Monday, July 19, 2010

Something from Nothing

An argument I hear a lot is that the Big Bang is the process of something coming from nothing, and therefore can't be correct. There are several problems with this view, not the least of which is exactly what the nothing actually consists of.

First of all, whatever existed "before" the first few seconds of our universe, let me warn you that prepositions don't apply. Before, after, during, below, behind, etc., because whatever it was, it didn't have space or time to describe it. To the best of my admittedly shallow knowledge on the topic, we don't know what it was. It wasn't nothing, that's fairly certain, but at the same time, nothing exists now that even comes close- everything we know exists in our universe, but we are talking about the origin of that universe. Everything that ever has or will exist, at least in a rudimentary sense, existed in the singularity*. What it exists "in" is likely unfathomable by even our greatest minds. This is because the terms we must use to describe it don't apply- it is simply our language, or our minds, failing us. How can we assign a time to a time when time was irrelevant and a location where places didn't exist?

How do we know about the big bang? Well, there's a lot to that question. One of the best forms of evidence we have is the red shift of the rest of the universe. There are literally billions of galaxies all around us- and they are all moving away from us. Think about ripples in an infinite pond- if we watch them long enough, we can deduce where the pebble initially hit. It's the same thing with galaxies- and they all point to the same place. If you want to know more about how we know this, google the Doppler Effect. I could ramble about it for hours.

Consider the degree of evidence, here- billions of galaxies to measure, and every one checked fits into a neat little one inch formula. And they all point back to a single instant in time, a single point in space, a single event in space-time.

Space-time is another fascinating topic, and important to understanding the difference between "something from nothing" and "something from nothing you can even imagine". Consider this. You and I are walking along an old train track. I see something shiny off in the grass and run off, let's say 50 meters into the grass. You're standing on the tracks waiting to see what I procure, facing me. Then something happens. Two lightning bolts strike. One strikes 25 meters behind you (A), and one strikes 25 meters between you and I (B). You see A and B, and hear them, simultaneously. But I see B as happening a fraction of a second before A. Which of us is right? Well, both.
Simultaneity, in other words, the times of events that occur relative to each other, is also relative to the observer.
Another example that may be easier to grasp is this: open a new document in a word processor. Now, copy this blog and paste it into the document. OK, consider this your singularity. Now, in MS Word**, open the find and replace dialog, type ? in the find box and in the replace box type "^&^l", without the quotes. Check use wildcards underneath and then hit replace all. This is the equivalent of typing return after every character in the document. You can keep hitting replace all, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger (after 1 time, I was up to about 70 pages- twice and it went to 200+). The striking thing about this is that the information stays the same, but space expands to match it. This is what the universe did, kick-started by dark energy. Consider the replace all button dark energy.

To quote J. B. S. Haldane,
"Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

*It's entirely possible that there wasn't so much a singularity as there was the observable portion of our universe compressed (or unexpanded) into a tiny size. We do know the universe is much larger than we can see, we just don't know how much.
**I'm sure a similar method exists in OpenOffice or Word Perfect, I just don't have them installed on my computer.
Now playing: Disturbed - "Another Way To Die" Lyric Video

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Weight Loss: What Really Works, part 2

I promise I'll get to something more interesting soon, but I told a friend I'd write about my weight loss methods. I'm not a nutritionist, and am only interested in nutrition inasmuch as I don't want to die of scurvy or some other deficiency. So without further ado:
In the last post, we discussed exercise, the oft-overlooked but crucially important method of body control. Then there's the other component: energy intake. Eating. For some reason, this is what gets all the play in the media and the ads that will no doubt riddle this blog for a few weeks. I suspect it is because eating is something you must do, where exercise is something you have to make time to do, and we're naturally lazy.
So, let's look at this handy tool on nutritionData. According to it, my daily needs are about 3000 calories per day. Now that we know that, let's revisit our equation. If I'm gaining weight, it's most likely because I'm consuming more than 3000 calories per day. So, if O is my output, approximately 3000, and I is my intake, and the difference is D, then I-O=D. D needs to be negative to lose weight. Don't focus on either I or O too much- D is the important one, and best achieved by a balance between the other two. Whether you decrease it (remember, it should be negative!) by exercising, or eating less, or a combination of the two, try to keep it to absolutely no more than 1500 calories per day. A pound of fat contains 3500 calories. This is handy, because 3500/7=500, or how many calories you need to lose per day to lose 1 pound in a week. It's a nice, round number. 1500 is actually easy to exceed if you become extremely active and crash diet. It can cause severe harm to your heart. Don't do it. The best, healthiest process is slow, steady weight loss. Lifestyle change. Start acting like someone who weighs your target weight- eat a little less, move a little more, and it'll happen. Give yourself time. Drink plenty of water, and stay away from empty calories (you know that FDA food pyramid? Actually a good idea, based on good science).
Don't do what I did- rush myself into a borderline medical condition courtesy of a fad diet. I had headaches for 3 days before almost collapsing at work one day because I wasn't getting enough. Nutrition is important. Carbohydrates are your friends- in fact, you should shoot for about 70% of your calories to come from carbs alone.
A few quick tips:
  • Drink a tall glass of water before you eat. At first, your stomach is stretched out and you'll feel hungry, even if you've eaten enough. Over a few weeks, this will fade.
  • Eat eggs or something high protein that stays with you during the day. This will help diminish hunger pangs.
  • Keep a food journal.
  • To get your fruit and vegetable servings, eat fruit and vegetables. Don't drink them unless you blend your own- you miss out on a lot of the nutrients and fiber.
  • Fruit juice, ranch dressing, or soft drinks (and yes, even alcoholic drinks) are largely empty additions to your diet that introduce a LOT of calories without making you much more full.
  • Get rid of potato chips and other junky snacks.
If you're really having trouble, consider calorie cycling. There's lots of background info there, but I like to eat, and being a compulsive calorie counter hurts that. Pick days of the week where you'll eat less, and days you'll eat more. My fat days and skinny days alternate- on my fat days, I eat around 4000 calories. On my skinny days, I only eat about 1500. Over a week with 4 fat days and 3 skinny, I consume 20,500 calories, shaving a neat 500 off of my requisite 21000. On odd weeks, I eat 18000, knocking the rest of the pound off through controlling my eating. Add to this 90 minutes of vigorous cardio per week and you'll see I can expect to lose about 4 pounds in a month. The main advantages of calorie cycling is you won't put your body into starvation mode, and you can still enjoy eating with less restraint. The major downside is that you'll probably slow your weight loss, and it is easy to get lazy in the long term.

Well, that's it. There's a wealth of information at, including blogs by actual nutritionists, and lots of tools and resources. Now let us never speak of nutrition again.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Follow this equation to lose weight. No, really.

When it comes to weight loss, there's a lot of information out there. Everything from magical rituals involving acai berry elixirs to gimmicky and suggestive full body workouts to "simple rules" to crash diets.
Unfortunately, they're almost all fluff. There's no reason, or no good reason, to spend money on any of those schemes. It's simple physics- if your energy output is greater than your energy intake, you will lose weight. Period. The relationship between these two variables determines whether you gain, lose, or maintain your weight. In other, overly simplistic words, move more. If you want to lose weight, that's all you need to keep in mind. Park at the first parking space you see rather than getting the closer one (this one will make you popular at parties, especially when it rains). Return your cart to the actual store rather than a return bin. Eat standing up. Walk around when you're on the phone. But those are little things. And you aren't going to drop amazing amounts of weight doing them, but they will help. It's going to take focused exercise, which is usually a disclaimer on ANY diet commercial.
Ok, I should probably give some back-story, here: I wanted to join the military after being a couch potato my whole life. I weighed at least 230 pounds (I wasn't a big fan of scales at the time) when I first talked to my recruiter, and over the next several months, by following the advice in this post, with one notable exception, I dropped down to 145 pounds, though I've put some back on because I don't like looking like a zombie.
Because this is going to be a topic I'm inclined to discuss at length, I'm going to break it up over several posts. Today, I'm going to focus on exercises to increase how much energy you put out. Next time we'll talk about consumption, and tricks to reduce it without messing yourself up.
But first, let's talk calories: Another easy way of increasing our energy output is by raising your basal metabolic rate. The BMR is how much energy you'd expend if you just stayed in bed all day. This varies from person to person based on age and gender, and there's a calculator you can use to estimate it here. Now that we know that, note that one pound of fat contains 3500 calories (or kilocalories, kCals, for you non-American types)- so you can shoot for 500 calories of exercise per day to lose about a pound a week.
The single best thing I can recommend for burning calories is cardio- some kind of cardio. Any kind. If you have back problems, consider a recumbent bike or even an arm bike. Rowing is another good method, and many gyms have a row machine you can get on. Lap swimming is also good. Something to get your heart rate up and keep it up. When I was too fat to run at more than a slow jog, I trundled around the cul-de-sac, and as I got better, I increased the distance, until I was doing a half-mile or more. I didn't know how much more- I was just moving! If you can have fun while you're doing it, whether by listening to an iPod or whatever else, singing softly to yourself, squirting random passers-by with a watergun (actually, this may lead to interval training, which is great for that extra burn!), so much the better. For an idea of how many calories you'll be burning, there's a good chart here.
But there's something else that's often overlooked and just as important- weight training. Why? Because, for one thing, when you run, you burn calories, and your body will tell you you're hungrier than usual. So you'll eat more, often more than the calories you burned, and you'll be healthier, but you won't lose much weight. Remember the initial equation? A good way of increasing this is the development of new muscle tissue. Running helps there, but an even better way is weight training.
Curls, squats, and anything else to increase the density of your muscles (not necessarily mass, but that helps too), will help improve your BMR. Ideally, they should be done at a gym (or using free-weights) so you can increase resistance as your strength begins to plateau. Push-ups are great, for instance, but they only go so far- you'll eventually hit a wall and need something extra (if you can do 100, or even 50 push-ups in one sitting, doing more isn't going to do much good). There are plenty of great workouts you can do with simple free weights- my favorite is the Spartacus workout. Or go to the gym and grow your own- remember, for maximal fat loss, you want to target large muscle groups, and change up the exercises every few weeks. You can pack on 5 or 10 pounds on your quadriceps (the muscles between your knee and the pelvis on the front) with relatively little effort by doing squats- and it's great for increasing your metabolism. That said, it's slow if you're looking for quick weight loss- you'll lose weight slowly, or even gain weight, as muscle increases. Over several weeks, you can expect to see a drop in weight as your fat loss catches up to your muscle gain. Also, warm up before the exercises with light weights, and stretch afterwards. Stretching before a workout actually reduces your strength, and can improve the chance of injury.
This post is already longer than I'd hoped for- so more to come next time.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Speed of light constant? Hardly.

The speed of light is about 300 million meters per second, or 186,000 miles per second. That's insanely fast, and yet the unit of measurement for our galaxy is the light year- about 6 trillion miles (yes, the light year, like the parsec, is a measure of distance, not time). Our closest star, besides the sun, is Alpha Centauri, and it's about 4 light years away from us. Potentially habitable planets may be hundreds or even thousands of light years away. Which means, if it's possible to break the speed of light, we definitely should. Unfortunately, science says right now that the speed of light is an interstellar speed limit, and if we were to break it, there would be severe fallout (like mass becoming infinite, which could instantly collapse the universe). Scientists and science fiction authors have worked on ways of subverting the rules for years, but with little hope for success. So when I heard about scientists already doing it, and ten years ago to boot, I was excited, but skeptical- this is the sort of thing that would revolutionize text books, and I hadn't heard anything about it.
Unfortunately, it's a matter of conflating two distinct but important principles in physics. The speed of light that I mentioned above is actually the speed of light in a vacuum- in other words, if there is nothing to impede lights' travel, that is how fast it will go. As soon as it hits a substance, such as our atmosphere, or water, it slows down. This is nothing new. Any kid with a clear drinking glass can demonstrate this phenomenon by sticking his finger into the water- it appears to bend in an unusual way. The light is traveling at different speeds through the different mediums.
So, what am I saying, the speed of light isn't constant? You bet. It slows down all the time. Then, what does c stand for in the famous equation E=mc^2? The speed of light in vacuum. This refers to a particular behavior of light, and while we can make objects without mass that can momentarily exceed it through quantum tunneling or particularly odd patterns of bending, c has yet to be exceeded in any meaningful way. The occasions when we have been able to get light to exceed c are either done through technicalities, such as by sending random bits of light forward and some backwards, or only occur over a few feet.
This article refers to one of these technicalities. To help get your head around exactly what's happening, consider this: two ice skaters doing laps side by side around an oval track. At the far end of the track, the inside skater grabs her team mate and pivots, flinging her partner forward much faster than either of them could do on their own. When light hits certain mediums, the waves get squished together, some will slow or even go backwards and others will be flung forward. The effect is short-lived, and doesn't hold much promise yet for any practical purposes, but who knows what the future will hold?
So the take away is this: when you refer to the speed of light, remember that you're usually referring to the speed of light in a perfect vacuum.