Monday, May 4, 2009

Zeno's Paradox

I seem to be on a finishing books streak - in the past few weeks, I've managed to finish 4 (that's right, four!) books. Yup - read the whole thing, all by my own self. I'm such a big boy.

This really is something of an anomaly for me. I'm usually in the middle of reading five or six books at any given time, and actually getting to the last page of any of them is a rare event. But I managed to plug through The Peter Principle, Outliers, The Peacekeepers and Zeno's Paradox. 

But today I'm writing about a book titled Zeno's Paradox (by Joseph Mazur). The thing that caught my eye on this book was its subtitle: Unraveling the ancient mystery behind the science of space and time. Now, I've always wanted to unravel the ancient mystery behind the science of space and time, and was quite happy to find a book that could do it for me. I have to say, I wasn't disappointed.

The book presents an overview of how scientific thought developed, beginning with the Greeks and drawing a (relatively) straight line to the latest theories of quantuum dynamics and particle physics. It was a heck of a read - very story based, like Gladwell, but not afraid to include some equations (algabra & calculus!). There's also quite a bit about the psychology of perception, a topic I'm deeply interested in. In fact, that's sort of the core question behind it all. Is the universe continuous or not? Does time and space flow smoothly, or is it merely a series of discrete events? Is motion an illusion? Is time? Whoa... that's some deep stuff.

I wish I'd read this book in high school, or at least in college. Not that I would have fully understood and appreciated it back them, but it might have helped bring to life the mystery, passion and personalities behind the development of scientific and mathematical thought. The guys who came up with all these weird equations and laws that I had to memorize - these guys were deeply curious about how the universe works. They were doing stuff because they wanted to, not because some professor was insisting on it. They were challenging conventional thought. They were pretty darn cool.

So - Zeno's Paradox, by Joseph Mazur, gets two big thumbs up. I'd suggest going to your local book store to pick up a copy, but unfortunately before you get there, you'd have to travel half the distance... and then half the remaining distance... and you'd never actually arrive. Thank goodness for the internet - you can order the book without actually trying to go anywhere - and hey, motion is an illusion anyway, right?


Mark said...

The previous post's title and this one go nicely together - was that planned? :)

As far as Zeno's Paradox goes, I think quantum mechanics pretty much solves it. The Paradox is based on the concept of infinite divisibility, but quantum mechanics says that at some point you can't do "half steps" any more. Matter and energy are discrete, not continuous. Another way to think about it is that there is some probability that your personal wavefunction is already in the bookstore!

BTW - one of my Philosophy prof's last name was Zeno. No kidding.

The Dan Ward said...

@Mark - Yes, quantum mechanics is indeed the latest solution to Zeno's Paradox (there were several other times in history that people thought they'd solved it). The question, as you pointed out, was whether the universe was discrete or continuous.

It's so weird to think of a thing being in Location 1, then being in Location 2, without ever being at Location 1.5. We have no experience of this kind of noncontinuous movement. It boggles the mind that a thing could go from here to there instantaneously, skipping the interim distance entirely. But as far as we can tell, that's what happens if you get small enough.

It's weird, I tell you. Deeply weird.

The Dan Ward said...

(and no, the two titles weren't planned this way - funny!)

Kimmer said...

You guys make my brain hurt.

Mark said...

Let's put it this way... you can write a whole blog post, or you can write half a blog post.

In that half blog post, you can write two paragraphs, or you can only write one paragraph.

In that one paragraph, you can write 2 sentences or just one sentence.

You can split the sentence down to individual words, and the words down to individual letters.

But you can't type half a letter.

Blogs are quantum phenomena.

Now, shut off your screen while composing a post (preferably a post about cats). While you are typing, there is some chance that your computer locks up or something, which would result in the letters you pushed not appearing in your post. Or maybe the computer is fine and they are there. You don't know because the screen is off, right?

The part that really can blow your mind is that the letters are simultaneously there and not there in your post! Until you turn on your screen, and collapse their wavefunction by observing them.