A creative atmosphere

It’s sometimes said that if you sit an immortal monkey in front of an equally durable typewriter and leave it to tap randomly away at the keys, then eventually it will produce the entire text of Richard III (or any other Shakespeare play of your choice), completely by chance. All you have to do is wait long enough.

I was thinking about this one day, and also thinking about air molecules. In the room I’m sitting in at the moment, there are at least 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 air molecules, all frantically dashing around bumping into each other. How often, I wondered, do little clusters of these molecules fleetingly arrange themselves, by chance, in arrangements that we would regard as being somehow regular or remarkable?

It’s not possible for me to directly observe air molecules, so instead I used my computer to make a 2-dimensional simulation of some atoms of gas doing what atoms of gas do. I set it going, and waited…and waited…and waited…

I promise you that my simulation didn’t involve any secret forces drawing atoms towards certain positions. The movements and collisions of the atoms all occurred in accordance with the laws of mechanics. But I did cheat a little. Can you figure out how?

Molecules and atoms

In case you’re fidgeting on your chair wondering why I started talking about air molecules but finished talking about gas atoms, let me explain.

Nearly all of the air is nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrogen and oxygen atoms are essentially spherical. But in the air, nitrogen atoms are bonded together in pairs to form nitrogen molecules that are, roughly speaking, a stubby rod shape. The same goes for oxygen. Now a collision between two moving rods is much more complicated than a collision between two spheres, because the rods can spin end-over-end in a way that spheres can’t. In fact, I’m not sure that I know how to do the calculations. As the point of the video could be made just as well using atoms rather than molecules, I did the simulation using atoms. If you like, you can think of them as atoms of helium or argon, which do go around on their own.

2 thoughts on “A creative atmosphere”

  1. I’m guessing you set up the atoms spelling out the words with random velocities, then ran the simulation twice – once forward in time and once reverse. The only difference is reversing the initial vectors; otherwise the laws are the same. Then you glued the two together.

    Or maybe you just waited for a very long time… 🙂

    1. Yes, you’re right, Keith. I made use of the time-reversibility of Newton’s Laws. One other little confession is that at the point where the atoms are arranged into words, the distribution of speeds isn’t the correct Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. I figured that it wouldn’t really matter if I used a uniform distribution of speeds to start off with, and it was a little less work to program. It would be interesting to see how soon either side of the crucial moment the distribution of speeds does conform to the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. A nice little evening’s project perhaps!

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