Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Phascinating Phacts about Photons

Phascinating Phacts about Photons (well, light)

My gambol into alliteration ends with that dreadful series of fricatives, which I found too tempting to resist.

When a scientist talks about photons, he means light. Photons are the massless particles that move between something you see and your eyes, so that your eyes can send messages to your brain, allowing you to have the sense of sight. Photons are the part of the whole process of sight that is outside your body. It's a sophisticated process and the photons part no less so than the things that happen inside your head.

Photons have no mass, yet they are particles. That, alone, is counterintuitive. The mystery doesn't end there. Photons have been around since shortly after the Big Bang. We don't know about their goings on until about 500,000 years after the Big Bang because before that they weren't visible. Did they exist and were held in by unimaginably huge gravity, greater than any black hole? Unknown. We do know that photons only floated freely after that initial period.

That's why astronomers and cosmologists say they can't see back to the dawn of existence as we know it, as photons--if they existed--couldn't escape during that first half million years. Without photons coming to meet our eyes, we can't see.

Photons, being light, travel at the speed of light (186,282.4 miles per hour, 298.051.84 kilometres per hour). No surprise there. But did they, if they existed right after the Big Bang, travel at faster than the speed of light, as other known particles did during that mysterious early period of our universe? Unknown. Travelling faster than the speed of light flies in the face of Einstein's proof that nothing can travel faster than light. Or is it just particles without mass that can do that? Unknown, likely, still strange. Lots of speculation, no evidence to date.

Photons travelling through space don't actually travel at the speed of light. They travel a bit slower, possibly because they must travel through dark energy or dark matter. Oh, don't go there, it's too messy to think about. Photons only travel at the speed of light in a vacuum.

Photons also originate deep in the core of our sun. The early universe photons still hang around, causing "snow" on the screen of a badly tuned television screen and static on a radio that is not tuned to a station. Collectively they form what science calls the cosmic microwave background.

Unlike the exotic neutrinos that stop or slow for almost nothing (thousands can pass through your body every second while doing no damage), photons actually slow down when travelling through something less dense than space. In diamonds they tend to bounce around back and forth among the carbon atoms before finding their way out. This lends diamonds their sparkle. Photons travel through diamonds at a pondering 77,500 miles per second (124,000 kilometres per second).

Eyeglasses and contacts enable people to have their vision corrected because light bends when it moves from air to glass or plastic. Thus the lenses focus light the eyeballs cannot.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato thought that our eyes shoot out rays of light so we can see. I suspect that story may have been twisted over the years because someone of Plato's brilliance would realize that we couldn't see unless those rays bounced back to our eyes. Good story, but likely a perverted folk tale.

However, our bodies do glow beyond what pregnant women are said to give off when a new baby is expected. Especially from our lips and cheeks, we glow from bioluminescence, like all living things. We glow most in the afternoon. The glow may have something to do with chemical reactions in molecular fragments called free radicals.

In the deep ocean, below 1500 feet, at least 90 percent of the animals have the option of glowing through bioluminescence. Some do it to attract mates, others to find prey or other food.

Second World War aviators were known to find darkened ships by the bioluminescence of their wakes. Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell, as a pilot back in 1954, found his way back to his own aircraft carrier using this method.

Europe will ban incandescent light bulbs by 2012 because they are inefficient. They convert only 10 percent of the power they use into light. The rest becomes heat, which apparently European legislators find unwanted. Their replacements, compact fluorescent bulbs (CFB), are much more efficient in terms of creating light. But they remain controversial in situations where they are closer than 18 inches (45 cm) to a person's head--such as on a bedside table--because they give off a small amount of radiation.

When LED bulbs become more commercially viable they will likely take over dominance in the market because they give off no radiation and are even more efficient than CFBs. And they last a very long time.

A 100-watt incandescent bulb in an Easy-Bake oven can raise the temperature inside to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to bake a cake. Maybe European legislators don't eat Easy-Bake cakes either.

Though light lacks mass, as a form of particle it can push when it strikes something. Late in 2010 the Planetary Society will launch Lightsail-1, a space vehicle designed to use photon power to push it along. Theory says that while photons push and nothing else pushes back (we don't know yet about dark energy and dark matter), a ship could reach interplanetary speed in two years. Stopping without power when such a ship reaches another planet or even back at earth could be a problem.

Our moon is moving farther away from earth at the rate of 1.5 inches (3.3 cm) per year. We know that because scientists continue to bounce light off mirrors left on the moon back in the Apollo days.

In the electromagnetic spectrum that stretches from radio to gamma waves, visible light makes up less than one ten-billionth of the spectrum. Goldfish can see infrared, which we can't. Bees, birds and lizards can see ultraviolet, which is just beyond the other end of the spectrum we can see.

The word "photography" was coined by astronomer John Herschel, who discovered infrared. "Photography" means "writing with light."

At the equinoxes, vernal and autumnal (they occur simultaneously, depending on whether you live north of south of the equator) everyone on the planet has equal numbers of minutes of daylight and darkness in a 24 hour period.

The aurora borealis (the northern version) and aurora australis (southern) light up the night sky when solar wind particles excite atoms in the upper atmosphere. Oxygen shines as green while nitrogen glows blue and red. Now you can watch with awe and amazement and actually know what you are seeing in the night sky.

To the Inuit (living in northern Canada and Greenland--their enemies the Algonquians called them Eskimos, "eaters of raw flesh" but that name is no longer used) believe that the aurora borealis is the spirits of their dead ancestors hovering to keep them safe. At least that's the myth. In the developed world, myths are thought to be fantasies believed by simple people. In fact, true myths are life lessons told in story form, surrounded by fictitious stories to make them more memorable to young people who hear them.

People in the developed world pay little attention to myths and don't find time to teach life lessons to their children. Look around you to see the results. Myths have a valid purpose, but it's not to perpetuate fantastic stories. Now you too can see the light.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, an easy to read book parents and teachers can use to teach life lessons to their children.
Learn more about the book and the worldwide TIA project at http://billallin.com/

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Genocide Canada Wants to Hide

The Genocide Canada Wants to Hide

If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people.
- Chief Seattle, Suquamish chief, the statement commonly believed to have been part of a speech delivered in 1851

The English and French in what is now the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador did not buy the island of Newfoundland from the Beothuk Indians. They chose instead to slaughter them. Some stories claim that white men hunted the Beothuk for sport. Others say that the French brought Mi'kmaq Indians to the island from Nova Scotia to kill the Beothuk. Either way, the last surviving Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died in 1829, driving to extinction that last member of a tribe of native people whose skin colour reportedly gave the native people of North America the label "Redskins."

That is the way the English wrote their history of Newfoundland. Of course they blamed someone other than themselves for driving to extinction a tribe of gentle people who likely migrated from mainland Labrador when Jesus walked the earth.

No doubt genocide was involved. But did the Beothuk really go extinct? In a way, they didn't, any more than the Aztecs of Mexico whose descendants live in the Yucatan and Central America today. Mi'kmaq were not imported to Newfoundland, as history states. They cohabited the island, likely for centuries, with the Beothuk. They intermarried.

Only today are the Mi'kmaq of Newfoundland being recognized by the Canadian government as actually existing as a cultural group. History books said they had left the island. History stated clearly, and this was taught in Canadian schools for years, that once the last Beothuk died no more Indians (known as First Nations in Canada) lived on Newfoundland island.

History was wrong. History was written, as most history was, by the conquerors. However, a few people who lived on Newfoundland taught their children that they were in fact Mi'kmaq people, not descendants of English settlers. Most Newfoundlanders who have Beothuk and Mi'kmaq blood in their veins grew up believing that their parents were white people. to their grandparents, it was a safer way to survive. Only a small number knew the truth.

While many Francophones in Canada still hate "the English" for stealing their land, neither regrets the extinction of the Beothuk or (likely) the deaths of many of the Mi'kmaq. These native peoples had no concept of land ownership when the Europeans arrived in the 1500s. They believed, as Chief Seattle said, that "We are part of the earth and it is part of us." They believed that the earth owned them, not the other way around. The Europeans had guns and a lust for power.

First Nations people in Canada today have problems, in many cases, but their heritage survives, some of their languages are taught in native schools and their history--the real history--is taught to every child. Not just their history and heritage, but their values survive. Though their numbers are small compared to the whole Canadian population, they are having a remarkable influence, on the Canadian government, on the Canadian people, even on people in other parts of the world.

If we want what we believe to survive our passing, we must teach our children. If we want the world to be a better place and we know how to do it, we must teach the lessons to our children.

Believe it or not, the world is a much better and safer place today than it was when I was born, during the Second World War. That change happened because good people cared. They taught their values to their children. The renegade thinkers of the past have grandchildren who share the same values but are now considered mainstream.

Chief Seattle was a great teacher, but he was not unique. He was determined to teach his values to everyone. He began by teaching the children of his tribe.

It was my turn to teach you. Now it's your turn. Go and teach your children, no matter what their ages.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want to grow children with more important life objectives than to be good employees and consumers. The book gives not only reasons, it gives the lessons as well.
Learn more at http://billallin.com/