Archive for the ‘Environment & science’ Category

Declining Cork Farms – The Price of Progress?

Friday, July 24th, 2015
Cork Trees

A copse of cork trees in Alentejo

We have just returned from a fortnight in the baking heat of Alentejo.  The temperature ranged around 35oC, reaching 40oC on a couple of melting afternoons.  But the pool was our saviour.

Everywhere we looked there were cork trees, growing individually, in small groups or large plantations.  Their ancient-looking, gnarled branches seemed like witch’s fingers pointing crookedly to the blue skies.

Many of their stems were a deep red-brown colour, similar to the rusty coloured rich Alentejan soils.  This was where they have been skilfully cut to remove the corky layer of bark from their stems.  Harvesting is done every 9-10 years, so it’s roughly 1 in 9 that have this rich brown trunk.

Apparently, half of the world’s corks come from here.  It’s an industry started by Dom Pérignon, the monk Champagne maker, in the seventeenth century.  While Dom Pérignon is famed for wine-making, he also introduced the cork as the stopper of choice instead of wood.

Cork is perfect as it’s inert, sustainable and biodegradable.  It also makes a nice plup sound when pulled out.

Bark growing on cork tree

Bark growing on cork tree

Cork bark

Cork Drying In Yard

But now we replacing these with plastic stoppers or screw caps.  These are promoted because they have no different taste impact versus cork, plus for screw-caps convenience is given as a plus point.

However, I now can’t help feeling this is a mistake.

Cork is sustainable, renewable and biodegradable.  Cork supports unique ecosystems in the Alentejo, as well as supporting a rural economy.

Whereas plastic stoppers are just that plastic.  They are not “green” – neither recyclable nor sustainable nor renewable – and do not help rural economies.  Screw caps are recyclable in theory, but they certainly don’t help the Alentejo.

The consequence is that cork farms are being abandoned or cut down or not replanted after forest fires.

Progress?

I’m going to stop buying plastic tops and screw cap bottles, now.

Cork Trees in Alentejo

Cork Trees in Alentejo

Cinnamongate: is cinnamon safe to eat?

Sunday, July 19th, 2015

We regularly get asked questions about the safety of cinnamon, e.g. “is cinnamon safe to consume?” or “how much coumarin is there in Steenbergs cinnamon?”  There’s a lot of chatter about this issue in webworld and in blogs.

Cinnamon Quills_02

Cinnamon quills packed into boxes from Sri Lanka

Because of these queries, I thought it useful to investigate the situation and find out the levels of coumarin in some Steenbergs’ products.

In summary:

  • Cassia cinnamon and true cinnamon are very different spices but both are generally sold as “cinnamon”
  • Steenbergs labels and sells true cinnamon as “cinnamon” and cassia cinnamon as “cassia”
  • Cassia cinnamon contains high levels of coumarin, but true cinnamon almost no coumarin
  • Coumarin, so cassia cinnamon, should be ingested in limited amounts:

No more than 1 teaspoon of cassia cinnamon per day, based on EU recommendations for Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) of 0.1 mg of coumarin per kg bodyweight every day

  • Cinnamon (true cinnamon) is safe to eat in terms of coumarin and your health
  • Coumarin may cause liver damage in some susceptible people, but its effects usually appear to be  reversible and so overeating of cassia for short periods does not usually appear to be a problem

If you need further information, you should consult a doctor.  I have taken the data for this blog from official Government sources and current scientific papers, so it is up-to-date as of 19 July 2015.

MORE DETAIL

What is coumarin?
Coumarin is a naturally occurring volatile oil (benzo-α-pyrone), found in many plants, e.g. cassia, cinnamon, tonka beans, vanilla and woodruff.  It gives that pleasing and heady cinnamon aroma – a direct, sweet, fresh hay character.  It was first isolated in tonka beans in the 1820s and took its name from the old botanical name for tonka – Coumarouna which in turn came from the native French Guianan name for the tonka tree, kumarú.

Where is coumarin found?  As mentioned above, it is found in various spices.  However, the most important route of intake is via cassia or cassia cinnamon and this is the cinnamon that the various studies relate to.

This distinction is very important – true cinnamon (Cinnamon verum or Cinnamomum zeylanicum) contains much reduced levels of coumarin.  At Steenbergs, we only sell true cinnamon as cinnamon.  Also, we only use cinnamon as cinnamon in our blends, and if we use cassia it is labelled as cassia not cinnamon.  We do, also, sell cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia, a.k.a. Cinnamomum aromaticus or Cinnamon burmanii), but always label this as cassia and never as cinnamon.

You can tell the difference quite quickly – true cinnamon is a light tan and has a subtle woody aroma like box or sandalwood, with hints of cinnamon and citrus, whereas cassia cinnamon is a darker tan and has a more direct, blunter petrochemical aroma that is strongly “cinnamony” and reminiscent of German Christmas biscuits (Spekulatius or Zimtsterne) and Danish pastries.  As an aside, we are sometimes told Steenbergs cinnamon does not taste like cinnamon, but then find there has been confusion between cassia and cinnamon, because this is the more readily-found form of the spice.

The confusion arises because cassia cinnamon is quite legitimately, also, sold as cinnamon and is the cinnamon used in baking – hence, it’s other name “baker’s cinnamon”.

From a chemical view, cassia and cinnamon are noticeably different.  True cinnamon contains eugenol and benzyl-benzoate and no (or trace) coumarin.  In contrast, cassia cinnamon contains high amounts of coumarin.  Both cassia and cinnamon contain cinnamaldehyde.

In terms of levels of coumarin in powder versus quills, cassia quills have coumarin levels 75% lower than the powder.  For true cinnamon, quills have higher coumarin levels than powder, but both are still low.

Why is coumarin a concern? In high doses, coumarin can cause liver damage in small group of sensitive individuals.  However, only some individuals are susceptible to liver issues from coumarin, and those individuals would need to exceed the TDI for more than two weeks before liver issues might arise, then if they do occur the toxicity is reversible.  Maximum daily limits of coumarin have been set in the EU.

This issue originally arose with a report on cassia cinnamon in 2006 by the Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (“BfR”), the scientific agency charged with providing scientific evidence for consumer health protection in Germany.  This showed that consumption of foods containing cassia cinnamon can result in the TDI of coumarin being exceeded, because of the high levels of cassia cinnamon used in some recipes.  Consequently, there has been a knock-on impact for bakers of traditional European bakery goods, e.g. cinnamon rolls (Danish pastries/kanelsnegle) and cinnamon Christmas cookies (Zimtsterne) within Europe, and people who use cinnamon to reduce their sugar intake by sprinkling it onto their cereal.

EC Regulation 1334/2008 gives the following limits for coumarin, which specifically excludes spices and mixes of spices, herbs, teas and infusions:

Table 1: Limits for coumarin in particular food categories per EC Regulation 1334/2008


Compound food in which substance is restricted

Maximum level
mg/kg

Traditional and/or seasonal bakery ware containing a reference to cinnamon in the labelling

50

Breakfast cereals including muesli

20

Fine bakery ware, with the exception of traditional and seasonal bakery ware (above)

15

Desserts

5

The best technical information available is found at the BfR’s website.  There is an excellent FAQ that covers pretty much everything you need to know: http://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/349/faq-on-coumarin-in-cinnamon-and-other-foods.pdf, and their latest opinion includes the following on consumption of spices (see http://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/349/new-insights-into-coumarin-contained-in-cinnamon.pdf dated 2012)[1]:

“For cinnamon sticks and cinnamon powder as a spice for household use, no limit values have been defined, however.  If an average coumarin content in cassia cinnamon of 3000mg per kilogram of cinnamon is assumed, the TDI value can be exceeded by consumers who eat a great deal of cassia cinnamon.  For an adult with a body weight of 60kg, the TDI value is reached, if 2g of cassia cinnamon are consumed per day.  For an infant with a body weight of 15kg, this is the case if 0.5g of cassia cinnamon are consumed per day.  Overall exposure can be increased by other sources, for example coumarin-containing cosmetics.  Consumers who frequently and regularly eat cinnamon-containing foods should be aware of this.  The BfR still recommends that cassia cinnamon is consumed in moderation.  Consumers frequently using large quantities of cinnamon as a condiment should therefore opt for the low-coumarin Ceylon cinnamon.”

How much coumarin is there in Steenbergs spice products?  We have had some of our relevant spices tested for coumarin levels by Eurofins Analtytik GmbH, using high performance liquid chromatography.  The results are shown in the table below, together with results from peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Table 2: Coumarin content of cassia cinnamon, true cinnamon and spice blends


Name

Other names

Origin

Coumarin
mg kg-1

Coumarin
%

Cassia Baker’s cinnamon Vietnam

 2 900

0.3 

Cassia [2] Baker’s cinnamon, Chinese cinnamon, bastard cinnamon

4 167

0.4

Cassia [3] Indonesia, Vietnam

3 856

0.4

Cassia [4] Indonesia, Vietnam

2 239

0.2

Cassia [5] China, Indonesia, Vietnam

3 016

0.3

Cassia [6]

3 250

0.3

Cassia [7] Indonesia

4 020

0.4

Cinnamon True cinnamon Sri Lanka

 31

– 

Cinnamon [2] True cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon Sri Lanka

68

Cinnamon [3] Sri Lanka

nd

Cinnamon [4] Sri Lanka

25

Cinnamon [5] Sri Lanka

nd

Cinnamon [6]

44

Cinnamon [7] Sri Lanka

64

Mixed spice   UK

 670

 0.1

Fairtrade mixed spice   UK

 22

 –

Pumpkin pie   UK

 22

 –

Tonka beans   Brazil

 52 000

 5.2

In conclusion, cassia cinnamon has coumarin levels of 2239 – 4167 mg kg-1, almost 100 times greater than levels in true cinnamon with the range of 0 – 68 mg kg-1.  Steenbergs spice mixes have low coumarin levels at 22 – 670 mg kg-1.  where one of the blends included about one-quarter cassia cinnamon.  In contrast, tonka beans have very high levels of coumarin of 52000 mg kg-1.

What does this mean in relation to safety to eat?  The BfR has issued guidance on the TDI that a person can eat daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk and this includes those sensitive to liver damage from coumarin[1].  The TDI is 0.1 mg of coumarin per kg bodyweight every day.  An adult of 60-70 kg (9½-11 stone) can, therefore, eat 6-7 mg of coumarin per day safely for the rest of their life.  Further, for a 20-30 kg (3-5 stone) child, the limit is 2-3 mg coumarin.  The European Food Safety Authority has calculated the same levels [8].  Even if this value is exceeded for a short while, this does not appear to pose any health risks per BfR and EFSA.

Translating this into teaspoons, an adult should not consume more than ½-1 teaspoon of cassia cinnamon a day and a child no more than ¼-½ teaspoon of cassia a day.

Another way of thinking about it is that an adult can eat 68-120g of cassia cinnamon biscuits a day (10-24 biscuits) and children 17-30g of cassia cinnamon biscuits a day (4-6 biscuits)[1][5].  For cinnamon Danishes or buns, this is roughly 4 for adults and 1 for children per day.

These levels are relevant through time, so a child who eats his/her coumarin limit twice in a week only reaches 29% of his/her TDI (assuming no other cassia cinnamon is ingested).

In contrast, an adult can consume 55-104 teaspoons of true cinnamon and children 24-45 teaspoons.  Therefore, the levels of consumption for true cinnamon are effectively unlimited in terms of coumarin.

What can bakers do about this?  Ideally, you should get your cassia’s coumarin content tested and determine the final coumarin content of your bakery products.  Also, whenever food authorities have tested for coumarin, quite a number of products seem to exceed the legal limits – probably because people are unaware of the regulations.

However, we have created a practical guide as below.  If we assume the safe limits for coumarin consumption are those listed in the EC Regulation EC 1334/2008, then maximum levels for use of cassia and true cinnamon can be calculated and practical limits determined for bakers and other manufacturers.

Table 3: Practical guide for maximum levels of cassia cinnamon or true cinnamon to meet EC regulations on coumarin for specific food categories


Food category

Max level of coumarin
mg/kg

Max level of cassia(i)
mg/kg

Approximate teaspoons of cassia per kg(ii)

Max level of true cinnamon(i)
mg/kg

Approximate tsp cinnamon per kg(ii)

Traditional and/or seasonal bakery

50

7.9

797.4

399

Breakfast cereals

20

3.2

1

319.0

159

Fine bakery ware

15

2.4

¾

239.2

120

Desserts

5

0.8

¼

79.7

40

Notes:
(i) Maximum levels have been determined as the average coumarin content plus 2.58 x standard deviation; this means maximum amounts will not exceed coumarin content in 99% of cases.
(ii) Based on level teaspoons for cassia of 2.8g and cinnamon 2.0g.

References

[1] BfR (2012), New insights into coumarin contained in cinnamon, BfR opinion No. 036/2012, 27 September 2012, Berlin, Germany (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[2] BfR (2006) Consumers, who eat a lot of cinnamon, currently have an overly high exposure to coumarin, BfR Health Assessment No. 043/2006, 16 June 2006, Berlin, Germany (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[3] Blahová, J., Svobodová, Z. (2012) Assessment of coumarin levels in ground cinnamon available in the Czech retail market, The Scientific World Journal, 2012: 2863851, 4 pp, Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3385612/ (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[4] Lungarini, S., Aurelia, F., Coni , E. (2008) Coumarin and cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon marketed in Italy: A natural chemical hazard? Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Volume 25, Issue 11, 31 October 2008, 1297-1305, Available online but not free (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[5] Sproll, C., Ruge, W., Andlauer, C., Godelmann, R., Lachenmeier, D. W. (2008) HPLC analysis and safety assessment of coumarin in foods, Food Chemistry 109, 462-469, 27 December 2007 (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[6] VKM (2010) Risk assessment of courmarin intake in the Norwegian population – opinion of the panel on food additives, flavourings, processing aids, materials in contact with food and cosmetics of the Norwegian scientific committee for food safety (Rep. No. 09/405-2 final), Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety, 12 October 2010, Oslo, Norway, Available online at http://www.vkm.no/dav/271c242c20.pdf (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[7] Woehrlin, F., Fry, H., Abraham, K., Preiss-Weigert, A. (2010) Quantification of flavoring constituents in cinnamon: high variation of coumarin in cassia cark from the German retail market and in authentic samples from Indonesia, Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, 2010, 58 (19), pp 10568–10575, Available online (but not free) at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf102112p (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[8} efsa (2008) Coumarin in flavourings and other food ingredients with flavouring properties, Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Materials in Contact with Food (AFC), The EFSA Journal (2008) 793, 1-15, 8 July 2008, Available online at http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/scdocs/doc/793.pdf (Accessed 12/5/2015)

What is Steenbergs’ carbon footprint?

Friday, June 5th, 2015

We seek to offset our carbon footprint so it is pretty small.

For 2014, Steenbergs has purchased carbon offsets for 72 tonnes of carbon dioxide (i), up from 17 tonnes in 2013.  This has increased, because we are now retiring even more of the greenhouse gases from our business.  This is in addition to using solar energy for 45% of our electricity usage and recycling as much of our waste as possible.

In previous footprints, we included direct greenhouse gases from energy consumed and business travel, together with those from the transport of goods to and from Steenbergs (ii).  In effect, this is the climate change impact resulting from what we do.

We actually reduced this direct carbon footprint by 25% between 2013 and 2014, down from 17 to 13 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2014.

However, in looking more closely at our products’ lifecycle from farm-to-landfill, we were excluding virtual carbon embedded within our packaging and ingredients.  So that’s the greenhouse gases arising from farming and the manufacture of glass jars, steel lids and tins, together with impacts resulting from the disposal or recycling of packaging by our customers.  But this embedded carbon (or traded carbon) should be brought into consideration, or an oil trader becomes very green when you ignore the oil (iii).

This would be fine if our suppliers offset their climate costs, but they don’t.

82% of the carbon footprint in Steenbergs’ products is indirect:

Breakdown of carbon impact from Steenbergs in 2014

Breakdown of carbon impact from Steenbergs in 2014

42 tonnes of carbon dioxide relates to packaging, compared to the 13 tonnes from our business.

As for farming, we had naively assumed that its carbon costs are analogous to the carbon captured in the plants themselves.  Mike Berners-Lee in How bad are bananas? gives zero as the carbon footprint of an apple plucked from a tree in your garden.

Initial research gives the impact may be 0.87 kg CO2 per kg of spices; this compares to 12kg and 19 kg CO2 per kg of beef and lamb.  Farming might add another 17 tonnes carbon dioxide (iv).  Because this relates to what we sell, we will need to dig deeper.

But using this, Steenbergs’ total footprint over the lifecycle of its products is 72 tonnes carbon dioxide every year, or 6 families’ worth of carbon.  This has been offset through ClimateCare, which neatly uses projects such as its LifeStraw project that combine Steenbergs’ concern for water with issues of climate change.

Putting this into context, spices and herbs contribute a tiny proportion of the carbon footprint of a meal.

For example, the spices in rogan josh are 0.1% of the total footprint versus 89% for the lamb, or 0.5% in tandoori chicken compared to 85% for the poultry.  The herbs in spaghetti bolognaise are less than 0.01% of its total carbon footprint.  And last month we calculated the carbon footprints of your cup of tea, coffee and hot chocolate.

Notes

(i)    For ease, carbon dioxide is lazily used for carbon dioxide equivalent, so it includes carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide gases.

(ii)   Steenbergs direct carbon footprint includes: electricity, business travel, water supply and sewerage, trade waste and recycled waste.  Steenbergs indirect carbon footprint comprises: freight for raw materials and packaging into Steenbergs and distribution of packed goods to our trade and consumer customers.

(iii)  See: Roger Harrabin (2015) CO2 cuts claims challenged by experts, BBC News, 19 March 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31952888; or John Barrett , Glen Peters , Thomas Wiedmann , Kate Scott , Manfred Lenzen , Katy Roelich & Corinne Le Quéré (2013) Consumption-based GHG emission accounting: a UK case study, Climate Policy, 13:4, 451-470, DOI: 10.1080/14693062.2013.788858

(iv)   I am unclear whether these figures are for the lifecycle of spices and/or include carbon captured in the plants themselves.  47.5% of carbon is locked in plant material, equivalent to 1.7kg CO2 per kilo.  So I am confused…

What’s the carbon footprint of your cuppa?

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

It depends is perhaps the best answer.

It depends on what you drink and also on how you treat changes in land use.

For tea, the carbon footprint is 87 g CO2 for a mug of Steenbergs black tea taken with milk.

This includes the carbon footprint of brewed tea is 48 g CO2 for black tea, plus also probably for white, green and herbal teas.  But to this, we need to add another 39 g CO2 for any milk added, if (as most Brits do) your tea is made with milk.

If you use teabags, an extra 4 g CO2 is added, or 5% to the carbon footprint.

This compares with 129 g CO2 for a coffee.  About 60% of this comes from the coffee itself and the remainder from the milk.  For milkier coffees like a cappuccino or latte, the carbon footprint is much larger at 222 g CO2 and 318 g CO2, because more milk is used.

Hot chocolate have the biggest footprint with its major cost again the milk.  If you include land use changes for the cocoa, this becomes even larger with the cost of the mix doubling to 43 g CO2 per mug from 21 g CO2.

Carbon in hot beverages

Carbon footprint of hot drinks

What does this tell us?

We can all reduce our carbon footprints by drinking less milk.  We can have lighter teas drunk without milk, and cut back on large lattes and hot chocolates. White and green teas, Darjeeling or China teas and herbal infusions are other tasty possibilities.

Then, drink loose leaf infusions rather than teabags as this extra packaging ups your CO2.

Notes

Carbon dioxide is lazily used here to mean carbon dioxide equivalent, i.e. it includes carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide gases.

These are comparable to figures in Mike Berners-Lee’s book “How bad are bananas?: tea with milk 71 g CO2, tea without milk 21 g CO2, milky coffee 71 g CO2, cappuccino 235 g CO2 and a large latte 340 g CO2.  His book did not have figures for hot chocolate, or at least I couldn’t find any.

How much water is needed for a mug of coffee or tea?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

The simple answer is not much – about 225ml.

But look deeper and we need to consider the rainwater needed to grow the coffee beans and tea leaves, plus the water used to process these and make any packaging.

Over the last few years, we have been looking at the environmental costs within Steenbergs products.  We have looked at our carbon footprint, possible pollution from cleaning chemicals and our recycling rates.

Our main finding has been that over the lifecycle of Steenbergs’ products the biggest environmental burden by far is the virtual water (i) to grow Steenbergs’ herbs, spices and teas and which is then transferred when these move from India or Sri Lanka to the UK.

In money terms, the environmental costs of water usage are 2½ times larger than our carbon footprint.  It’s about 138 million litres, roughly 55 Olympic swimming pools.

Furthermore, this virtual water dwarfs the actual water used to make a mug of coffee or tea – the 225ml we glibly used for our initial answer.

The virtual water in a mug of coffee or tea is 635 times and 151 times the actual water used to make your drink.

So 143 litres of virtual water are needed to grow your morning coffee, but only 0.2 litre of water is needed to make it.  In contrast, the virtual water for tea is 34 litres, one quarter of the water consumed in a coffee.

If you include the virtual water in milk, this bumps up the figures to a hefty 169 litres of water needed for a mug of coffee and 60 litres for a mug of tea.

For a hot chocolate, it’s even higher.  415 litres of water, mainly rainwater, are needed for each hot chocolate.  That’s a whopping 2048 times more water than your mug holds.

For cappuccinos and lattes, more coffee is used in making the espresso and quite a lot of milk is then added.  This ups the virtual water content to 340 litres for a cappuccino and 381 litres of your latte.

So next time you have a drink, pause for a moment to think about the massive amounts of rainwater that were needed for your small cuppa.

Graph that shows breakdown of water between blue and virtual water in hot beverages

Breakdown of total water in hot beverages

Notes:

(i) Virtual water is “the volume of water that is required to produce the product.”

(ii) Water footprint calculations:

water table

(iii) In our calculations, we have drawn heavily on the pioneering work of Chapagain and Hoekstra of the University of Twente (Netherlands):

Chapagain, A.K., Hoekstra, A.Y. (2004) Water footprints of nations, Volume 2: appendices, UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, Research Report Series No. 16, November 2004

Chapagain, A.K., Hoekstra, A.Y. (2007) The water footprint of coffee and tea consumption in the Netherlands, Ecological Economics, 66: 109-118

Jefferies, D., Muñoz, I., Hodges, J., King, V. J., Aldaya, M., Ercin, A. E., Milà i Canals, L., Hoekstra, A. Y. (2012) Water footprint and life cycle assessment as approaches to asses potential impacts of products on water consumption.  Key learning points from pilot studies on tea and margarine, Journal of Cleaner Production, 33: 155-166

Time Please

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

For those who have suffered my thoughts on time before, you will know that time is something that concerns my little brain. In fact, what exactly time is has concerned much brainer people than me. And perhaps reconciling time with the two main paradigms in theoretical physics is key, for in the Einsteinean world time merges into space-time and is relative and has no standalone life, while in the standard model of the quantum world, time is fundamental to the theory. So in one, there is no “real” time while in the other there is. This anomaly needs mediating.

Anyway, what I have been pondering on for some months this year is a thought experiment: take an electron now, then consider where it is in the future, but also where it was in the past.

Now, in the quantum world, we do not know where that electron is in the future. In fact, it is everywhere in the universe, but that smearing of the electron throughout the universe collapses down to a point roughly where it was now at that point a nanosecond in the future. That is pretty much understood since Bohr proposed it in the early 20th century and then others like Heisenberg, for example, expanded these ideas further with his uncertainty principle and Feynman later with his diagrams. However much we do not like it, this idea works and has been tested by loads of scientists and shown to work.

But what perplexed me more was no-one ever mentions the past. If we take that electron and move backwards in time, do we know where it was?

At first, I decided that the inherent uncertainty worked both ways, so we could only be certain of a point in time now, but, because we had not measured (or observed) the electron in the nanosecond beforehand or a minute or year previous, then its past would also be uncertain and it would exist throughout the universe. So in this concept, the present is a unique point in time with uncertain existence on either side, and you can only be certain about that which you have measured and so brought into existence.

But I am not so sure now and think this idea is wrong. I now believe that the past is very different from the future.

Even if we have not measured or observed a particle in the past, its position/existence/velocity etc are effectively known (or at least knowable) and so the past is not uncertain in a theoretical sense, even if we do not actually have the evidence or answers or data measured.

But so what?

Well, it would mean that the past is fundamentally different from the future. For example, in the past, the world would be deterministic, so a particle has definite momentum and position at any point in time. In this classical Newtonian world, cause leads to effect. In other words, this is the world and universe of our experience, and does fit with our understanding of how the world seems to us to work. However, the future is more mysterious and a particle does not exist until it is measured, while between measurements such a particle does not exist anywhere specific but everywhere in the universe. This world is one of probabilities and possibilities, where cause does not lead necessarily to effect but to a whole array of different probabilities of outcomes.

So when it is said that an electron is a wave or a particle, is the difference in result how you are measuring it, i.e. when you are measuring in time rather than what you are observing? This is close to the Copenhagen Interpretation which effectively said energy quanta were a particle or wave, but not both, and what it was depends on how you set up your experiment. However, it gives no interpretation of why the how of setting up an experiment changes the answer. My suggestion is that it depends on what time-frame you are looking at.

As I have argued before scientists are very focused on “what” they are looking at and “how” they are observing, but perhaps not “when” they are looking at, yet Einstein was very interested in what time really is. For me, the present is a strange chimeral zone that is not quite the past nor the same as the future and is full of kooky mystery, and this is the strangeness that quantum physicists are looking at.

What Is Not?

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

E = mc2 (and so m=E/c2) is the iconic scientific equation. But what happens if you put E = 0, or m = 0, into the equations. In the first, the answer becomes E = 0 and also in the second m = 0. In other words, if there is no mass, there is no energy and vice versa. We are bounded by this idea that matter and mass are just parts of the same thing.

However, is this everything? I wonder whether the equation explains reality and so is complete, or rather whether it indicates the edges of our perception and so what can be observed, experimented on and experienced. It precludes objects that are mass without energy or energy without mass, things that are not both particle and wave. But why cannot there be particles that are particles but not waves, and waves that are just that: waves? The retort is simply that is the way it is, so shut up, deal with it and calculate, because it works. It does actually work.

But still I wonder whether this equation only explains what we can see, and whether there is more out there that we cannot? Are we created to experience only those things with wave-particle duality and mass-energy equivalence, and to be incapable of experiencing those things that are simply not paired up? In physics, for some bizarre reason, everything seems to need a pair, or a partner. But even if this reality is correct, it only explains the 20% (or less) that we can see and observe, but ignores the balance that we cannot see: the dark side, which just like the dark ages of medieval history means the stuff we do not comprehend because we do not have the data.

Perhaps we must accept that our universe is a limited and bounded experience that can only be perceived as things defined by the equations of theoretical physics. However, this feels just so limiting. I cannot believe that more is not possible, and that there is not a reality that exists without us, some equations and maths.

So ask what and where is the energy and matter we cannot define, i.e. dark energy and dark matter? Why can a wave and a particle not separate themselves?  Why cannot there be energy-less matter and vice versa? Why cannot two bodies of mass interact with each other faster than the speed of light? Why don’t planets and stars influence us on earth in real-time instantaneously rather than in astronomical time? And so on…

The Better Supermarket Beefs In The UK – More Thoughts On Burger Making

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

For the supermarkets, I have reviewed their offerings (see below) and made an initial selection of meats, going for beef from Booths, Sainsbury’sTesco and Waitrose

Next, we needed to make some burgers from these suppliers, so I chose the following: from Booths, chuck and rib eye steaks; from Sainsbury’s, rib eye steak and braising steak; from Tesco, rib eye steak and casserole steak; and from Waitrose, rib eye steak and braising steak.  To these, I then made simple burgers following my core recipe from my blog earlier in July 2011 without the onions to let the meat speak for itself.  The meats were ground through a 4½mm mincer and shaped using the Italian burger press from Weschenfelder. 

Tasting Beefburgers Made From Supermarkets' Steak

Tasting Beefburgers Made From Supermarkets' Steak

They were lightly fried in deodourised sunflower oil then tasted with fork & knife rather than in bread rolls.  We tasted them en famille so the results are across ages and sexes and the ranking was Booths and Waitrose first equal then Sainbsury’s and last Tesco.  However, it is important to state that Booths, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose were clearly good with Tesco’s quality lagging a long way behind.

As for Booth’s and Waitrose, the differences were that Booths had the best general flavour and mouthfeel, while Waitrose had a deeper, richer flavour.  I reckon this was because the Waitrose meat was hung for longer and so had more beefiness coming through whereas for Booth’s I was able to get exactly the cuts that I desired, so perhaps the ideal is as I argued in my previous blogs for a 1:1 mix of chuck and rib eye that has been matured for 21 – 28 days rather than a relatively quick 14 days as was the case for Booths.

As an aside, we also taste tested Sainsbury’s versus Waitrose dry aged sirloin and the Sainsbury’s beef was a clear winner, so it is not a case of Booths & Waitrose being clear winners across the board nor was the older beef the better as Sainsbury’s was 21 day and Waitrose 28 day aged.

Review of supermarket beef

At Asda, the choice of beef was from British or Irish meat with most coming from Ireland.  Mince was Irish beef and £6.08 for 1kg (in 500g amounts) or 2 for £5, braising steak was £8.75/kg and rump steak £7.00/kg (currently down from £11.48/kg) and from Ireland.  In ribeye steak there was the biggest choice – organic (£16.99/kg), Irish 14 day matured (£14.49/kg), British (£15.00/kg) or Yorkshire Dales steak (£21.94/kg).  Overall, I was impressed that they had Yorkshire sourced beef and some organic, but too much was from Ireland rather than Britain and very little provenance was given.

At Booths, they have a good minced steak at £4.00 for 700g which is very good value compared to Morrisons in spite of Morrisons claiming to be the value store and Booths having the reputation for being expensive.  They have a much smaller selection than the big highstreet multiples but the quality is much better, and I went for a mix of traditional chuck steak (£8.00/kg) and rib eye steak (£20.00/kg) with marbling a little light at around 10%, but I compensated with some beef fat that I took off another sirloin steak.  The beef at the butcher’s counter is hung for 21 days, but the instore staff did not know whether the steaks in the chillers were the same age, but presumed they could be.  If you go to one of their stores, try and get their 28 days National Trust beef, which often comes from Fountains Abbey for the Ripon store – it is just amazing kit and the best beef in any supermarket but that is for another blog.

At Morrisons, you can get either minced beef or steak, where I suggest that minced steak at £5.56/kg for 720g is a good bet or for the Butcher’s Mince at £6.99/kg.  Alternatively, you could buy from the Family Butcher rib eye steak (£14.49/kg) and braising steak (£7.99/kg) then cube them both up and grind them at home.  We tried their The Best Scotch Beef Quarter Pounder Burgers and they were tough, rubbery and full of gristle, plus lots of liquid came out during the cooking process, which left me feeling mighty suspicious.  Anyway one of the key reasons to make you own burgers is to look at the ingredients: beef (86%), breadcrumbs, beef fat, roasted onions, seasoning, then the horrors of sodium metabisulphite (horrible stuff!), sodium ascorbate and trisodium citrate.  Note that all supermarkets use heavy preservatives as they need to maximise the length in store to minimise wastage, so all superamrkets use these nasty chemicals.

For Sainsbury’s, there was beef mince (£4.40/kg), braising steak (£8.75/kg), Taste the Difference rump steak (£13.99/kg), sirloin (standard = £19.99/kg; 21 day dry aged Taste the Difference = £21.99/kg), rib eye steak in various guises – scotch beef (£16.30/kg); North Highland rib eye (£20.40/kg) and 21 day dry aged Taste the Difference (£23.99/kg).

At Tesco, there was steak mince (£5.74/kg) or organic beef mince (£5.75/kg)casserole steak from Britain or Ireland (£8.00/kg or £9.00/kg at the butcher’s counter even though it looked the same style of beef), rump steak (£11.79/kg for standard and £13.49/kg for Tesco Finest), sirloin (standard = £15.97/kg; Tesco Finest = £15.99/kg; organic sirloin £17.99/kg), rib eye steak in various guises – standard beef (£14.49/kg)Tesco Finest (£13.00/kg – should be £15.99/kg per www.tesco.com but was mispriced in store at £13.00/kg so I got a bargain) and organic rib eye (£16.00/kg).

At Waitrose, there was beef mince from Aberdeen Angus cattle in 10% fat and 20% fat forms, with the 20% being £6.58/kg and the most appropriate for making burgers; there is a beef mince that is organic at £13.16/kg for their Duchy Original brand.  There is an organic rump steak from Duchy Originals (£16.49/kg) and sirloin (£21.99/kg).  Non-organic beefs are Hereford diced braising steak (£10.47/kg), 14 days aged sirloin (£23.99/kg) and rib eye steak (£26.99/kg),  plus 28 day dry aged Aberdeen Angus beef from the butcher’s counter – sirloin (£25.99/kg) and rib eye steak (£26.99/kg).  The butcher at the counter in Harrogate was really helpful and the best of all the supermarkets for knowledge and courtesy.

I make no warranties or claims on pricing or availability in store.  They are provided as guides, but as I visited the supermarkets at different times and in different places, these could have gone up or down or done some somersaults while some products may even have been delisted.  Booths prices at 28/6/2011; Morrisons prices at 26/6/2011; on 1 July 2011, I got prices for Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.  I went to Harrogate for Asda, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose; Ripon for Booths; Morrisons in Boroughbridge; and Tesco in Thirsk.

Weird Science As Explained To Emmy The Dog

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

I have been reading “How to Teach Quantum Physics to your Dog” by Chad Orzel, because I love reading about quantum physics, relativity and the creation of universe, partly as I am a geek and also as I do not understand what is going on at all and reckon that sooner or later I will get there and I will have a Eureka moment.  This book is really quite light hearted, yet tackles many of the core underlying themes in modern physics, e.g. wave particle duality, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Schrödinger’s Cat and the Quantum-Zeno Effect.  It is built off the back of his amazing blog – http://scienceblogs.com/principles/.

So while Chad was banging on about Heisenberg, he wrote:

“You can make the momentum change smaller by increasing the wavelength of the light (decreasing the momentum that the photon has available to give to the electron), but when you increase the wavelength, you decrease the resolution of the microscope, and lose information about the position.  If you want to know the position well, you need to use light with a short wavelength, which has a lot of momentum, and changes the electron’s momentum by a large amount.  You can’t determine the position precisely without losing information about the momentum, and vice versa.” [p48 from Chad Orzel’s book]

It was then that I had one of those small moments of understanding where I felt that physics teachers have been deliberately misleading me, obfuscating and confusing me and making it all seem harder than it really is: wave-particle duality does not mean that light, matter etc is two things at once, which is how they explain it.  Rather this idea of duality is simply artifice to explain light’s properties mathematically and physically, i.e. a model to explain the behaviour of things in the universe.  Light is light, matter is matter, the lamp post outside my window is a real physical object and the sycamore on the green lives and so on.  However, the physics and so maths needed to explain the properties of these objects and how electrons and light work needs more than one theme to get it all sorted out.  So measurable stuff comprises a physical form (the particle bit) and energy (the wave bit), and we need both bits to sense things.  By the way, both of these are relative to other things, so it is really relative physicality and relative energy, hence I cannot feel something that is too small for me to sense.

This raises an interesting thought, being what happens if you have energyless particles and particleless energy.  Now modern physics says that even the lowest energy particles have velocity and so you cannot get a no-energy state.  But what if you can decouple energy and physicality?  If you could get these “things”, then you would not be able to measure them and so they become voids or “dark”.  Is this what dark energy and dark matter are? Formless energy and energyless form.  Humanity is not coded to be able to sense these, or even really to understand such things.  But what happens if that is what these missing bits are, i.e. 23% for dark matter and a whopping 72% for dark energy of mass-density of universe? Could you actually measure them rather than infer them – the only way to measure these two missing parts of the universe would be to give them back what they have lost, i.e. give energy to dark matter and form to dark energy, but would that actually be possible, or even for that matter a good thing.

Thinking about it why shouldn’t there be energy without a physical side and matter without an energy side.  Yes that’s not what we see/measure, but these are things you cannot measure or see, so why not?  In fact, it makes physical things more unique and basically says that there is something special about “normal” matter and energy as these are things where matter and energy are linked together rather than separated.  It is quite easy to envisage energy without shape as that is simply energy, i.e. just a wave and no particle bit, however how do you have matter that you cannot see as wouldn’t we just bump into it as we try and measure things.  Perhaps dark matter is shape than has folded in on itself until it is so infinitesimally small that you just cannot measure it and that there is something about adding energy that enables pre-matter to unfold and become detectable.  But now I am really lost in my own explanation.

Another thing that Chad Orzel writes about is why quantum mechanics does not work in the real world very often and that systems collapse into old-fashioned Newtonian mechanics.  This is one of the reasons most of us simple punters find quantum physics so complex as it does not marry up with our experience of the physical world, even if the maths works and so has allowed loads of new discoveries.  The theories, or philosophies, as to how the quantum world collapses when things are measured/observed includes theories like the Copenhagen Interpretation, Everett’s Many Worlds Ideas and Feynman’s Shut Up and Calculate Concept [actually not Feynman but David Mermin, but he’s way less iconic].

I feel all these are too complex and perhaps too overthought and overwrought, i.e. everyone is simply trying to hard.  I think it is really just a matter of scale, so quantum theory works fine at a small level where there are very few components to a system.  However, as you scale up, you just need a new way of looking at things.  Nothing has changed with quantum physics as it still works at a micro level, but it just does not work on larger scales.  Different things need different ways of looking at it.

However, should you still want a mechanism for why it changes, here goes.  Everything can be described by a wave pattern using Schrödinger’s rules.  These are all different shapes and sizes, but everything big and everything small has a wave that describes them.  At a small scale where there are not many things about and the gaps between everything are relatively large, these waves have the space to take shape and grow to their full size, hence the properties of that wave become paramount in their behaviour.  So at this small scale and with little noise from other stuff kicking about, quantum physics and all those ideas work.  However, as you scale up, other waves start getting in the way, interfering with each other, changing the shapes of the waves, filling up the space with other waves and so preventing them fully expressing themselves.  In effect, quantum waves interfere with other quantum waves and they reduce their influence on their behaviour, so their impacts are nullified.  This means mathematically, there will be a point at which simply adding together quantum waves will cancel their individual effects and there will be no more measurable individual quantum effects anymore and classical mechanics takes centre stage.  I call this idea entanglement.

Size matters.  QED.

By the way, this means there are no parallel universes going on right now, ones where I am rich and famous or am the world’s greatest painter, and much of science fiction is well science fiction.  Sorry about that.

But it does mean that the sycamore tree on the green can exist even if no-one ever has observed it or a falling tree actually fall if not observed, because as all the individual waves of each particle entangle and interfere with each other they create existence, fixing things into space and time.  This philosophy and physics problem can be seen in works by George Berkeley or in physics forums, where a load of strange and complex answers are given.  Pragmatism should always rule over philosophy, as many things just are without being measured or proved; whether you can explain it is a different matter, but that does not stop it being so.

Axel’s Universe And Some Silly Thoughts About Time

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Even though I never wear a watch, I am surrounded by time everywhere.  I have, also, always been fascinated by the idea of time – What exactly is time? What does time mean? Why does it go forwards as a natural progression and not backwards or sideways?

I love the story of John Harrison, who in the 1730s and 1740s invented two perfect precision instruments for keeping time, which (and this is the weird part) were needed to solve the issue of longitude or the position of objects on earth around its axis rather than from North to South.  Then there is Alfred Einstein who reinterpreted the way we need to think of the world and the universe as being a matrix of space-time rather than just space on its own, and that objects with mass morph the geometry of space-time, so creating forces that we sense as gravity, hence we must always consider everyone’s personal timeframe when making scientific observations.  Also, I used to puzzle over a stopped clock in the quad at Cotton House of Rugby School and wondered then (as I still do now) whether a stopped clock is more correct than one that is slightly incorrect in time, i.e. is a clock that is correct fleetingly twice in every 24 hours more accurate than one that is never correct but is always just out? The standard answer is the almost correct clock as it is correct ± a bit, but I think it is probably more important to be right twice in every 24 hours than never accurate.  Finally, I have never forgotten an answer by British Rail (or maybe it was the London Underground, so I ironically did forget some of it!) to the question of why British Rail minutes varied in length, being that British Rail minutes were not about standard time minutes but were estimates related to distance.  Then we measure the distance to stars in light years and not kilometres nor in time, so we are continuously mixing and matching time with distance.

For me, time is real quandary, a hidden framework that shapes our reality, which even now we do not fully understand.  I think it may be the key to reality and how we should conceptualise everything in the universe.  However, we are obsessed by hours, minutes and seconds as a way of diarising meetings and phone calls, rather than seeking to understand time as part of the matrix; time has shape and how we observe reality is modified by time.

We feel and experience time only as one fleeting dimension – the present – however the past is behind us and the future before us, even if as human beings we cannot comprehend these times as dimensions as they do not fit within our sensory model of reality.  We see light, hear sound waves and feel physical objects and energy like heat and the wind, but as for time we do not sense it except as part of the ageing process.  In fact, when we feel something or hear someone talk to us or taste a perfect chicken tikka masala or watch Usain Bolt run the 100 metres, we are sensing a past act, and so at the point of physical sensation, you had actually already touched that object or your friend had finished speaking or that molecule of spice flavour had moved away from your taste receptor and Usain Bolt had finished that muscle movement.  What we call the present is actually history by the time we sense it, however here on earth the impact of that petit morceau of time that we are out by is so miniscule as to be irrelevant; however, you can sense this weirdness by switching on a live football match on Radio 5 Live and then having the match simultaneously on the television in another room, so during the 2010 World Cup I could hear a goal being scored on the digital radio in the kitchen then charge into the TV room and watch the goal about to happen.  I accept the science behind that timing difference is different from what I have been talking about, but I use it to illustrate the weirdness of time as a concept.  Or to use a spatial analogy, I remember once getting a new pair of glasses and walking out of the optician and falling straight off the kerb like a drunk; the glasses had minutely changed my spatial model of reality and the road and the kerb had moved a small bit, yet my body had not had time physically to adjust to this change and the road was not quite where it used to be, so I was made to look the fool; however, the brain is an amazing thing and likes to reassert its model of reality, so within 20 minutes everything was back as it should be and I could walk up steps and jump off chairs without a care in the world. 

However, now look into the night sky, you are looking at the history of the universe, so we are sitting (or standing) in the present, looking at the past and are in the future for those bits of reality sitting in the past.  Doesn’t that mean that there is past, present and future co-existing simultaneously? As many have thought of the universe, so I sometimes imagine time as a sphere, where we sit as a dot on its surface – if you curve around that sphere on a horizontal line, then you have all the present realities, then if you go vertically upwards you move into future time or downwards into the past; however, this model of curved time suggests that future and past are simply directional and that they will meet and travel over each other back to our current position.  Is this a flaw or is that what actually happens?  And how many time dimensions are there – present and/or past and/or future? This is what you must conceptualise when you look into the night sky in the present looking at the past from the past’s future; in the end, we are not wired to visualise this, so it is well nigh impossible to comprehend as we go about our daily lives.  I accept that this view of the universe is not considered credible by current physicists, but maybe it is crazy enough to be possible?  And while it is basically irrelevant to worry about time as a dimension on earth as we live out our lives, it is crucial to an understanding of the universe and stuff that happens in these bigger time frames, so when you think about the distance to the Milky Way’s neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda, as being 2.5 million light years away and spinning at 225 km s-1 at its centre, your timeframe becomes very important as when we see some light it is hugely old already and the positional shape of Andromeda now is completely different by 2.5 million years and the speed of 225 km s-1; a day is a long time in politics and 2.5 million years is much, much longer!  This really is the idea behind Einstein’s thinking on relativity, being you need to consider time when you make observations, collect measurements and then formulate hypotheses about data, or when you make predictions, errors will arise because you have not adjusted for the impact of time, and going back to the previous paragraph, time is personal to whoever (or whatever) is making those observations and their answer will be different from that of another observer.  On earth, while making normal earth-based measurements, the differences have no impact, but at the miniscule scale of particle physics or the mammoth scale of stars and galaxies, time is so totally critical to getting a correct result.

In fact, we are a bit like the character in the Somerset Maughan story (if someone can tell me which story it is that will help as I have forgotten) who during World War 2 receives his newspapers to his remote Malaysian rubber plantation as bundles in the mail once a month, yet rather than go to the most recent date and read backwards, he stoically reads his newspapers in order but out of time and date.  So the information he gleans from the newspapers is old and the politics of the world and progression of World War 2 has evolved by the time he gets his news, so how should he construct his socio-political model of the world.  In fact, without current information can he construct a valid model for the world?  The answer is no, but because he lives remotely without any other observer to dissuade him of his way of modelling his life, he can continue unchanged even to the point of dressing formally for dinner to eat on his own a British meal.  How destructive instant communication is to those obdurate models of how to live and how frightened regimes like those in Burma and North Korea must be of information that can show citizens an alternative model for living?

So when you observe something a great distance away the actual time of that initial event must be considered, so time starts to impact your results and data, i.e. the light that you measure from Proxima Centauri is 4.2 years old or 3.97 x 1013 km away (39,700,000,000,000 km).  Now that would be fine if everything were static and nothing moved or changed, but the universe is supposedly expanding, earth is spinning on its axis and around the sun and our solar system is spinning around the galactic centre of the Milky Way completing a full turn every 225 – 250 million years, which in turn is moving through the universe towards the Great Attractor; in fact, it means that the Milky Way is moving at 600 km s-1 and so on earth we are moving at 51.8 million kilometres every day, which is not bad exercise for those of us, who just sit all day at a computer screen.  So you cannot just ignore time, or the shape of time; but I still remain unsure as to what time really is all about.

Going back to British Rail’s idea of time, time is not really about standard “diary” time, but is perhaps about relative time between observers and observation points, while absolute time relates to the period of time from the start of the universe, i.e. big bang to the edge of reality, and continues to progress as more time is created every moment and so absolute time moves out from the creation point endlessly.  However, at some point, the universe might collapse back in on itself, so would time then move the other direction and regress or at least progress in the opposite direction and would it then flow backwards (or become the new forwards)? I doubt this would mean that reality would wind itself backwards like an old movie reel, but rather the direction of time’s flow would be switched around.  Reality is fractal, so any change in direction would simply create a new fractal reality, rather than everyone walking backwards and growing young again, however amusing that might be.  Does this mean, however, that time is not absolute but totally relative and will go faster or slower, depending on the speed of expansion of a particular part of the universe, and did it grow more quickly at the start of the universe then become constant and perhaps will one day slow down to zero then switch directions?  In fact, as you reach a black hole, you would appear to slow down in terms of time from the point of view of an external observer on earth until you became frozen in time even though (from your perspective) time continues at its normal pace, i.e. relative time is different for you and your observer.

As an aside, the speed of light, c,  is used to fix time and so is the crucial constant, acting as the upper limit for energy, but why is it fixed at 299,792,458 m s-1, i.e. it is fixed but why is not quicker or slower?  Perhaps, it is fixed by the speed of expansion of the universe at its initial burst from big bang or the current rate of expansion of the universe, i.e. light cannot go quicker than time itself is made and the upper limit is set by the rate of expansion of universe.  However, as speed is a function of distance and time, if the rate of creation of time changes then for c to remain constant the distance travelled must also change to ensure that the distance travelled per unit of time remains unchanged, so would the speed of light appear from an external observer’s perspective to fluctuate?

But this is all just conjecture and frivolous play rather than science, you say.  I agree, but then I do not have a budget or the skill to use the Large Hadron Collider, so I shall live in my imaginary universe; it is far cheaper and involves venison casserole followed by chocolate rice pudding later, made by my own hands.

Let me go back to the idea of time; it niggles at my brain like the dog that did not bark in Sherlock Holmes’ “The Silver Blaze”.  What if scientists are wrong about time? What if there is more than one dimension to time? What if time is not about standard time but is really a function of the flexibility or at least rate of expansion of the universe, or our reality model?  How must we think about time when constructing a model for the universe?  Did Einstein get it all correct or are we really still building our models of the universe like one of those beautiful brass mechanical models that showed the solar system using Ptolomaic model?

So what is the shape of time.  The general shape of time is perhaps what is being measured by the double slit experiment, which is one of the most elegant experiments of all time.  And while it was originally done by Thomas Young in 1803 with light and later brought into the quantum age by Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer in 1927 with an electron beam, it remains one of the most puzzling experiments of all time and opened up the Alice-like world of quantum mechanics.  These types of experiment allow light, or a slow moving electron beam or indeed any small particle under the right conditions, to pass through a slit in a barrier and then an observation screen is placed a distance away where you can observe the patterns created by the light, or electron beam, as it impacts the screen.  When there is only a single slit open, it merely impacts the screen with greater intensity at the centre and then fades as you move away from the centre.  Now if you place two slits between the light or electron beam source and observe the pattern produced, you get a pattern of light and dark or higher and lower intensity.  Finally, if you fire individual electrons or photons at the screen rather than a continuous stream, you still get this pattern of light & dark/higher & lower intensity.  This is explained by the concept that light is a wave and that you are seeing the classic interference pattern of two waves as they meet and become more intense where they are in phase and less intense and cancel each other out where they are out of phase.  But what of the individual electron/photon and why does an individual particle act as a complete wave as if it were a constant stream of particles or a wave?

While most scientists explain the experiment by stating that photons, electrons etc act as a wave under quantum mechanics and even a bucky ball of carbon can under the right conditions act as a wave, for me the experiment provides a glimpse of the shape of time.  The future is a wave, which seems sensible as all things are possible in the future.  Hence, to return to my piece of string from my previous blog, you can imagine all things being all probabilities on that piece of string from 0 through to 1 and then this rolls forward forever into the future creating the shape of a wave.  However, this does not answer everything, for example why don’t all things behave in a quantum manner?

When I like Archimedes lie in the bath, I can look at the taps; if I close my eyes and then reopen them, they are still there, then if I close them for longer the taps are still there unchanged; if I close my eyes really tightly shut, then quickly reopen them, the taps are still there.  If I get out of the bath, get dressed, go for a walk and then come back, the taps look and feel the same.  Nor can I speed the taps up to such a great speed that they become like waves and become quantum objects. But why not?  If quantum mechanics is to unify everything, then it should be able to answer that question as well as predict the existence of baryons, mesons and the colours of quarks, all stuff from an imaginary Alice in Wonderland world of complex maths and strange realities.  Does everything need to be blasted at energies equivalent to 7 teraelectronvolts per proton to become real?

So why do objects persist and for that matter why don’t monkeys write Shakespeare and why don’t atoms zap off from my bath taps and zoom around the universe, but they stay put inside my tap or in my delicious cooking apples?  The physicists answer would be that they might do all these things, but it is down to probabilities and you need to consider every possible position for those quarks, neutrinos, electrons and atoms in the universe, draw some Feynman diagrams and you will come up with the most probable position for those atoms, which hopefully are in and around my taps and apples rather than in the Small Magellanic Cloud.  Now for me, that sounds like a lot of hard work, a bit elitist, as well as a slight cop out, i.e. we don’t know, but it’s a really hard sum that you would never, ever be able to understand!

I feel that something is missing in this analysis.  It has perplexed me for ages, but I think one of the keys is how we view time.  Objects like my tap and my apples have form, a history; they have a past and this impacts the future of those objects.  So in the future the tap will still be a tap and the apple will remain an apple until I eat it and then it will be chewed and broken down into useful molecules for my body to process, or be excreted and then go through the cycle of life again.  Time is more than just the future.  I call this latency, or maybe it should simply be called the past.

So time has more than just the one dimension of forwards/ the future/ progression, and there is a trace at least of the past.  I think it is more than a trace and that time has at least three dimensions of past, present and future, but (and this is key) time is not about standard time – that is a misnomer even if it is how we measure it.  Time is a measure of something else in the universe, rather than the answer itself, a symptom and not the illness.  The past acts like a drogue on the future, determining what happens in the present, so you must modify your understanding of reality to take into accounts these three dimensions of time.

Let me go back to time and how to conceive of it.  Imagine the universe is a balloon and you blow air into it.  As it expands, it stretches.  Now there is physical shape to it and it is expanding just like the universe.  Also, different points expand at different rates, so those further away expand more quickly and appear to be accelerating just like the universe.  That is a pretty standard way of thinking about the universe.  But there is something else happening – as you blow air into the balloon it stretches outwards and there is pressure that forces the balloon to expand outwards, but there is also resistance in the balloon that is trying to pull the rubber back in on itself bringing it to its starting position as an un-inflated piece of rubber.  Now tie an end onto the balloon and get a marker pen – draw a dot on it, that is us and then draw a line around the circumference horizontally.  That line is the present.  Draw a line upwards, that is the future and downwards for the past.  These appear to be directions, but that is not what I am thinking about; think of the forces that are acting – on the present line everything is experiencing an equal force, but there is a forwards force from the pressure of the air that is trying to push us upwards, while there is a downwards force that wants us to return to our starting position.  So it is with time – as the universe expands, it forces us forwards, but we also have a force that is pulling us backwards, yet while the universe grows that expansion force is the stronger, but the regressive force is still there and it determines what happens to us in the future.  Time is like these forces, i.e. a result of the air blown into the balloon rather than the energy source from the air actually being blown in, and so like British Rail it is really about distance from the start rather than a concept of seconds, minutes, hours, days and aeons.  Perhaps, that is how to conceive of dark energy – we are on the edge of a balloon shaped time bubble and the dark energy is simply the air and energy generated inside the balloon or bubble that we cannot see because we are on the outside of the shape itself?

In fact, taking a step back, the Ptomalaic view of the universe is perhaps correct as reality is a bubble of time that emanates from us, the observer, to the beginning of time and back to us.  It is like we are walking backwards into the future and looking around us to a snapshot across time, with time encircling us, with each of us at the centre of our own bubbles of reality.  Because remember what we are looking at has already been and is not how the universe looks now, so the edge of time measured at 13.7 billion years is in fact half the answer as it will have expanded at least another 13.7 billion light years by now, which is comforting to know as it would be a little bit tedious if it was now collapsing in on us and time had stopped.  In fact, time is created quicker than we observe it, so we age relative to the universe rather than stay forever young like Dorian Grey.

Returning to the double-slit experiment, the future is a wave of probabilities.  This effectively is a truism stating that until something is known and becomes fixed in time it is unknown and unknown things that are fractal like time can be anything.  However, when an event is observed, it becomes fixed in time and cannot change.  Similarly, the past can be seen as being a wave pattern, because the possibilities are fractal and so anything is possible.  However, I do not fully accept that model, as it is simply saying we do not know what happened in the past, so we must assume everything is possible until we can observe otherwise, but that does not mean my taps were not in my bath when I was not observing them nor does it mean that when my granny, Nora Steenberg, went for a walk on (say) 18th April 1953 things were not where they should be for her reality even though she did not observe everything around her and note down the data.  In fact, the past is different from the future as you could theoretically walk a set of data points from the present all the way back to my granny’s walk in the garden, so long as you now the starting point, but you could not walk forward from the present as the future is not yet real.  Things exist, stuff happens and all without the need for complex math.

For me, I visualise time as follows.  The future is a multidimensional wave; the further away time is in the future the bigger the waves and the greater the potential for anything to happen, so an electron could be anywhere in the universe in 100 million years while anything could happen to Proxima Centauri and any planets, exoplanets or comets around it over the next 3 billion years.  However, as something gets closer to the present and so closer to becoming fixed in time, the waves become shallower and fluctuate more, until they become a fixed point travelling in the past.  So the future is a wave, where those waves become shallower the closer you get to the present, with the past being a line of points of immovable data points.  Think of it like a piece of string stretching into the distance and attach it to a wall (although for time it would be attached to no wall and would move freely); you waggle the string until it starts to form a wave and imagine the waves are the future.  Now, get a large funnel and have the wide open end pointing towards the end attached to the wall and have some dangling onto the ground behind you, noting that it needs to be a snug fit in the long tube bit.  Start waggling again, then start moving forwards and have someone behind gently pulling the string through; the future is the wave pattern and this gets smaller with a quicker phase and the past is the line of string that just waggles a bit limply behind you on the ground.

The past acts as a break and pulls the future into a shape for your reality, so my taps do not suffer from randomly zooming off atoms and monkeys do not write Shakespearean sonnets or King Lear.  The future takes it shape from the past and while anything is possible in the distant future what happens in the near future is largely determined by the cards dealt it by the past.

But why does the past act on the future?  And why does the future have more of an impact on electrons than taps and apples? Perhaps it is a result of how the shape of space-time is affected by matter?

Perhaps we could rethink reality and reconstruct our model for the universe to incorporate time even more intrinsically than at present.  Think of it like this – imagine you want to create the shape of an object in 3D space, but you only have a cross-sectional slice that is 1 cell thick all the way across and of a slice that is ⅓ from the end of the shape and sliced at a 30o angle upwards; now imagine that object is an apple and you are positioned in one of the cells in the middle of the slice; would you be able to recreate the shape of the apple and explain what it was? Alternatively, consider the Mona Lisa, but imagine that you are placed somewhere within a slice that is 1 μm thick through the vertical strut of the wooden frame – could you reconstruct the shape and elemental structure of the Mona Lisa, and even if you were able to, would it be possible ever to recreate the face, piercing eyes and mesmerizing smile from your position within the structure itself?  So not only would it be unlikely that you could determine the shape of the painting, but you would never get the point of it as you would never see the painting from the outside.  It is as if you are on the comma on page 1006 of my copy of The Complete Works Of Shakespeare at the end of the line “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”[it does not end there] and trying not only to construct the physical shape of the book, but also learn all the lines and give me the meaning; I still do not understand much of what Shakespeare wrote and I can see the words, read the text, watch the play and be explained the meaning of the text through numerous critiques of his repertoire.  And we seek to explain the universe.

Now there is a tricky problem – how to see what you cannot see?  It is a bit like my apple thought experiment where you were focused on the chopping board and there were no apples on the board, but I asked you to count all the apples in the universe and everything still remains off your mental camera shot.  Tricky and perhaps when you sit in the experimental field itself it is actually impossible at times to see what is around you, since you need to have a different sense of perspective and as for a stereogram you need to be outside the picture and must squint your vision to see new pictures pop out of the 2D image, and, even then, some people just can never perceive those hidden pictures; could you ever see the hidden picture inside the pattern if you existed inside the picture itself?

That is really hard to do, but now try and reconstruct the shape from a time morphed map of these objects.  Imagine for each millimetre you move in a radius outwards from your starting point, you need to position each atom where it would be 500 years ago in time.  When you have plotted each of those positions, you must now need to look at it and work out what the shape of the original object is, plus what laws govern it and what its meaning is.  No way!

Now, let us move on to think about scale.  I always think of how reality changes when you examine that simple geography question – how long is the coastline of Great Britain?  The answer you were meant to give at school was 11,000 miles, but it really depends on the scale you are looking at it – so at the atomic scale it goes on forever while at the molecular scale it goes on for a long time, then at the human scale it is 11,073 miles, while at the universal scale it is but a mere pinprick.  It is much the same with the core fundamental theories of physics – Newton’s law of gravity works at a human scale, while Einstein’s theory of gravity works for quantum field theory.

So what if time has a much more complex structure than we think.  What if it works in reverse to how we see shape – so at small scales of shape it is effectively one dimensional and can be ignored but as you scale up it becomes like looking at a complex world of atoms and quarks.  Because when we look into the night sky we are actually looking at a slice of time relative to us and not really a physical shape.  Think about it – when we think of mass acting on us we need to consider where those objects are, however when you look into space you are seeing the universe as it has been, so to actually get how an object is acting on you, you must adjust its position to where it currently would be rather than where you can observe it now, which is actually in its past.

Maybe that is the problem – we have a spatial model for rationalising reality, so we are trying to force all our observations into that model, however we occupy a slice through time and not through space, so must adjust our observations to fit that world.  Like Newtonian mechanics, it works within its scale frame, but not at small scales and not at larger scales, while Einsteinian theories of relativity appear to work for all of these scales.  But perhaps even Einstein did not go far enough with how he visualised time impacting our space and instead we should think about how space impacts the structure of time.

Which brings me on to what is reality, or at least what is it that we are experiencing? And can we unify all theories of physics with some simple geometric ideas?  I am sure I will be knocked down here for attempting to interpret how we think of the universe, but let’s just go for it and wait for my bubble to be burst.  In effect, I am simply trying to interpret the maths that others have calculated but do not necessarily appear to understand why it works just that it does, however in trying to think it through I seem to have redefined the observable universe slightly as “time & space” rather than “space-time” (note the order of the words as that is key) and, where scaling up or down, to use time as the scale rather than a spatial scale.  I am not sure whether that is what is meant by the maths nor if this is right or wrong or changes the way the maths can be looked at, but it works in my head, and may shed some light on what might perhaps be happening.  Here goes:

  1. Firstly, when you look and observe perhaps you are not actually looking at physical shape per se.  When you look into the night sky or out at the world, you are not looking at a three dimensional spatial universe, but into time, where time emanates from the beginning of time to you as the observer, i.e. it is past time.
  2. Secondly, each person, each being and each observer (animate or inanimate) views a different set of time that is unique to that observer.
  3. Thirdly, past time is continuously being created and pushed out further as future time is converted into past time.  This constant creation of new time extends the observable universe continuously outwards, or further away in time.
  4. Fourth, the impact of time relative to space becomes stronger over longer time distances.
  5. Fifth, mass creates three-dimensional space (and vice versa, perhaps).  Three-dimensional space is relatively weak compared to time, reducing in strength the further from mass it is and collapsing in on itself without mass being present.  Hence, each point of mass has space attached to it, which impacts and works on other fields of space attached to other points of mass, and these can accumulate and build up to build larger shapes of three-dimensional space.
  6. Sixth, three-dimensional space operates like fields that are not destroyed but become weaker over longer time distances.
  7. Seventh, as time is foreshortened and/or energy is increased, the observer’s field of vision shifts to the present, and then in theory would turn around further and for massless energy shift to the future, i.e. an imaginary speed greater than the speed of light.
  8. Eighth, each time dimension has spatial dimensions attached to it depending on the levels of mass involved, so in past time there are the three dimensions that we expect, and in the present (at high energies, i.e. close to speeds of the speed of light), there are, also, perhaps three space dimensions, while in the future perhaps there are no space dimensions and no limit to the dimensions of time.
  9. Ninth, past time is linear but for the present and future these may become multi-dimensional fields, i.e. a line for the present and then wave functions expressed over greater degrees of freedom.
  10. Tenth, it is, therefore, not possible to determine the real physical shape of the universe as we can see only it as time through the lens of our three dimensional space.
  11. Finally, all mass, energy and force can be explained through geometry and time and the interaction between these multidimensional shapes and time.

Philosophically, can this explain the universe and marry up with the maths and experimental evidence?

Take the human scale, the key physical theories are Newton’s theories and Einstein’s theories of relativity.  This explanation of our time-space envisages that when we observe we are looking at time through a lens of space giving us a universe that over the small scale of solar systems is a three-dimensional shape that is impacted slightly by time, so per Newton you can largely (but not totally) ignore the time effect on the spatial force fields in our solar system.  The shape of the solar system is determined by the mass of the sun, modified by the mass of the planets, moons, asteroids and other matter including living species and atoms.  However, distant stars and planets have limited physical three-dimensional shape and so appear flat and have little spatial force effect on our solar system.  In the space beyond our solar system, three dimensional space will effectively collapse to almost nothing as the impact of mass reduces, but as waves of spatial force flow through or mass energy shoots through the apparent void space could appear to spontaneously jitter into being; if other mass is around that momentary quantum jitter, more mass might accrete to the initial piece of mass within the small momentary piece of three dimensional space, so stars, galaxies and planets can begin to form.  The impact of time is per Einstein and you need to take into account that time moves and that each observers’ timeframe is unique.  As such, while time always impacts mass and three dimensional space, it only becomes apparent and needs adjusting for over larger distances or higher energies, i.e. time is the overarching shape that creates our universes but over short timeframes, mass and space dominate as the observable frame but you need always to consider and potentially adjust for the effect of time.  This is gravity, i.e. gravity is a force deriving from the interaction between three-dimensional spatial fields, and relativity, i.e. time derives from the observer and when you have more than one observer you need to consider the relative impact of time on what each observer is seeing.  So this idea does not deny these exist per scientific theory, just that I seem to see it from a different angle, i.e. time first, space second, which is against our cultural view of the structure of reality where we see space coming first and time coming second as an adjustment per special relativity.

Other issues include how many dimensions are there and what is mass.  I will try and address these here.

The question of how many dimensions are there has been puzzling physicists for some time, partly as extra dimensions are very hard to conceive, but they are needed to help quantum field theory to explain the standard model of the physical world.  From my proposal, there are really only two sets of functions – time and space.  Time can be past, present and future, where we see the past in our daily vision of reality, but can only witness the present in rare occasions and never observe the future.  Then I propose that within each set of time, you get its own dimensional shape dependent on there being mass, as intuitively there can be no more than three dimensions in our past time but maybe more in the present.  So in the future where there is no mass, you will get no three dimensional space but also the shape of the time changes to never ending multidimensional fields of probability stretching forever and twisting and turning into every possibility, i.e. it has a new shape that differs from the past.  The present is something very unique and precious that we do not normally see in our daily lives as we are always slightly out of time, but this is what I think you are seeing when scientists get close to the speed of light and very large energies and is where the future gets pulled through into the past.  At the Large Hadron Collider, observers are looking into the present and hence witness reality coming into effect and so get some weird effects.  To see into the future, you need to go faster than the speed of light and effectively be massless energy.  So by saying that time has three distinct phases you can change the number of space dimensions to be different in each stretch of time and increase without any issue the number of dimensions that scientists are seeing and calculating, but how many there are and what they are can only be determined experimentally.

Now for some maths, although I can only hint at it as I am not a mathematician, but having thought about the universe, I suspect current maths is perhaps hinting at these thoughts and if not could be rationalised to take these thought experiments into account.  Also, it is difficult to explain in words about multidimensional shapes, however in pure maths you can show this and perhaps that is what quantum field theory really means.

For example, David Toms at Newcastle University has determined the renormalization group function for the running electric charge in quantum electrodynamics as (Toms, D (2010) Quantum gravitational contributions to quantum electrodynamics, Nature, 4  November 2010, Vol 468, p 56 – 59):

β (E, e) =   e3    –   k2(E2 + 3  Λ)e
                    12π2     32π2      2            

This equation means that while the electric charge increases as energy increases per the first term on the right hand side, but in the presence of no or a small value for gravity, Λ, the second term is negative and prevents the electric charge continuously increasing in energy and results in it falling to zero as gravity increases.

However beautiful these mathematical equations are, they still do not answer my original question of why do these forces occur or what is matter, or how did the universe begin and what are we seeing?  They beautifully describe mathematical patterns of how to predict results in quantum force fields and particle physics, but they do not bridge that gap of understanding from the complex maths to explaining to the world what is happening, so for example Newton invented his version of differential equations to explain gravity and we all understand gravity even if the math is beyond us; similarly, Einstein was able to explain a complex concept without detailed math.  Somehow, current quantum theory misses this simple idea and I worry that its sheer complexity hides the fact that something is missing, some piece of the jigsaw or at least that piece that opens up further understanding.

Now, I confess to being befuddled by the maths and I cannot give an answer as to how to unify all these forces.  But I do notice something that unites them all; all modern physics is about shapes, albeit very complex shapes.  It is about fields and symmetry, even though these include fields with infinite degrees of freedom and supersymmetry.  So I propose that you can explain all of the structure of the universe and reality through understanding how time and space are constructed around everything and how these shapes interact with each other.  If this is so, then what could the universe be like?

Imagine that the forces are simply the result of shapes and time interacting, so for example the weak nuclear force might just be the result of the three dimensional shapes caused by different particles interacting with each other just like gravity, so a weak force that weakens in strength with distance, with varying strengths between particles due to the different shape of the fields around each particle type.  Perhaps, the electrodynamic force is created by this three dimensional shape spinning around certain particles, so different directions of spin cause different charges, while a mixture of the different speeds of spin and shapes of the three dimensional space actually arcing around the particle results in different strengths of charge, shifting electrons up and down energy levels; once again the strength of the electrodynamic force falls with distance between particles as the three dimensional shape around the particles reduces with distance.  These forces are then connected to gravity via a scale change, as gravity is the result of the sum of all these individual small spaces around each individual mass creating a field of gravity that is built around the whole body of mass, so the strength of the force falls with distances.  Note the consequence of this is that if gravity can reduce the electrodynamic force then so ought the weak nuclear force, which perhaps is why the weak nuclear force is weak as were it stronger than the electrodynamic force, then there would be no electrodynamic force and so no chemistry or biology or life.   The strong force is more complex and results perhaps from the impact of time on each particle and its shape, so using my analogy from earlier of a piece of string being time – imagine two particles connected by a piece of string, then as the two particles get closer together the string becomes limp and so it weakens as the particles get closer together, but then as you pull them further apart the strength of the force gets stronger until it effectively no longer changes (until at some point it snaps releasing energy?).

So imagine the beginning of time, we might get the following pattern.  At T=-1, there is no mass so the universe has no shape.  At T=0, mass comes into being and space is created around the original body of mass. At T=1, you have one particle of mass and one unit of time, so there are no forces, as while you have space and time, there is nothing for these to interact with.  At T=2, you have two particles of mass and two units of time, so you have strong physical attraction between the two particles due to the weak nuclear force and gravity resulting from three dimensional shape, which at this stage are the same, but you have no electrodynamic force as gravity is too strong preventing space from spinning and the strong force is relatively weak as both particles of mass are close together.  At T=3, you have four particles of mass, and the weak nuclear force and gravity are still strong due to the high density of these mass particles but weakening as these points of mass become further apart, while the electrodynamic force is beginning to want to start spinning but is not yet able to.  At some point, however, after creation, you reach a point where the weak force and gravity are weak enough to enable mass to be separated and the electrodynamic force can start being formed.

Then perhaps supersymmetry and high forms of dimensions as used by mathematicians and physicists to explain what they are doing are simply time and space folding up into (semi) stable spinning shapes that can persist on their own or more usually only when interacting with each other.  So perhaps bosons, leptons and quarks are simply symmetrical foldings of time and space that are unstable unless together, so you would need to derive several unstable symmetries in the math that when you brought together would cancel out each others’ instability (accepting that I postulated earlier that forces are the interactions between time and space rather than from particles called bosons).  So what is matter?  It might simply be time and space folding up into stable symmetries, i.e. it is the symmetries and dimensions that are important in themselves rather than being a mathematical nicety (or complexity).  Then, antimatter and dark matter might be alternative symmetries that are less stable, where antimatter can be made stable in certain conditions, while dark matter might be all the unstable symmetries that come into existence but collapse into spaceless/shapeless/matterless time-space, i.e. I suppose flat, dimensionless “3 dimensional” space – the stuff that is everywhere but has no physicality.

So time is more important really than space and has a bigger impact on reality than space.  Time works over long distances while space works over shorter distances.  Space is formed by mass and becomes “shapeless” without mass, while conversely space can create mass.  Matter is caused by space and time folding into stable symmetries, either on its own or in interaction with other semi stable symmetrical shapes; dark matter is space and time that forms in unstable symmetries and so collapse in on itself into shapeless “flat” space.  Forces are caused by the interaction of space-space, space-time and time-time, taking into account shapes and spin.  There is more than one time dimension and we see time through a lens of space, and each time reality is unique to an individual observer.  We observe time not space, in fact we observe past time only (walking backwards into the future).  Evereything is possible in the future while the present is forced into being by the latency of the past. 

Finally, I can understand why maths is so key to this, as trying to explain this in words is well nigh impossible, so perhaps I need to get out some books in complex maths and get thinking, however I am not sure that current maths can quite meet the challenge and someone with more numerical ability will need to invent a way of describing reality, but it needs to be explainable to us ordinary folk.  So I leave the world of cosmology to those wiser than me, which is nearly everyone else in the world.