Join the BioNap Email List:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Know Two Snowflakes

By Jason Napodano, CFA

It has long been stated that no two snowflakes are the same. We are told this as children growing up learning about how to make snowflakes in kindergarten with a folded piece of white construction paper and a pair of dull scissors. Perhaps our teachers told us this white lie so that no matter how horribly inaccurate these cartoon representations of a snowflake are, no one child’s creation was better than any others. Enter a warm and fuzzy feeling.

I believed this fairy tale my entire life, or at least up until college when I came across two important concepts in my studies. Having majored in biochemistry and molecular biology, I spent entirely too much time during college reading physics and chemistry text books. Luckily, I did not let it interfere significantly with my main collegiate hobbies of drinking beer and chasing women. Physical chemistry (the application of physics to microscopic chemical reactions) was indeed the hardest and most interesting class I took my four years at Virginia Tech. I got an “A”. 

The first concept was quantum theory. Quantum theory is the theoretical basis of modern physics that explains the nature and behavior of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level. Max Planck and Albert Einstein are considered the fathers of modern quantum physics, and their work defined a new and fundamental understanding of the laws of nature. One important concept of quantum theory is the many-worlds (or multiverse) theory. It holds that, “As soon as a potential exists for any object to be in any state, the universe of that object transmutes into a series of parallel universes equal to the number of possible states in which that the object can exist, with each universe containing a unique single possible state of that object. Furthermore, there is a mechanism for interaction between these universes that somehow permits all states to be accessible in some way and for all possible states to be affected in some manner.” In the simplest terms, if there is the potential that an event could occur, then there is absolute certainty it will occur - at some point. Stephen Hawking has lectured on his preference for the many-worlds theory of quantum physics.

The second concept was chaos theory. Quoting directly from the wonderful website of Wikipedia, “Chaos theory describes the behavior of certain dynamical systems – that is, systems whose states evolve with time – that may exhibit dynamics that are highly sensitive to initial conditions (popularly referred to as the butterfly effect).” The weather outside your window is perhaps the most classical example of chaos theory.

I cannot think of an event that happens in a more completely random and in a chaotic fashion than the formation of a snowflake. Ok, perhaps my wife traveling through the mall, but the snowflake has to be a close second! There are an enormous number of variables that impact the formation of a snowflake. Air temperature, altitude, wind speed, the velocity of the droplet, the location of the sun, the moon, the earth’s gravitational pull…need I continue? For all intents and purposes, the number of combinations of these variables is infinite. But infinite does not apply in quantum physics. Not even the Universe is infinite. The Universe is expanding – that means at some location there is an edge, and objects with an edge are not infinite. So let’s just agree that instead of the word infinite, it’s just a really big number.

Uniting the theories of quantum physics and chaos theory we can now understand that there are things in life that are completely random and chaotic events, but knowing that the potential exists that two completely random and chaotic events can occur identically at any time, even if the variables are a “really big number”, it is a certainty that they will occur eventually. Therefore, at some point in time, no matter how amazingly implausible the odds, it is an absolute certainty that the “really big number” of forces that impact the formation of a snowflake will repeat. And, as a result, at some point, the earth has seen two identical snowflakes. Childhood truth shattered. I apologize to all the kindergarten children reading this note. At least we still have Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

For my next note, I will unequivocally prove that the chicken did indeed come before the egg.

No comments:

Post a Comment