All my Antics, Mostly Reviews

Tag: physics

Saturn V SA-506 rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building

On the Importance of Touching a Tree

Old Home

Only seconds remained until she would be launched into space at a hurtling pace. She heard the countdown through her helmet, but it was distant. Her mind was preoccupied with her own past and future. She remembered her childhood. She thought about all the fun times she had on this planet, but also all the embarrassing little mistakes she had committed. She was sad, she had to leave this planet, but there was no other choice. She had to. But what would be on the other side?

“20 seconds and counting!” – “t minus 15 seconds, guidance is internal” – “12 … 11 … 10 … 9” – “ignition sequence start” – “6 … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … 0″ – ” all engine running … lift off” – “we have a lift off 32 minutes past the hour!”

She felt a rumble going through the rocket, she felt her body shaken, and she was shaken. Was this supposed to happen? A tear started running down her cheek as she and her rocket slowly started to move off the ground with incredible power.

15 years earlier she had been a teenager. She lived in a small house with a disproportionally big garden, somewhere on the outskirts of a small German town. Her life wasn’t poised to be a normal one in the first place. She had to fight for her right to be who she was anyway, but she couldn’t have known what history had in store for her.

“Mum, can I please go out with my friends tonight? Dennis is celebrating his birthday, and we wanted to see the new Apollo movie at the cinema.”
“Well, have you done your homework?”
“No, but it’s the weekend I can do it tomorrow, and I’ll still have time to spare until Monday.”
“Okay fine, but don’t stay out too long, I’ll expect you back by midnight at the latest. Even if Dennis is turning 16 tonight, you’re still 14, and you still live in this house.”
“Ugh, yeah, fine, mum!”

Laura wanted to be older. She wasn’t excited about her adulthood, but then, finally, she would be able to escape the control of her mum. Her mum was just too worried anything might happen to her precious son. Laura didn’t want to be precious. In a rare accident of obedience, Laura decided to start her physics homework before the evening commenced.

Physics was one of her favourite subjects, well, to be fair there weren’t many subjects she disliked. There were some teachers she couldn’t stand, but other than PE school was manageable for her. Her biggest issue was boredom. If not for her mum constantly checking her homework as if she was still a 3rd grader, she probably wouldn’t have done her homework ever, but who knows.

Her physics teacher seemed exactly as excited as her about the upcoming rocket trials, her only homework for physics was a question about rockets. She loved rockets and she was listening intently when Mr Lampert talked about the ongoing programs to open up a final frontier in space. She could feel his excitement and she was excited as well. She caught herself staring out of the window into the garden. She often beat herself up about the lack of focus she would bring into projects. It made her feel even more inadequate than usual and she worried she would never fit into society.

She looked out of the window again. It couldn’t be. Was she just hallucinating? She felt tired from her day at school, it was probably just her mind playing tricks on her. She looked down again onto her empty page and her physics textbook. Where was she? Yes, rocket propulsion. So rockets apparently flew by pushing out a somewhat constant stream of expanding fuel, and then, well, because of Newton’s principle that every force causes an equal and opposite reaction, well that would push the rocket forward, or well upward. But wasn’t this too easy? Well, yes, the mass of the rocket would change. so it wasn’t just two unchanging masses pushing against each other, the process of pushing would change the mass of the pushed object. Oh no, this smelled of differential equations – Wait! There it was again, something in the garden had moved again. And it wasn’t supposed to move, was it? Trees don’t just move on their own, do they?

Laura was thinking if she should go out and look for herself what was up. Maybe it was all just an illusion. A weird artefact of diffraction or a lapse of her judgement, she had had a long day after all. Going out there could have cleared up her mind, after all, it was probably nothing, or was it? She looked out of the window again. She squinted, but she couldn’t see anything.

Still wondering, what was out there, she returned to her physics homework, just to be rudely interrupted by her mum: “Jonas, come down and set the table, dinner is almost ready”. Oh god, did Laura hate this name, but was there anything she could do to convince her mum to not use it anymore? Probably not. To her mum, Laura was just a delusional child, not willing to accept what nature had brought upon her.

“Have you had a look into the garden today?”, Dennis asked when he picked her up after dinner.
“Eh, no? Well, there was … why do you ask?”, Laura replied.
“Ah, I just thought something looked different when I walked along the fence. Just as if something had moved that shouldn’t, but it was probably just my mind playing tricks on me.”
“Wait, Dennis, no! I saw that too. Earlier, when I was doing homework, I felt like something had moved, but I thought my mind was just playing paranoid tricks on me.”
“Always, the good child doing homework, but maybe we should check it out”, Dennis mocked her with a grin.
” I don’t know what if it’s something dangerous…?”
“Come on, it’s just your backyard what dangerous thing could there possibly be?!”, Dennis urged her.

Dennis grabbed her hand and pulled her onto the little path that led around the house into the garden. Laura wasn’t really enthusiastic about the garden. She struggled a bit, but the fight she put in was more for show than a serious effort to stop Dennis. She secretly liked Dennis’ spontaneity, she wished she wouldn’t always worry about every single possible consequence of her actions, but she did. What if it was a dangerous animal? What if her parents would think they were crazy? What if Dennis found something embarrassing about her in her garden? Wait, what could a garden even tell about her.

They hadn’t moved more than a few steps, they hadn’t even passed the kitchen window when Laura’s mum screamed: “Jonas, don’t forget your jacket. It’s going to be cold today!”. Dennis stopped and looked at her slightly baffled. Laura just rolled her eyes. “When is your mum finally going to use the name you picked?”
“I don’t know. I’ve tried to tell her before, but…”. A tear ran down Laura’s cheek, glistening in the orange glow of the street lantern in front of the dark house. Dennis stepped closer on the slightly damp planks that made up the garden path and held her tight.

The second part of this story is First Contact. The whole story is collected in Touching a Tree.

Red Nail Polish

The Happiness Colour Coordination

Sometimes we need a bit of colour in our lives. We need the light to find our own way out of the darkness. And, yes, we need to find our own way. Expectations crush us, our lives seem predetermined and our mind recedes into the grey. Maybe a dash of colour will lead us the way.

Colours as such are a weird concept. We all have a mental image when we say red or green or blue, but if we dig deeper it is next to impossible to describe a colour without falling back on these basic colours. Can we even be sure that you see the same as I do when I say, “red”? Probably not, or actually maybe. But that doesn’t really matter. At least I don’t think it does. All of our experiences are fundamentally our own and really hard to relay to others. Yes, we have language, but a language is a standardised way to crawl slowly out of Plato’s cave. As a mere model of our world, it necessarily makes abstractions and implies assumptions about our world that aren’t necessarily true or true for us. A great example of how language can mould our perception of reality is grammatical gender like it is used in German. Any occupational noun (except a few that were traditionally associated with womanly work like nursing) is male by default in German. You can add a suffix like “-in” to it to make it explicitly female, but there is no way to make an occupational noun truly gender neutral without an awkward unpronounceable letter-addition or the use of both variants. But is this truly gender neutral? I don’t think it is. German has no good way to include people who don’t feel adequately described by either male or female gender identities. And in my experiences, this lack of the German language makes German speakers even blinder to the world of non-binary or genderfluid people.

But back to colour. We already established that language can make us blind. But what does blindness do to our colour perception? Well, it’s dependent on what we mean by blindness. Let us assume you are totally blind and can’t see even one shed of light. Does colour still exist? The question is really hard to answer. Hey, don’t expect me to know all the answers.

Fundamentally, colour is just different photons with different energies. Does it require these photons to hit our retinas to become colour? I don’t know. But our colour perception is definitely more complicated than it seems at first. We can’t just see orange and that’s it. Our eyes don’t just have a receptor sensitive to any colour there is. Not only have we a limit of what on the electromagnetic spectrum we can see at all. We can’t see ultraviolet light for example. But we also have only three kinds of different colour receptors. So any colour we can see is just made up by our brain as a mixture of the different light levels or cones detect. Human cone cells are receptive to blue red and green. Hence the colours of every pixel on this screen: red, green and blue. This screen works differently than our eyes though. While this screen has the same proportion of red, green and blue subpixels, our eyes generally have fewer cone cells receptive to blue and the percentages of red- and green-receptive cone cells vary quite a bit even in people with quote “regular” vision.

What stands out is that in the end, we in almost any case agree on what red is and what blue is. We have many categories we collectively agree upon, some are more cultural some others are more basic, but even terms for colours have a certain order of appearance in human language and of course that order influences how we perceive the world around us.

Still, this doesn’t answer the question of whether colour exists without perception, but to be honest I don’t have an answer to that. I just know that a dash of colour in the right place can make me quite happy. Why that is? I don’t know, but it might have to do with another categorisation I previously mentioned in this essay.

The category I’m talking about is gender. We’re all automatically sorted into one of these bins at birth or quite often even before we even leave our mother’s womb. We get a pronoun and our allocated room (some people like to call it a nursery) gets either painted in a slight pink or a dashing light blue. Of course, there are cases where this categorisation fails. Not everyone is born with a clear set of genitalia that fits neatly into one category or the other, some people don’t feel like they were sorted into the right box. But most of us are sorted cleanly, sometimes even if this decision should have maybe been postponed until we could make a decision for ourselves. The category itself isn’t the problem necessarily. Trying to categorise everything is human nature after all and usually, a useful shortcut for our everyday mental life. Just our desire to have neat boxes makes things complicated and our expectation, that nobody should change their assigned box makes these to categories appear a bit restrictive to some – maybe even like a mental prison to some …  me included.

I was sorted into the male category at birth. And well at least at first there was nothing wrong with that. A baby doesn’t care about societal expectations of gender. And why should it? Why should anyone, well I don’t know? I only know that people do in fact care. And at least for me, that is a bad thing. It is confining. Granted, I don’t like the male features of my body. Some of them I hate, a few I am indifferent about, and only a single one I really like, but does my body define my own identity? In part of course, but in the end, it is only secondary to my mind. Do I just want to wear nail polish? Yes, I want to wear a dash of colour on my fingertips generally associated with feminity, but it’s only a small part of what I want. I would also enjoy it tremendously if someone would flick the elusive switch that would make my body magically appear more feminine, but to be honest, I don’t care about my name, I don’t care about my pronouns as long as they don’t compromise my safety. My identity isn’t defined by the confines of society. On one hand, I, generally, enjoy feminine fashion more than men’s clothing. On the other hand, I really like me a suit, a tuxedo, or a tailcoat. I like me my Oxfords, but I also love me my high heeled pumps. At some point, I just want my tie to match my nail polish. Want the colour of my shoe to match my skirt. What am I? Male or female? Red or Blue? I don’t know, and I only care because society cares. But I’m captive in society’s expectations. I try to be me as good as I can.

Colour is my way out of it. Colour coordination is my goal. One day in a suit and tie, one day in a dress and high heels. Beneath that preferably a female body. Tie, handkerchief and nails matched.

At least maybe, that would make me happy. Sometimes it’s just small things though: perhaps just a dash of nail polish will suffice to elicit a smile from me. That’s definitely easier to pull off than the whole rest of my desires.

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