Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 8: "Phases of Matter"
YOU CAN’T EVER, EVER GET TO ABSOLUTE ZERO.
SCIENTISTS HAVE GOTTEN WITHIN ONE THOUSANDTH OF A DEGREE CELSIUS, BUT THEY’VE NEVER GOTTEN THERE.
AND THEY NEVER WILL.
ABSOLUTE ZERO IS MORE OF AN IDEA THAN A REAL THING YOU CAN GET.
For a brief moment, it seems the science guy has lost it. He shouts, gesticulates, paces around the lab. He is extremely passionate about absolute zero. Thirty seconds ago, he was demonstrating the speed of molecules gyrating in a metal ball, and now, without warning, he’s gone off the deep end.
It never seemed so much as though the science guy had something to prove until this very moment.
The science guy’s tiny science assistants work hard to make visible the invisible. They pull ice from the freezer and set it in a heated cast iron pan. The ice quickly sizzles and slides across the surface of the pan in its own melted state. Fine: water, easily seen. When the pan is filled to the brim, nearly sloshing, it starts to vaporize. Steam fills the room, still evident, then quickly: nothing. Empty air. The ice now merely an assumption science forces you to make.
You are not an assumer. You are skeptical, even faced with hard evidence. You look for tangible proofs and remain unconvinced. This is the hallmark effect of a liberal arts education, of eighteen years spent questioning everything. Mathematics, the one subject without room for an amateur’s skepticism, not coincidentally the one you dreaded most and shed first. Every class the same challenge: show me. Then, despite: still unconvinced. You understood all lessons, your entire education, as unavoidably selfish, guided by culture or nurture or political sway or a hundred other factors still not made visible.
What’s your angle? you thought. Still think. What assumption are you selling?
The phases of matter seem to be the most human of all scientific subjects. Anything you see will remain that same thing regardless of what happens to it. Regardless if it looks the same. Before you wrote these sentences you dropped sugar into your coffee: solid, liquid. The sugar’s still sugar now, just different. After you finish this paragraph you will go to work and on the way you need to get gasoline. That’s liquid gasoline. Before you even leave the station to get back on the road it’ll be the same, only different: gas gasoline. It’s no wonder the science guy freaks out. This is important, and simple, and human.
Last week you found old photographs from high school. You recognize yourself, and you hardly do. There: the one with the clothes that don’t fit, the bleached hair, the scowl or sarcastic grimace or blank stare. You remember everything about this you. You struggle to find the parts from this you that you’ve retained. The years both drain away and form an impassable gulf. The same, only different. Spazz, weirdo, grown-up. Solid, liquid, gas.
Ever wonder what the universe is made of? the science guy asks, horizontal on kelly-green turf with his hands behind his head, skygazing. Well the universe is made of matter.
Kind of. According to NASA, the universe is made of five percent atoms, twenty-four percent dark matter, and seventy-one percent dark energy. In 1998, Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding far quicker in the present than it had been in the past—that its expansion was accelerating, not slowing down due to gravity, as everyone had more or less assumed. Space theorists still can’t pin down exactly what’s causing this, but they have given it a name: dark energy.
NASA used to call the five percent of the known universe “normal matter,” but the term’s outdated now. “Come to think of it, maybe it shouldn’t be called ‘normal’ at all,” NASA says, “since it is such a small fraction of the universe.”
Of dark energy, according to NASA, “More is unknown than is known.”
Ever wonder what the universe is made of? the science guy asks. Sometimes it seems it’s all we’ve ever wondered, as a people, forever.
Your student has chosen to use her persuasive essay this semester to disprove climate change. She is a perennial state science fair participant, a hungry young mind who this year is building a blood sugar breathalyzer to help diabetics like herself test themselves more easily. It could change lives all around the country, or beyond, and she knows it. And she has chosen to write an essay disproving climate change. Not as a challenge. As an elaboration of her own firm beliefs.
You believe in climate change. She knows you do, in fact is penning the essay partially in defiance of the fact. But you, you don’t rule out the possibility of its exaggeration. How can you? How can anyone rule out anything? It boggles the mind to think that anyone could be so completely certain about any subject, idea, opinion. You can’t help it. You might blame science and lit classes, with their room for doubt, retrials, questions, questions, questions. You might blame what teaching history has taught you, that most lessons are steeped in slant, biased irrevocably, that we should really call history class History of What We’ve Chosen or Have Time to Focus On.
It’s too massive. All of it. Everything. The science guy knew it when he said the universe is made of matter, that you’ll never, ever get down to real zero. Sometimes it seems by the time you get to the bottom of what you’re searching for, the facts have changed. This means they weren’t facts. Or they weren’t truth. Or whatever semantics you’re choosing to go with. Change is the only constant. Heraclitus said that. Or something close to it. Or maybe not at all. Maybe even that’s already gone. Already on to another, newer phase.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.