of strangers.
I’d like you to imitate, out loud and at a significant volume, the sound of a racecar going by.
The noise you made probably sounded something like, “weeeeeeeeEEEEEOOOOOOOooooo”. It’s a fairly common sound effect, one most people can perform even if they’ve never attended a car race. But why does it sound like that? Why does the car’s engine go from a higher pitch to a lower one as it passes us by?
Can you shatter a wine glass just by singing at it?
In the same way that it must be illegal to talk about buoyancy without telling the story of Archimedes and the crown, everyone who teaches resonance brings up the Tacoma Narrows Bridge at one point or another.
This is probably because there is some cool old black-and-white footage of the bridge swaying and rippling impossibly in a stiff breeze, as follows:
It’s clear from the video that this was a windy day, but not tornado-windy. So what made the bridge move like that?
How do multiple sound sources mix together to form one sound signal?
Why does a flute sound different than a piano?
The well-known Zen koan asks: if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If you’re ok with the idea of not reaching enlightenment just now, physics can give a rather bland answer to the question.
Sound is nothing more than vibrating air. When you speak, for example, your vocal cords are moving rapidly back and forth, striking air molecules with every forward motion. These first few molecules rush forwards until they run into other molecules, at which point they collide and move back, repeating the cycle. This vibration spreads and moves through the air as a wave, causing molecules in all directions to begin vibrating. At some point, the air near someone else’s ear might vibrate as well, and the wave will travel the short distance down the ear canal until it reaches the eardrum (or ‘tympanic membrane’, which sounds much more official).
There’s a story I heard somewhere – I have no idea whether it’s true or not, but I like it anyway. The story is that a group of people somewhere in the world developed a language that had an interesting way of referring to water waves. Instead of pointing at the ocean and saying, “Hey look, there’s a wave,” they would point at the ocean and say, “There is waving.”
If this is a true story, two things are possible: the first is that these people disliked the expression “Hey look,” and the other is that the speakers of this language understood wave behaviour much better than most.
The reason “waving” is more appropriate than “a wave” is that waves are best understood not as objects but as actions. A water wave, for example, isn’t a thing in many senses of the word – it is definitely not solid, it may have a beginning but often lacks a clearly definable end, and it can’t be picked up and separated from the water it’s made of.
There is a secret about waves. It is the kind of secret that, if you fully understand it and its implications, may well blow your mind and leave you scribbling paranoid manifestos on attic walls.
Or worse, you might only think you understand this secret, and go off and make some horrible and misleading movie like What The Bleep Do We Know[1. Just don’t even bother googling it, seriously.] based on your flawed understanding.
It is the kind of secret that has a lot in common with some of the best conspiracy theories: it’s far-fetched and far-reaching, and for many years it attracted only a small handful of dedicated believers trying in vain to convince everyone else that it was true.
In my physics undergrad, we had one prof who seemed a bit strange. Actually, being only a bit strange seems something of an accomplishment for a physics professor, as most of them ran the gamut from odd to unintelligibly bizarre. But the one I’m talking about here was a younger guy who taught us about … Read more