The Space Between the Stars

This image was selected as a picture of the we...
This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Farsi Wikipedia for the 8th week, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Space is big. The Voyager spacecraft (Voyager I and II) were launched in 1977 and are, forty years later, only just entering interstellar space. Though the exact point at which space becomes “interstellar” is debatable.

The Voyagers will take 40,000 years or so to reach one of the stars in the “local” group. That’s about one fifth of the time that humans have existed as a separate species. Or 400 times as long as the length of time that a human is able to live. If a generation is around 20 years long, that is about 2,000 generations. It is a long, long time, and we may well be extinct as a species by then, for one reason or another.

English: Diagram of the Voyager spacecrafts wi...
English: Diagram of the Voyager spacecrafts with labels pointing to the important instruments and systems. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “local group” of stars is an arbitrary group of stars which are (relatively) close to the Sun. I’m unsure whether they really constitute a group of bodies bound by gravity or whether they are close to the sun by chance. Of course if any of the stars in the local group are bound by gravity, then the stars would form a binary or multiple star system.

Of course, our star and all the others in the local group are part of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Specifically we are part of one of the arms of the Milky Way, which is a spiral galaxy. All stars in the Milky Way are bound by gravity, with the possible exception of stars which are merely passing through the Milky Way at this time.

English: Using infrared images from NASA's Spi...
English: Using infrared images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, scientists have discovered that the Milky Way’s elegant spiral structure is dominated by just two arms wrapping off the ends of a central bar of stars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just like stars, galaxies seem to form groups, which then form super-groups and so on. All these structures are several orders of magnitude larger than the prior smaller ones, are more complex and contain more matter.

The majority of space however is just space. The gaps between the bits of matter, stars, systems, galaxies, groups and so on contain almost nothing, or a seething sea of virtual particles depending on how you look at it.

Map of the Local Group of Galaxies
Map of the Local Group of Galaxies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “almost nothing” consists of a very small number of particles (usually hydrogen atoms or nuclei, protons) in a cubic metre. For comparison the best vacuum that can be created on Earth may contain several million atoms in that volume. This of the same order of magnitude as molecular clouds as observed by astronomers. Molecular clouds are among the densest clouds observed in space.

The stars, planets, asteroids and similar bodies comprise only a very small part of the Universe and the average density of the Universe is much the same as the density of empty space. In other words, the Voyagers are heading into areas where the conditions are more typical of the Universe than those around our star.

Voyager 1 is currently within the heliosheath ...
Voyager 1 is currently within the heliosheath and approaching interstellar space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I mentioned virtual particles earlier. While virtual particles show up as short-lived particles that briefly come into existence in some particle interactions, the virtual particles that I refer to come into existence in a vacuum as pairs and almost immediately mutually annihilate. Though they do not interact with other matter, they do have an effect which can be measured.

Mathematicians have a different concept of space. In mathematics space is a (usually) three dimensional construct that serves merely to separate and give structure to such things as points, lines, planes, volumes and shapes. Point A is distinguished from point B by the distance between them and also the orientation of a line joining them.

In a simple case every point has (usually) three coordinates which define its position relative to some fixed point or origin and fixed coordinate system. The coordinate system can be any system that locates the point.

For instance, you can describe the point A’s position as “Face along a given axis, rise up until you are level with point A. The distance moved up is one coordinate. Rotate left through an angle until a line parallel to the plane you rose up from passes from you through the point A. The angle you turned through is the second coordinate. The third coordinate is the distance along the line from you to the point.

English: 3D spherical polar coordinates
English: 3D spherical polar coordinates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve described a cylindrical coordinate system, but the coordinate system may be any system that gives three unique (in that system) coordinates for point A. A common system is the Cartesian system of three mutual perpendicular axes. Another is the spherical system, defined by two angles and a distance.

Of course, such systems can be generalised to more dimensions or fewer, depending on the needs of the mathematician. Most people can understand simple two dimensional graphs which are usually drawn using a two dimensional Cartesian coordinate system.

English: Diagram showing relationship between ...
English: Diagram showing relationship between polar and rectangular coordinates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course scientists use mathematical models for various purposes. For instance the scientist may wish to know the probability of one hydrogen atom in the interstellar space meeting another such molecule. Since we have only about one such atom in every cubic metre, the probability is going to be small, but, of course, we can assume as lone a time period as we wish.

Gravity has to be figured in, to be sure, but a long time will be required for such atoms to collide. If the atoms are by chance moving slowly relative to each other, they may stick together and form the basis of a particle of matter. Such a clump might attract other atoms and before long (well actually after literally an astronomical length of time) a star will form.

The trajectories that enabled Voyager spacecra...
The trajectories that enabled Voyager spacecraft to visit the outer planets and achieve velocity to escape our solar system (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It must have happened otherwise we would not be here. We are the result of matter aggregating and then exploding. All the atoms in our bodies that are not hydrogen were made in the centres of stars. The stars have to have exploded to allow these atoms to end up in our bodies.

A long time has passed since the birth of the Universe. In that time matter has crept together hydrogen atom by hydrogen atom until great collections of atoms have compressed in the centre to the point where nuclear reactions have occurred. Hydrogen fused to helium, then to heavier elements all the way up to Uranium.

Ball-and-stick model of the haem a molecule as...
Ball-and-stick model of the haem a molecule as found in the crystal structure of bovine heart cytochrome c oxidase. Histidine residues coordinating the iron atom are coloured pink to distinguish them from haem a. Colour code: Carbon, C: grey-black Hydrogen, H: white Nitrogen, N: blue Oxygen, O: red Iron, Fe: blue-grey Structure by X-ray crystallography from PDB 1OCR, Science (1998) 280, 1723-1729. Image generated in Accelrys DS Visualizer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At which point the stars have exploded throwing all the elements out into the Universe. These elements then crept together again to produce new stars like our sun and gaseous and rocky planets orbiting them. Prior to this there were no rocky planets and no life. We live in the Universe Mark II.

NGC 1531
NGC 1531 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water, the cause of surfing.

English: Environmental Science student samplin...
English: Environmental Science student sampling water from a stream. Picture courtesy of Environmental Science program at Iowa State University. ( (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I came across one of those pages on the Internet which state something like “At least a few molecules of the water in your body probably passed through the kidneys of Julius Caesar“. They generally use statistics to show that what they are saying is true.

Only those who believe in homeopathy should be disturbed by this. To anyone else, a molecule of water is a molecule of water, and the fact that it had once been contained in a stream of urine is irrelevant. In any case it is too late. 60% of our body is made up of water, so water from Caesar’s urine is already in us.

Julius Caesar, Summer garden, Saint-Petersburg
Julius Caesar, Summer garden, Saint-Petersburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water is a fascinating chemical. It carries stuff around as it is the basis for blood and lymph and all the other fluids of our bodies. It carries nutrients up the stems of plants. It wears away mountains and builds rocks, it cools lava to form other rocks. It brings nutrients to our crops and washes them away. It even sinks ships.

“You are water
I’m water
we’re all water in different containers
that’s why it’s so easy to meet
someday we’ll evaporate together.”
― Yoko Ono

It’s difficult to think of any occurrence in our familiar world which is not mediated or affected by water in some way. Shortage of water to a society is a disaster, as food cannot be produced, leading to famine and deaths.

Much of the western U.S. is in "extreme d...
Much of the western U.S. is in “extreme drought” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water is thought by most people to be liquid at usual temperatures, though there are some places where it is to be found in solid form. Actually there is a great deal of it around in the gaseous phase, or vapour. We measure this airborne water in terms of the humidity or wetness of the air.

Water is extraordinarily pervasive and can be found in all the nooks and crannies in the materials that we have around us. It acts as a lubricate, and if the water is driven off, by heating or chemical means things become stiff and fragile. Even so, water cannot be completely removed from things – even a diamond probably has a few entrapped water molecules.

Water molecules attaching to each other by hyd...
Water molecules attaching to each other by hydrogen bonds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water plays a role in rotting things down. A corpse kept in a very dry environment desiccates and turns leathery and fragile. I guess that this is because the organisms that rot a body away cannot function in a water free environment.

A body of liquid water fills things from the bottom up. Gravity pulls the water down to the lowest parts of a container and water continues to layer the container. The surface appears to be flat, but that is an illusion. At a small scale, if a tiny bit of the water happens to be higher than the rest of the water, gravity will pull it down, while the other water molecules resist by being in the way.

English: Dilmah - photo by me on today.
English: Dilmah – photo by me on today. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eventually as the water stills, the differences in level even out, and the water surface becomes as level as it can. However, at the molecular level, molecules of water, which are moving relatively fast on these scales, can pop out of the liquid and float away. Other molecules can also pop in to the liquid, so that on average the water is level.

Why doesn’t the surface appear blurry and ill defined then? Well we can’t see at the molecular scale, and also the water molecules form weak electrical bonds with each other. A water droplet is like a large crowd of people all milling about, holding hands much of the time. Those on the outside are not as tightly bound as those further in.

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Imagine now that the crowd is surrounded by a storm of people who are moving faster, and are more spread out so they rarely join hands. One of these gaseous people will now and then bump into the crowd. They may knock loose one of the crowd who will shoot off and become one of the gaseous people, while gaseous person who hit him may now be travelling more slowly and link up with the crowd.

Even in the macro world a water surface is rarely really flat. The dynamic nature of the flatness is apparent when a container is jolted slightly and tiny waves form on the surface as compression waves disturb it. Wind and rain also cause visible disturbances in a lake or pond.

Surface waves
Surface waves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Flowing water often forms a smooth, if not level surface. A submerged rock in a river or a weir or fall in a river can form persistent ripples of flumes as the water flows over them. Kayakers know to aim their craft at a flume to safely descend a rapid or waterfall, although downstream of flumes the river often forms “haystacks” where turbulent water is forced into humps which can prove difficult to navigate.

A little stream may be described as turbulent as it makes its way over and around boulders and small drops, but interestingly it is not random. It is not chaotic. A close look will reveal that the bow waves of stones in the flow may flutter and throw off little whirling vortexes, but the bow wave and the pattern of vortexes persists. The little waterfall over a small stone ledge persists, even though the shape of the waterfall may ripple a little.

Ripple effect on water.
Ripple effect on water. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In large bodies of water, such as lakes and seas, winds form waves which can travel many thousands of kilometres across oceans and seas. Water waves don’t represent the movement of water over those distances – the only thing that moves is the energy in the wave. Water molecules in a wave move mainly up and down and only a little forwards and backwards.

Circular water current in a wave
Circular water current in a wave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However when a wave travels over a beach or shoal, the movement in the vertical direction is curtailed, and the energy is transformed into a forward motion – the wave breaks. Water is transported forward, with the water higher up moving faster than the water at the sea bed which may be water draining off the beach from the previous wave and the wave steepens until it collapses. Hence surfing!

Embed from Getty Images


Measuring things

English: Ruler Italiano: Righello
English: Ruler Italiano: Righello (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we measure a length, with a ruler, say, we can’t measure it exactly. The ruler will be marked off in, say, millimetres, and the length we are measuring will probably fall somewhere between two markings on the ruler, so we can only say that the length is somewhere between the distance between the two markings and the start of the ruler.

Probably. Actually there are a number of things that could mess up our measurement. We may not be able to line up the start of the length we are measuring with the start marking on the ruler, as the marking on the ruler is not of zero width. The best we can do, when aligning one end of the length to be measured with the ruler, is to align the start of the length to the middle of the marking on the ruler.

English: A close-up picture of a section of ru...
English: A close-up picture of a section of ruler with British (inches) and Chinese (cun) scales on its two sides. This is the 10th cun – the last cun of a chi, so that one can see that 1 chi (10 cun) was equal to 14+5/8 inches, i.e. 371 mm. A metric ruler is shown next to it for scale. As can be seen from the worn corners, the ruler has been well used in measurements of length, such as perhaps of garment cloth, for trade transactions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We then have to transfer our attention to the other end of the ruler. Probably the other end of the length and the edge of the ruler don’t align, so we shuffle the ruler to try to align the two ends of the length with the edge of the ruler, checking all the time that the start of the ruler is in line with the start of the length to be measured.

When all is aligned we can then read of the approximate value of the length, assuming that the ruler is still properly aligned and that the start of the ruler is still properly aligned with the start of the length. However, as mentioned above the end of the distance being measured will probably fall between two markings.

A carpenters' ruler with centimetre divisions
A carpenters’ ruler with centimetre divisions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So any measurement with the ruler should be stated with an estimate of the margin of error in the answer. “About 73mm, with an error of about 0.5mm” might be a reasonable estimate.

The accuracy of a measurement may depend on the material from which the ruler is made. It may be wood, plastic or metal, or some other material. Wood is a natural material, and as such it may warp, or shrink or expand unevenly. It may deteriorate over time, so that today’s measurement may be slightly different from today’s. The ink used to make the markings may migrate into the wood through natural pores and cracks in the wood, rendering them wider and fuzzier than when the ruler is new.

Diagram showing operation of temperature compe...
Diagram showing operation of temperature compensated “gridiron” pendulum, invented in 1726 by British clockmaker John Harrison. The pendulum uses rods of a high thermal expansion metal, zinc (yellow) to compensate for the expansion of rods of a low thermal expansion metal, iron (blue), so the overall pendulum doesn’t change in length with temperature changes. Therefore the period of swing of the pendulum, and the rate of the clock, are constant with temperature. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A metal ruler can be marked more accurately, and the markings won’t blur, and the markings can be much thinner or sharper than those of a wooden ruler. Unfortunately metal will expand and contract depending on the temperature, adding errors to the measurements. This can be alleviated by careful choice of alloy for the ruler, but not eliminated.

All rulers are these days fabricated by machines of course, and the markings are made by these machines. Such a machine has to be as accurate or more accurate than the end product of course, which means that the scale marks must be located more accurately, and probably be narrower than those of the end product.

Embed from Getty Images

In order to be more accurate, various techniques are used to achieve the extra accuracy, and I’m not going to discuss them here, mainly because I can only guess what they are! Vernier scales and error averaging techniques spring to mind, but as I said, I don’t what is actually used.

Microscopes and similar allow the measurement of very small distances against a scale calibrated to very small tolerances. This pattern is repeated endlessly – to measure small distances accurately your measuring device (or technique) needs to be an order of magnitude more accurate than the distance to be measured.

Microlitic volcanic lithic fragment, scale in ...
Microlitic volcanic lithic fragment, scale in millimeters. Top picture in plane-polarized light, bottom picture in cross-polarized light. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If we want to measure atoms, we need an atomic sized scale and that cannot be made of atoms, obviously. We can use electromagnetic waves, other atoms, subatomic particles and so on, of course, but we are now in the quantum world, so not only do we have the sorts of issues mentioned above, but we have issues that related primarily to the quantum world – such as the Uncertainty Principle, and the fact that an atom can behave like a particle or a wave.

Down at these levels we use atoms to measure other atoms – there is of course no possibility of a ruler type scale which is made up of atoms. Instead things are measured by noting the frequency of emissions from the atom as its electrons changes from one quantum state to another.

Atomic Clock FOCS-1 (Switzerland). The primary...
Atomic Clock FOCS-1 (Switzerland). The primary frequency standard device, FOCS-1, one of the most accurate devices for measuring time in the world. It stands in a laboratory of the Swiss Federal Office of Metrology METAS in Bern. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is referred to as a quantum jump and is popularly interpreted as an electron moving from one electron shell to another, in the common view of an electron orbit around the nucleus of an atom like a planet around a star.

A popular view is that at quantum levels the apparent continuity in time and space is not seen and that space and time appear to have a discrete structure. At some scale this makes it impossible to measure very small lengths, as it is impossible to tell whether or not two points are at different locations or not.

Dr. Max Planck
Dr. Max Planck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It follows that in the usual macro world that apparent continuity is probably illusory – if we can’t tell the difference between two points at a very small level, our measurements at the macro level are not well defined. It seems that the appearance of continuity at the macro level is an emergent phenomenon.

Maybe. The appearance of continuity probably comes from the fact that when we look at a line from A to B we can always pick a point C between them. We can then pick a point D between A and C and a point E between A and D and so on, apparently forever. But in fact the process has to stop, and the stopping point is where we find that we can’t distinguish the two end points of the line.

Reality-Virtuality Continuum.
Reality-Virtuality Continuum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is the issue caused by a conflict between our physics, which is at heart a description of the world as we see it, and what the world is actually like? A line is a mathematical concept which has extent (length), but no width. In the real world a line is marked by some means, pencil or laser beam, and has an extent, which is what we are trying to measure, and certainly has some width, the width of the lead of the pencil, the width of the laser beam. Are we starting to find out about the things that we can’t know about the world?

PencilTip (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thinking Inside of the Box

Illustration of the expansion of the Universe ...
Illustration of the expansion of the Universe after the Big bang. In Bulgarian. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science aims to explain things, and by extension to explain everything. Is this even possible? Suppose the Universe consisted of a box, 20 million metres in each direction. Scientists inside this box could investigate this universe, but could they explain everything about this universal Box?

Suppose that the Box had impenetrable walls, so scientists could not probe outside of it. So they could say that the width, height, depth of the universe was 20 million metres and they could describe what was in it. They could also say that one side of the cube attracted everything in the Box and that side could be labelled “down” and the opposite side “up”.

English: Snapshot from a simulation of large s...
English: Snapshot from a simulation of large scale structure formation in a ΛCDM universe. The size of the box is (50 h -1 Mpc) 3 . Run using GADGET (GPL software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There also might be statistical laws, so that the temperature, on average, might be 20 degrees Celsius, but could differ from that norm from place to place and from time to time. Box scientists might determine that everything appeared to be made up of tiny indivisible particles. Box atoms.

Some Box philosophers might ponder what was beyond the limits of the Box. They’d ponder the fact that starting from one side of the Box, one could travel 20 million metres in a perpendicular direction, but one could not travel 20 million and one metres. Why not?

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I’m sure that they would have plenty of theories. For instance, one philosopher might contend that the Box was embedded in an infinite impenetrable bedrock, while another might say that it was obvious – the Box was embedded in nothing. No space, no time, no thing!

Meanwhile scientists probing the Box atoms might split them and discover a whole new world of sub-atomic particles. Others might conceive of space in the Box as being a seething mass of pairs of virtual particles, being created and moving apart for a brief instant and then merging into nothing, no thing, again.

English: Tracks of ionizing radiation in a clo...
English: Tracks of ionizing radiation in a cloud chamber (thick, short: alpha particles; long, thin: beta particles). Français : Traces d’ionisation matérialisées sous forme de micro-trainées de condensation par des particules radioactives dans une chambre à brouillard ; Les trainées épaisses et courtes signalent des particules alpha ; les longues et files matérialisent le passage de particules beta). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, says one bright spark, what about a particle pair created on the boundary of the Box? One particle would enter the Box, and the other would travel somewhere else! This would lead to other speculation – if the second particle travelled in another Box, then that other Box would presumably be a mirror image of our Box!

Such speculation would wait on experimentation by the Box scientists and I’m aware that I cannot push the Box analogy too far with out it breaking. But, just as in the case of the Box scientists, philosophers and scientists in this Universe have similar issue.

An illustration of a ramified analogy, one com...
An illustration of a ramified analogy, one component of Gordon Pask’s Conversation Theory. Self-made (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In our Universe there are no bounds (under current theories, I believe) but that doesn’t mean that we can’t speculate about what is beyond our Universe, whatever “beyond” may mean in this context.

The Box scientists could potentially explain every thing in the Box, maybe even the fact that it had existed, pretty much unchanged (on average) for all time, and that is periodically, over astronomically long time scale is doomed to repeat itself, time and time again.

Mesquita, repeat ad infinitum
Mesquita, repeat ad infinitum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When they go further than that, it is pure speculation, as all the data that they have relates to the Box. They have no data from outside of the Box. All the waves and particles that are observed originate in the Box. All the forces and fields are part of the Box. While scientists may speculate about “other Boxes”, that is all that they can do.

That’s the problem. The Box scientists, and the scientists from our Universe, can only observe events in the Universe in which they are embedded. Observations relate only to events in the local Universe.

English: Multiverse, a light sculpture by Leo ...
English: Multiverse, a light sculpture by Leo Villareal featuring 41,000 computer-programmed LED nodes, located between the National Gallery of Art’s East and West Buildings, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some conjectures suggest that our Universe is one of many universes all linked together in some way. Some conjectures suggest that the laws of our Universe apply in many other similar universes separate from ours. Some people conjecture that universes may exist where there are no laws or the laws that there are have no similarity in any way to the laws of our Universe.

In the Box universe these conjecture would amount to ideas that there may be other Box universes out there with similar laws to the Box universe, maybe linked in some way to the hypothetical Box universe. There may even be universes which have laws which are not at all similar to those of the Box universe. For instance a universe which springs from a single point in a vast explosion and expands at a vast rate either forever or to a certain point only to collapse once again. How bizarre!

The Big Bang era of the universe, presented as...
The Big Bang era of the universe, presented as a manifold in two dimensions (1-space and time); the shape is right (approximately), but it’s not to scale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Box scientists would not have any way to decide whether or not their were any other Boxes as their observations would only observe events in their own Box. The only way that events in one Box could possibly affect the events in another Box would be if there was a link between them in some way.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the event would be observable as the effect of one universe on the other universe. It would just appear as an event in each universe as it transpires as a result of the laws of the universe in question.

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The theory may posit a link between two universes but the events in one universe can only result from events within that universe. If this were not so, the event in the universe would appear to happen without any causation in the universe. In other words it would be an anomaly or a miracle.

In other words, suppose a scientist in one universe knows of a law where he can cause an effect in another universe. If he can cause this effect in his universe then in the other universe something will also appear to cause this effect. Maybe this cause will be a scientist in the other universe trying to create an effect in the first universe!

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This possible symmetry of cause and effect across more than one universe would mean that it would be difficult if not impossible to detect the presence of another universe by its effects on our universe.

The person in the Box universe would likely be in the same position. This means that he would never know if there were anything outside of his 20 million metre cube. He could postulate an infinite series of Boxes stacked like bricks in an endless array. Or he could postulate Boxes grouped into “houses”. Or he could postulate that his was the only Box and that speculations about universes started from “Big Bang” explosions are mere fiction.

Detail of the bricks in the Great Wall at Muti...
Detail of the bricks in the Great Wall at Mutianyu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


English: Holiday in village
English: Holiday in village (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I should imagine that going on holiday, for many people would be a relatively new thing. While those with money might decide to shift operations from home to another location, which might or might not be near a beach, those who work from them would mostly have no respite from day to day toil, since their employers would still require looking after as usual.

As ordinary people became wealthy, and the old social structures faded away for the most part, it would have become more usual for ordinary people to go away, just as their employers used to.

Rangiputa, Karikari Peninsula, Northland, New ...
Rangiputa, Karikari Peninsula, Northland, New Zealand. Rangiputa is a beach and bach (holiday home) community on the west side of the peninsula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The word “holiday” itself is a  contraction of “holy day”, and on holy days there were celebrations and less formal work. The word has come to mean a day on which one does not have to work. Most countries these days would have statutory holidays on which which people would not have to work. There may be other restrictions, such as legislation that shops should remain closed.

It’s understandable that some countries require shop closures, as this means that shop staff get the holiday too, but many countries these days allow shops to stay open if they wish and some of the best retail days are on statutory holidays. Usually shops that stay open are required to compensate staff who are required to work.

English: Brixham - Harbourside Shops These sho...
English: Brixham – Harbourside Shops These shops mainly cater to the holiday trade who visit the harbour. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Holidays are disruptions to normal schedules. When one goes away, one is in a different environment and one has to make do. Even something as simple as making a cup of tea may be complicated by the need to find a spoon, a cup, and a teabag, not to mention the need to figure out the operation of a different jug!

These things are not an enormous issue, and in fact draw attention to the fact that one is on holiday. All schedules are voided and one can do whatever one wants. Often this may amount to doing nothing.

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A “holiday industry” has evolved, which provides accommodation, and resources for those temporarily away from home. It also provides entertainments or “attractions” if the holiday maker doesn’t just want to lay on the beach. The holiday maker may do all sorts of things that he or she doesn’t usually do, from the exciting (bungy jumping or similar) to the restful (a gentle walk around gardens or maybe a castle visit or may a zoo).

These facilities are all staffed by helpful people who arrange things so that the holiday maker can enjoy his or her self without worries. These people are of course employed by the facilities, but many of them enjoy their work very much anyway. It’s a sort of bonus for helping people.

English: Ultra Dynamics Dowty Turbocraft water...
English: Ultra Dynamics Dowty Turbocraft waterjet boat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Holiday makers must also be fed, and this has become a huge industry too. In any seaside towns so-called fast food outlets can be found in abundance, along with more up market restaurants and cafés, for more leisurely eating. For many people one of the advantages of being on holiday is that one doesn’t have to cook, and one can choose to eat things that one doesn’t normally eat.

Holidays can be expensive. Since we are close to the Pacific Islands, like Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, many people fly out to the islands on their summer holidays. This means flight and accommodation has to be booked and paid for.

English: Great Frigate Birds (Fregata minor) o...
English: Great Frigate Birds (Fregata minor) on Johnston Atoll, Pacific Island Wildlife Refuges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the holiday makers arrive at their destinations, they have to pay for food and entertainment. Other expenses may be for sun screen cream, snacks, tours, tips, and the odd item of clothing which may have been accidentally left at home.

Holiday entertainment may comprise guided tours, or visiting monuments or zoos. Amusement parks are often an attraction as are aquariums. All this can cost a lot, but unless you are content to veg out on the beach, you’ll have to pay for it. Even vegging out on the beach comes at a cost, from sun protection through to drink to offset the dehydration caused by the sun.

English: Roller coaster, M&Ds Theme Park, Stra...
English: Roller coaster, M&Ds Theme Park, Strathclyde Country Park The larger and older of the two roller coasters, at the very southern end of the park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, why do we throw over the usual daily regime, and drag our family on an often uncomfortable road, sea, or plane trip, to a location where we know little of the environment, which will cost us money, to spend the days traipsing from “attraction” to “attraction” spending more money and feeding on often costly food of unknown quality or provenance?

Part of the answer is that the daily regime becomes boring and descends into drudgery. Removing ourselves from the daily regime allows us to escape that drudgery for a while. As far as the cost goes, well, one is prepared to spend a certain amount of money to escape the drudgery for a while.

Money for All
Money for All (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Removing ourselves from the usual means that we can try the unusual. We may try Mexican food, or Vietnamese food. Or even Scottish cuisine if we choose. The world is our oyster.

We can try sports and pastimes that we have never tried before. Bungee jumping. Skiing, water or snow. We can visit a “Theme Park”, ride a roller coaster, or other ride. We can scare ourselves and excite ourselves.

Skiing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We can experience different cultures, different scenery, but at the end of the day we know that we will be returning to our mundane lives. We have at the back of our minds the cosy ordinariness of our usual lives, as a sort of safety harness.

We know our comfortable house will be there for us to return to, and while we may enjoy the beds in our hotel, motel, holiday home or tent, we look forward to the return to our own beds. We look forward to drinking the brands of coffee and tea that we prefer and fill the fridge with the foods that we prefer to cook.

English: Hotel room in the Waldorf Hilton, Ald...
English: Hotel room in the Waldorf Hilton, Aldwych, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few people would want to live in hotels and sleep in strange beds as a way of life, but there are some people who do so. While we enjoy being on holiday, as a break from our usual lives, we would probably not want to live that way for an extended period. Those who do are unusual people.

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The first of a few brief posts

As I am travelling, visiting relatives, my next few posts are going to be brief. I’ve flown to Singapore for two days and then on to London. In a day or two we go on to Ireland, which I have never visited.


One interesting moment on the trip was when I was trying to post a photo of the plane’s progress screen to Facebook via the on board WiFi while we were way out over the ocean! While I could post text, I couldn’t get the image to upload.

My photos are mostly not on this device, but I may move some up to post here later. To finish this brief post I will post a picture of a spring time rain shower from the window in my sister’s house. Fortunately the weather hasn’t been too bad so far.


Where do ideas come from?

ideas (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

I was watching this on Youtube, and I found myself saying “Yes, but…”. What Stephen Johnson says in there is all true. I like his idea of a “slow hunch” that takes several years or decades to develop. Stephen’s environmental approach looks at the places that provide the environment where ideas flourish, such as coffee shops which flourished in the 17th century and later. The Wikipedia article notes that

Though Charles II later tried to suppress the London coffeehouses as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”, the public flocked to them.

Apparently Charles did not like the new ideas emanating from the coffee shops and thought that doing away with them would do away with the ideas. I’m not so sure – the discussion groups from the coffee shops would almost certainly have moved elsewhere.

Lloyd's Coffee House
Lloyd’s Coffee House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ideas certainly sprang from the coffee houses which mutated into or gave rise to the London Stock Exchange, Lloyd’s of London and some famous auction houses. I refer you to the Wikipedia article.

Stephen Johnson describes the environments that provide fertile ground for new ideas, and similar places have been invented and reinvented over the years. While Universities were, I believe, originally set up as places for the studying of religion, the concentration of bright people and the opportunities for discussion inevitably led to ideas which were not to the taste of the religious establishment.

Victoria University, Kelburn, Wellington, New ...
Victoria University, Kelburn, Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My “yes, but..” in relation to the Youtube article was not in relation to the matters Johnson discusses, which was the types of environments that favour new ideas, but how the ideas are formed in the human brain. Johnson talks about one person having “a piece of the puzzle” that completes a new idea, but I think that that is an oversimplification. I see it more like a huge floating jigsaw puzzle, with no edges and maybe many many puzzles. Each person gets millions of puzzle pieces and each person does his or her best to fit together as many pieces as possible and some of the pieces may be assembled incorrectly. I’m thinking of the “Intelligent Design” people when I write that.

a drawing of a 4 piece jigsaw puzzle
a drawing of a 4 piece jigsaw puzzle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An idea in that model is simply a realisation that that piece or pieces of the puzzle over here seem to fit with the piece or pieces over there. Any idea is based on innumerable prior ideas or realisations.

Ideas also seem to change over time. I think that I recall that when the idea that white light can be split into many colours was first put to me I accepted it with some reservations. Sort of “If you say so”. But today it seems obvious to me, though it can be that probes into the obvious turn up the un-obvious.

Classic Albums: Pink Floyd – The Making of The...
Classic Albums: Pink Floyd – The Making of The Dark Side of the Moon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where do ideas come from? I’m uncertain. I’m not sure that there aren’t several sources of new ideas, but one that I keep coming back to is that there might be some process in our brains of which we are not conscious that continually and somewhat dumbly searches the puzzle pieces and tries to fit them together. It probably has guidance rules that say that, metaphorically, knobs must fit into sockets, there should be no gaps or space between puzzle pieces.

I call the process dumb because it seems to favour picking close by pieces, and it seems to repeatedly try the same configurations that have failed previously. I say this because sometimes, looking at a fact a new way or introducing a concept from another field may result in a totally new solution to a problem.

Visual Example of the Eight Queens backtrack A...
Visual Example of the Eight Queens backtrack Algorithm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m aware that I’ve used the word “idea” in a number of senses above, but I hope that it doesn’t detract too much from the argument. I’m also aware that I’ve stretched the jigsaw analogy well beyond the bounds!

As a final comment, I think that people misunderstand the Eureka Moment. The moment occurs not when one solves the puzzle, but the moment that one realises that the puzzle is solved. For instance, when a mathematician works on a proof he may get stuck on a particular step. He may try several solutions, proceeding from the solution under test through several other steps in the proof before he discovers the solution which works. The Eureka Moment happens when he discovers that the solution he is trying is the correct one, not when he chooses the solution. A subtle but definite difference.

archimedes (Photo credit: Sputnik Beanburger III)