Category Archives: physics

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Wow, that big orange ball sure is high in the sky. So we’re taking a minor sabbatical, leaving you with a touch of physics we posted at our friend Jason Moriber’s Sundayed blog. It makes perfect sense, if you just look around.

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Many summers ago when I was a child hiking through the fields of Vermont because my parents were poor, there were no scheduled soccer matches or movie play dates or flat-panel TVs yet we owned four acres of gold and green and hiking outside was just what you did, I started down a winding, prickle-filled path that was no more than a dirt thread surrounded by shrubs when — zooooooooom — a bee went by.

How that bee flew. If you’ve heard of the term beeline, it really exists — a tiny yellow rocket flare firing in perfect direction like nature’s arrow on a string, headed to or from a hive or clover. Bees, you see, are amazing workers. They communicate with each other; one bee will leave the group, head out, find pollen, and upon its return signal the direction to the find in relation to the sun’s angle overhead by swooping in a figure-eight. (The idea that other creatures don’t talk to each other is an arrogant human misconception, but that’s another story altogether.) Signal received, other bees zoom out in straight lines to the new treasure. For a human, like us, it’s hard to understand how creatures so little can move so fast. For me, boy at the time, blue sky overhead and sun beating through the pines, I wondered how that bee could see where it was going.

So now I propose a radical theory, blindingly obvious once you grasp it. The perception of time is a function of size.

What do I mean? If you were a small bee, your flight would appear to be much slower. Your wings would be flapping like a bird’s, not vibrating at an impossible cadence. You’d see straight ahead and have time to make minor adjustments, say, avoiding a tree or a giant boy looming up to the clouds, not the millisecond reflexes an observer at our human scale would assume. And the high-pitch of your buzzing would be a deep, melodious throb. To you, small bee, you’re simply conducting a paced, leisurely daily commute to work.

Want more? Let’s scale out, farther, wider, for another example from nature. The whale song. To humans, the communication of a whale seems low, throbbing, impossibly slow, giant waves of auditory deepness floating lazily within the ocean. The signal travels vast distances, scores of miles to other whales, for reasons that we don’t grasp. The giants of our mammal race also appear to swim burdened by gravity, turning their direction in minutes not seconds, slowly waving tails, even exhibiting a time-delay flop when they leap from the ocean. But whales, if you lived at their scale, likely move as fast as bees — quickly rising, falling, sharing news in a melody that we tiny humans are too little to understand.

For whales, time moves quicker than we observe. For bees, time moves slow.

Scale out even further — look, say, at the Earth orbiting the Sun. It takes oh so long, 365 and .26 days, for the pole of our planet to edge back to the same angle against our closest star. But for Mother Earth, the motion may be swift — the swing a quick day’s arc, the pulse of oceans and tectonic plate shifts a visible feeling, the dust of tiny creatures such as bees and humans and whales on its surface as minor and unnoticed as the viruses that crawl inside our human blood or the mites that live upon our pillows. The Earth, you see, has its own perception of time tied to its scale.

Later, long after that sunshine-summer hike when I moved to college to learn about independence and life’s inconsequence, I sat in a chemistry class trying to fathom atoms — obscure subatomic particles such as electrons and protons and neutrons and, deeper in, quarks with bizarre names such as Strange and Charm, moving so quickly their position could not be determined by ginormous human observers. Maybe, for these atomic creatures I thought, they are swinging off to a morning’s task like a bee, sharing throbbing stories like a whale, completing a workaday circle like the Earth around the Sun, being watched by God-like creatures called humans that reach to the heavens.

I was larger in college, much larger than a child. And for some reason, time started to move fast.

Image: Wolfpix. Headline: Ferris Bueller.

J.S. Bach, backward time and brand history

One of the puzzles of physics is there is no mathematical reason why time flows forward and not backward as well — all the theories that explain the electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear forces work equally well in either direction. (All right, entropy gives time a push, but we digress.) There is a universe in which you are still a baby, so why aren’t you headed back to mommy now?

Humans are myopic and we tend to focus on today and tomorrow, explaining wars and politics and the corporate obsession with quarterly results (see our debate with @swoodruff and @obilon). Marketers fall into this immediacy trap often, thinking up the latest campaign to give their product sales a lift … without examining the context of their customers’ history. U.S. automakers fell into this boat in 2009, approaching bankruptcy as it dawned on them a vast swath of Americans still doesn’t want to buy their cars (trucks and SUVs, yes, but for smaller U.S. vehicles memories persist of the junky tin rigs sold in the 1970s).

If we are connected to our history, any communication must examine that context. You can’t repaint a brand today without understanding what it was yesterday. All perceptions of value are connected, and sometimes they form loops — like this beautiful riff by J.S. Bach.

Animation by Jos Leys. Via Andy Jukes at Million Monkeys.

The (un)controllable, (de)coherent path to multiverse results

If fate like any marketing campaign is a series of unexpected twists within a long story as unstoppable as a run-on sentence that could be stopped if only it had an editor, then you know that tossing two dice leads to 36 possible combinations of which only one will land on the table unless you buy in to the multiverse concept, the longer chain of our universe in which the world constantly divides into alternative, splitting realities (say, in this one you have a job but in the other one you’re a rock star) which of course bends the mind until you realize multiple universes are based on real physics experiments by scientists who discovered that small (yes, very small) subatomic particles behave strangely when observed, as if moving so fast they can’t be pinpointed in any single spot in space but instead randomly exist in two places at once until you view them and they settle down, like necking teenagers freezing under a cop’s spotlight, an idea best illustrated by putting a cat inside a steel box, as Erwin Schrödinger suggested in a horribly famous thought experiment, and also adding a vial of poison tied to a hammer to be whacked by a Geiger counter which in turn is connected to a single atom that might or might not decay radioactively in a given hour and then have the fate of the poor cat (do NOT try this at home) hinge on whether and if the atom does decay, tied to the whims of the elementary particles which as we said earlier in this sentence exist in two places at once, then the cat is both alive and dead in the box at the same time because its fate depends on the unrealities of the subatomic particles, until you open the door and observe it, in which event fluffy little Whiskers either meows happily or is looking a little gruesome soaked in hydrocyanic acid, as distasteful as tech geeks hitting up Cougars at a bar, because your act of observation has cast you into one fixed future, now the present (although in another reality you see exactly the opposite), which of course brings the reality chain back to ad campaigns in which marketing managers must align a series of events that are problematic because every tiny action in the chain can lead to an alternative reality, and a lot can go wrong in this multiverse coined by psychologist Williams James way back in 1895 in which Schrödinger’s dead-and-alive cat co-exists (or not) with your dead-or-alive marketing results, meaning you probably should focus less on the tagline in your creative and worry more about whether the entire response chain is working from ad impression to awareness to inquiry to call center to lead capture to hairy sales guys stepping in to credit check to ecstatic purchase to fulfillment to damn-we’ve-got-buyer’s-remorse, because this is our real point: in a world where every second splits the future into different pathways so much can go wrong that you have to control all the variables to get the process right, like an obsessive Six Sigma cheerleader in an ill-fitting suit squeezing potential errors out of the timeline such as whether wasted, spent consumers who carry mobile phones around in their pockets can dial a number easily from your ad and speak with a knowledgeable sales rep and not just type in the URL (although your hip agency says the web is hip and no one prints unhip phone numbers anymore), which of course is as silly as expecting online readers with social-media-attention-deficit-disorder to read a long blog post without clicking away to Google “necking teenagers”, because it’s damn near impossible to type on a laptop while driving in a car and who wants to get up from watching TV to boot up a computer anyway, so campaign designers must carefully plot the path to a future chain of events in which everything works perfectly like an improbable run-on sentence if your reputation, hell, job depends on avoiding a radioactive meltdown because who doesn’t want marketing results that act like lucky dice or sweating teenagers who never were discovered by the cop in the only perfect future that you want: the one that will make your CEO go meow?

Image: Spacepleb

Our blurry world of optimism (thanks to TheBeanCast)

So a friend of ours has started an optimism campaign but before we get to such silliness and how it drives most of the consumer responses to marketing around the world, let’s remember that randomness rules our lives.

It’s simple. While every day you get up and go to work, carefully trying to control your income and pay your bills, if you think back to the major events that shaped your life — your first job, the day you first met your future spouse, the moment of intimacy that spurred the 1 out of a million genetic match conceiving your first child — it was all random. A second sooner or later on the sidewalk, you would have missed your lover. If you had been late to the job interview, you’d now be working in construction. A sperm out of line and your boy would have blacker hair.

Physicists tell us that the world really is a series of constantly dividing, multiple universes, and that you are here now because this version of you took one path home while in another version of the world another you went to the supermarket. The world keeps splitting because subatomic particles have been calculated to be in two places at once, leading to Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment that if you put a cat in a box and let poison either break open or not, tied to the subatomic particle being one place or another, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time — until you open the box and lock the universe into one of its two options. As the atoms shimmy, so do we.

So if the universe has many options, perhaps philosopher Gottfried Leibniz was right and we live in the best of all possible worlds. After all, in only one will we survive. What is the response to any marketing but an attempt to secure happiness, beat the odds, and gain more protection/shelter/sustenance to put the alternate ending of death aside? Unfounded optimism not only deludes us that we’re in control of randomness, but drives the global economy. We say lock this happy universe in — so go sign TheBeanCast’s optimism pledge now. If you push the right button, the cat in the box won’t get hurt.

Photo: Pulpolux III.

McCain wins! And Obama wins! With Schrödinger’s cat.

Tomorrow both John McCain and Barack Obama will be victorious. Because for every possible world, another world is possible.

You see, we have this little problem in physics. When you measure small things, they move really fast — think you vs. bees — and the really tiny things such as photons (subatomic particles of light) act super strange. They can be in two places at once.

This little mind trip is called quantum mechanics, and it starts with a classic experiment. Head down to a physics lab and set up a light gun to shoot one itty-bitty particle of light (a single photon) at a time through a series of slits. The particle should hit the film on the other side randomly. But as you shoot a series of single photons through, first one, then another, each wavers on its way, as if a second photon in an alternate universe were acting on it at exactly the same time. Shoot a series and you get a classic wavelike interference pattern. Physicists believe the particle actually takes both paths at once — and only lands when you, the observer, observe it forcing the universe to land on one option.

You catch that? The universe is constantly splitting into options, and it only settles down when you pin your eye on it to measure where it is. Uh-huh. You really did go out with that hot guy/girl in high school, and if you can’t remember it, you’re just stuck in the wrong universe.

Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger pointed out the silliness of this subatomic duality with a thought experiment now called Schrödinger’s cat. In this, a subatomic particle could decay or not with equal odds, and its decay is tied to a vial of poison inside a box with a cat. If the particle moves the wrong way, the cat dies. But because subatomic particles do two things at once, the cat is both dead and alive inside the box at the same time — until you open and observe it. We think Schrödinger may have been smoking when he thought that one up.

We note all this because the U.S. electorate has become obsessed with polls lately, and the poll numbers have been all over the map. Obama is up, but McCain is closing fast. Early voters account for 30% of the electorate, leaning Democratic, but voters on Election Day may lean Republican. The strangest thing is both Obama or McCain could fairly win the election depending on the day the vote is taken (McCain would have won easily days after the RNC convention), and the randomness of Nov. 4 falling where it does seems a strange way to pick the future of our land. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics holds that both outcomes are true.

So it’s President McCain. And President Obama. In a world where you left high school at age 16 to become a famous rock star with that hot girl/guy in tow. Sleep tight, Americans, and see which universe you wake up in.

Political attack ads and the end of the world, explained

Back in 1950 a physicist named Enrico Fermi was chatting up UFOs with his colleagues at the Los Alamos nuclear research lab. There had been a spate of flying-saucer sightings recently, which the scientists laughed at. Fermi was pretty good at doing quick calculations in his head. He ran the odds, explained that with 70 sextillion stars in the visible universe aliens should be on other planets, then asked, so “where are they?”

This statement, called the Fermi Paradox, revealed the basic contradiction that extraterrestrial intelligence probably exists, but if it did, we’d probably hear about it. There are several logical retorts as to why we haven’t: we’re alone because Earth won the lottery; the timeframe for intelligent species using radio waves is too tiny for us to notice signals elsewhere before they move on to, say, telepathy; other life forms are perhaps too intelligent for us to understand; or, a personal favorite, the Zoo Hypothesis which suggests extraterrestrial life exists but is just leaving us alone, because, sniff, we Earthlings are like dumb animals in a zoo.

But the scariest idea is probably the most real, called the Doomsday argument. This theory holds that because Darwinian aggression is required for a species to compete for scarce resources and win, winning species are thus too aggressive and destroy themselves. Thus intelligent life comes and goes in the universe, constantly snuffing itself out with guns and bombs. Doomsday theorists prove this mathematically: in any series of random events, like a bunch of pennies tossed on the floor, a single member of the group is most likely to be found in the middle. So if you think of your birth order in the human species, the second you were born you were about the 60th billion human to arrive on the planet. If you are somewhere in the middle of all humans born, there probably won’t be more than 100 billion humans total.

Trouble is, humans are now being born at a rate of one billion every 7.5 years. So if we only have 40 billion more of us to go, in about three centuries the gig should be up. Cheers, mates.

Combine these stats with the history of us fighting over resources — oil, anyone? — and the very aggressive traits that helped humans survive for millennia now put our race at risk.

Which brings us around to marketing. The act of stimulating demand for product consumption is really that of channeling survival instincts — to align the animal urges of your potential customers into thinking that your service is required to improve their shelter, alleviate their hunger, or give them the tool they need to ward off competitors. We’re not suggesting manipulating the urge of consumption is wrong; the flow of commerce has built hospitals, discovered drugs and rid the world of disease. But it’s worth remembering the baser instincts marketers must trigger if they want a response.

One hopes that humans will evolve beyond our fighting instincts. But for the moment, messages that stir the blood are still common tools to get attention. All of which is our way of predicting: The U.S. political ads are about to get really, really nasty.

Dammit Higgs, we told you to sit tight

Everyone’s happy that those crazy Swiss scientists fired up the Large Hadron Collider without destroying the planet. If you missed it, yesterday at 10:28 a.m. Central European Time physicists turned on a 17-mile underground track that slams subatomic particles into each other at speeds near that of light, hoping to glimpse a new Higgs boson “God particle” that explains why gravity and electricity have a hard time getting along. Or something like that.

Despite all our human arrogance, we still don’t know the basics of how the universe works. The universe is expanding. Why? There could be multiple dimensions. Where? There’s hidden mass out there in space and scientists don’t know what it is, so just chalk it up to “dark matter.” What? Critics worry that this supercollider will create miniature black holes, which have a nasty habit of growing and sucking everything into them, like, say, the entire planet. Rumor has it the original Big Bang was started by Swiss scientists on another Earth.

It all reminds us of marketing, in which planners carefully orchestrate message, media, stimulus and response and hope the right customer particles flow throw the pipeline. Despite all supposed brilliance, we never quite know what will happen. Occasionally the only way to figure something is to set the pieces in motion and see what falls out.

The moon launch of customer response

It’s amazing how little we know about the universe. Cosmologists are having difficulty grasping why the universe continues to expand, and in fact, recently found far away galaxies are accelerating away from us. Looking backward in time the best scientists came come up with is a “Big Bang.” The laws that govern gravity and magnetism and atomic particles are well documented, but don’t line up with each other. Physicists are painting over the gaps with silly theories about “dark energy” (stuff we can’t see) that makes up most of the universe and somehow exerts forces on the rest of us.

And creationists and intelligent designers and scientists all scuffle with each other without realizing that their combined search for the story of a beginning and where we are going has more in common than they think.

Which brings us to marketers and their customers. It’s so easy to focus short-term, to launch campaigns intent on trigger and response. But we’re beginning to realize that customers are like elementary particles, or planets, with their own trajectories and outside gravitational influences that are hard to change. Your advertising could have the best targeting, most efficient media, compelling offer, and brilliant creative, and customers may not respond if their orbit swings far outside your own gravitational pull. The new iPhone, for example, may be the most brilliant, sexy, useful, and desirable object ever created … but we just told our significant other we’d cut back on spending, and gas prices are high, and our current smart phone is only three months old, so we’ll hold off for now, thank you.

It’s a question that almost never comes up in planning meetings. What is the current trajectory of our customers? And how will our marketing plan adjust their course?

Entropy is the law of the universe. Things move to disorder, no matter how hard you try, and your coffee will never unblend with the milk no matter how much you wish it. Marketers can’t manage the outside tides of gravity, or the movement of customers among these fragmenting and distracting forces, but they better seek to understand them. Because your customers will never respond. If you are lucky, they may just adjust their orbit to come in line with your own.

The physics of groupthink

Ever sit in a meeting where all the executives start leaning toward one decision and you just know it’s gonna be bad but you don’t want to speak up and soon Project Omega is heading toward implementation with bad pricing and the wrong target and no customer input and even the agencies and vendors involved start to agree that it’s all brilliant and it’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion but you can’t stop it cause, man, there’s consensus?

Well, here’s why.

Thanks, Andy.

Good-bye Edward Lorenz, father of chaos

Ever hear the phrase, does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? That’s chaos theory. That phrase was the title of a speech Edward Lorenz gave back in 1972, after he discovered that tiny changes in wind could create huge swings in the weather.

To understand the “butterfly effect,” consider the path you take to work each day. Your morning drive, or walk to the train and office, probably takes you past 1,000 different decision points — left, right, forward, back. If you take a left instead of a right, and then made every other turn the same, you’d probably end up in another state. Lorenz noticed this in 1961 when he ran computer models trying to predict weather outcomes. When he made one slight rounding error, turning the number 0.310625 into 0.311, his weather projection had a wildly different outcome.

As we all race to try to improve forecasting and measurement of ad campaigns, it’s worth noting the world is pretty random. Next time your results are up, don’t take full credit. And if results go down, well, it may just be a bit of chaos.

Edward Lorenz passed on April 16. He was 90.