Q:Why is it impossible to see an atom in a really powerful microscope?
A: First we should establish that when we say we are "seeing" someone, what we really mean is that photons are entering our eyeballs after having bounced off the physical manifestation of someone with whom we are having a sexual relationship.
The problem with seeing with light is that light is kind of big. Repeat: Light is big. It comes in waves with several hundred nanometers between the crests while the average atom is only about a fifth of a nanometer across. Trying to measure an atom with a wave of light would be like trying to pick your nose with a bulldozer.
That's where electron microscopes are handy. Electrons can bounce off an object and leave an image on a piece of film. This image can show objects only a few dozen atoms across. But even electron microscopes can't show things smaller than that -- individual atoms, for example. The reason is that although the electrons are teeny-tiny, they are moving at close to the speed of light. Any fool knows that force is a function of both mass and acceleration, and therefore the speedy electron does a Mike Tyson number on the atom. You can't properly see something that's been obliterated.
James Trefil, coauthor of the new book "Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy," told us, "It's like you have a long dark tunnel, and you want to see if there's a car down at the end of it, and the only way you can find out is by sending another car down the tunnel and listening for a crash."
But wait. There is an even newer trick. A gadget called a scanning-tunneling microscope has the ability to make an image even of individual atoms. This device abandons the old method of bouncing stuff off the object being viewed, and instead, it kind of "feels" the object and then uses the sensations to create an image. The feeler in this case is an electrical current that passes from the tip of a tiny wire to the object in question. When the wire is directly over an atom, the current is stronger, and when it is to the side or between two atoms, the current is weaker. The hard part is moving the wire ever so slightly as it probes the object.
Of course, atoms aren't the smallest objects known to man. Smaller still are quarks and a half dozen particles collectively known as leptons, including muons, neutrinos and electrons. But these are "point particles" that -- this is the official word -- have no physical dimensions. They're just points. No width, no breadth, no depth. Let's meditate on that for a while. Also let's all consider naming our first-born child "Muon."
Q: Why do we stare into space when we daydream?
Oh, yeah. We stare into space, obviously enough, because we don't want to focus on anything. To focus on something tangible and real is to be distracted from the deeper metaphysical mystery of existence. The real question is, how far into space are we staring when we daydream, on average? It varies, depending on whether you are nearsighted or farsighted. For the average person, though, it's about one meter. That is, if someone stuck his hand in the air one meter from your glazed expression, the hand would be in perfect focus. This information should keep you busy the rest of the day.
Q: Why doesn't the National Football League get in trouble for being a monopoly?
A: The NFL is essentially a criminal enterprise. Obviously the NFL will have some problem with this statement, but we are prepared to defend our views in court ("Your honor, it was a typographical error."). The fact is that the pro football players themselves have sued their own league on the grounds that it violates antitrust law. But the suit is dead in the water: The U.S. Supreme Court decided this past Monday not to take the case under review.
Here's the problem: In most major American cities -- and Washington is an exception -- to see a professional football game you have to pay $28 for a cheap seat and $60 for one of the good ones. You cannot bargain. You cannot take your business elsewhere. And you probably can't even watch the game on TV, since games are blacked out locally whenever the stadium isn't full. This sort of competition-inhibiting situation is generally called a monopoly.
The only thing you can hope for is that another entrepreneur will start a new football league with a local franchise. This is a long shot. Both the World Football League of the 1970s and the U.S. Football League of the '80s failed after a couple of seasons. The USFL sued the NFL, saying it was a monopoly, and technically won the case. But the jury gave the USFL only $1 in damages, saying the upstart league's major problem was mismanagement, not NFL monopolism.
The TV networks, which supply zillions of dollars to the NFL, don't want to encourage another competing league in the fall, though they have been willing to televise spring football games. A new league is starting up this spring -- the World League of American Football, or maybe it's the American League of World Football. Something.
The NFL players have their own specific problem with the league: They want to be able to move from team to team. Imagine being an engineer at MIT, graduating with honors and hearing that you've been drafted by Exxon, where you must work the rest of your career. That's how it works in the NFL. It is possible to change teams after your contract expires, but the original team must be compensated so heavily that such switches almost never take place. For example, between 1963 and 1976, only four players were able to sign with another team after the contract with their original team expired.
In the 1920s the Supreme Court gave baseball an exemption from antitrust law, but in 1957 the court declined to extend the same exemption to football. The court admitted that the baseball exemption was wrongheaded but left it intact, saying it was something for Congress to fix. So baseball has a cushy deal and football doesn't.
Football, therefore, has to find other excuses to get around antitrust law. The excuse that worked for a long time was that the team owners engaged in collective bargaining with the players' union, which is to say that both sides essentially agreed that the entire profession would forgo free-market principles. The players got wealthy but they never got their freedom, so in 1989 the union employed the brilliant legal tactic of disbanding. The union became a mere "association." But a year of litigation still didn't convince the courts to scrutinize the legality of professional sports leagues.
Perhaps someday, far into the future, some of our beloved professional sports leagues will be broken up by the Supreme Court. Impossible? You say these sports leagues are too popular and too powerful? Tell it to Ma Bell.
One final thought: Shouldn't there be at least one really huge, slow-footed, but ruthlessly efficient offensive lineman out there with the nickname "The Glacier"?