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Dr. Bortrum

 

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11/09/1999

Life Goes On

[Editor: The following was written 10/31]

I''m shocked. Today is Halloween and I took my daily 3-mile
walk. What shocked me was that there was absolutely no toilet
paper, no soaped windows, nothing! And last night was
"mischief night". What is this world coming to? Where are the
days of my youth with overturned outhouses, trapped skunks
deposited on doorsteps, etc.? Not that there were no haunting
images this Halloween season. A lone bagpiper solemnly
striding down a misty fairway and today, another of too many
horrific plane crashes into the waters off our northeastern coast.
At times like these there are always the inevitable comments
about how tenuous and short life can be.

The quest to prolong life has been continuous, probably since
man became cognizant of the possibility. Ponce de Leon''s
fountain of youth still eludes us but we have certainly made great
strides in that direction in the fields of sanitation and medicine.
Aside from the conquest of disease and prevention of accidental
death, there is the question as to the fundamental limit of life
expectancy. Based on a few demonstrated lives of 120 or so
years, there''s experimental proof that man can expect to achieve
that figure as a reasonable target. It has been demonstrated in the
animal and insect world that cutting down on the amount of food
consumed can lead to remarkable increases in life span.
Strangely, this knowledge has not taken hold in the public
consciousness; witness the fattening of America currently
underway. (Those who know me consider me relatively slim,
but I admit that I''ve had to discard pants that I wore only a
couple years ago!)

In the November issue of Scientific American, I found a truly
eerie article dealing not with our current life expectancy, but
rather with the ultimate fate of life in our universe and just how
long we can live in the future. Not the near future, however.
We''re talking zillions, not just a few billions of years from now.
This article especially intrigued me because it not only treats a
fascinating subject but also mentions a former colleague from my
days working at NACA on the ill-fated atomic airplane (see
earlier column). This gentlemen, and he was truly a gentleman,
was Rolf Landauer. Rolf and I both became disenchanted with
our lives at NACA at about the same time. Rolf went to IBM
and I to Bell Labs. He became a superstar in the field of
computers and information theory. Unfortunately, his life ended
within the past year.

Back to life in the future. In this discussion we''ll leave out all
the doomsday scenarios that might erase all of us from the planet
in a flash such as a meteor or comet striking earth tomorrow.
Instead, let''s consider the big picture. Until the past year or so, I
personally liked the idea that the expansion of the universe
would slow down and that there was enough mass so that gravity
would lead to a reversal of the expansion and an eventual big
crunch. This notion was appealing to me because I naively
thought that the crunch would initiate another big bang and
things would start all over again. If this process kept happening
over and over again an infinite number of times, I figured that
there might be a teensy weensy chance that, in one of the infinite
number of big bangs, I might be reconstructed myself. I wasn''t
too sure that I would recognize that I had sprung into existence
again. However, I was heartened by the fact that Warren
Beatty''s sister seemed to think that she knew who or what she
was in her earlier version! If Warren does get into the White
House, when Shirley visits him she will only be carrying on the
precedent left by Hillary chatting with Eleanor Roosevelt!

Now, I am disappointed that all the recent evidence points to
there not being enough mass in the universe to slow down the
expansion. What''s worse, the expansion actually seems to be
speeding up! The unknown force pushing things apart has
resulted in the resurrection of Einstein''s discarded "cosmological
constant". This ploy disguises the fact that nobody seems to
have the foggiest idea what this force is. However, what
Lawrence Krauss and Glenn Starkman, the authors of the
Scientific American article, do is to accept this accelerating
expansion and carry it to its ultimate logical conclusion. For
starters, the expansion will keep accelerating, even up to and
beyond the speed of light, not a violation of Einstein''s theory in
this case. What this means is that, aside from those galaxies in
our local cluster of galaxies, everything that we see with all our
great telescopes will disappear from sight and the sky will
become virtually empty. Stars, of course, will have burned out
just as our sun should do in a few billion years.

Things will get mighty cold. Somewhere along the way, black
holes may prove to be the only source of energy and we might
have to place ourselves near them to harvest this energy
generated by the hole sucking in its own nourishment! So what
else must we do to survive? As things get colder and colder,
Krauss and Starkman suggest that we humans would have to
evolve to become lower and lower temperature creatures. At our
current body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, we throw
off roughly 100 watts, the same as the amount of energy to
power our 100-watt light bulb. As things cooled down, our
blood and other functions would have to evolve sufficiently to
operate way below zero Fahrenheit so that we could get along on
only 25 watts or so. Hey, we''ve found life at thermal vents in the
oceans and in frozen tundra. We can do it!

Whoops. There''s still a problem. We''ve got to get rid of the heat
and this is a real problem at the low temperatures. Heat can only
flow normally from a hot place to a cold place. And we''re
already pretty cold! So, what do we do? Well, it takes a lot of
energy to think and act upon our thoughts; so let''s not think and
act so much. We have to dumb ourselves down! This doesn''t
sound very promising but a fellow named Dyson has proposed an
alternative. We learn how to hibernate, use fewer watts and we
don''t have to get rid of as much heat. We could operate at even
colder temperatures just by waking up occasionally, have a few
thoughts and go back to sleep. This doesn''t really sound like too
exciting an existence but there is a payback. We could live
forever by sleeping more and more and thinking less and less
frequently! Furthermore, since we could live forever we could
have a huge total number of thoughts. We''d just live at a slower
pace (much slower!).

But wait. We''ve forgotten that we have to set alarm clocks to
wake us up. And those clocks take energy, which we''ve seen is
in short supply. Not only that, but it seems that Heisenberg''s
uncertainty principle enters in somehow. Because old
Heisenberg loused us up by saying you can''t measure the speed
and position of something to better than some limit, we''ve
reached that limit. We''d have to evolve some kind of internal
alarm clock that is more reliable than our tendency these days to
awaken before the alarm goes off. But, surely, we can do it!

And one more little item. The act of thinking can be likened to a
computational process. It takes energy to compute, or so it was
believed until the late Rolf came up with the idea that certain
quantum effects could be harnessed to perform computations
without expending any energy. I''m sure my feeble thoughts
these days don''t take much energy and I can imagine we could
develop that ability over a zillion years or so. But, I should have
known, there''s a catch. To accomplish this "lossless" computing
(thinking) you must never discard any information. That is you
can''t forget anything! This doesn''t sound too bad at first glance.
I''ve already had lots of practice forgetting things. However, as
the material and energy available becomes less and less and
things got colder and colder, in order to have a new thought,
you''d have to forget something. Without going into detail, the
authors conclude that with only a limited amount of information
available, we would be doomed to living for eternity having the
same thoughts over and over again, i.e., reliving the past
repeatedly.

Certainly life would then cease to be worth living with nothing to
look forward to but the past, so to speak. One possible way out
would be to make use of "wormholes", quantum mechanical
"tunnels" to other universes, if they exist. The possibility is that
we could send instructions through the wormholes to have
ourselves be reassembled in the other universe, hoping it to be
someplace we''d find to our liking! Somehow, I think we''d better
get cracking on this idea pretty darn soon. If we wait until things
get desperate, we won''t have enough thoughts available to us to
add 2 and 2, let alone figure out the quantum mechanics of
wormholes!

The authors conclude with the sentence, "Perhaps being
cognizant of our fascinating universe and our destiny within it is
a greater gift than being able to inhabit it forever." I''ll say
"Amen" to that!

Krauss and Starkman are both on the faculty of Case Western
Reserve University in Cleveland. As a former resident of
Cleveland while at NACA, I have to conclude by saying that I
really pity those two. The biographical information for the
article states that they''re both frustrated optimists and have been
unsuccessful in their search for ways for life to persist forever.
But what''s really sad is their unrealistic hope that the Cleveland
Indians will win the World Series in the time remaining.

Do you suppose the toilet paper supply in our area was exhausted
in the "ticker tape" parade for the Yankees?

Allen F. Bortrum

[Editor: Dr. Bortrum wonders about the toilet paper supply. I
can assure him that everyone is hoarding it in case of Y2K
supply disruptions. I am.]



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-11/09/1999-      
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Dr. Bortrum

11/09/1999

Life Goes On

[Editor: The following was written 10/31]

I''m shocked. Today is Halloween and I took my daily 3-mile
walk. What shocked me was that there was absolutely no toilet
paper, no soaped windows, nothing! And last night was
"mischief night". What is this world coming to? Where are the
days of my youth with overturned outhouses, trapped skunks
deposited on doorsteps, etc.? Not that there were no haunting
images this Halloween season. A lone bagpiper solemnly
striding down a misty fairway and today, another of too many
horrific plane crashes into the waters off our northeastern coast.
At times like these there are always the inevitable comments
about how tenuous and short life can be.

The quest to prolong life has been continuous, probably since
man became cognizant of the possibility. Ponce de Leon''s
fountain of youth still eludes us but we have certainly made great
strides in that direction in the fields of sanitation and medicine.
Aside from the conquest of disease and prevention of accidental
death, there is the question as to the fundamental limit of life
expectancy. Based on a few demonstrated lives of 120 or so
years, there''s experimental proof that man can expect to achieve
that figure as a reasonable target. It has been demonstrated in the
animal and insect world that cutting down on the amount of food
consumed can lead to remarkable increases in life span.
Strangely, this knowledge has not taken hold in the public
consciousness; witness the fattening of America currently
underway. (Those who know me consider me relatively slim,
but I admit that I''ve had to discard pants that I wore only a
couple years ago!)

In the November issue of Scientific American, I found a truly
eerie article dealing not with our current life expectancy, but
rather with the ultimate fate of life in our universe and just how
long we can live in the future. Not the near future, however.
We''re talking zillions, not just a few billions of years from now.
This article especially intrigued me because it not only treats a
fascinating subject but also mentions a former colleague from my
days working at NACA on the ill-fated atomic airplane (see
earlier column). This gentlemen, and he was truly a gentleman,
was Rolf Landauer. Rolf and I both became disenchanted with
our lives at NACA at about the same time. Rolf went to IBM
and I to Bell Labs. He became a superstar in the field of
computers and information theory. Unfortunately, his life ended
within the past year.

Back to life in the future. In this discussion we''ll leave out all
the doomsday scenarios that might erase all of us from the planet
in a flash such as a meteor or comet striking earth tomorrow.
Instead, let''s consider the big picture. Until the past year or so, I
personally liked the idea that the expansion of the universe
would slow down and that there was enough mass so that gravity
would lead to a reversal of the expansion and an eventual big
crunch. This notion was appealing to me because I naively
thought that the crunch would initiate another big bang and
things would start all over again. If this process kept happening
over and over again an infinite number of times, I figured that
there might be a teensy weensy chance that, in one of the infinite
number of big bangs, I might be reconstructed myself. I wasn''t
too sure that I would recognize that I had sprung into existence
again. However, I was heartened by the fact that Warren
Beatty''s sister seemed to think that she knew who or what she
was in her earlier version! If Warren does get into the White
House, when Shirley visits him she will only be carrying on the
precedent left by Hillary chatting with Eleanor Roosevelt!

Now, I am disappointed that all the recent evidence points to
there not being enough mass in the universe to slow down the
expansion. What''s worse, the expansion actually seems to be
speeding up! The unknown force pushing things apart has
resulted in the resurrection of Einstein''s discarded "cosmological
constant". This ploy disguises the fact that nobody seems to
have the foggiest idea what this force is. However, what
Lawrence Krauss and Glenn Starkman, the authors of the
Scientific American article, do is to accept this accelerating
expansion and carry it to its ultimate logical conclusion. For
starters, the expansion will keep accelerating, even up to and
beyond the speed of light, not a violation of Einstein''s theory in
this case. What this means is that, aside from those galaxies in
our local cluster of galaxies, everything that we see with all our
great telescopes will disappear from sight and the sky will
become virtually empty. Stars, of course, will have burned out
just as our sun should do in a few billion years.

Things will get mighty cold. Somewhere along the way, black
holes may prove to be the only source of energy and we might
have to place ourselves near them to harvest this energy
generated by the hole sucking in its own nourishment! So what
else must we do to survive? As things get colder and colder,
Krauss and Starkman suggest that we humans would have to
evolve to become lower and lower temperature creatures. At our
current body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, we throw
off roughly 100 watts, the same as the amount of energy to
power our 100-watt light bulb. As things cooled down, our
blood and other functions would have to evolve sufficiently to
operate way below zero Fahrenheit so that we could get along on
only 25 watts or so. Hey, we''ve found life at thermal vents in the
oceans and in frozen tundra. We can do it!

Whoops. There''s still a problem. We''ve got to get rid of the heat
and this is a real problem at the low temperatures. Heat can only
flow normally from a hot place to a cold place. And we''re
already pretty cold! So, what do we do? Well, it takes a lot of
energy to think and act upon our thoughts; so let''s not think and
act so much. We have to dumb ourselves down! This doesn''t
sound very promising but a fellow named Dyson has proposed an
alternative. We learn how to hibernate, use fewer watts and we
don''t have to get rid of as much heat. We could operate at even
colder temperatures just by waking up occasionally, have a few
thoughts and go back to sleep. This doesn''t really sound like too
exciting an existence but there is a payback. We could live
forever by sleeping more and more and thinking less and less
frequently! Furthermore, since we could live forever we could
have a huge total number of thoughts. We''d just live at a slower
pace (much slower!).

But wait. We''ve forgotten that we have to set alarm clocks to
wake us up. And those clocks take energy, which we''ve seen is
in short supply. Not only that, but it seems that Heisenberg''s
uncertainty principle enters in somehow. Because old
Heisenberg loused us up by saying you can''t measure the speed
and position of something to better than some limit, we''ve
reached that limit. We''d have to evolve some kind of internal
alarm clock that is more reliable than our tendency these days to
awaken before the alarm goes off. But, surely, we can do it!

And one more little item. The act of thinking can be likened to a
computational process. It takes energy to compute, or so it was
believed until the late Rolf came up with the idea that certain
quantum effects could be harnessed to perform computations
without expending any energy. I''m sure my feeble thoughts
these days don''t take much energy and I can imagine we could
develop that ability over a zillion years or so. But, I should have
known, there''s a catch. To accomplish this "lossless" computing
(thinking) you must never discard any information. That is you
can''t forget anything! This doesn''t sound too bad at first glance.
I''ve already had lots of practice forgetting things. However, as
the material and energy available becomes less and less and
things got colder and colder, in order to have a new thought,
you''d have to forget something. Without going into detail, the
authors conclude that with only a limited amount of information
available, we would be doomed to living for eternity having the
same thoughts over and over again, i.e., reliving the past
repeatedly.

Certainly life would then cease to be worth living with nothing to
look forward to but the past, so to speak. One possible way out
would be to make use of "wormholes", quantum mechanical
"tunnels" to other universes, if they exist. The possibility is that
we could send instructions through the wormholes to have
ourselves be reassembled in the other universe, hoping it to be
someplace we''d find to our liking! Somehow, I think we''d better
get cracking on this idea pretty darn soon. If we wait until things
get desperate, we won''t have enough thoughts available to us to
add 2 and 2, let alone figure out the quantum mechanics of
wormholes!

The authors conclude with the sentence, "Perhaps being
cognizant of our fascinating universe and our destiny within it is
a greater gift than being able to inhabit it forever." I''ll say
"Amen" to that!

Krauss and Starkman are both on the faculty of Case Western
Reserve University in Cleveland. As a former resident of
Cleveland while at NACA, I have to conclude by saying that I
really pity those two. The biographical information for the
article states that they''re both frustrated optimists and have been
unsuccessful in their search for ways for life to persist forever.
But what''s really sad is their unrealistic hope that the Cleveland
Indians will win the World Series in the time remaining.

Do you suppose the toilet paper supply in our area was exhausted
in the "ticker tape" parade for the Yankees?

Allen F. Bortrum

[Editor: Dr. Bortrum wonders about the toilet paper supply. I
can assure him that everyone is hoarding it in case of Y2K
supply disruptions. I am.]