Shining Curtains

When the Vikings swept across Europe in the 7th and 8th centuries, they brought with them many stories; stories of their Gods, of the birth of the world, of Asgard, of Valhalla, of Jormundur the world-serpent, of Loki the trickster, Odin the father and of Ragnarok- the end of this world and the beginning of the next. However, the reason I mention the Vikings today is in reference to one particular set of stories they brought with them; of shining curtains of brilliant, heavenly fire, dancing across the northern sky as the Gods fought with one another. Such lights were not common in Europe, but they were certainly known, and throughout history have provoked terror at the anger of the various Gods that was clearly being displayed across the heavens. Now, we know these shining curtains as the aurora borealis (Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn, whilst boreas was the Greek name for the north wind (because the aurora was only observed in the far north- a similar feature known as the aurora australis is seen near the south pole). The name was acquired in 1621).

Nowadays, we know that the auroras are an electromagnetic effect, which was demonstrated quite spectacularly in 1859. On the 28th of August and 2nd of September that year, spectacular auroras erupted across much of the northern hemisphere, reaching their peak at one o’clock in the morning EST, and as far south as Boston the light was enough to read by. However, the feature I am interested here concerns the American Telegraph Line, stretching almost due north between Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine. Because of the great length and orientation of this line, the electromagnetic field generated by the aurora was sufficient to induce a current in the telegraph, to the extent that operators at both ends of the line communicated to decide to switch off their batteries (which were only interfering) and operate solely on aurora-power for around two hours. Aside from a gentle fluctuation of current, no problems were reported with this system.

We now know that the ultimate cause of the aurorae is our sun, and that two loads of exceptional solar activity were responsible for the 1859 aurora. We all know the sun emits a great deal of energy from the nuclear fusion going on in its core, but it also emits a whole lot of other stuff; including a lot of ionised (charged) gas, or plasma. This outflow of charged particles forms what is known as the solar wind, flowing out into space in all directions; it is this solar wind that generates the tail on comets, and is why such a tail always points directly away from the sun. However, things get interesting when the solar wind hits a planet such as Earth, which has a magnetic field surrounding it. Earth’s magnetic field looks remarkably similar to that of a large, three-dimensional bar magnet (this picture demonstrates it’s shape well), and when a large amount of charged particles passes through this magnetic field it is subject to something known as the motor effect. As every GCSE physics student knows, it is this effect that allows us to generate motion from electricity, and the same thing happens here; the large mass of moving charge acts as a current, and this cuts across the earth’s magnetic field. This generates a force (this is basically what the motor effect does), and this force points sideways, pushing the solar wind sideways. However, as it moves, so does the direction of the ‘current’, and thus the direction of the force changes too; this process ends up causing the charge to spin around the magnetic field lines of the earth, causing it to spiral as this mass of charged particles moves along them. Following these field lines, the charge will end up spiralling towards the poles of the earth, at which point the field lines bend and start going into the earth itself. As the plasma follows these lines therefore, it will come into contact with the Earth’s atmosphere, and one section of it in particular; the magnetosphere.

The magnetosphere is a region of our atmosphere that covers the upper level of our ionosphere which has a strong magnetic field. Here, the magnetic fields of both the charged plasma and the magnetosphere itself combine in a rather complicated process known as magnetic reconnection, the importance of which will be discussed later. Now, let us consider the contents of the plasma, all these charged particles and in particular high energy electrons that are now bumping into atoms of air in the ionosphere. This bumping into atoms gives them energy, which an atom deals with by having electrons within the atoms jump up energy levels and enter an excited state. After a short while, the atoms ‘cool down’ by having electrons drop down energy levels again, releasing packets of electromagnetic energy as they do so. We observe this release of EM radiation as visible light, and hey presto! we can see the aurorae. What colour the aurora ends up being depends on what atoms we are interacting with; oxygen is more common higher up and generates green and red aurorae depending on height, so these are the most common colours. If the solar wind is able to get further down in the atmosphere, it can interact with nitrogen and produce blue and purple aurorae.

The shape of the aurorae can be put down to the whole business of spiralling around field lines; this causes, as the field lines bend in towards the earth’s poles, them to describe roughly circular paths around the north and south poles. However, plasma does not conduct electricity very well between magnetic field lines, as this pattern is, so we would not expect the aurora to be very bright under normal circumstances. The reason this is not the case, and that aurorae are as visible and beautiful as they are, can be put down to the process of magnetic reconnection, which makes the plasma more conductive and allows these charged particles to flow more easily around in a circular path. This circular path around the poles causes the aurora to follow approximately east-west lines into the far distance, and thus we get the effect of ‘curtains’ of light following (roughly) this east-west pattern. The flickery, wavy nature of these aurora is, I presume, due to fluctuations in the solar wind and/or actual winds in the upper atmosphere. The end result? Possibly the most beautiful show Earth has to offer us. I love science.

Advertisements

Components of components of components…

By the end of my last post, science had reached the level of GCSE physics/chemistry; the world is made of atoms, atoms consist of electrons orbiting a nucleus, and a nucleus consists of a mixture of positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. Some thought that this was the deepest level things could go; that everything was made simply of these three things and that they were the fundamental particles of the universe. However, others pointed out the enormous size difference between an electron and proton, suggesting that the proton and neutron were not as fundamental as the electron, and that we could look even deeper.

In any case, by this point our model of the inside of a nucleus was incomplete anyway; in 1932 James Chadwick had discovered (and named) the neutron, first theorised about by Ernest Rutherford to act as a ‘glue’ preventing the protons of a nucleus from repelling one another and causing the whole thing to break into pieces. However, nobody actually had any idea exactly how this worked, so in 1934 a concept known as the nuclear force was suggested. This theory, proposed by Hideki Yukawa, held that nucleons (then still considered fundamental particles) emitted particles he called mesons; smaller than nucleons, they acted as carriers of the nuclear force. The physics behind this is almost unintelligible to anyone who isn’t a career academic (as I am not), but this is because there is no equivalent to the nuclear force that we encounter during the day-to-day. We find it very easy to understand electromagnetism because we have all seen magnets attracting and repelling one another and see the effects of electricity everyday, but the nuclear force was something more fundamental; a side effect of the constant exchange of mesons between nucleons*. The meson was finally found (proving Yukawa’s theory) in 1947, and Yukawa won the 1949 Nobel Prize for it. Mesons are now understood to belong to a family of particles called gluons, which all act as the intermediary for the nuclear strong force between various different particles; the name gluon hints at this purpose, coming from the word ‘glue’.

*This, I am told, becomes a lot easier to understand once electromagnetism has been studied from the point of view of two particles exchanging photons, but I’m getting out of my depth here; time to move on.

At this point, the physics world decided to take stock; the list of all the different subatomic particles that had been discovered became known as ‘the particle zoo’, but our understanding of them was still patchy. We knew nothing of what the various nucleons and mesons consisted of, how they were joined together, or what allowed the strong nuclear force to even exist; where did mesons come from? How could these particles, 2/3 the size of a proton, be emitted from one without tearing the thing to pieces?

Nobody really had the answers to these, but when investigating them people began to discover other new particles, of a similar size and mass to the nucleons. Most of these particles were unstable and extremely short-lived, decaying into the undetectable in trillionths of trillionths of a second, but whilst they did exist they could be detected using incredibly sophisticated machinery and their existence, whilst not ostensibly meaning anything, was a tantalising clue for physicists. This family of nucleon-like particles was later called baryons, and in 1961 American physicist Murray Gell-Mann organised the various baryons and mesons that had been discovered into groups of eight, a system that became known as the eightfold way. There were two octets to be considered; one contained the mesons, and all the baryons with a ‘spin’ (a quantum property of subatomic particles that I won’t even try to explain) of 1/2. Other baryons had a spin of 3/2 (or one and a half), and they formed another octet; except that only seven of them had been discovered. Gell-Mann realised that each member of the ‘spin 1/2’ group had a corresponding member in the ‘spin 3/2’ group, and so by extrapolating this principle he was able to theorise about the existence of an eighth ‘spin 3/2’ baryon, which he called the omega baryon. This particle, with properties matching almost exactly those he predicted, was discovered in 1964 by a group experimenting with a particle accelerator (a wonderful device that takes two very small things and throws them at one another in the hope that they will collide and smash to pieces; particle physics is a surprisingly crude business, and few other methods have ever been devised for ‘looking inside’ these weird and wonderful particles), and Gell-Mann took the Nobel prize five years later.

But, before any of this, the principle of the eightfold way had been extrapolated a stage further. Gell-Mann collaborated with George Zweig on a theory concerning entirely theoretical particles known as quarks; they imagined three ‘flavours’ of quark (which they called, completely arbitrarily, the up, down and strange quarks), each with their own properties of spin, electrical charge and such. They theorised that each of the properties of the different hadrons (as mesons and baryons are collectively known) could be explained by the fact that each was made up of a different combination of these quarks, and that the overall properties of  each particle were due, basically, to the properties of their constituent quarks added together. At the time, this was considered somewhat airy-fairy; Zweig and Gell-Mann had absolutely no physical evidence, and their theory was essentially little more than a mathematical construct to explain the properties of the different particles people had discovered. Within a year, supporters of the theory Sheldon Lee Glashow and James Bjorken suggested that a fourth quark, which they called the ‘charm’ quark, should be added to the theory, in order to better explain radioactivity (ask me about the weak nuclear force, go on, I dare you). It was also later realised that the charm quark might explain the existence of the kaon and pion, two particles discovered in cosmic rays 15 years earlier that nobody properly understood. Support for the quark theory grew; and then, in 1968, a team studying deep inelastic scattering (another wonderfully blunt technique that involves firing an electron at a nucleus and studying how it bounces off in minute detail) revealed a proton to consist of three point-like objects, rather than being the solid, fundamental blob of matter it had previously been thought of. Three point-like objects matched exactly Zweig and Gell-Mann’s prediction for the existence of quarks; they had finally moved from the mathematical theory to the physical reality.

(The quarks discovered were of the up and down flavours; the charm quark wouldn’t be discovered until 1974, by which time two more quarks, the top and bottom, had been predicted to account for an incredibly obscure theory concerning the relationship between antimatter and normal matter. No, I’m not going to explain how that works. For the record, the bottom quark was discovered in 1977 and the top quark in 1995)

Nowadays, the six quarks form an integral part of the standard model; physics’ best attempt to explain how everything in the world works, or at least on the level of fundamental interactions. Many consider them, along with the six leptons and four bosons*, to be the fundamental particles that everything is made of; these particles exist, are fundamental, and that’s an end to it. But, the Standard Model is far from complete; it isn’t readily compatible with the theory of relativity and doesn’t explain either gravity or many observed effects in cosmology blamed on ‘dark matter’ or ‘dark energy’- plus it gives rise to a few paradoxical situations that we aren’t sure how to explain. Some say it just isn’t finished yet, and that we just need to think of another theory or two and discover another boson. Others say that we need to look deeper once again and find out what quarks themselves contain…

*A boson is anything, like a gluon, that ‘carries’ a fundamental force; the recently discovered Higgs boson is not really part of the list of fundamental particles since it exists solely to effect the behaviour of the W and Z bosons, giving them mass

The Story of the Atom

Possibly the earliest scientific question we as a race attempted to answer was ‘what is our world made of’. People reasoned that everything had to be made of something- all the machines and things we build have different components in them that we can identify, so it seemed natural that those materials and components were in turn made of some ‘stuff’ or other. Some reasoned that everything was made up of the most common things present in our earth; the classical ‘elements’ of earth, air, fire and water, but throughout the latter stages of the last millennia the burgeoning science of chemistry began to debunk this idea. People sought for a new theory to answer what everything consisted of, what the building blocks were, and hoped to find in this search an answer to several other questions; why chemicals that reacted together did so in fixed ratios, for example. For a solution to this problem, they returned to an idea almost as old as science itself; that everything consisted of tiny blobs of matter, invisible to the naked eye, that joined to one another in special ways. The way they joined together varied depending on the stuff they made up, hence the different properties of different materials, and the changing of these ‘joinings’ was what was responsible for chemical reactions and their behaviour. The earliest scientists who theorised the existence of these things called them corpuscles; nowadays we call them atoms.

By the turn of the twentieth century, thanks to two hundred years of chemistry using atoms to conveniently explain their observations, it was considered common knowledge among the scientific community that an atom was the basic building block of matter, and it was generally considered to be the smallest piece of matter in the universe; everything was made of atoms, and atoms were fundamental and solid. However, in 1897 JJ Thomson discovered the electron, with a small negative charge, and his evidence suggested that electrons were a constituent part of atoms. But atoms were neutrally charged, so there had to be some positive charge present to balance out; Thomson postulated that the negative electrons ‘floated’ within a sea of positive charge, in what became known as the plum pudding model. Atoms were not fundamental at all; even these components of all matter had components themselves. A later experiment by Ernest Rutherford sought to test the theory of the plum pudding model; he bombarded a thin piece of gold foil with positively charged alpha particles, and found that some were deflected at wild angles but that most passed straight through. This suggested, rather than a large uniform area of positive charge, a small area of very highly concentrated positive charge, such that when the alpha particle came close to it it was repelled violently (just like putting two like poles of a magnet together) but that most of the time it would miss this positive charge completely; most of the atom was empty space. So, he thought the atom must be like the solar system, with the negative electrons acting like planets orbiting a central, positive nucleus.

This made sense in theory, but the maths didn’t check out; it predicted the electrons to either spiral into the nucleus and for the whole of creation to smash itself to pieces, or for it all to break apart. It took Niels Bohr to suggest that the electrons might be confined to discrete orbital energy levels (roughly corresponding to distances from the nucleus) for the model of the atom to be complete; these energy levels (or ‘shells’) were later extrapolated to explain why chemical reactions occur, and the whole of chemistry can basically be boiled down to different atoms swapping electrons between energy levels in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics. Bohr’s explanation drew heavily from Max Planck’s recent explanation of quantum theory, which modelled photons of light as having discrete energy levels, and this suggested that electrons were also quantum particles; this ran contrary to people’s previous understanding of them, since they had been presumed to be solid ‘blobs’ of matter. This was but one step along the principle that defines quantum theory; nothing is actually real, everything is quantum, so don’t even try to imagine how it all works.

However, this still left the problem of the nucleus unsolved; what was this area of such great charge density packed  tightly into the centre of each atom, around which the electrons moved? What was it made of? How big was it? How was it able to account for almost all of a substance’s mass, given how little the electrons weighed?

Subsequent experiments have revealed an atomic nucleus to tiny almost beyond imagining; if your hand were the size of the earth, an atom would be roughly one millimetre in diameter, but if an atom were the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral then its nucleus would be the size of a full stop. Imagining the sheer tinyness of such a thing defies human comprehension. However, this tells us nothing about the nucleus’ structure; it took Ernest Rutherford (the guy who had disproved the plum pudding model) to take the first step along this road when he, in 1918, confirmed that the nucleus of a hydrogen atom comprised just one component (or ‘nucleon’ as we collectively call them today). Since this component had a positive charge, to cancel out the one negative electron of a hydrogen atom, he called it a proton, and then (entirely correctly) postulated that all the other positive charges in larger atomic nuclei were caused by more protons stuck together in the nucleus. However, having multiple positive charges all in one place would normally cause them to repel one another, so Rutherford suggested that there might be some neutrally-charged particles in there as well, acting as a kind of electromagnetic glue. He called these neutrons (since they were neutrally charged), and he has since been proved correct; neutrons and protons are of roughly the same size, collectively constitute around 99.95% of any given atom’s mass, and are found in all atomic nuclei. However, even these weren’t quite fundamental subatomic particles, and as the 20th century drew on, scientists began to delve even deeper inside the atom; and I’ll pick up that story next time.

Getting bored with history lessons

Last post’s investigation into the post-Babbage history of computers took us up to around the end of the Second World War, before the computer age could really be said to have kicked off. However, with the coming of Alan Turing the biggest stumbling block for the intellectual development of computing as a science had been overcome, since it now clearly understood what it was and where it was going. From then on, therefore, the history of computing is basically one long series of hardware improvements and business successes, and the only thing of real scholarly interest was Moore’s law. This law is an unofficial, yet surprisingly accurate, model of the exponential growth in the capabilities of computer hardware, stating that every 18 months computing hardware gets either twice as powerful, half the size, or half the price for the same other specifications. This law was based on a 1965 paper by Gordon E Moore, who noted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits had been doubling every two years since their invention 7 years earlier. The modern day figure of an 18-monthly doubling in performance comes from an Intel executive’s estimate based on both the increasing number of transistors and their getting faster & more efficient… but I’m getting sidetracked. The point I meant to make was that there is no point me continuing with a potted history of the last 70 years of computing, so in this post I wish to get on with the business of exactly how (roughly fundamentally speaking) computers work.

A modern computer is, basically, a huge bundle of switches- literally billions of the things. Normal switches are obviously not up to the job, being both too large and requiring an electromechanical rather than purely electrical interface to function, so computer designers have had to come up with electrically-activated switches instead. In Colossus’ day they used vacuum tubes, but these were large and prone to breaking so, in the late 1940s, the transistor was invented. This is a marvellous semiconductor-based device, but to explain how it works I’m going to have to go on a bit of a tangent.

Semiconductors are materials that do not conduct electricity freely and every which way like a metal, but do not insulate like a wood or plastic either- sometimes they conduct, sometimes they don’t. In modern computing and electronics, silicon is the substance most readily used for this purpose. For use in a transistor, silicon (an element with four electrons in its outer atomic ‘shell’) must be ‘doped’ with other elements, meaning that they are ‘mixed’ into the chemical, crystalline structure of the silicon. Doping with a substance such as boron, with three electrons in its outer shell, creates an area with a ‘missing’ electron, known as a hole. Holes have, effectively, a positive charge compared a ‘normal’ area of silicon (since electrons are negatively charged), so this kind of doping produces what is known as p-type silicon. Similarly, doping with something like phosphorus, with five outer shell electrons, produces an excess of negatively-charged electrons and n-type silicon. Thus electrons, and therefore electricity (made up entirely of the net movement of electrons from one area to another) finds it easy to flow from n- to p-type silicon, but not very well going the other way- it conducts in one direction and insulates in the other, hence a semiconductor. However, it is vital to remember that the p-type silicon is not an insulator and does allow for free passage of electrons, unlike pure, undoped silicon. A transistor generally consists of three layers of silicon sandwiched together, in order NPN or PNP depending on the practicality of the situation, with each layer of the sandwich having a metal contact or ‘leg’ attached to it- the leg in the middle is called the base, and the ones at either side are called the emitter and collector.

Now, when the three layers of silicon are stuck next to one another, some of the free electrons in the n-type layer(s) jump to fill the holes in the adjacent p-type, creating areas of neutral, or zero, charge. These are called ‘depletion zones’ and are good insulators, meaning that there is a high electrical resistance across the transistor and that a current cannot flow between the emitter and collector despite usually having a voltage ‘drop’ between them that is trying to get a current flowing. However, when a voltage is applied across the collector and base a current can flow between these two different types of silicon without a problem, and as such it does. This pulls electrons across the border between layers, and decreases the size of the depletion zones, decreasing the amount of electrical resistance across the transistor and allowing an electrical current to flow between the collector and emitter. In short, one current can be used to ‘turn on’ another.

Transistor radios use this principle to amplify the signal they receive into a loud, clear sound, and if you crack one open you should be able to see some (well, if you know what you’re looking for). However, computer and manufacturing technology has got so advanced over the last 50 years that it is now possible to fit over ten million of these transistor switches onto a silicon chip the size of your thumbnail- and bear in mind that the entire Colossus machine, the machine that cracked the Lorenz cipher, contained only ten thousand or so vacuum tube switches all told. Modern technology is a wonderful thing, and the sheer achievement behind it is worth bearing in mind next time you get shocked over the price of a new computer (unless you’re buying an Apple- that’s just business elitism).

…and dammit, I’ve filled up a whole post again without getting onto what I really wanted to talk about. Ah well, there’s always next time…

(In which I promise to actually get on with talking about computers)