The creek of reason
Was only ever a narrow ribbon of hope in the desert
But now it is a chain of stagnant waterholes
Full of shopping trolleys and broken bottles…
I am here in another inland city with a minor university, a minor university that has decided not to offer a chemistry degree anymore and so has handed over the chemistry it is contractually obligated to teach its third year students to our minor university: specifically, to me. I am here to supervise four going-on-five days of experimental work, where from 8:30 to 5:30 with a break for lunch they will grind away doing experiments. These experiments involve the exercise of real, unglamourous, skills- distillation, recrystallisation, not poisoning oneself or settling oneself on fire. The lab we are in is splendid. Such a high ceiling. Taps everywhere. It has the look and the smell of the organic chemistry labs of my own undergraduate days, but it is much too big for us. There is plenty of equipment, plenty of apparatus, plenty of room to rattle around in. All my life this sector of science, my sector of science, has, in this country at least been shrinking.
I never liked the term ‘central science’, but it is. It is the real key to solving our problems in health, our problems with the environment, in developing new materials that will allow
Of course, these things are still rolling along, I tell myself. Science is not really a dried-up creek, it is still an unstoppable tsunami. Only not here. Or, not much.
Sometimes I google something to find out more about it and find something I have written about it, almost immediately.
Sometimes what I have written is embarrassingly wrong.
Watched the documentary about murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya on SBS the other night. I was impressed by how flash
As we enter the age of stupid…
My aversion to many-universes models was excessive and irrational. After thinking the matter over carefully, I no longer think there are any logical or moral objections to a many-universes model. I will continue to reject these models on two bases, but I will seek to moderate my language and will not automatically reject them. These two bases are:
(1) Parsimony. We can explain things adequately without them.
(2) Utility. They do not shed any useful light on the most interesting and crucial aspects of quantum mechanics, and hence are not very exciting.
I will now outline my initial objections to many-worlds models, and the answers to those objections I have come up with on further reflection.
The first objection is the aesthetic-moral one made so effectively by Larry Niven in the story ‘All the
[I need to find the story again to find the quote I want to put here, so in the meantime you can link to this discussion about the Buffyverse.]
But, in agreeing with this objection, I am not thinking quantitatively. And I am not thinking correctly about *how* microscopic splits of universes lead to macroscopic variations.
It is not equally likely that I will keep driving merrily along the road, and that I will veer suddenly to the left and run over a nun. The bundle of lives that it is ‘me’, if it has a 1 in 10 trillion chance of veering aside and hitting the nun, has been shaped by the choices it has made to be ‘better’ than some other bundle of lives that has a 1 in 10 million chance of veering aside and hitting the nun. Furthermore, I do not know that a choice I can think about is actually possible: perhaps my freedom is more restricted than I believe, and I actually have no finite probability of veering aside and running over the nun.
Perhaps this is best expressed in terms of another one of those Socratic dialogue thingies.
Assertion: It seems that the possible number of universes is infinite, such that any imaginable universe is not only an image of truth, but a fraction of truth. Therefore the many-universes model is immoral and aesthetically repellent.
Response: However, the evidence suggests strongly that our universe has not existed forever, which means it had a beginning. This beginning surely imposes some set of initial conditions on the bundle of possible universes, which implies that the number of multiple universes is not infinite.
Assertion: Although the possible number of universes may be finite, it seems that we cannot quantify, to any extent whatsoever, the probability of one universe existing rather than another. Therefore the many-universes model is still immoral, yadda yadda.
Response: However, statistical thermodynamics provides a very good model for how we could do this. Imagine, if you will, a simple universe of a large number of red balls that can be placed at any of a large number of energy levels separated by a finite amount of energy. Let us imagine that this universe has a certain total energy, that it begins at some point in time with the balls assigned to some unique configuration of energy levels, and that balls are free to move from one energy level to another- not completely freely, but with a high probability to adjacent levels and a decreasing probability to more distant levels.
This is a reasonable model for a classical universe. We can’t know exactly what the configuration of balls is, but whenever any change happens in this universe, we can say it is in the direction of the configuration of balls that can be made in more different ways. This is just a statistical law, which arises from having lots of balls, but it is so solid that it is the basis for the second law of thermodynamics, and hence for everything.
Figure 1. Two sets of red ball universes with total energy 42. There is only one way of arranging the balls that gives rise to the universe on the left. There are many ways of arranging the balls that give rise to the set of universes on the right.
Is there anything to stop us from saying that the physical meaning of probability is that everything happens, and every time a ball moves from one place to another the universe splits?
No, there is nothing to stop us, we can certainly say this. This might be a useful way to look at things in a classical universe. It gives a very straightforward physical interpretation of probability. There are no real aesthetico-moral objections, since the choices (or deterministic non-choices) we make are the same ones we would make in the classical universe, according to the laws (or guidelines) or thermodynamics. We just interpret them as probabilities rather than unique events. I think, given how very large large numbers are, if we say that every particle in the universe can choose (or be impelled) to change state once a chronon, our macroscopic choices (or non choices) take place at such a high level of emergent phenomena that most of the unnerving possibilities that make us turn away from the many-universes model, like Larry Niven, with fear and loathing, are in any meaningful sense of the word, impossible.
Assertion: Okay, okay, maybe you’re right. But what about the two-slit experiment?
Response: The two-slit experiment?
Assertion: Let me explain. Actually, you can probably get a much better idea if you go out and get hold of a copy of Feynman’s ‘Lectures in Physics’. It is in Volume III.
If you have two slits in an electron-proof thingy such that a single beam of electrons can go through both of them at once, then ping onto an electron detector, you can get two different outcomes, depending on whether you put something at the slits to detect whether the electrons go through them or not.
Figure 2. Things that can happen in the two-slit experiment with a beam of particles.
You get this result- electrons acting like particles would act if you detect them, and like waves if you don’t detect them- even if you shoot them through one at a time, so you can detect each electron striking the other side individually, ping, ping, ping.
The two-slit experiment is relevant because it seems to imply communication between bundles of universes. An electron chooses to go through one slit or another: the universe splits. But the overall features of the observed universe depend on the choices of many electrons. How can this make sense, in a many universe model? How can the many-universes model cast any light on this? Should we not see, in a universe of red balls, the particle-like distribution of particles in all cases.
Response: Yes, this is one of the more wacky things about quantum mechanics. Actually, I fail to see how the many-universes model can cast any light upon it. Perhaps Marco (pbuh) can explain.
However, the two-slit experiment can still make sense in a many-universes model. It does *not* imply communication between universes, because wave-particle duality can mean something like the De Broglie pilot wave model, which is perfectly consistent with electrons going through independently to create an interference pattern. This does not rely on any spooky ‘now I’m a wave, now I’m a particle, ooga-booga’ weirdness, which Dr Clam has decided he finds more irritating than the many-universes model.
Assertion: What about the different behaviour of fermions and bosons? A few chapters later on in Feynman’s ‘Lectures on Physics’, there is this really nifty discussion of scattering. Particles that are different from each other scatter in one way, which is the same sort of way, more or less, as macroscopic lumps of matter. Particles that are identical scatter in one of two completely different ways, depending on whether they have integer spin (bosons) or half integer spin (fermions).
Feynman writes somewhere that he tried to put together an explanation for this difference between fermions and bosons into an undergraduate lecture, but found he couldn’t do it, which he says means that we don’t really understand it. Whatever it is, doesn’t it just knock the stuffing out of the many universes theory? Here we have macroscopic consequences arising from probabilities that don’t seem to behave anything like probabilities behave in your universe full of balls. And that’s the wacky way all probabilities behave in quantum mechanics. Sure, you can save your many-universes theory by adding lots of wacky ad hoc rules about how ‘balls’ of different kinds should behave, but what good is that? It hardly makes it a useful predictive theory, huh, huh?
Response: Again, this example is one of the more spectacularly weird things about quantum mechanics. And maybe shoehorning it into a many-universes model would just be papering-over a dodgy theory. But maybe it could actually shed some light on the problem. For instance, our model of the universe of balls sort of implies that we can tell the balls apart: but if the balls are indistinguishable, then there is only one way to get to this configuration, just like there is only one way to get to this configuration, and they are equally ‘probable’. Or am I dreaming?
Figure 3. Two sets of red ball universes with total energy 42. If all the balls are indistinguishable, isn’t it true that there is only one way of arranging the balls that gives rise to the universe on the right, just like the universe on the left?
White King: Tell him he’s dreaming.
I have been spending my time here in this inland city, doing wet chemistry during the day- which I am not so good at, I would not be the one doing this in a more knowledgeable time- and at night I come back and watch the Sky business news- because I have a very low resistance to television- and read ‘Accelerando’. Only a chapter at a time, because then my brain is too stretched and I have to go and take a nap. I thought tonight that maybe I am wasting my time, messing about with dumb matter, when the real game is elsewhere. But someone has to figure out these things.
I am reminded, in these exciting times, of a story I once read by Leo Szilard, where capitalism is compared to the manic depressive cycles of the insane.
Stross has something that is superficially plausible in ‘Accelerando’, on making command economies as effective as market economies, using expert systems that can evolve optimal allocations of resources without the need for competition in the real world. This sounds good, but what it leaves out is the ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ principle. We have all these sophisticated computer models for all sorts of things, and so many of them are just rubbish, because they need more and better inputs than we can provide. A pseudo-market in silico cannot function like a real market until we are massively, massively, massively documented in real time.
When that day comes, we will have to get rid of so many of our stupid laws it isn’t funny.
Usury is a sin. Muahahahaha!
The world is flat - with gigantic frigging walls built everywhere.
Like, our dog runs off. He doesn’t go very far, and he hasn’t gotten into a great deal of trouble (yet), but we live in the sort of neighbourhood where one day, someone will shoot him. We went to a good deal of trouble putting up one of those electronic dog fences, which worked real well for a while. However, he is a dem clever dog, and when the battery in his zappy collar was low he worked it out, and just barreled out through it from then onwards. We thought we would get a more uber zappy collar, and the ones available locally were real expensive, but there were much cheaper ones on the net from overseas- like half the price- so we ordered one of them. Customs stopped it. It is apparently legal to sell them in
Like, I get all these emails from Indian undergraduate project students looking for a place to come and do a three month or so final year project. Unfortunately, I always have to write back and tell them what I have found out after making inquiries, that there is a 0.0001% chance of their getting a visa to come and do this.
Like, our university demands one particular English test. It is the TOEFL instead of the IELTS, or vice versa. I can’t quite remember. I ended up waiting nine months for a student from the Middle East I had offered a scholarship- who had perfectly decent English skills- to get in to do the proper test at the heavily oversubscribed testing centre in his country, and what with one thing or another, I had to hand the scholarship money back before he could take it.
They are absolutely batshit insane – to quote Lexifab, in another context – about occupational health and safety at the place I am visiting. A fellow came around this morning to move my pushbike – because he got an email from someone else in the Geschutzapparat, telling him to come around and move my pushbike – because it was a safety hazard, leaning up against a wall inside the lab in a way that impinged too much on a thoroughfare that none of us actually fared through during the course of a day.
It is the only place I have ever been where prescription glasses do not count as safety glasses in the teaching lab. I have just ignored this directive.
You should try and complete this statement my son made to me the other day: ‘My mind gets confused when I…’
I am about 43% of the way through Accelerando. My brain is feeling stretched, as it is meant to. At the same time, I am living through what seems to be an exciting economic phase transition.
It is probably right and good that the tertiary sector as presently constituted should begin to wither away. It is configured for the old age of stupid, not the coming age of stupid. We need to educate a leaven of people who actually know things to get us through the coming age of stupid, using the tools of this/that age.
A symptom of the new age of stupid is the idea that simulated ‘experiments’ can replace experiments. We need to find a way to escape from the tyranny of safe.
I predict that in another month, after the ‘worse than expected’ RMP growth numbers come out (worse than expected by who?) everyone will be looking critically for the first time at all the RMP economic data we’ve seen for the past decade and telling us that it is dodgy as. Roll on Economics 2.0!
‘…think about knight’s moves in four-dimensional chess.’
Finished Accelerando. Once the pace accelerates past what the characters can cope with so their story is left behind, it is relatively easy for a simple human like me to keep up.
For what its worth, I don’t think it is possible- within the universe- for there to be a conscious entity which stands in relation to a human being as a human being stands to a tapeworm. This analogy crops up a number of times in Accelerando.
Datum: The complexity of possible problems scales in a dizzying way. For example: Two body problem, easy. Three body problem, impossible. (NB: Number of bodies in the universe, 10180 ono. )
Datum: There is a limit to how fast information can pass from one place to another. It isn’t all that fast, compared to speeds we can imagine.
Datum: There is a limit to how much stuff can be packed into a particular volume. It isn’t all that much, compared to smallnesses we can imagine.
I think if you put these three things together, it will work out the horizon of possibly tractable problems in our universe will turn out to be not all that far removed from the horizon of problems solvable by human intelligence in our universe.
I believe there could certainly be conscious entities which stand in relation to a human being as a human civilization of several quadrillion humans stand to a human being. But I don’t think that degree of ability to hold information, to come up with new ideas, to link existing ideas, would be qualitatively different from human intelligence, to the same extent that we are different from tapeworms.