Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Episode Takedown S01E02

Synopsis: After a child is born, ages, and dies in a matter of hours, the team tracks a killer who removes his victims’ pituitary glands.

Like many criminals, this man is stupid.  You know how they say you’re not supposed to have sex with your coworkers?  Yeah…I’m pretty sure that goes double for your organ harvestees. The team had his DNA immediately.  They didn’t mention it, but they definitely had it.  I wish the show would have just added one line of dialogue: “We got the perp’s DNA, but there was no match.”  That’s all I needed.  Really.

Our faithful antagonist’s greatest oversight, however, is this: all hormones created from the pituitary gland can be synthesized.  Not easily.  But, c’mon!  Both he and his father are clearly not happy about needing to kill others so that he can survive.  But, in fact, it’s totally unnecessary.

The technique used to recover the second prostitute’s last sight is not possible.  When light hits your eye it imparts some of its energy to the photoreceptors which lose that energy on passing the signal to the brain.  Losing that energy means the photoreceptor returns to its original state before the light hit it, that is to say, it is now dark.  This isn’t like looking through your browser history for that great joke-site you saw yesterday.

Finally, this episode violates the conservation of mass.  In a matter of hours an egg becomes a fully grown man.  It goes from a mass of roughly 0 kg to roughly 70 kg.  Where did that mass come from?  I assure you that if it was possible to absorb the necessary elements for body maintenance and growth from the air we would have evolved to do it.  No, we grow by eating, and that baby never ate.  His mass just appeared out of thin air.

The reason I like to harp on that so much is because the show tries to ground everything in science (or at least pseudo-science).  But violating conservation of mass is just straight magic.  Might as well be watching Lord of the Rings.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Episode Takedown S03E16

Synopsis: The team investigates a burglary where the criminals seem to have defied gravity.

This episode accomplishes a difficult task: it explicitly breaks the laws of physics, it justifies it, and then still manages to break its own rules.  Really, I’m impressed.

We see that there is about a thumb-sized chunk of osmium-lutetium alloy that Walter takes from the burglar’s blood.  We also see Ferris Bueller’s friend inject a patient with about the same amount.  Let’s call it 5 cubic centimeters.  The density of the human body is a little more than 1 gram per cubic centimeter.  We’ll call it one, ‘cause I’m lazy.  The density of air is 0.00122521 grams per cubic centimeter.  So for a human to float, his density needs to be decreased by a factor of 815!  So, we can use that to determine the mass of the osmium-lutetium alloy from this information.  Math…math…math.  The mass of the 5 cubic centimeters of alloy is about -70 kilograms.


That’s a density of -14000 grams per cubic centimeter.  The highest density material in the world is Osmium at 22 grams per cubic centimeter.  So not only is this compound negative mass, it’s also 700 times more dense than anything else we’ve ever seen.

The absurdities of negative mass get pretty intense; maybe I’ll cover them later.  But, suffice it to say, negative mass behaves significantly different than depicted in the show.  In fact, it’s the theoretical requirement for stabilizing wormholes and allowing time travel.  It also implies negative energy (E=mc^2 again, baby!), which as another host of weirdness to it.

So, yeah, this episode really pushed the boundaries of absurdity.  Also, before I forget, they keep calling the osmium-lutetium alloy a molecule.  God, that’s so lazy.  It’s an alloy, not a molecule.  The bonding is metallic, not covalent.  So easy to get it right, and they just didn’t bother.  I hope their mothers are ashamed.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Conservation of Energy

The conservation of energy (equivalently, mass; recall E=mc^2) might be the most important principle in physics.  Let’s start our discussion of it with s story.

In 1930, Wolfgang Pauli (of “Pauli exclusion principle” fame) was studying beta decay of nuclei when he discovered something peculiar: there was more mass in the starting material than there was in the products.  He did everything that he could to find every possible product, all to no avail.  At this time we were still in the quantum revolution; everything we knew about the world was changing: from relativity (both special and general) to quantum mechanics old rules were being broken and new rules created.  Consider: Einstein discovered a relationship where light behaved like a particle instead of a wave…so he invented photons.  Louis de Broglie found that sometimes particles behaved like waves…so he invented particle waves.

So now we have Pauli who discovered that conservation of energy didn’t hold in beta decay.  Only that’s not what he said.  He said that there was another product that we can’t detect at all.  Wait…what?

In the preceding 30 years the following laws had been overthrown: light is a wave, matter is a particle, mass is constant, energy is a function of wave amplitude and a host of others.  So here Pauli had the opportunity to throw conservation of energy into that mix and he doesn’t.  Why not?

In short, if the conservation of energy doesn’t hold then the universe will cease to exist.  Beta decay has been going on for 14 billion years.  If mass was not conserved in that process then the universe would be slowly disintegrating into nothingness.

So Pauli said that conservation of energy still held but we weren’t yet able to detect the particle that carried the extra energy away from the decay.  And guess what?  Twenty-six years later this particle, the neutrino, was detected.  In all the years since we have not discovered a single exception to this rule.

But why am I telling this story on a blog about Fringe?  Because I wanted to emphasize just who important and consistent this law is.  I will suspend my disbelief gladly about radical new diseases or crossing universes or traveling faster than light; for all these there is a theoretical foundation for possibility.  But even 80 years ago, with evidence to support doing away with the conservation of energy, it was a principle that was considered so important that we held onto it and that faith was rewarded.

Fringe tries to ground all of its paranormal experiences in science.  But there is no way in all history past present or future that the conservation of energy can ever be avoided, broken, or ignored.  And sometimes, this is what Fringe does.  And when they do, you can bet that I’ll be here to call them out on it. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Episode Takedown: S01E01

The best way to do the episode takedowns is from top to bottom.  It won’t happen that way, but I’ll try.

This being the pilot, it was important for the show to set up Walter’s eccentricity, and that starts with his lab.  Which is, of course, the biggest problem with the episode.  His lab should not be there anymore.  Every university is strapped for cash and space.  If a professor dies, you can bet that they’re dividing up his funding and lab space at the wake.  Hell, maybe even before.  Not even salvaging all the equipment that was down there?  Please.

And the cow.  Oh, the cow.  The cow is there to emphasize that Walter is eccentric.  No other reason.  You know what’s just as genetically similar to humans as a cow?  A mouse.  Have you seen the mouse room at a university laboratory?  Tiny cages literally stacked to the ceiling; it’s the kind of thing that drives PETA nuts.  But in research you really do need that many because you can’t consider any result significant unless it can be replicated over and over again.

The only thing we know about the compound, before the dramatic cure that is, is that it’s synthetic.  Umm, that’s not how chemistry works.  If they could have found ANY sample of the compound, they run it through IR, 1H NMR, UV, and mass spectrometry.  I’m an amateur, and if you give me only TWO of those I can (eventually) define the compound.

But the real fun in the episode is the shared consciousness experience.  The idea, as it is presented, is simple: your brain creates an electromagnetic field; that field changes based on which neurons are firing; and which neurons fire changes based on what you’re thinking about.  So, make the fields identical and you have the same thoughts!

Not even close.  Here are the additional variables that need to be controlled for (just the ones that I know; I’m a physical chemist, not a neuroscientist): brain size, electrolyte density, fat density, brain shape, neurotransmitter levels, neurotransmitter shapes etc.  But potentially all that can be controlled for.  Where things get really dicey is memory. 

When we have memories, it causes us to respond to new stimuli in different ways.  For example, my aunt grew up poor in Turkey and needed to eat maggots to survive.  Now, when she sees shrimp, it reminds her of maggots and she cringes.  When I was growing up I was super Christian, but in the eventually I began to feel manipulated.  Now, when I see happy children in a parochial school, I cringe.  See where I’m going?  Shrimp makes the “cringe” area of my aunt’s brain light up the way parochial students make the “cringe” area of my brain light up.  So, potentially, a shared brain-state between my aunt and myself results in confusing shrimp with schoolchildren.

Please, don’t eat the schoolchildren.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Multiverse #3: Reductio ad Absudum

This is the conclusion following from my previous two posts, and it's about to get really crazy (since it wasn't crazy before).

Remember, every second and infinite number of universes are being created due to the probabilistic nature of every atom.  And each of these universes is spinning off more universes.  So not only are constantly new universes being spun off of our universe, but also the alternate universe.  That means that, after Walter created the rip in the other universe, that universe has multiplied and created infinitely more universes.  So, actually, there should be an infinite number of universes at war with ours, thanks to Walter.  Fortunately, our universe has also spun off into an infinite number of new universes at the same rate as the alternate universe.  So, in theory, all the newly spun-off universes can just pair off and each war is one-on-one.  But the probability of that is….you guessed it, infinitely low.  So there’s bound to be at least one two-on-one situation, and almost certainly a ten-to-one situation, and a 100-to-1 situation, etc.  Suddenly, it seems the show should be much more dire.

That is to say, it’s dire for the particular universe in which the show takes place.  But in the grand scheme of things that hardly matters at all.  For if the alternative universe succeeds in destroying the universe inhabited by the show they have still not destroyed the infinite number of Walters that are being spun off from the so-called “original” Walter every second.  Let’s say Peter gets hooked up to the doomsday machine and blows our universe.  The exact moment he does that, another universe is spun off in which he decides not to, and thus an identical version of Walter, Olivia etc. continue to live.  In that sense, Walternate is fighting a war that he can literally never win.  No matter how many Walters he destroys, there are an infinite number getting spun off into new universes that he’ll never be able to reach, even as he spins off into an infinite number of himselves that are hunting Walter.

This is getting confusing.  But what it comes down to is that the protagonists can’t die.  Sure, their universe might be destroyed.  But if that universe goes down, there are an infinite number of replacements.  Maybe if someone points that out to Olivia she’ll relax a little bit.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Multiverse #2: Infinite Improbability

In my last post I covered why I don’t like the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics that is required for the existence of an alternate universe.  In this post, I would like to drive home just how ridiculously improbable the interaction with that universe is.

I have established that every second (or every period of time shorter than a second, for that matter) an infinite number of alternate universes are created for every atom in existence.  Thus there are a constantly increasing infinite number of alternate universes.

This leads to an interesting point: the likelihood of finding any one universe is literally infinitely small.  Imagine if you roll a die: there are six faces, so there is a 1/6 chance of any one face landing up.  Imagine now that you roll a die with an infinite number of faces.  Now what is the chance of a specific face landing up?  One over infinity.  Which, in mathematics, is treated as zero.  Of course, it isn’t actually zero.  One side HAS to show up.  But it’s a number so small it’s hard to imagine.

So it is already infinitely unlikely that any particular universe is found.  But consider the other ridiculous coincidences: the technology in the other universe is slightly better, but all of the people in this generation have the same DNA and same family tree, but a divergence is beginning in this generation with people marrying different people and sometimes having kids instead of being barren, etc.  To find a universe that meets those kinds of parameters is even more unlikely that the previously established one-over-infinity number.  Yikes.

So how did Walter find this universe through the window?  It stands to reason that, since he was dedicated to improving the well-being of mankind, he would want a universe that was slightly ahead technologically (not too much, or else he would not be able to understand what he was seeing).  It also stands to reason that he would want to view a universe in which he is able to recognize himself working in the same lab.  So his motivation in looking for what he found makes sense.

But how did he actually find it?  There are an infinite number of universes to browse through.  You know that impatient feeling you get when you search for something on Google and you don’t find it on the first page of results?  What if there were an infinite number of pages of results and you had to look through them all, and, oh-by-the-way, the number of results was increasingly exponentially every fraction of a second.  Yikes.

Ultimately, I forgive the show for all of this.  Because it’s fun to think about how some things could have been slightly different, and the alternate universe is a plot device that provides that.  So I suspend my disbelief.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Multiverse #1: Many Worlds

Understanding Fringe requires an understanding of quantum physics.  I'm not sure if the writers realize that.

The over-arching plot of the show is that Walter crossed into an alternate universe that closely resembled our own and now they are at war with us.  The amount of suspension-of-disbelief that this requires is staggering.

First, the presence of alternate universes is dependent on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.  There is no evidence that this is an incorrect interpretation.  But it is unsatisfying and not generally accepted.  The generally accepted interpretation is the Copenhagen Interpretation.  There is no evidence that the latter interpretation is the objective reality...mostly because the later interpretation denies the existence of an objective reality, but still.

The difference between the two views can be illustrated simply with Schroedinger's Cat.  Imagine a cat placed into a box with a poison vial that will release the poison as soon as a radioactive decay occurs.  The Copenhagen interpretation: Since, for a radioactive decay to occur, the waveform of the nucleus needs to collapse, and only an observation can collapse a wave function, as long as the box is closed the cat exists in an indeterminate state; it is both alive and dead at the same time.  The many worlds interpretation: the wave form collapses at every time that is probabilistically possible.  Each possibility creates another universe.  In some universes the cat is alive, in others it is dead.

Though at first blush the Copenhagen interpretation seems deeply unsatisfying it passes the Occam's Razor test: it is the simplest explanation that fits the facts.  The more I learn about quantum mechanics, the more I like that.  I find the many worlds interpretation appalling.  Consider radioactive decay as an example.  The decay of a radioactive isotope has a finite probability of occurring at any moment.  At every moment it can decay, and in this interpretation it does and in doing so it creates a new universe.  Time, though uncertain, is not quantized like energy is.  That means that, just in observing the decay of one atom over one second, and infinite number of universes have been created.  There are about 10^80 atoms in the universe, and each one results in the creation of an infinite number of new universes every second.  That means that every second, 10^80*infinity new universes are created.  Can you see now why this feels a little absurd?

But if we assume that the many worlds interpretation is correct, what are the chances that we would find a parallel universe like that which is depicted in Fringe?  I'll cover that next time.

Being a Nerd

I'm a nerd. I want to like Fringe. I watch it; maybe I do like it. But some things drive me nuts. This is going to be a blog about that. Maybe you'll read this and learn something. Maybe you'll read this and think it's funny how silly it is that I watch a stupid show. I'll write posts about specific episodes as well as the series in general. Enjoy.