|There is always next year ..|
However, even the New Year's holiday has its doubters, I'm afraid. And I am not just talking about those among us who woke up this morning with a hangover and swore that they would never do something so stupid again. No, we are talking about those in the scientific community who seriously, and empirically, question the magic behind the moment. Why they would do this I do not know. But they do, and we are just going to have to deal with it. Of course, if you are not feeling all that well this morning, it might be of some comfort.
Matthew Reece writes about physics and mathematics issues for examiner.com, which can be a pretty good news site at times. Matthew takes a decidedly different point of view on this special moment in time, and backs it up with sound scientifically grounded observations. This from an article titled, "Scientific thoughts about the New Year" (click here):
... for a scientist, this is a time to reflect upon the arbitrary nature of New Year's Day in particular and our methods of keeping time in general. Let us consider the number of moments that we could choose to celebrate. We can choose any day of the year to be the end of one year and the beginning of another year. We can choose any moment within that day as well. While the number of moments that we could choose out of a year is unimaginably large, it is a finite value. This is because the speed of light is finite, and it is impossible for mass or energy to move faster than light in normal space. There is a quantization of length that is related to the Planck length, a quantity derived from the speed of light, Planck's constant, and the universal gravitational constant. According to the generalized uncertainty principle, the Planck length is in principle, within a factor of order unity, the shortest measurable length. The smallest measurable time, called the Planck time, is the time it takes for light to travel one Planck length.
The NIST value of the Planck length is 1.616199 x 10^-35 ± 9.7 x 10^-40 meters, a value many orders of magnitude smaller than what can currently be measured directly. The speed of light in a vacuum is 299,792,458 meters per second, so a unit of Planck time is 5.39106 x 10^-44 ± 3.2 x 10^-48 seconds. If we invert this, we find that there are 1.85492 x 10^43 units of Planck time per second. If this quantization of time is correct, then we may think of the universe as being “animated,” with a “frame-rate” of 1.85492 x 10^43 frames per second. There are 31,556,926 seconds in a year, so we have a total of 5.85356 x 10^50 moments to choose from when deciding when to mark the boundary between years. To put this number into perspective, Drew Weisenberger of Jefferson Lab estimates that the number of individual atoms on Earth is about 1.33 x 10^50. So from the standpoint of quantum mechanics, New Year's Day is not so special.
So there you go. But look at it this way, at least your employer doesn't accept Matthew's viewpoint. Because if he did, you'd be reading these words on your computer at work.
Nobody is predicting an Apocalypse for 2013
From the standpoint of sheer brain numbing tedium an entire year without an Apocalypse hovering over our heads is a blessed event in itself. I do think we should all be thankful for that. However, if we were not the scientifically advanced society that we are today, there is an event in the coming year that might have convinced many of us that the world we call home is about to be devoured by a large fiery dragon. This from Time.com (click here):
Coming in 2013: The Comet of the Century? Within days after a new comet is first discovered, astronomers can tell you exactly what its path through the solar system will look like. They can calculate when it will make its closest approach to the Sun, how near it will be to Earth at any given moment and even when — or whether — it’s likely to make a return visit.
What they can’t say for sure is how brilliant a show it will put on for us. Back in the 1970’s, Comet Kohoutek was billed as the “Comet of the Century,” but it turned out to be so disappointing that it ended up as a laugh line for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Even a well-known comet like Halley’s, whose 1986 appearance was ballyhooed years in advance, can turn out to be a dud.
With that caveat noted, however, there’s a reasonable chance that Earth is in for a celestial display just about a year from now. Comet ISON, discovered by two amateurs — one from Belarus, one from Russia — in September, shows early signs of being truly spectacular. At its brightest, in fact, ISON could put out as much light as the full Moon but concentrated into a smaller area — and if that turns out to be true, the term “dream comet,” now floating around the internet, would be an understatement.
Comet experts are also making much of the fact that ISON’s path is very similar to that of Kirch’s Comet, a.k.a. Newton’s Comet, a.k.a. the Great Comet of 1680, which was bright enough to be seen in daylight and had a magnificently long tail (it was also the first comet ever discovered with a telescope). It’s not the same object, but it’s quite possible that both are chunks of a much larger body that broke apart long ago, maybe during its own passage through the inner solar system. The fact that such larger bodies exist isn’t in doubt: Pluto, for example, is essentially a gigantic chunk of dirty ice.
This could be pretty exciting. Just as long as we're all clear on the dragon thing.
Happy New Year!