Recess -> Stationery

I miss recess. Also Recess. That theme really brings me back.

A recess is more than a great TV show from my childhood. It’s another word for a hidden gap. Recesses surround us, in bookcases and closets and cabinets. But recesses get much smaller than that, too. The proteins in our bodies fold into complicated shapes that no one understands even today, but we know enough to say the recesses in those structures are part of how proteins do their work.

Smaller still, surfaces are pitted and pocked all over the place on atomic and molecular scales. These bumps (and larger ones) are the source of friction, as we saw a couple posts ago. But let’s zoom out from that scale to a paper towel. We find recesses there, too. If you take a maker and make a dot on a paper towel, you’ll see the dot expand even after you take the marker away. This happens as ink flows in and out of recess between the fibers of the paper towel, pulled along those fibers by capillary action: Each molecule gets pulled forward by the fiber a little in front of it and pulls the molecules behind it along, too. (That’s loosely stated, but we can’t do everything all the time.)

Capillary action is why notes written in pen on paper towels start out neat and end up looking like ransom notes. Paper towels are made to be particularly good at pulling liquid along the fibers. That way, the part that’s actually touching the source of the liquid can keep sucking up more instead of saturating, and the paper towel cleans up whatever spilled. Paper, though, is made a little differently. Its fibers don’t shuttle liquid around quite as much and ink generally sits more on top than soaking in. But ink still bleeds a bit, even with the best of papers. If you don’t want closed es and gloomy qs, write in pencil on stationery.

Of course, pencil smudges. But that’s neither here nor there. (If anything, it’s both.)

Friction -> Cashier

Last day of doing this daily! After today I’ll settle down to weekly like I planned.

Friction between pieces of sandpaper has an obvious source: Sandpaper is lumpy. But lumps and bumps, whether at centimeter or atomic scales, are the source of any friction between two surfaces that are rubbed together. When bumps of one encounter lumps of another, they catch. (Everything is also made of electric charges that fleetingly attract the charges of other surfaces. On really big scales, this sort of process helps make lightning. But that’s a story for another time.)

Overcoming friction means shoving atoms out of the way, jiggling nearby atoms in the process. So friction turns useful energy into useless energy—what physicists call entropy. Those two sentences say the same thing, by the way. One just focuses on atoms while the other is bigger-picture. But I think it’s easiest to understand friction if you switch zoom level mid-sentence: Friction turns kinetic energy (energy of large-scale movement) into heat (energy of atomic movement). The more heat you get, the less kinetic energy you keep—and kinetic energy is the energy we use to power things like engines.

Energy is constantly changing forms. That’s all it can do, dark energy aside. It can’t appear or disappear. But as we’ve already seen, some energy is useful and some isn’t. The second law of thermodynamics says that over time, we’ll run low on the former while accumulating the latter.

The universe, then, is like a cashier who only gives change in pennies. Sure, you might pay for something with exact change (you might find some process that turns 100% of useful energy into other useful energy), but honestly that’s pretty rare and never really happens if you have a complex bill. The rest of the time, you put in more energy (more money) than you need, and the change you get back is completely useless.

Admittedly, we should probably try to pay in exact change during a coin shortage. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for renewable energy in there somewhere.