As you almost certainly know by now, I write a bi-weekly column at io9 called “Ask a Physicist.” Each week, besides doing the actual answering, I usually bug my readers to send me questions. And they do. In droves.
To date, I’ve gotten over 500 emails from io9 readers, and believe it or not, the vast majority of them are actually pretty good questions. In most cases (I’d say about 80% or so) I try to field some sort of response, even if it’s along the lines of,”I’m sorry. I’m a cosmologist not a [non cosmologist field of study, including biologist, geologist, chemist, or engineer.]” In other cases, I try to give an actual thoughtful response. In general, people seem pleasantly surprised that they actually get an email back.
Even the good ones are generally not appropriate for the column, however, which is one of the reasons that I keep bugging people for emails despite getting a deluge every week. Many questions are simply too specific. A lot of them are about theories that are speculative and already get too much attention (and are probably wrong). Some are just straight-up unanswerable. And some small fraction are so jumbled up that I’m not even sure where to start, so instead I just curl up in a corner of my office.
So even though I won’t actually answer these in the column, I thought I’d send some of the more interesting questions that I’ve gotten. Questions, mind you, not answers. Also, some of the emails are kind of on the long side, so I’ll spare you for now.
- “What is the Pioneer Anomaly? Why is this important? And is my crazy neighbor right that this somehow supports a creationist model of the universe?”
- “Where does the stuff that falls into a blackhole go to?”
- “What is the speed of gravity?” (I get this one a lot. It’s just the speed of light.)
- “Where is all the anti-matter?” (which is a surprisingly deep question.)
- “Wouldn’t hitching a ride on a comet be a good low energy way to
send probes out of the solar system?”
- “Where’s my quantum computer?”
- “Do you believe in a elegant, simple unifying theory of the universe like gravity or relativity, or a much more complicated system that takes years of study to understand?” (I like this because it presumes that relativity doesn’t take years to understand.)
- “The big bang was caused by / started with X amount of energy, some of which must have turned to matter. But the universal expansion is accelerating. So new energy must be being produced from somewhere. Explainy?”
- “Who the hell would trust Star Trek teleporters? Seriously – WHY would they EVER re-assemble someone with their injuries intact? How does THAT make sense?”
- “Who set the value for the five universal physical constants?” (Even though we might quibble about how many constants there are, this is a very deep question.)
- “Is it possible to send information back in time?”
- “How would you define a dimension? People talk about the universe ‘having 4 dimensions’ or ‘having 10 dimensions’ like they are actual properties of the universe itself rather than mental constructs we created to help us understand reality. Your thoughts?”
I could go on and on and on. The point is that people have lots of good questions, and not just misconceptions about how the universe works.
So here’s a question for educators/popularizers: What’s the best question you’ve ever gotten that you couldn’t answer?