Archive for September, 2010

Chaco Canyon Equinox

Chaco Canyon, in northwest New Mexico, has been inhabited since the times of ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Mohenjo Daro on the Indus River, at least since about 2900, BC. Around 200 AD, the nomadic life gave way to farming, and in about 850 AD, the people of the area undertook massive building projects, several of which have solar observation aspects.

The simplest kind of solar observation lines up two openings so that the sun shines through both openings at once only at the equinoxes, or only at one of the solstices, mid-summer or mid-winter. You can hang a large ring in a window and see where the sun shines through the ring onto the floor on a specific date. If you drew a circle on the floor and waited a year, the sun would fall there again at that time. This is the simplest form of the principle involved.

At Chaco Canyon, there was one place where the sun shone through slits in several tall rocks, and fell on a wall opposite. This wall had some drawings that were fairly simple, just a couple of spirals, but the pattern of the sun on the equinoxes and the solstices was quite striking. You can look here to see the patterns. They were discovered in 1977, just in time, because just twelve years later, the rocks shifted so that the display no longer works.

Launch Sun Dagger Demo

But other things work. My sister visited the canyon for this (2010) fall equinox and took a picture of the sunrise coming through two window openings that are aligned just for the equinox. Here is the very simple photo.

Solar alignment in Chaco, northern New Mexico.

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What a mouthful!

But it’s an important theorem, so let me give a brief introduction.


First, you may have heard of entropy, but in case it’s not a clear concept, let’s review.

Entropy basically means disorder, and in particular, it means the disorder that energy gets into when work is done. You drive your car, burning the gas. After you drive the car, the world has just as much energy as before, but it’s all scattered around the countryside as heat and fumes, and you can’t use it to drive your car unless you collect it back again, which would take far more energy than you could obtain by that collection. For all practical purposes, the energy is gone, not because it does not exist, but because it is too scattered to do anything for anybody.

This particular kind of disordering of energy is called entropy, and one of the characteristics of the universe as a whole is the increase in entropy. The whole universe is, like my house, getting messier every day. Fortunately, I can eat a good meal, read a good book, get some orderly energy into myself, and clean house, but the universe has nowhere to turn for a new input of order, so it is running down. We have conservation of mass and energy, but not of order, and without order, all the energy in the world – or in the universe — won’t do any work. It’s like those fumes and heat from my car; scattered energy may as well not be there at all.

Increasing entropy

Entropy means time has an arrow.

What does that mean?

Well, some things, like the rolling of a ball, could go either way. If you took a video of a gently rolling ball and ran it backwards, it would look just as real – at least for a while. If you took a photo of a light turning on and off, you could run it backwards; same thing. Even if you took a picture of sunrise or moonrise and ran it backwards, most people would just think you had a picture of sunset or moonset.

But a video of a falling egg would be very funny backwards, because it’s not possible. Or get one of those time-lapse pictures of a flower unfolding from a bud; not the same backwards, eh?

A universe with increasing entropy is like that egg that falls on the floor; you always know which way the arrow of time is going. In one place or another, the universe might be like the rolling ball, which looks the same for a while, but if you see the entire roll, you generally know where the start and finish are.

Because entropy is increasing in the universe as a whole, it follows that the universe cannot be infinite in time. It cannot have an infinite history because when you go back far enough, the energy is in the best possible order for doing stuff, and any change would be more entropy, not less. By the same token, the universe cannot have an infinite future because when the disorder is total nothing meaningful can happen.

What would that look like?

It would look like a puff of smoke, only the smoke is so thin and the puff is so broad that there’s really nothing to see, and as  you approach the end, even though some particles have enough oomph to drift, they still cannot make a difference in how it looks. It’s not that energy and mass are gone; it’s just that they can’t do anything noticeable – my father would say that the power to pass information is gone. The universe as an intelligible system is ended; there’s nothing to know. (And, of course, no place to stand and watch it!)

The multiverse is subject to entropy

We’re almost there.

Father Spitzer has a new book out, (New Proofs for the Existence of God) explaining that there is now (since 2003) a theorem – the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth Theorem — which shows that even if Hawking’s multiverse were real (there is no specific evidence for it), the laws of entropy would still prevail and the multiverse would come to an end — and would, for that matter, need a beginning. Thus Hawking’s multiverse does not open up the possibility for a universe infinite in time; it just offers a universe context that can hang around unimaginably (which is not the same as infinitely) longer than the one we know.


I have not read Spitzer’s book; I have only heard him talk about it. You can listen too by going to http://www.magisreasonfaith.org/ and choosing the video clip from EWTN. Around the 18th minute, he gets to the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth theorem. Note that there are also clips that say something about Larry King Live. These are not from the TV show but are follow-ups to such a show, and interesting in their own right. Enjoy yourself!

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How Grand a Design?

You may have noticed that Stephen Hawking has a new book out, The Grand Design, and the world is full of comment on the cosmic assertions therein. He and his co-author have apparently stated that you don’t need God to create the universe, because the laws of gravity and a certain version of quantum physics suffice to make it inevitable (!) that the universe will create itself, out of nothing, in an infinite variety of forms; and given an infinite variety of forms, a segment or sub-universe friendly to mankind is bound to develop, no design needed, grand or not.

Odd title, then.

In one way, this is like the old joke in which a scientist challenges God to a creation-of-life competition and then, like God, picks up some dirt to start his work. “No, no,” says God. “Go get your own dirt.” Even supposing that Hawking is correct and that gravity and quantum physics suffice, that’s a pretty large “given.” It doesn’t seem like much because it’s invisible and immaterial, but that doesn’t actually make it a given.

In fact, it’s not necessarily even a “given” in this universe. The laws of quantum physics are in the hypothesis stage. They answer a lot of questions, but they leave a lot of new questions open, so it is not certain that they are “the truth” about physics.

You might ask: how could they not be?

The fundamental problem is this: the physicist sees certain things in the world. He can’t understand them because they are a bit counter-intuitive, but of course the world is full of counter-intuitive stuff. There was a time when the flight of the bumble-bee seemed physically impossible, but of course it was taking place. So things can be counter-intuitive even when they are correctly observed. Still, it’s confusing, so the physicist is mulling it over, and along comes a mathematician (maybe just the physicist’s alter-ego) who says, “Wow! What an interesting pattern!”

“Interesting!” says the physicist. “To me, it’s just confusing. I can’t figure out what’s next.”

“Oh, well,” says the mathematician, “I can construct a mathematical system that perfectly parallels the patterns you are seeing. Maybe that will help.”

So the mathematician does his job, and suddenly they both notice that the pattern implies certain things that were not obvious in the physical world, but sure enough, the physicist finds them when he looks. Or at least, he doesn’t see anything that falls outside the pattern, and the nice thing about the pattern is that everything that looked so confusing and impossible now has a certain order to it, with names for all the patterns and paths of activity.

But as every detective knows, having a solution that accounts for the facts is not the same as having the right answer. There might be three suspects whose character and actions suggest they could have committed the crime; but at most, only one of them did it and maybe someone else after all.

Quantum physics is like that. It’s a hypothesis that has been very helpful in offering a pattern that brings order to many observations, but it remains unproved. Furthermore, it is so profoundly counter-intuitive that the connection between the quantum world and the world as we experience it – full of bumblebees and clouds and elephants and things — is seriously problematic. Why should it look so much like an elephant if it’s “really” just an accidental conglomeration of random quanta?

This leads to a consideration of the deeper problem: it seems as if the physicists have started saying that the math is the physics. But math is only a pattern; it is not a reality. Even such a simple mathematical entity as “two” is not real. There is no “two” in the world. There are two apples, two waves, two stars, two electrons, but no “two.” An elephant, on the other hand, is real. Get out of the way or you won’t have any thoughts at all.

Believing that the patterns are “real” and the physical things are just odd shadows of those patterns has a name in philosophy: idealism. Plato thought that the patterns were the reality and the things we bump into were just odd and distorted shadows of those patterns. He was an idealist, and he was very smart; nevertheless, other smart people were not idealists, for example Plato’s most famous pupil, Aristotle.

If your Mom had been a Platonist, attending to the ideals and ignoring physical realities, you wouldn’t have survived; and if the Trinity had been a Platonist association, Jesus would not have become incarnate. So there is a lot at stake in philosophical idealism, and there’s a big hoopla about Hawking right now.

In case you’re not a mom or a Catholic, however, there is something else to consider about philosophical idealism: it’s really schizophrenic. If you were standing in front of a charging elephant, you would not consider that it was a random conglomeration of quanta that might do anything, you would step behind a large tree. What we want from philosophers is a way of looking at the world that takes all our experience into account, not a way that urges us to ignore philosophically what we certainly will not ignore practically. Nobody standing in front of a charging elephant is an idealist, so why should anyone else be?

Math is not physics. That’s the point. It’s Jaki’s point, again and again. Calling math physics is a philosophical decision, not a scientific one; it is philosophical idealism and knowing its name helps you to see it more clearly.


A few readers have told me that links on my pages were not working. They were being directed to an edit function instead of a link from which they could comment. I have spent a few days fixing all the links on the pages, and many (hopefully all!) of the links on the blogs. I hope everything works properly now, but if not, let me know. Thanks for your interest.

If you disagree with me and wish to comment, that’s fine, but you need to be informative and polite.

I’ve also been traveling and leaving my camera behind or my computer cord and stuff like that so that things are never quite in order to blog. I thought the travel would just be an interlude, but it will probably continue for a while.  I’ll get better organized next trip.

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