Bulls: They Don’t Care About The Children

So, apparently WordPress has these daily prompt things.  This guy I follow, a Buddhist guy who is doubtlessly far more disciplined in his meditation than I am, took the opportunity to relate an anecdote about a face to face encounter with a berry loving bear that made me recall a similar story from my own youth.

I wanted to make that into a pun so bad.  Also, it was the writing prompt from three days ago (fight or flight experiences), so I’m late.  But then I’m still writing up a story about the bat me and my coworkers rescued back on Halloween, so it could be much worse.

Imagine that I’m nine or ten or so; it’s easy, I’ve changed so little since then.  Myself, my brother and our friend are playing at said friend’s house in a cozy little semi-rural community with a pasture out back containing a few head of cattle.  Such sideline ranches were and are pretty common in such places.  We kinda weren’t supposed to be playing in said pasture, but we did all the time to no ill effect.  There was also a treehouse toward the back of the pasture, so there were mixed messages at play.

As we all also know, children have to urinate every thirty seconds, so I went inside, did so and came back out and found that my friends had moved on elsewhere while I was gone.  Slightly annoyed and figuring they were out in the pasture, I set about looking for them.

I crossed the cattle guardfor those who don’t know, it’s a shallow pit across the gate leading into a pasture with big thick tubing laid in parallel across it; people can walk across it, trucks can drive over it, but cattle won’t traverse it – looked across the pasture, still couldn’t see anyone.  There were a couple of storage sheds on the left a little ways down, but I didn’t figure they were in there.  We weren’t supposed to play in those either, only we actually didn’t, being that the very same implements that are proficient in doing farmey ranchey type things are also proficient in maiming children.  Also, they were locked.  Seeing as how I had a clear view of the entire pasture, and knowing they wouldn’t be in the storage sheds, I concluded that they had to be in the wide alley between them.

So off I went, calling out, and thus when I rounded the corner and entered the alley, the massive, angry bull at the end of it knew I was coming.  Worse, it was a dead-end alley, so I’d inadvertently cornered it.  You can’t really describe what this feels like; in fact, for a few eternal seconds it doesn’t really feel like anything.  My brain seemed to resist accepting that there was a bull looming there, as if it were a trick of the sunlight and it was really my two companions, one standing on the other’s shoulders, making little bull horns atop his head with his fingers.  The one thought I did have was little more than bemusement with the fact that antagonistic bulls really do lower their heads to point their horns at you and snort and stamp at the ground just like in the cartoons.

It stamped again, harder, and shifted its weight as if it were preparing to move, quickly, so my survival instincts decided this impromptu musing was unacceptable, locked me out of my own brain, and then I was running.  I just sort of went along, watching the grass pass behind me and marvelling at how automatic it all was.  Nothing I felt even casually resembled fear in the classical sense until I noticed first the tremors in the ground, then the rumbling behind me and realized it was chasing me.

That sounds bad, but consider:  I was like ten years old.  He obviously just wanted out of that alley when he saw his exit blocked, else I wouldn’t be here typing this.  Bulls can run up to twenty miles per hour, and adult humans tend to do about eight, and short, chubby ten year old legs must be considerably slower.  If not for the fight/flight override, maybe I would have heard it slow down or stop, or maybe I would have recalled that I was tiny and it was huge, and thus, as a threat, it probably didn’t really take me all that seriously.  As such, I’m forced to conclude that it merely wanted to terrify me senseless, a task at which it unquestionably succeeded.  Really, the way the ground shook when he ran was surreal, and I think it helped with the disconnect I experienced despite those tremors being easily the scariest thing about the whole experience.  Feeling that, there was no question how heavy and powerful that animal was.

That said, there was ample reason to assume it meant to trample me.  To those with little experience being around cattle, it’s hard to adequately explain how incredibly bad tempered bulls can be.  Consider that while all the other animals on the ranch are being fattened, milked, shorn, etc., the only thing the bulls are “asked” to do is literally be sex machines, and that’s not so much a question of asking as it is a you-really-don’t-want-to-try-to-dissuade-him sort of thing.  You don’t want to dissuade him because he weighs 2700 pounds on average, most of it muscle and arrogance, and is accustomed to every single entity he comes across being extremely deferent, even its owners.  They are just a soft, hornless little sticks to be broken in its eyes, make no mistake.  A friend of mine owns a bull with particular infamy among the bull riding crowd, and he has to sneak into his own pasture to feed the thing, because despite having owned this bull for years now, it will attempt to run him out if it sees him.  That guy’s an ex-bull rider himself, and you know why?  Because after he was bucked from his last ride, the bull, having successfully divested his rider and calmed himself down, idly stepped on my friend’s head and accidentally fractured his skull.  They are powerful, temperamental, territorial animals not trifled with even by those with much experience handling them.

If I’d had a cape with an anvil hidden behind it, things would have gone down very, very differently.

Not a bit of any of that passed through my head then; it was all running, and then sprinting, and whole bunch of ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod, so I had no idea what was going on back there.  Here’s how full of adrenalin I was:  I wasn’t fleeing quite in the direction of the cattle guard/gate, but more straight at the barbed wire fencing next to it, and yet there was no room in the reptile brain for course correction, so I could do nothing but sprint straight at it, climb it in like two seconds and leap as far off the other side and into safety as I could, without a single scratch.  If I tried that now as a quasi-athletic adult, I’m fairly sure I would accidentally decapitate myself three or four times.

That’s pretty much it.  I did keep running, all the way into my friend’s house, where his mother was soon quite perplexed upon finding me out of breath in her kitchen after having slammed her back door.  Again thinking quickly, if you can call it that, I only said that I couldn’t find my friends.  She didn’t press the issue any, only chided me gently for slamming the door.  She was nice.  Even now, more than one decade later, she still has no idea about any of this.  And to this day, barbed wire fences still look so fragile.

The moral of this story is obviously that being chased by a bull makes one awesome at parkour as well as temporarily capable of great social chicanery.

Or maybe it’s that when the normal conscious mind is bypassed and instinct takes over, we become hyper-competent superheroes in the vein of Batman, except it only happens in moments of pure terror, you can’t control it, and it only makes you run away, in which case the moral is that life is a cruel and excoriating mockery of our very dreams.

Yet contravening this is the fact that awesome stuff like literature and music and yoga exist, leaving only the possibility that the moral is that when your parents or their temporary proxies tell you not to play in the bull’s pasture, maybe you shouldn’t assume they just want to ruin your pastoral frolics.  Usually, there’s some good intent mixed with the resentment for how you ruined their lives.

And for that we should all be berry, beary grateful.

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Fuzzballs: A Softer, Fuzzier Way to Destroy the Space-Time Continuum

yet another bar joke

Contrary to popular opinion, a neutrino is a subatomic particle, not a jocular Italian nickname.

I distinctly remember when I did the math as a small child:  black holes are formed from the gravitational collapse of a dying star + the Sun is a star = FUCK.  Thankfully the book I’d read that in anticipated this, so the visions of Earth being devoured by cold blackness only lasted like maybe one second.  Later I’d discover less dramatic but more relevant astronomical terrors, such as the myriad asteroids that narrowly miss smashing into Earth every now and then, but nothing would ever arouse that same sense of dread and futility that a black hole’s gravitational pull could evoke.  It would at least be somewhat feasible to deflect or destroy an incoming asteroid, of course.  Difficult, yes.  Plus we’d probably fuck it up and some poor hapless physicist would briefly be the most hated man in the world until we all died.  Still doable though.

A black hole is another matter entirely, however.  It has an infinitely intense gravity emanating from a zero dimensional, zero volume core; the human mind can’t even truly comprehend its nature in any way beyond the abstract.  Even light – completely massless and literally the fastest thing in existence – can’t escape it.  As you might know, gravity acts upon an object’s mass, so the fact that a black hole can ensnare light is one of those holy fuck kind of things.  There’s also something vaguely poetic, even spiritual, about the only sources of light in the universe collapsing into themselves and becoming a dark and ravening void that is literally impossible to see because light can never reach you from it.  It’s like in death stars begin to steal back the light they once freely gave.  Of course, not all stars become black holes, only really big ones, so that pretty much ruins my romantic rendition of it.  Thanks science.  Either way, though, contemplating black holes is some pretty (infinitely) heavy shit.

There’s a problem in those infinities, though.  The zeroes too.  Nevermind the fact that black holes are by their nature literally impossible to see; nevermind the fact that beyond a bunch of mindbending math and the observation of the effects of their immense gravity that there’s no evidence that they exist (to the point where Hawking relates that it’s as though the universe actively “censors” any singularity so that they can never be directly witnessed), it’s those zeroes and sidelong eights.  They’ve both come up before in prior physics models, and traditionally they’ve always indicated a gap in knowledge.  When those gaps are filled, the infinities and zeroes go away.  Perhaps I’m just a gigantic nerd, but I find that profoundly disappointing.  Then again, physicists can be a bit of a killjoy; when they all but confirmed the existence of Higg’s boson a little while back, Stephen Hawking publicly stated that he was kind of disappointed and was hoping something really weird and unexpected would have happened instead.  Not that my feelings about the implausibility of current black hole theory is much different; I appreciated the mystery of an invisible, zero dimensional, zero volume non-object hiding out in space and inexorably drawing even galaxies toward them.  Yes, the possibility exists that black holes so powerful that they can pull entire galaxies is quite likely.  They just (probably) work in a much more mundane way than is presented now.  Besides, if regular black holes worried me a little back in my childhood, I’m actually pretty glad I wasn’t aware of the existence of supermassive black holes until much later.

All this talk of zero dimensionality and volume might make you think the term size is irrelevant here, and you’d be right:  it’s that the singularity isn’t what gives them their “size”, but rather the event horizon, which is the furthest point from the center that light begins to be unable to escape its gravity.  It’s referred to as an event horizon because of a model in physics called a light cone.  It’s complex, and I’ll just hit the points relevant to the event horizon.  A light cone is a model that takes a point in space and depicts the spread of light from that point.  Sounds simple; it’s not, but for our purposes here it’s not so bad.  Recall that light is the fastest thing in existence, so literally anything that happens at our reference point cannot ever leave the light cone because it would have to outrun light.  Thusly, relative to anything outside the light cone, no events that occur at our reference point exist in any way because our fastest way to perceive them would be light hitting our eyes, and we’re outside the light cone, so it hasn’t reached us to carry the witness of those events to us.  Now light can’t escape the event horizon, meaning for all intents and purposes, things that take place within it are basically happening in a entirely different reality that we will never directly see, hence the term horizon; they can’t cross it anymore than we can cross earthly horizons, because they just move as you approach them.  Even if this wasn’t true, light is the only perceptual medium available in outer space.  We certainly can’t touch or taste, say, Jupiter.  There’s no air to carry sound or smell.  This is what makes black holes so interesting:  light normally reigns over the universe like a fleet yet iron-fisted Minister of Propaganda/dictator, yet black holes are able to overpower and restrain it.  And if this is half as fascinating to you as it is to me, go read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time right now.  This is the least of light’s seemingly magical and supernatural quirks.

And before you militant internet atheists have a psychotic break:  I said seemingly.  Calm down.  There are a variety of relaxation techniques just a Google search away.

Another brief aside:  much like the Higg’s boson, there is another hypothesized particle that is thought to be the force carrier of the otherwise mysterious force known as gravity, which is termed the graviton.  Scientists have long had ideas on how to eventually detect and confirm the existence of both, but unlike Higg’s Goddamn particle, physicists also deem it potentially impossible that we’ll ever actually “see” a graviton.  Of course, these people are capable of making such educated guesses that they routinely confirm their stabs in the dark to be nearly perfectly accurate, but this does mean we may never fully understand gravity works, or that if we do, we’ll never have confirmation of it.  To give you some perspective, it’s thought that a graviton detector the size of Jupiter operating at 100% efficiency would detect one (1) graviton every 10 years.  Couple this uncertainty with the fact that gravity seems to be the only thing that can reach out past an event horizon, and can do so powerfully, and you’re looking at a pretty cryptic force of nature right there, as well as another rebel against light’s unrelenting tyranny.

So whatever, this is all bullshit, right?  You just want your sons and daughters to grow up and invent flying cars and pills that instantly cure cancer and all that whatnot, and in the meantime it’d be nice if they didn’t keep you up all night crying about how Earth will be swallowed up into an unknowable void, right?  It’s a dilemma seemingly without an answer…until now.

Frustrated parents of the world, I give you the fuzzball, the infinity-free and far more soothing answer to particle theory’s black hole, brought to you courtesy of the renegade of physics: string theory.  The fuzzball has all of the black hole’s godlike power to bat around solar systems like a gigantic bored cat, a pleasing kid-friendly name and no troublesome mathematical anomalies whatsoever.  What’s more, the math concerning fuzzballs calculates event horizons at a value very close to the Schwarzschild Radius, which gives you the event horizon of a non-rotating black hole, so there’s “concrete” evidence that string theorists may be onto something with this.  Just tell your children that instead of the horrific and incomprehensible mutilation of space and time that occurs within the event horizon of a black hole, being pulled into a fuzzball takes you to a place full of puppies that you can pet forever and ever, and that’s why it’s called a fuzzball.  They won’t know, the little idiots.

yo momma

You can’t even understand his Your Momma jokes.

I’ll not try to explain fuzzballs like I did black holes for two reasons:  firstly, they pretty much match up uncannily with the characteristics of black holes, and secondly, I am fairly convinced that string theory is only for psychotically brilliant geniuses who are losing touch with their humanity/sanity because they are on the verge of transcending their disgusting meat bodies and becoming pure energy.  Really, don’t even try.  You know why they call them d-branes?  It stands for dumb-branes because string theory itself is calling you stupid.  You know why they misspell the word brain?  Because fuck you, that’s why.  It’s the same for p-branes as well.  I’ll let your pea-sized monkey minds work that one out.

So anyway, the fuzzball:  helping your kids to realize the immense scope of the universe and thusly our futile and worthless place within it as well as ensuring that they don’t have all those goddamn nightmares about it since 2002.  I mean come on, it’s just a wittle fuzzball!  Don’t you just want to pet it?  Go on, it’s okay!  Who’s my wittle devourer of light and space and time??  You are!  Yes, you!  Look, he likes it when you pet his wittle ears!

D’awww.

At least until you realize it won’t afford you even the slight mercy of ripping off what was once your hand before it distends its very form and the spacetime it once occupied into a gory atrocity of meaninglessness before your soon-to-burst eyes, which will spare you from witnessing the blasphemous perversion of light and time itself in the grip of the mighty fuzzball, in which hope cannot exist.

And by the way, I write these little science essays as much to help myself understand the concepts as much as I do to make people laugh; at no point am I trying to actually teach people anything, I entirely lack the expertise for it.  That said, take from my work what you will, knowing it’s the work of an utter layman.

EDIT:  Changed the title to match up with Freshly Pressed; it’s not mine, but I wish it were.  Thanks again, Michelle, for that and FP.  I’m truly grateful.  Thanks also to everyone who’s taken the time to comment and recommend books and give me so many other blogs to check out.  Today’s been crazy, but I’ll take the time too as soon as I can find some.