BB #79: Near Zero

If you know me, or if you’ve followed this blog a while, you know I honor Solar holidays more than human ones. The former are directly linked with the seasons, obviously (and who doesn’t love seasons), but to me they’re about how much (or how little) sunlight we get.

If you know me, or if you’ve followed this blog a while, you know sunlight really matters to me. The skylight in my living room was a key buying point for my condo, and enough south-facing windows was always a requirement.

I may love the night and the lights, but I thrive on sunlight.

And as of 14:21 CST today (19:21 UTC), it’s officially fall (in the northern hemisphere), and we’ll all be getting less than a half-day of it. Daylight, I mean. As much as I love just about everything September brings, the Autumnal Equinox kinda bums me out.

Worse, as I explained last Vernal Equinox, the rate of change in day length is at its maximum. The breathtaking sprint of spring waking up is balanced by the equally quick slide into the cold darkness of winter. So the light is fading fast.

[I’m vaguely unhappy the notion that winter is coming now has a brain link forged to an HBO show I didn’t watch. The memes of modern life.]

§ §

Speaking of the coming cold, I watched a video Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder did with Dr. Rohin Francis, a cardiologist who also has a YouTube channel (Medlife Crisis). They did a pair of videos: In one he asks her non-scientist questions for her video. In the other she asks him non-doctor questions for his.

I only watched the one of him questioning her:

It’s generally low-level stuff. Any long-time serious fan of physics could have answered his questions. I was struck by one bit she touched on, when Dr. Francis asked why life on Earth was so close, comparatively speaking, to absolute zero.

Which, given the Planck temperature is ~1.4×1032 Kelvin, is a fair question. (The Planck temperature is the highest possible temperature.) Water boils at only 373 Kelvin. Given the temperature scale, that’s indistinguishable from absolute zero.

What struck me was the déjà vu. Lee Smolin had mentioned the same thing in his book, Time Reborn (see this post) so it was fresh in my mind. Yet another case of synchronicity.

The answer is that chemical bonding is only possible when matter is comparatively “frozen” — at high temperatures structures disassociate too quickly. (Dr. Hossenfelder notes that stars are a lot hotter. (And plasma has no persistent structure.))

The video is worth watching, although one might find it a paradox. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) The heart doc asks good questions. (Another good one was how we know quarks and electrons are fundamental, not composite.)

§ §

It seems likely we’re also near zero in terms of time. The universe is thought to be 13.77 billion years old, which might seem like a long time.

Some scenarios posit a Big Rip as soon as at 22 billion years which would put us past half the life of the cosmos. But most scenarios estimate a much longer lifetime — trillions of years or more.

If we take the lifetime of the universe to be two-trillion years then we are less than 1% into its lifetime. If that lifetime was a 24-hour clock, right now it would be just under 10 minutes past midnight. The whole day yet awaits.


We’re pretty close to zero when it comes to gravity and pressure, too. Our own Solar system has objects with gravities and pressures that would instantly crush us (black holes even more so). Even Earth has killing pressures.

It does seem most hospitable for life near zero. All the interesting stuff happens at one end of the scale. An interesting thing to ponder.

§ §

Somehow it all reminds me of one of my favorite Hal Clement stories, Iceworld (1953).

Clement, who wrote diamond-hard science fiction, is one of my favorite authors, so Iceworld is a favorite by a favorite.

It’s mostly told from the point of view of an alien (a specialty of Clement’s). For the first part of the book the reader is kept in the dark about that as well as about the frozen icy “alien” world that interests the character.

Who is Stallman Ken, an interplanetary narcotics agent. He finds it hard to believe any life, let alone intelligent life, could evolve in such a frozen hell, but apparently it has, and it’s the source of the most dangerous narcotic ever known. Smugglers trade with the natives for the drug using unmanned landers capable of withstanding the cold.

[Spoiler] During the occasional viewpoint shifts, we learn Ken is the alien, the “ice world” is Earth, and the narcotic is tobacco. (A bit interesting for a book written in 1953.) The smugglers have been trading “common rocks” (diamonds and other gems) for packages of cigarettes.

Which have to be specially handled because they instantly vaporize at “normal” temperatures.

(Ken is amazed that the air he breaths — sulfur — is a yellow solid on the ice world. We might think the same of the frozen oxygen on Pluto. A lifeform on Pluto would see water ice the same way we see granite.)

And, of course, even Stallman Ken’s home world is a frozen one compared to the Planck temperature. Even 10,000 Kelvin is a tiny fraction of that.

§ §

Dig out the winter coats! You-know-what is coming.

Stay warm, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

55 responses to “BB #79: Near Zero

  • Wyrd Smythe

    After many months (at least five) of relatively trouble-free operation, my cursed Wi-Fi problems are back. This damn Dell drops the Wi-Fi connection randomly at least once a day now, and a few times I’ve had to reboot to get it back. (Usually I can get the Windows Troubleshooter to reset the network card, which brings the connection back.)

    So what changed after five months? That’s what I want to know.

    (I’ve come to hate this Dell even more than the Sony Vaio I had before this. That was just an aggravation compared to the misery this damn Dell causes.)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Happy Autumnal Equinox Wyrd!

    The season of insufficient warmth is coming.

    I’ve actually been having my own network issues lately. I haven’t figured out yet if it’s my provider, my old gear showing its age, or some combination. I have a new modem and router sitting by the old stuff, but been too lazy to deal with the logistics of swapping them out. But I’ve had to power cycle the old stuff twice in the last few days. Eventually the balance of laziness will shift.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      And to you, too, Mike!

      Insufficient enough to freeze water! 😦

      Ha, yeah! There’s always that threshold. The PITA index. I just wanna know what TF changed?

      (One of the local papers used to rank recent winters by a Pain Index they’d made up based on amount of snowfall, days below zero, length of the season, and several other factors. Climate change softened the winter blow a bit, and now people don’t talk about pain that much anymore.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Sorry, I don’t know what that means, and Google wasn’t helpful (it just mentions a movie).

      • Sai Sundar S

        Adithya is sun krama means order vikrama means changing the order of path . Change of path of sun can be mentioned by a single word” Vikramathithya”. It is the name of an Indian emperor too whose empire was the lattitude where the sun changes it’s order of path. The writings of great Indian astronomer Aryabhatta in his very old palm scripts described scientifically this He is the court scholar of the great Indian emperor … Thank you…

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Thanks for the info! It’s very impressive how ancient cultures studied — and knew — the skies. Their observations were amazingly accurate given their tools.

      • Sai Sundar S

        One more sad thing I will tell you Google showing it as the name of a cinema It is the fate of an ancient language Sanskrit …

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Digging deeper, there are some links to stories about a king. The movie link is:

      • Sai Sundar S

        Universal language English is so beautiful but we should show interest to revive the ancient languages to dig out our past and to know how scientifically advanced was the past. One such language is Sanskrit so many beautiful languages around us are facing the same dilemma You are lover of books so I mentioned it !

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m not sure I agree English is a beautiful language. It’s certainly a powerful and effective one, and it’s one of the few languages that continues to evolve and grow. But I don’t know that it’s pleasant on the ears (I think the romance languages, for instance, sound far better), and logically it’s a melted pot mess. As you may know, learning English is a challenge. (We park in driveways and drive on parkways!)

        Many great languages are being lost in the modern world, and that is a tragedy. I know some work to preserve them, but languages need to be used by people. They need to be alive.

        (One of my best friends when I lived in Los Angeles was named Shantih, which she said was from Sanskrit. She had a sister named Naia. Beautiful names!)

      • Sai Sundar S

        You Said it The great Romantic poets like Keats and Byron gives us so romantic poems All Languages are so beautiful just like all human have some good quality we have to look only the beauty that is all. Extremely happy to communicate with you Thank you…

  • Sai Sundar S

    Vikramadithya was the string .
    A String theory ha ha ha…

  • Anonymole

    Perhaps there are plasma beings buzzing around in some hyper temperature nebula wondering why life is clustered around the high end of the temperature range.

      • Anonymole

        Not a fan of Brin. The man comes across as egotistical and arrogant. Kevin Costner’s Postman is my only exposure. So, no.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Speaking as someone who’s been accused of both, it can be the confidence that one knows what one is talking about that comes from a very good track record. When one has a history of getting it right, at what point is one allowed to start believing in that ability?

        There is also that performers of all stripes (and given social media perhaps authors are now also performers) need ego and arrogance to think they can stand up in front of crowds and entertain them. Without belief in oneself, one can become paralyzed and mute. (Think stage fright or being called on in class without having studied.)

        That said, some people can really turn one off for whatever reason. I avoid Adam Sandler films, for example (although “avoid” is such a mild word in this case), and I’ve never liked Steven Spielberg’s work. And, rightly or wrongly, I got very turned off by Piers Anthony, which was a bummer because his early stuff is wonderful.

        I don’t have the fiction-writing aspirations of many bloggers, so I don’t pay much attention to who’s who and what’s what in the authorial world. I’m strictly a consumer! 🙂 I have no sense of who David Brin is as a person. But, FWIW, he’s one of my favorite modern hard SF authors. (If I just say “favorite SF authors” he gets a bit lost in the crowd.) I’ve liked everything I’ve read of his.

        I’d probably rank Postman near the bottom, but that may be because most post-apocalypse or dystopia stories bore me. There’s a sameness to them that, once one has done that dance a bunch of times, doesn’t offer a lot of variety. I’d rank Postman as … just okay. (You mention Costner. Did you only see the movie or did you read the book?)

        For more FWIW, Brin has a universe, the Uplift universe, where the galaxy has lots of alien species. Power accrues from “uplifting” pre-intelligent species, which creates a patron-client relationship (of virtual ownership) for many years until the client species gains power by uplifting other species. All known intelligent species were uplifted by someone else. None evolved on their own.

        Except those annoying (arrogant, egotistical) humans who just kinda showed up, a wild species. Who should have zero status (and are generally viewed that way) except humans on their own uplifted dolphins and chimps and are therefore a patron species.

        That’s the universe that Sundiver takes place in. Other aliens help us build a ship that can explore the Sun’s outer layers. (Unfortunately, Brin’s laser cooling trick doesn’t work, like, at all. They’d be vaporized.)

        If you like hard SF, you might want to reconsider Brin. #justsaying

      • Anonymole

        I’ve followed Brin for years, twitter, other venues. He’s oft quoted by Isaac Arthur on his youtube channel. Postman: movie only. There was some clay people story I tried to read, the premise was absurd so I quit it.

        There might be a bit of envy mixed in with my dislike. Gonna see if my biases might be ameliorated by some education:

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah, you’re talking about Kiln People (2002). I liked it okay. It satisfied my primary ask for fiction: Take me someplace new. I read SF because it can do that much more easily than most straight fiction. Brin found a bit of a new spin on the robot/clone/doppelganger axis. It’s also a detective story, and I just plain like those.

        In any event, Kiln People is a standalone novel, so you really haven’t experienced his Uplift books. All I can really say is that, if you like hard SF, Brin delivers. Like most hard SF it’s not literary champagne, but I like beer, too. (I think it was author Robert B. Parker who said, “The best beer I ever had? The last one.” I’ve heard others answer, “The one in my hand,” or “A cold one!”)

        It’s a tough call, the degree to which our opinions on people or subjects affect what we like or dislike about them. As I mentioned last comment, we all have our thresholds and triggers. I really like decent hard SF, so that’s my bias. (For me there’s some conflict with James P. Hogan, whose worldview I don’t really want to know about.)

      • Anonymole

        Well, that helped. Lots of good stuff there.
        The fermi paradox mashup of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s “if we are the only elevated intelligence species in 500 million years of evolution, intelligence must not be all that beneficial for existence. In combination with Brin’s we’re the only calm, rational species makes a good argument for our uniqueness being a solution.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Delighted to hear it! 🙂 Enjoy reading some Brin! 😀 (I recommend the aforementioned Sundiver or Startide Rising as entry points.)

        Regarding the Fermi Paradox, have I ever mentioned the thing about, if we assume six events required for us to be having this conversation (e.g. Goldilocks world, big moon for tidal pools, gas giants in outer system to shield, right location in galaxy, local metallicity (gold in them there gas clouds), etc), and we assume a very reasonable 1/10000 odds (minimum) for each, then:


        That’s roughly twice as many stars as in the Local Group, so on just this rough, rough estimate, the odds are overwhelming we’re alone in the Local Group (let alone this galaxy).

        Our uniqueness is a huge failure of the Copernican Principle that we’re nothing special, and it sure feels like it ought to mean something.

      • Anonymole

        My own calculations put us at 2^70 unique, with additional powers of two being added nearly every year. I’m gonna go lookup Brins’ list of 100 top solutions to the ‘Dox. The fact that, given the need for London’esque Kill or be Killed, Eat or be Eaten behavior in the animal kingdom the recognition of our calm, rational nature, bucking this aggressive trend, is a tribute to Brin’s thoughtful analysis of our species.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, 270 ≈ 1.18×1022, so our rough estimates are within a couple of orders of magnitude. For reference, 280 ≈ 1.21×1025.

        As I think we’ve talked about before, one answer to the Fermi Paradox is that intelligent species just aren’t intelligent enough to survive their own aggressive origins. Both Frederik Pohl and Octavia Butler have stories in which aliens tell us that no species that is both hierarchical and intelligent ever survives itself. (Butler’s are working to save ourselves from ourselves.)

        Given our single data point, it’s hard to argue otherwise…

      • Anonymole

        The beauty of 2’s is that it easy to explain (I’ve practiced). Every power is a coin toss. 70 flips of a coin, all landing heads, is fantastically improbable. Some factors, like the mystically magical existence of our moon, might be six or eight of those tosses.

        There another reason I like binary notation, the 2^tenth-power gives us (roughly):
        2^10 = 1000 (one set of zeros)
        2^20 = 1,000,000 (two sets of zeros)
        2^30 = 1,000,000,000 (three sets)
        and so on
        A billion trillion?
        2^30 * 2^40 = 2^70 = 1,(7 sets of 000’s).
        Fun stuff.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, I can see 2s could be easier. I’ve ended up in debates about my 1/10000 odds, so there is obviously more of an assumption there. You need 70+ coin flips, where I need 6 low-odds events, but we’re doing basically the same thing:


        As an aside, in terms of coin flips, 1/10000 odds would be:




        Yes, the progression of 10s in powers of two very very handy and cool! It does start to break down around 100 bits:

          10: 1.0e+03
          20: 1.0e+06
          30: 1.1e+09
          40: 1.1e+12
          50: 1.1e+15
          60: 1.2e+18
          70: 1.2e+21
          80: 1.2e+24
          90: 1.2e+27
         100: 1.3e+30
         110: 1.3e+33
         120: 1.3e+36
         130: 1.4e+39
         140: 1.4e+42
         150: 1.4e+45
         160: 1.5e+48
         170: 1.5e+51
         180: 1.5e+54
         190: 1.6e+57
         200: 1.6e+60
         210: 1.6e+63
         220: 1.7e+66
         230: 1.7e+69

        But one rarely needs to go that high. 30-digit numbers? That’s Planck level.

        Perhaps this is old hat, but for lurkers, conversion from 2^N to 10^M (or vice versa) just requires logs:

        \displaystyle{2}^{N}={10}^{log_{10}(2)*{N}}\\[0.5 em]{10}^{N}={2}^{log_{2}(10)*{N}}

        The same pattern can be used for any two bases.

      • Anonymole

        6 low odd things…

        Where the coin flips come in handy are in the other factors. (I’m rather a fan of discussions regarding the ‘Dox…)

        Some of the factors that would have to have analogs on other planets, that may or may not be coin-flips: The existence of trees (would we even have civilization without them?), beasts of burden (hand planting/sowing/harvesting/transportation?), plentiful NFE (nearly free energy) in the form of coal and oil, perfect rise of tech during CME lulls, rubber trees, bat and bird guano, the N2 Haber process, the list goes on and on. Without any of these, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Maybe in 1000, or 10,000 years or more. But, as you point out, we have only one example to work with.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        One difference here is your analysis goes beyond multicellular life, whereas mine focuses exclusively on the requirements of getting to multicellular life. I’ve always assumed that, given the voraciousness of life, once you have multicell, the rest just kinda follows.

        In one form or another. Your coin flips account for the humans and civilization we ended up with!

      • Anonymole

        Cool. That’s the intent I was going for. You’re the first to pick up on this.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s kind of a light cone analysis — all the causes that led to a moment. I’ve thought about that in terms of my own life — all the chance events that led to me being here now. Some of the really big ones really were chance. Discovering my artistic side and what turned out to be my career designing software both exist because I just happened to take a certain high school or college class.

        I, too, enjoy talking about the Fermi Paradox. (And writing about it!) Perhaps as you might have been, I grew up reading SF, so I always wanted aliens. From a young age, I anticipated a galaxy teaming with intelligent life. (“And then I woke up.”)

        My main take on it is, firstly, as we’ve been discussing, just getting to multicellular life may have very high odds. It’s possible we’re the only complex lifeforms for quite some distance. (I’ve heard some estimates place it at ‘visible universe’ — I’m more confident with Local Group or Milky Way, but visible universe wouldn’t surprise me.)

        If complex life is more common, though, then I think one of the Great Filters has to be the tendency to destroy one’s biosphere in a combination of advanced technology and unadvanced thinking. Intelligence tends to discover powerful tools before it discovers how to coexist with them. According to some, the atomic bomb was a close shave. (Our recent advances in genetic manipulation have some scary consequences, too.)

        Bottom line, I think intelligence is highly unlikely, but if it does occur, it’s highly likely to kill itself off or sink into a saw-tooth pattern of advancing and declining — something that seems to be happening now as we decline into anti-intellectualism and even anti-science. We may not only have reached our peak as a species, but gone past it into a valley. Very hard to imagine us getting our shit together long enough to explore local stars, let alone the galaxy.

      • Anonymole

        Agree on all points.

        The Great Filters, I suspect are more universal (ha), that is, it’s the Universe that has no need for life and so unconsciously selects against it. And the higher up the IQ mountain, the rarer the air, and the more chance that any kind of planetary or cosmic calamity will knock you down again.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, very true. It’s somewhat like a system seeking a low-entropy state. Our civilization represents such a state, and chaos always lurks at the edges hoping for an opportunity.

        (Huh. Writing that… I wonder if that’s what Terry Pratchett had in mind in his Discworld series when he wrote about the ancient things lurking just outside reality hoping for a way in. He often did mix a surprising amount of science and physics into his magic. I especially loved the ants-as-bits computer, Hex.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        P.S. I’ll introduce you to a trick Mike Smith and I use. We assume we always Like each other’s comments and then only Like a comment as a way of saying, “Good show! I have nothing further to add. Until next time!” I feel bad if I do that with people who Like my comments as we go along. It gets to be obligatory, and if I forget I risk hurting someone’s feelings or making them wonder. So just take it as given you’re a welcome visitor here and your comments are always liked!

      • Anonymole

        I almost clicked the like button…
        Such is the culture of gratuitous accolades. I’ll admit, liking comments is a bother.
        Your notion has been received and registered.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        You might want to consider Brin’s Existence, which is a good standalone SF novel with the Fermi Paradox at its center. I liked it so much I wrote a two-part review (part 1 and part 2).

      • Anonymole

        Will hunt it down, Grassy-ass

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        There are a number of authors whose work I enjoy but find hard to take on social media. Brin is one of them. Another is Neal Asher whose tweets I sometimes have to quickly scroll past. Sometimes the best thing to do is enjoy the art and not look too closely at the man (or woman) behind the curtain.

      • Anonymole

        I’ve read a fair amount of Asher’s work. Enjoyed it all. So, yeah, if the guy’s an ass, the truth of which I have not known nor sought out, but his work has merit, it would be our loss, I suppose.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Asher’s not bad, actually kind of interesting, as long as he stays away from politics. Even then, it’s usually British politics which I’m not emotionally invested in. But I’ve learned not to parse his tweets about COVID.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s quite a conundrum, the work versus the worker. I do try to separate them (typically by ignoring the worker), but we all have our thresholds and triggers. (Cancel culture tends to have a very high threshold. A hair trigger.)

        The most extreme example is the “medical research” the nazis did in WWII. Objectively it’s valuable and kind of irreplaceable data, but the way it was obtained stains it, for most, unacceptably.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I find cancel culture offensive. (And I don’t offend easily.) If someone were odious enough it might cause me to personally decide not to read or view their work, but I wouldn’t try to have it canceled for everyone else. I’d speak out against them if I felt it was warranted, but censoring them just makes them look like martyrs.

        I once came across a citation of Nazi data in material on the effects of extreme sleep deprivation. It was presented without comment. A weird thing to see.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I take the same view of cancel culture. It goes back to that thing about how one right we do not have is the right to never be offended. In a free society, it’s more a guarantee that one will be offended, actually. You’re quite right that it often boomerangs and promotes the thing. (Getting a movie or book banned by the Catholic church was always great free publicity!)

        I suppose that once enough time passes, that data has less social weight. All those who remember need to pass on. Another (very weird) version of the thing about how science progresses when the old guard dies off.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Turned the furnace on yesterday, and it’s likely it’ll be on until spring. Which means closed windows until spring. Which I hate.

    Maybe we’ll get one more warm spell… 🤞

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I looked up and saw that it’s snowing. Our first of the season. No way to tell if it’ll stick around, but here we go…

  • Wyrd Smythe

    December 2, 9:00 AM,… and it’s 41 degrees out! 😮

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