Of Naphthalene, Pulsars and the Wall around the Universe!

25 Aug

Even when I was very young I was well aware that something existed that made the light go out when, and not before, the switch was clicked; that enabled me to sit on a chair without passing right through it. The same “something” made the stars, glowing so gorgeously up in the sky, stay in place rather than falling to earth like a meteor shower or conglomerating into one big, bright ball!

In short, without knowing any of the details, I was aware of the Laws of Physics.

And then, when I reached 11 years of age I went to Secondary School and started to receive lessons in that subject. Under the tutelage of Copleston’s finest Physics Masters, Messrs Chambers and Hewitt (aka “Gassy” and “Tuskers” – see as well as the unrespected and therefore ineffectual “Bunter” Webb I did manage to learn various odds and sods that remain with me to this day.

These include random facts about the Electromagnetic spectrum, light refraction, Radioactivity, Moments of Inertia and, most memorably, the Latent Heat of evaporation of a substance called Naphthalene.

That last one has proved incredibly useful as I often need to know just how much heat I am going to need to melt a Mothball! And if you don’t recognise sarcasm when you read it – that was it!

While learning such stuff (and learning to my cost that the glass wool, used to plug the test tube in which that chemical was being melted, was extremely itchy when stuffed down the neck of your shirt!) I was also aware from other sources that a great deal of NEW physics-related stuff was going on out in the real world.

These “sources” were, primarily, illustrated scientific articles in the Colour Supplement of The Sunday Telegraph (some of which I may still have in a box somewhere in the attic) concerning the latest discoveries in the field of Astrophysics which, at that time, was undergoing cataclysmic changes. These included the discovery of Pulsars and even alternate theories refuting the standard “Big Bang” creation idea as a way of explaining the current state of our universe and everything in it.

THAT was the sort of Physics that I wanted to be doing – unfortunately no-one adequately explained to me that an understanding of the more basic forces at work simply had to precede any study at that level. Because the more complicated (and interesting) stuff was denied me I lost interest in the more mundane syllabus then being taught.

Let’s back-track a bit – “What’s a Pulsar?” I heard you ask a few paragraphs ago.

OK, let me share with you a bit of what I’ve learned about such things despite, not because of, the school curriculum.

When a star of a size up to about 1.5 times that of our own Sun moves into its Old Age and reaches a critical level in its stock of Hydrogen for fusion it can undergo periodic expansions and contractions throwing off rings of unwanted material. These upset the balance between gravity and fusion reactions and result in the star compacting down to something called a White Dwarf star. Very dense, very heavy, still emitting heat and light – just from a much smaller surface area.

At the other end of the scale, anything over 3 solar masses cannot find a new “balance point” and keeps right on undergoing collapse until even light cannot break free of the uncontrolled increase in the gravitational field and it becomes a “Black hole” or more correctly a “singularity”.

Between those two extremes is the area where total collapse doesn’t quite happen but the star’s atoms are so tightly packed together that the electron shells are stripped off and only the massive neutrons remain packed up against each other as tightly as matter can be. As these “Neutron Stars” fall in on themselves they retain the angular momentum of the spin they had as giant “ordinary” stars and this spin increases sometimes to hundreds of revolutions per SECOND!

Not emitting any light to speak of, the only way that these objects became detectable was when Radio Astronomers managed to pick up radio emissions from “hot spots” in the neutron stars’ magnetic fields. Because of the incredible spin these objects seemed to be flashing (or pulsing – hence the name “Pulsar”) at very regular intervals causing said astronomers initially to think that these were attempts at extra-terrestrial communication. So before the name Pulsar was applied these objects were known as “LGMs” for Little Green Men!

The other thing I read extensively about in those colour supplements was the “Steady State” creation theory which maintained that space and matter were coming into existence (from where, I don’t know) continuously as the universe expands.  It took some time for this seemingly sensible alternative to the idea of everything (including space and time) exploding out of a mathematical point (the “Big Bang”) to be refuted. The main point against it was observations apparently supported the idea that the universe was in fact changing: quasars and radio galaxies were found only at large distances (and therefore could have existed only in the distant past), not in closer galaxies. This was predicted by the Big Bang theory, while the Steady State theory predicted that such objects would be found throughout the universe, including close to our own galaxy.

The big problem with describing the “Big Bang in any meaningful way is that the human brain cannot easily grasp the idea that ALL of Space and Time “unfolded” in multiple dimensions to just BE the entirety of the Universe without it having something pre-existing to explode into!

If you can “get” the concept that a multi-dimensional universe such as ours can be “finite but unbounded” you should be able to see that there is nothing for the Universe to have an “edge” with.

I mention that last aspect because Faith, my lovely wife, often seeks my help in getting her to sleep by asking me to explain to her what is on the other side of what she calls “The Brick Wall around the Universe”. My attempts at explaining the topography of a space that can contain everything there is AND be finite yet have no edge usually have her asleep in minutes!

Try giving yourself some mental exercise with it!

If EVERYTHING that exists is in the Universe, describe the non-existent “something” that is on the outside of Faith’s brick wall.

It can’t be “non-existent” AND “something” – if it’s “something” it can be described; if it can be described, it exists and if it exists it’s inside the wall!

Conversely, “non-existence” is not, by its very definition, there – so you don’t need a barrier!

Fun, isn’t it?

Perhaps if enough of us start thinking about it, someone will come up with an explanation that is correct and that we can all understand!

To close I should tell you that I recently asked Faith what happens to the Brick Wall as the Universe expands. She drew my attention to a recent news item reporting a serious shortage of bricks for the UK house building industry.

Now we know why!



Posted by on August 25, 2014 in Schooldays


3 responses to “Of Naphthalene, Pulsars and the Wall around the Universe!

  1. Vincent

    August 26, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    Steven Wright – “You can’t have everything – where would you put it?”

    Pulsar = a digital watch

    Steady State = sober

    Big Bang Theory = Eric Pickles’ wedding night…

    • Alfie

      August 28, 2014 at 11:43 am

      I thought you might remember the glass wool down the shirt thing! I seem to recall that our large, Official Class Sadist did that to me and he used to like doing things like that to you too!

      • Vincent

        August 29, 2014 at 5:55 am

        Oh, he was always pottering about!


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