XKCD is a comic which prides itself on inside science geek humor. It's rarely quite this arcane, though:
Thankfully, there's an entire site dedicated to explaining XKCD comics, titled, logically enough, explainxkcd.com. This week's comic will mystify most non-technical readers, but the explanation page is absolutely fascinating for lay science geeks like me.
A few things I learned:
1. The use of Earth for gravitational assists (i.e. to accelerate spacecraft), aka "flybys", sometimes results in speed gains that can't be accounted for. It's called "Flyby anomaly", and sometimes it's just a little bit of a difference, but other times it can be a substantial amount. And get this: one possible explanation is the existence of a dark matter halo around Earth!! Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Please, please let it be a dark matter halo! Man...I'm having a geek meltdown!
2. According to the explanation for the comic's mention of dark energy: "It's possible space itself has intrinsic energy." Oh boy! I'm having a tantric meltdown!
3. The cosmic background radiation is "incredibly uniform". I find that, for some reason, incredibly consoling. We are being sung to sleep from a chorus spread with painstaking evenness across the heavens.
4. Protons don't seem to be decaying. But it's cool, because their freshness expiration date is likely way in the future. Matter is only just getting started.
5. While hopping around Wikipedia reading up on all this stuff, I stumbled across a page explaining the Anthropic principle. I understand it only enough to be dangerous, so this summary will almost surely be both inept and inapt (heh...I'm having a linguistic meltdown), but here goes. The various cosmic rules we've worked out show remarkably scant overhead. Tinker just a bit with a constant here, a ratio there, and the universe would be vastly different, and couldn't possibly support intelligent life (I take issue with the apparent assumption that our sort of intelligent life is the only kind). So the Anthropic principle says (again, I'll get this wrong) that in a multiverse (an infinite - or at least extremely large - set of parallel universes), that very same intelligence is what selects the universe supporting the intelligence. It's tautological, but the theory's proponents recognize this.
Thing is, I already live in an unnaturally serendipitous universe in which any changed element would erase me. If my dad had used a condom, if the school bus hadn't braked in time, if my every single ancestral couple extending back tens of thousands of years hadn't fallen in love (or, at least, lust), I'd go "zoop". The current situation - any current situation - is built upon a tower of preposterous coincidences. But isn't that the intrinsic nature of all things in a time continuum - i.e. subject to cause/effect?
Also, I wish cosmologists and philosophers would consult mystics once in a while. Pretty much anyone who carries out diligent spiritual practice - regardless of background and tradition - will eventually have the same insight: consciousness is non-local, and the universe exists in consciousness, rather than vice versa. These days, with serious, starchy scientists taking in stride notions like quantum theory and (much less so, of course) this Anthropic principle, science is drawing closer to recognition of the full magnitude of the subject/object issue. We humans carry laboratories for the exploration of consciousness around with us, and over the eons many of us have compiled a model. It's a waste to ignore these hard-won findings.
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