The science in this essay is mostly based on the information found in the book “We have no idea: a guide to the unknown universe,” by  Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson. The book is high on my recommended reading list in the Obscure, Dense, and Fascinating Science section.

What if I told you that you could lose an incredible amount of weight without exercising or changing your diet in the slightest? No brisk walks in the humid morning air, no watermelon-only-until-noon, no portion control, no cutting “just a slivski” of that seven-layer cake, and no starving yourself from 6pm and on. No you can lose so much weight that some would call it dangerous, (oooh, I was looking for precisely that “lifestyle change”, I’m listening!!!), and it only requires on thing; you need to break yourself down to your smallest possible particles, quarks and leptons.

When you were in school, you probably learned that everything was made of molecules, and molecules were made of atoms, and atoms were made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. But they probably didn’t teach you that protons and neutrons were made of quarks and electrons are from a family of particles called leptons. They work together in the most brilliant way.

The most common quarks in the universe are up quarks and down quarks. (So Mr. Down Quark, how are you feeling today?). Up quarks have a positive charge of 2/3 and down quarks have a negative charge of 1/3. Protons are made of two up quarks and one down quark, which gives them a net charge of +1 (2/3 + 2/3 – 1/3 = 1). Neutrons are made of two down quarks and one up quark, which gives them a net charge of zero (2/3 – 1/3 – 1/3 = 0). Electrons have a charge of -1. Every set of proton+neutron+electron yields a balanced zero-charge stable atom. Of course certain elements have more of sets and certain elements have less sets. Hydrogen has one set per atom, gold has 79, but when it all balances out, it’s a beautiful thing.

Which brings us to mass, something we often find ourselves trying to lower. Mass is usually thought of as weight, but let’s get a bit more scientific about mass, specifically inertial mass. Inertial mass is defined by how much you resist being moved. If you shoot a nerf gun at a tissue and a house, one will move dramatically and the other almost not at all because the house has more inertial mass than the tissue. But the fascinating thing about mass is that it is not entirely made up of stuff, mass is actually a combination of stuff + the energy it takes to hold the stuff together.

Now, if you cut me into two pieces (please don’t try this at home), the two pieces will together weigh almost exactly the same as I weighed precut. If you dissect me into all my organs and lay them each on a scale, they will still weigh almost exactly what I weighed precut. Even if you cut me down into the 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms that make me, and weighed each one of them and tallied up the total (you seriously need to find something better to do with your time!), it would weigh about 99.995 of what I weigh now, which will be left undisclosed for the purpose of this science project.

However, if you would break up the protons and neutrons in those ten octillion atoms into their individual up quarks and down quarks, and you measured the mass of those quarks, their mass would be only 1% of what it was a few minutes earlier. This means that you could take all of my quarks and measure them one by one, and tally it up, and I would come out weighing about two pounds. That is a serious diet, with no food restrictions, although like I said, some would call that “lifestyle change” a bit dangerous. This means that 99% of my mass is not actually stuff, but rather the energy it takes to keep my stuff (quarks) together.

(If you’re wondering why I’ve only talked about the mass of my protons and neutrons and not my electrons, it’s because electrons are already so tiny, I feel bad singling them out. While an electron has a negative charge equal to a proton’s charge, it has only 1/1836 of the mass of a proton! If you really want to dive deeper into understanding of what electrons are, read this footnote[1]. It will likely cure you of your curiosity. There are even particles with no mass whatsoever, like a photon, which has energy and momentum but zero mass. This makes you wonder what it is, if it has no mass…? Keep pondering this and you’ll never have to count sheep again!)

Not only do your components only make up about 1% of your mass, they take up only .0000001 of your space. Your mass is less than two pounds and all your stuff could fit into a speck of dust. As a matter of fact, all the stuff that makes up all the human beings on planet earth could fit into the volume of a sugar cube. (It would be a very heavy sugar cube.) That is because each atom is almost entirely empty. In the center is the nucleus, made of protons and neutrons, and then whirring around it are the electrons. But if the nucleus was the size of a basketball, the electrons would be four miles away. The rest is empty space.

So why don’t we walk right through each other? Because that electron is whirring so quickly, and its negative charge is repelling everything else. Think of it like a fan. When a fan is spinning at high speed, most of its space is empty, the blades only make up a small percentage of the area in its spin zone, but you couldn’t put your hand in any part of it! So too, my electrons are whirring so quickly and their negative charge repels everything I come near. I think I’m sitting on a chair, but really, my stuff (protons and neutrons) are hovering slightly above the chair and I feel the electromagnetic energy of my electrons  pushing away the chairs electrons! Yes, this means that you never really touched another person in your life, you just felt the electromagnetic charge of your electrons and their electrons repelling each other!

So what did we learn today? We have almost no mass, almost all our mass is really just the energy keeping our “stuff” together, and we’re made of almost all empty space, everything we feel is just our energetic electrons pushing away other energetic electrons.

What is this supposed to do for me? For starters, understanding the vast complexity in even the most simple part of our world, the building blocks of our universe is an absolute reminder that this didn’t just happen. Maybe centuries or decades ago, when people had no idea how incredibly complicated everything in the world was, when people thought that air was nothing, and never heard the words atom, quark, lepton, or understood the precision needed just to keep atoms spinning, they might of thought that things just “happened.” Us enlightened people, the ones who can learn about these wonders with ease, while still realizing that we haven’t dipped our toes into the sea of complexity in the “natural” world, the ones who know that scientists have no way of explaining all the biggest questions of the universe, (again, I highly recommend the book “We have no idea: A guide to the unknown universe), we are the people who can and must use this uncovering of G-d’s infinite wisdom as a tool to build great faith in G-d.

The Chovos Halevavos is the magnum opus of Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pachuda, an eleventh century Spanish Torah scholar, author and philosopher. It is composed of many “gates,” each of which is an entry point into a different aspect of Jewish philosophy. The second gate, know as Sha’ar Habechina, The Gate of Examining, exhorts us to constantly examine the world around us for signs of G-d’s fingerprints, because they are everywhere.

Rabbeinu Bachya accomplished this task with the science available to him in the eleventh century and we need to do it with the science available one thousand years later, in the twenty first century. Rabbeinu Bachya was moved to faith by examining the amazing anatomy and physiology of human beings as well as the animal and plant world. But Rabbeinu Bachya also found faith in marveling at the intellect that G-d endowed mankind with, and the ability for us to use it to find so much more about how world works, for the purposes of making our life more comfortable (automobiles, air conditioners, etc), more long lasting (medicines, MRIs, anesthesia, antibiotics, etc) and more inspired (the study of physics like this essay!).

Reading science books is like getting a front row seat the G-d’s incredible wisdom. Whether you’re reading about how quarks are kept together with massless energy that accounts for 99% of our mass, or you’re reading about the dam building skills of the beaver, or the thousands of lenses on the compound eye of a bee, when you pick up a science book with the mandate of the Gate of Examining in mind, to find G-d in the world around you, you find Him everywhere.

You may not have a lot of real mass, you may weigh less than two pounds, you may fit into a dust speck, but your contributions to world when you are inspired by all the complexity G-d invested in you, will surely carry eternal weight in this world, combining your art with G-d’s science to create the greatest masterpiece!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha we read about Bilaam, the gentile prophet who embarks on a journey to curse the Jews. As his donkey is meandering along the road, it notices an angel blocking the path with a drawn sword. Immediately, the donkey reprograms his GPS and tries to take a detour through the fields. Bilaam, who can’t see the angel, beats his donkey, berating him for leaving the road. After similar events occur two more times, the donkey miraculously talks back to Bilaam and rebukes him sharply. G-d then opens Bilaam’s eyes and lets him see the angel. He then finally understands what has been causing the donkey to deviate from normal traveling procedures.

Let us study the sequence that led up to this whole showdown with the angel. After clearly seeing that G-d did not want him to curse the Jews, Bilaam persisted in asking again, and finally G-d gave him permission. As he set out on his journey, the Torah tells us, “G-d showed anger because he [Bilaam] went, and an angel of G-d placed himself in the way to thwart him, as he was riding on his donkey accompanied by his two attendants.” (Numbers 22:22) Rashi (1040-1105 CE, France), the primary commentator on the Chumash, tells us a bit about this angel. On the words “to thwart him” Rashi comments, “He was an angel of mercy, who wanted to prevent him from sinning, so that he would not sin and perish.”

The Oznaim Latorah (written by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, 1881-1966, Lithuania/Israel) points out something interesting. This angel was brandishing a sword and threatening to kill Bilaam. Most people would see him as a frightening, angry, and disciplinarian angel. But Rashi is telling us that he was actually an angel of mercy trying to save Bilaam. Not everything is what it seems to be. Sometimes the person feeding you honey can be poisoning you, while the person forcing vile tasting medicine down your throat can be saving your life. It is a matter of pulling back and looking at the big picture.

This angel of mercy teaches us that sometimes (and only sometimes) the most merciful thing we can do is to be a strict disciplinarian. In dealing with our children it will give them structure, and will help them learn to build stable patterns that will last them their entire lives. In dealing with ourselves it can help us stick to a diet, finish projects we really need to finish, or push ourselves to constantly grow and strive for more.

Ultimately, we can let the donkey keep plodding down Dangerous Lane, but we would be much better off recognizing the caring of the AWBS (Angel Who Brandishes a Sword), and heeding his kind message before we end up having to take rebuke from a donkey!

Parsha Summary

This week we read two Parshiyos, the first of which is Chukas, which begins with the laws of ritual impurity contracted by contact with a corpse. Corpses impart impurity to those who come in contact with them because they represent the loss of potential, as life = potential. Capability being wasted is the essence of impurity, just as potential being actualized is the essence of purity. The Torah then describes the purification process, which involves being sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of a completely red heifer. This mitzvah is considered the quintessential chok, a law we can’t understand. It is important for humans to accept that we cannot fully understand G-d. By keeping mitzvos we don’t fully understand we show that we live as we do not just because we think it’s moral or healthy, but because G-d told us to.

The Torah now shifts its narrative forward by close to forty years. The years that the Jews wandered in the desert were peaceful and relatively uneventful, and here is the first mention of the events that occurred to them at the end of their wandering. The Torah describes the death of Miriam and the subsequent drying up of the Well of Miriam which had provided the Jews with water for all the years they were in the desert. Here, G-d tells Moshe to speak to the rock and bring forth water – Moshe hits the rock instead. (See the Dvar Torah above for an explanation of this.) G-d then punishes Moshe by not allowing him to lead the people into Israel.

Even though Moshe knew he would die before the Jews entered Israel, he did not try to delay them, but continued to help them get to the Holy Land ASAP. The path to Israel is blocked by the nation of Edom. G-d instructs Moshe to ask the Edomites if the Jews could peacefully traverse their land to reach Israel, but Edom refuses. Even though the Jews would later invade a different country which didn’t allow them peaceful access to Israel, this time G-d commands them to simply travel around Edom, rather than fight them, as they are thier cousins. (Edom is descendants of Esau, brother of Jacob.)

It was on the border of the ancient country of Edom, that Aaron, the Kohen Gadol and brother of Moshe, passes away. (Aaron’s grave is still around, at the top of a mountain directly above the world famous ancient city of Petra in Jordan. I was there, and I could see the little building in which the tomb lies. I was unable to go up, due to time constraints, as it is a 3 hour donkey ride each way. However, I was able to look at his gravesite and pray. It was quite an awe-inspiring moment.) After Aaron’s death, the Kohen Gadol job is given to his son Elazar. The entire Jewish nation mourns Aaron for thirty days, something rare for someone in such a high position. The way Aaron merited this incredible honor was by devoting his life to bringing peace between man and his fellow. (Note to Self: If I want people to mourn me when I die, and not rejoice privately, be nice to others and promote peace in the community, and then people will actually miss me!)

After the nations see the Jews mourning Aaron’s death, they know that a leader of the Jews died and figure that this would probably be a good time to attack them. So, along comes their arch-enemy Amalek, and attacks the Jews, while they are down and unprepared. (Same modus operandi as the Yom Kippur War, they never stop being slime!) But G-d delivers the Jews from their hands, and they made short work of them.

Then, believe it or not, some of the Jews complain again about the manna (the spiritual food they ate in the desert.) This time, G-d sends serpents which come into the camp and start fatally biting the Jews. G-d tells Moshe to make a copper serpent, put it on a high pole, and to tell anyone who was bitten could look up at it and be healed. (The sages say that the serpent wasn’t what healed rather, when the Jews looked heavenward to gaze at the serpent, they remembered their Father in heaven and repented, and then deserved being saved.

The Jews travel on toward Israel. Two lepers who are at the back of the camp notice a strange sight (no, not glowing discs in the horizon), and bring it to the attention of the Jews. Upon investigation, the Jews discover the following story. The Canaanites, aware that the Jews were marching toward their country with the intent of settling there, tried to ambush the Jews, They hid in caves along one side of a thin canyon waiting for the Jews to pass through, after which they would ambush and mercilessly slaughter them (it seems like no one is willing to take us on head to head – they all have some sneaky plan!).

What they didn’t know, was that the Clouds of Glory traveling before the Jews prepared the way for them by flattening out their path. As the Jews approached the canyon, the Cloud squished the two sides of the canyon together, thus making all the Canaanites waiting in ambush into mashed potatoes. The Jews would have never even known about this, if not for the two lepers who were walking far behind the camp and saw the river turn red with the blood of our would-be attackers. When the Jews see this sight, they make a special song of thanks, because they realize that there are countless times that G-d protects them without them even knowing about it. (In Israel, the army claims that 95% of terrorist attempts are foiled without the knowledge of the citizens. That shows that even today we don’t realize how much G-d is protecting us!)

The last part of the parsha tells us the story of Sichon, a kingdom to the west of the Holy Land. The Jews ask the people of Sichon permission to cross through their land peacefully on their journey to Israel. Sichon, emboldened by Edom’s refusal (which worked, but only because G-d commanded us to leave them alone because they are our cousins), reject their request and even mass their troops at the border, as if to say “over my dead body!” This is exactly what the Jews do. They beat them in battle and move calmly towards Israel over their dead bodies.

The Second Parsha, Balak, tells the story of the great gentile prophet Bilaam and his nefarious dealings with the Moabite king Balak. The Midrash tell us that the gentiles complained to G-d, claiming that if only they would have prophets like the Jews have, they too would lead more G-dly lives. G-d responds by giving them a prophet Bilaam, who was equal to Moshe in his power of prophecy. However, Bilaam did not use his gift for the betterment of mankind as Moshe did, rather he used it to acquire fame and fortune for himself.

Balak was the ad hoc king of Moab, who was installed to defend the Moabites from the Jews who had just destroyed two of the strongest nations in Moab’s neighborhood. Realizing that no army was big enough to fight the Jews, Balak looked to AWMD (Alternative Weapons of Mass Destruction), such as curses from a prophet. He sent a large delegation to Bilaam asking him to curse the Jewish people. Bilaam tells the delegation that he needs to sleep on it (he would communicate with G-d while sleeping), and asks them to spend the night. That night G-d tells him not to go curse the Jews, as they are a blessed people.

Bilaam tells the delegation that he cannot go as, “G-d refused permission for me to go with you” thus hinting that the problem was with the delegation, as they were not important enough. Sure enough, Balak sends another delegation, composed of more prestigious members of his court. This time, G-d tells Bilaam that he can go with them as long as he realizes that he will only be able to say what G-d puts in his mouth. This shows us that ultimately G-d will allow us to follow our will, even if we’re making a big mistake.

While Bilaam is traveling, G-d sends an angel in the path which only Bilaam’s donkey can see (this is supposed to teach Bilaam how blinded he is by his desire for honor, – even a donkey can see more clearly than him). The donkey first tries to detour into the fields, later he brushes up against a wall, and finally he stops moving alltogether. Bilaam hits him each time, until finally G-d opens the mouth of the donkey, and he says to Bilaam, “Why are you hitting me? Did I not serve you faithfully your entire life? Have I ever done this before?” Only then does G-d open Bilaam’s eyes and he sees the angel, and understands his donkey’s actions. The angel reminds Bilaam that he can only say exactly what G-d puts in his mouth.

Finally, Bilaam and Balak go out to the camp of the Jews. Bilaam tells Balak to set up seven altars on which Bilaam will bring sacrifices in the hope of enticing G-d to allow him to curse the people. (Think about it – he is bringing sacrifices to G-d, to get permission to curse G-d children! It’s like bringing a parent $100,000 to kill their firstborn! Could any action possibly contain more gall than that? And what are the chances that it would work?!! But Bilaam is blinded by fame and fortune, and fails to see the folly of his false and fallacious scheme!)

Of course, G-d does not allow him to curse the Jews, and instead puts beautiful praises of the Jewish people in the mouth of Bilaam. Balak, very frustrated, suggests that possibly if Bilaam tries to curse them from a vantage point where he only sees part of the Jewish nation he will be more successful, but again Bilaam praises them eloquently. Again Balak persists, and requests that Bilaam try to curse them from a third location. This time, when he sees the Jewish tents laid out before him, Bilaam doesn’t even try to curse them, but rather blesses them of his own volition. (This blessing is such a poetic praise of the Jewish people that it has become part of the morning prayers.)

Balak tells Bilaam that he better catch the next plane out, as he failed miserably at his mission. But before he leaves, Bilaam gives Balak a strategy for destroying the Jews. He explains that the G-d of the Jews hates sexual immorality, and suggests that Moab send their maidens into the camp to seduce the men, and use their sensuality to coerce the men to not only sin sexually, but even go as far as idolatry. When a man would be at his most vulnerable moment, she was to pull out a small idol, and tell the man that she would only continue if he worshipped it.

This diabolical plan actually works, and thousands of Jews were seduced. It got so bad that the prince of the tribe of Shimon was seduced by a princess (imagine the hatred of Moab – they sent their princess out on a mission like this!). He began to publicly justify his actions, and went as far as to sin publicly in front of Moshe and the Elders at the entrance to the Tabernacle. A plague broke out amongst the sinners, and they started dying. Immediate action was called for, before this would spread to the whole nation. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, stepped up to the task at hand, took a spear, and killed the princess and her paramour, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. After that, the plague stopped, leaving 24,000 dead. On that happy note – That’s all, Folks!

Quote of the Week: The depth of a man’s heart must equal that of his mind.  – Reb Simcha of Premyszal

Random Fact of the Week: The tentacle of the Giant Arctic Jellyfish can reach 120 feet in length!!!

Funny Line of the Week: I told the doctor I broke my leg in two places. He told me to quit going to those places.

Have a Sublime Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

[1] An electron acts as a point charge and a point mass. Classically it has only position. It lacks volume. As such it has no diameter or extent.

From a quantum mechanics point of view a free electron is a probability distribution with spherical summitry about a point (congruent with its classical location) at which it most probably is located.

If you combine these two views, the electron is a point without extent which may be located anywhere but its probable location is inversely proportional to the distance from its classical location.

In fact, the notion that an electron is a particle at all is misleading and incorrect. It is actually a rotating quantum of space that has a frequency of rotation which gives it an energy which is seen as a rest mass according to M=hf/c^2. Where f is the frequency of rotation of the phenomenon called an electron. the electrical force is given by f and is repulsive with two spinning in the same direction but attractive it the two are spinning in opposite directions as is seen when a positron and electron meet. (All fundamental “particles” are spinning. It is merely a matter of how their axis of rotation align that determines how they interact.)

So you might say everything is made of the same material. It is just a question of how a fundamental quantum of the same material behaves that determines it’s character.

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