quantum mechanics

Ask Palinode #7: super bonus question day

Sometimes you get tired of being ugly. You want to jump out of bed and say, 'Fuck it world, I'm all about the beauty today. Being ugly is so never was and never more will be, aye'. Then you face down the mirror, the one showing you your same old ugly face, and say, 'Thanks mirror, that's a nice picture of the old me. But there's a new me now, and that me is beautiful'.

I'm already beautiful, so I don't have to go through this process. But today I not only look beautiful; I feel it. In fact, I feel better than beautiful. I feel cute and perky on the inside. That's where all the pretty butterflies come from. So perky do I feel that I'm going to answer multiple questions at once. My Head Is Too Big For My Body, aka Mr. Head, asks:

  1. Broken down into component elements and allowing for inflation, how much will my body be worth when I die in 2046?

  2. How fast do the molecules in said body need to vibrate so I can pass through solid structures?

  3. What does the word "zeitgeist" mean?
#1. Mr. Head, congratulations on your decision to take your future in your hands and calculate the worth of your first, last and ultimately only possession - your own body. Most people calculate their worth by tallying up their assets - houses, cars, yachts, slaves, jewellery - and leaving it all to relatives or the Humane Society. They say you can't take it with you. But your body comes along whether you want it or not.

The human body is a mish-mash of elements, some common, some extremely rare, that were minding their own business and having a good time when your DNA molecule showed up and started bullying them around. Then these inert piles hopped up from whatever they were doing and started joining into molecules, each bond adding complexity and specialization until an entire Mr. Head was standing there, all assembled and wondering where his girlfriend had gotten to. In economic terms, it could be said that each step up in complexity adds value to these elements, until a pile of carbon, which in raw form may cost a penny or less, suddenly becomes part of an entire body, which can be rented out for up to fifty years in exchange for varying amounts of money.

When you're calculating the worth of the elemental composition of the body, it's best to keep in mind that your body is worth a whole lot more if all its molecular bonds remain intact. Separate, unmolested and sitting in piles, the various elements of your body still amount to less than a dollar. If you're willing to add value to those elements, though, the sums of money start piling up. You've probably got about 16 kilograms of oxygen locked away in your tissues. Not worth much when extracted and placed on a table. If you were to chill it, bottle it under pressure in a steel canister and offer it to old people, you'd find that medical-grade oxygen fetched a very high price. Or take your carbon, which, if removed from your body and dumped in a bowl, would not be worth much. If you add it to industrial pollution, though, you can then refrain from burning it in exchange for carbon credits. Cha-ching. That's an instance in which you can add value to a substance by not doing anything at all beyond placing it in a particular context. And you're helping to save the Earth.

If we were to account for inflation, as your question suggests, let's assume a base value for your elements of ninety-eight cents. This is an entirely reasonable sum, because anything in this world worth less than a dollar is automatically ninety-eight cents, with the exception of Hubba Bubba bubblegum. If we then assume an inflation total of 523%, based on the rate over the past forty years, your denatured self will be worth a stunning $6.13 when, in 2046, you will fall over dead in the street and then someone will sell you for your elements. Way to plan, Mr. Head. Especially since dead bodies will be reanimated in the future and put to work in 7-Elevens.

#2. Everyone who grew up reading comic books and dreaming of supernatural powers will be familiar with this question, which reminds us of the Flash and his ability to make his molecules vibrate in such a way that he could pass through solid barriers. Along with Wolverine's crazy claws, molecular control was probably the most coveted super-possession for young boys in the '70s and '80s. Lightsabers also ranked up there (note how all these things involve passing or cutting through barriers). The point is this: any boy who has the ability to vibrate through walls is by definition totally cool. And once he grows up a bit and starts dating women, immensely desirable. Girls who can do this are unfortunately not cool because girls are not allowed to go through walls. Women who can vibrate through walls are also immensely desirable and highly caffeinated.

In order to find out how The Flash did his thing, I asked my friend Levendis, who's read Crisis on Infinite Earths and so most likely knows about molecular frequencies.

Levendis: The Flash has a kind of 'deal' that protects his molecules, or he used to, but in Infinite Crisis #4 Superboy-Prime was pulled into the Speed Force by the other Flashes.

Palinode: So this 'deal' was the thing that allowed him to vibrate through walls?

Levendis: That was the deal.

Palinode: And the Speed Force helped him with his... speed?

Levendis: The Speed Force was an extradimensional force that the Flash was able to draw on in order to go to the speed of light and beyond.

Palinode: But now he's not able to do this?

Levendis: The nature of the Speed Force changed after Superboy-Prime and now he's just really fast.

Palinode: I hate comics.

The speed at which a molecule vibrates is a function of the amount of energy added to the molecule. At absolute zero, no energy is being applied to the molecule, so the vibration is zero. As the available energy increases, so does the vibration. In order to increase the vibration of your molecules so that you could pass through a wall, you would need to add a significant amount of energy and some kind of protective shielding against the harmful effects of that energy. The Flash apparently had a well of extradimensional energy called the Speed Force on which to draw, and he was protected by some kind of 'deal'. Regrettably we have no such 'deal,' and the Speed Force for us is the group of pale-faced kids in the park selling crystal meth.

Since no one has ever accomplished this feat in the real world, it can only be proved by thorough experiment. If you can find a sufficient source of energy, then you have to deal with the second law of thermodynamics, which indicates that waste energy from spontaneous transfer will be thrown off as heat. Oxygen molecules in your body and ambient air will react with the heat in a process known as combustion and then you will be on fire.

Most of your body will be converted to ambient nitrogen and particles of carbon. If the prevailing winds are correct, the particles of carbon will rise on the current of warm air and land on the other side of the wall. I call this The Classical Solution.

Clearly, classical physics are not your friend. What you need is the aid of quantum mechanics. For starters, take a look at this:

Whoah! What the fuck is that? You may not know it, but that's the solution to your vexed question here. In order to pass through that wall, you don't need speed; you need the benefits of quantum mechanical tunneling.

What is quantum mechanical tunneling? Without it, your Casio wristwatch would not work. Your television set would just be a weird box you paid a thousand dollars for. Your sun would not be able to initiate the thermonuclear explosions that give us heat and light. Your physics prof would not lecture on the topic, for obvious reasons.

Quantum mechanical tunneling is difficult to sum up in a few words, but suffice it to say that when a peck or bushel of subatomic particles approaches a barrier at a certain energy level, some will be reflected back, but a certain number will, by the laws of quantum probability, appear on the other side of the barrier. It's like throwing a cat at the door and finding that somehow the cat has landed in the hallway. Or like having a cat take a shit in a litter box but somehow you find cat turds on the floor (Cat shit is the only macroscopic substance known to take advantage of quantum tunneling). Bear in mind that there is no actual 'tunnel' involved; the particles appear on the other side of the barrier as a function of quantum probability.

You will notice that the tunneling effect works best when applied to the subatomic level. In fact, for your average electron, disappearing one side of a wall and popping into existence on the other side is pretty commonplace. On larger scales of measurement, probability begins to average out in such a way as to discourage crazy-ass shit like quantum tunneling. It's not impossible for all 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (7 *1027) atoms in your body to spontaneously vanish and then reappear elsewhere in the precise configuration that they enjoyed, but it's really really unlikely.

Given that degree of unlikelihood, it's probably smart to reduce your body to individual elements. This can be accomplished with a gun and a good pair of tweezers. Have a friend gather you up in a bucket and hurl your components at a wall. Then wait for quantum tunneling to do its magic.

#3. 'Zeitgeist' is not a real word. It was made up by my little cousin Billy in 1982 when I asked him what he was going to call his new puppy. 'Zeitgeist!' he screamed, spittle flying. 'Zeitgeist!' Shut up, I thought. The name didn't stick (big surprise). I'm quite surprised at how rapidly the word has spread out into common usage since then. It still doesn't mean anything, though.