110 Nanoseconds And The Thing That Never Was

It starts with this post about temporal cloaking which I seem to have encountered about two months too late. It describes how a team at Cornell has developed a mechanism to slow time around an event, creating a bubble of spacetime around the event and thus making it seem as though it never happened. Another post which I just discovered explains a few more theoretical details about the phenomenon, this time from the Imperial College of London. You can find the original paper here.

Reading through the paper, it doesn’t sound very impressive (but then again which dry scientific paper ever does?) especially because the maximum time they could temporally cloak anything turned out to be 110 ns; in theory, that could go up to 120 microseconds.

The number of sci-fi scenarios that could arise from this literally blow my mind. I was thinking about some of this stuff when I encountered a commenter’s thought that made my ideas far more concrete: this might be new technology, but imagine applying it to the screening of signals. Data is encoded in signals, and you don’t have to make all data vanish for it to have an impact on the veracity or accuracy of your information.

Just think about that for a second.

And after that V asked me what the hell the point of 110 ns as any kind of measure was, because it’s not immediately obvious what that does. So I tried to create a scenario for her.

  1. The average PC processor these days operates at about 4 GHz (actually closer to 3.5, but whatever).
  2. That means that the period of a single clock cycle is about 0.25 nanoseconds.
  3. 110 ns translates into 440 cycles of 0.25 nanoseconds each.
  4. Now, consider the number of cycles it would take for a single instruction to execute.

Here’s where I hit a stumbling block. I’m supposed to know this sort of thing because I’m a computer engineering student, apparently, but a) I wasn’t particularly stellar, b) I have the worst memory and c) I’m very software right now. I crowdsourced the question on Facebook and was firmly put in place for asking such a ridiculously wishy-washy thing (my commenter was right, anyway — there are too many things involved in comp arch to every answer a question like that without knowing the entire, exact background).

Incidentally, I believe the DP512 we used in microcontroller classes operates at 16MHz, which is a far less impressive 62 ns clock speed. Not much help there.

But if you want to consider something as basic as a fetch-decode-read-execute, you’re thinking of at least 4 cycles, maybe ten if you factor in subrouting jumping and the different kinds of memory access… I think. I’m probably still simplifying this far too much into uC territory.

Of course now the question is why the hell I’m torturing both myself and others about this piece of technology. And the answer is: possibilities! Sci-fi! I’m not talking about cloaking entire people or underground cities cloaked in time or anything (although that would be fabulous). I’m talking about bits of data just carefully concealed. I swear to god DoD probably had massive funding in this project.

Here’s what I typed to T, while we were discussing the possibilities:

well you’d have a system of signals, but some of them would run through these lenses
and the lenses would turn on and off at random times, so that no one suspected any patterns
so what you’d get is sort of… lost packets, noise?
if you couldn’t record the events i mean
so it would be secret in the sense that you couldn’t record it and it would sound like noise but it would be RIGHT THERE
under your nose!
distributing information!
 …. actually why stop there
if you could mess with the signals propagated through security cameras
then all you get is a series of nonsense images, if anything, through that camera
it’s an entire system of rewriting history

And what I typed to V:

you could lose valuable calculations within those 440 cycles
by which i’m thinking like… stock market calculations? fluctuations in the market?
i need to ask some comp arc people about this
i mean you don’t even have to lose ALL your data
you just need to lose SOME data
for your final data to totally fail and not make any sense

Of course this is stupidity, in some ways, because it’s not likely they have a portable micro version of these lenses that they can simply insert where they want to. But here’s the thing about sci-fi — you have license to imagine and hope for the future.

Or possibly dread, if we’re talking about a totalitarian system that jacks into records to rewrite history and itself. 1984, guys — doubleplusungood.

Science: it’s like magic, except it works!

In other, almost just-as-startling news, have a look at the Crazy Camouflage Cephalopod:


Writing in here feels incredibly guilty. I’m meant to be studying for my Plan II physics test (which is a lost cause) and prepping for a lab (I haven’t the first clue what’s happening). So of course, right now is when I’ll feel like updating the Internet (i.e. my grand total of 2 readers) about my life.

American Education

Abc and I recently had a discussion about why Teach For America was such a mind-boggling, soul-sucking experience, and I’m so terribly tempted to co-write something about this and post it somewhere. I think he, and every other international student serving as a teacher in TFA, have pinpointed a fundamental problem with the education system in America: the kids simply don’t care. And that is a reflection of a deeper, underlying cultural issue to do with the importance given to educating children in this society.

I think it’s wonderful that Americans don’t think education defines you, and that there are multiple paths to success. At the same time, the lack of emphasis on math and science education and the complete absence of intellectual challenges that face the children of this country are truly appalling. I’m not saying that the rote learning systems across much of China and/or India are the way to go; certainly not. But on the other hand, those systems develop a deep appreciation for facts and for learning, and their train their students, if not to think, then at least to work hard. I prefer the Singapore/British system, which taught you concepts and then expected you to actually apply them. And then I came to UT with about 30 hours of well-deserved, hard-won credit, and with the determination that I would never take my education for granted.

There are other issues plaguing the American system. “I’ve always thought the children were the ones we needed to feel sorry for,” Abc told me, “but I think it’s the teachers who need to be pitied. We have so many deadlines to meet, and we need to finish teaching a syllabus, and we need to make lessons interesting. We get burned out, and then how are we supposed to teach anything to the kids? How are we supposed to care?” Not only are many teachers poorly qualified to teach their subjects (this applies even to TFA teachers, apparently; one teacher assigned to middle school math had no idea what to do with the absolute value concept and Abc had to explain it to him), they don’t even have a decent support system.

Why are Americans insulting the intelligence of their children? Why are they de-emphasizing the importance of education, and why are they dumbing down the curriculum? It’s not simply that I’ve grown up in a culture of valuing education; it’s nothing to do with the idea of cultural differences. Already, students from India, China and elsewhere in the world are coming to the US to participate in its tertiary education systems, working in its MNCs, and taking over its research programs. If these countries ever begin emphasizing rigorous critical thinking along with rigorous fact learning, isn’t there the possibility that this land of opportunity will start playing second fiddle to countries which actually care about learning and research?

I feel like doing something, but I don’t know what.

Special Relativity

On another note, I’m — get this — learning about special relativity. I mean, obviously I’ve known about it for a while and I realized that when you go faster, time passes more slowly for you. But in this (otherwise useless) Plan II physics class I’m taking, we’re required to learn the derivations and the proofs of special relativity, and it’s incredible. The faster you go, the less time passes – and if you’re travelling at the speed of light, time does not apply to you! Z thinks that this is useless because humans can’t travel at any appreciable fraction of the speed of light (even sound is at 340 m/s, which is about E-6 of the speed of light, for heaven’s sake) but still — it’s awesome.

What’s even better is the experimental evidence for this. Muons, which are subatomic particles generated in the atmosphere, travel at about 0.994 of the speed of light. They also decay with a half-life of 1.52 microseconds. That means that, if you tracked a group of muons from the atmosphere down a fixed distance of about 6 seconds of travel (6.08 = 4*1.52), about 1/16 of them would remain — according to classical, Newtonian physics.

Except, of course, that’s not what happens. Using something called the metric equation, which is a mathematical way of measuring the exact distance between two events in spacetime that everyone can agree on (the spacetime interval), you actually find out that only half of a half-life time has passed for the group of muons. Basically, spacetime has contracted for these particles. They’ve taken a shortcut through our four-dimensional world!

If you drew this on a sheet of paper, the line between the atmosphere and the muon would be straight, and would measure, oh, 6.36 mm, 1 mm for each 1 lightsecond of travel. If you calculated the spacetime interval between two points, that line would shrink to 0.7 mm. It’s as though the rest of that line has curved into the paper you’re drawing it on, leaving behind just the beginning and end — which are only 0.7 mm apart. AHHH so exciting! I wish I could find and link to that article in the NYT which talks about time travel.

(I see that this has, obviously, some repercussions for ChronIn. If you travel so fast that time stops moving forward for you, you’d have to travel faster than the speed of light to be able to travel backwards in time. Hmm.)

Edit: Maybe the reason things happen faster in dreams or that we experience the world much faster in our unconscious state (hello, Inception!) is because the speed of thought is actually a fraction of the speed of light. Huh. That’s really fanciful, but just one of those fun things to think about!

Plan II Thesis

They asked for a minimum of 2 pages, and a separate annotated bibliography. I sent 10 pages of single-spaced material to Prof D.

Prof D: What is this? This isn’t an outline!

Me: Um, yes, I got a bit carried away…

Prof D: No no, it’s great, submit this! I had no idea you had this much information!

I managed to cut it down some. Now I’m at 14 single spaced pages of thesis material (most of it is a 6 page defense of why this thesis should exist) and 3 pages of annotated bib.

Lot of reading to do this winter break 🙂