In Closing: Ourselves

michelangelo drawing

Do human’s consist only of quanta and particles? asks Rovelli. We know that he is going to answer yes and no. It’s not that simple he says. Well, he should try being me for a while, and trying to read a roadmap then he’d understand how complex it is.

We humans, he tells us, are subjects that observe the world. But we know what’s coming next if we’ve been paying attention. We are also part of the world. A very small part of the world. A very, very small part of the world. Schelling, the German idealist, he tell us suggested that man was the summit of nature, the highest point of reality. I once thought the walls in my toilet were white. Think again.

The images we construct of the universe, the models we use to explain it are both inside and outside us. The border is porous. More myth than science, more science than myth. Flux sake. Everything is itself and something else. A raindrop contains information about clouds in the sky; water in the ocean. All particles are information and energy combined.

Giulo Tononi, for example, is trying to construct a mathematical theory called ‘integrated information theory’ that quantifies consciousness in information systems (such as robots) and humans. Does it work? God knows. But I doubt it.

What does it then mean to be free and have free will? Rovelli asks, if we are a collection of forces and impulses reacting against each other. His answer is that we, like the universe, are determined not by the hundreds of billions of neurons firing in our brain but by the me and the we and the laws of the universe. It all gets very tautological. The world is complex and we are complex and we meet in that complexity. Michelangelo’s: ‘I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free…’

Rovelli and I can agree on one reality: ‘The brutal environmental and climate change we have triggered are unlikely to spare us.’

  

Sixth Lesson: Probability, Time and the Heat of Black Holes.

stephen hawkins

The problem of heat was one that perplexed mid-nineteenth century physicists. One way of understanding it was to think of it as a kind of fluid, ‘caloric’ fluid. I guess that’s where we get the term calorific value. Food equals a certain amount of energy. But in the mid-nineteenth century there was thought to be two kinds of heat: hot and cold. Wrong, of course, but not for the reason we think. James Maxwell and the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann showed that heat moves in a gradient from hot to cold because atoms when heated oscillate more rapidly and are therefore more likely to collide with each other and create and lose energy. A cold teaspoon placed in a hot cup is therefore more likely to become hot. In quantum physics this is not fixed, but more highly probable than the alternatives, which are also in flux.

Heat changes the past and the future, but where does time go if it cannot flow? The answer is it does not go anywhere. It remains a position, a function, a variable, a location, a quantity. It is coterminous with space, having the same boundaries as space. Space equals time. But it also deictic. Sharing common but not the same boundaries, in the same way that Scotland and England share boundaries. And although you can heat up space, how can you heat up time?

See you next Thursday is dependent on context. Speak so I can hear you. Think of the Big Bang. Time and Space simultaneously radiating in the now. But what is now? A collection of forces interacting and pushing against each other in the Big Bounce and creating the probability of the Big Bang. Reductio ad absurdum. Einstein suggested that the distinction between the past present and future is nothing but a persistent, stubborn illusion.

Contrast with the more familiar idea of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger with the emphasis on ‘dwelling in time’. Physics becomes for some of his more extreme follower a discipline that is incapable of describing reality.

Let us look back and forward to the idea that heat is god. There is only a detectable difference between the past and future and different states when there is a flow of heat. Probability is king. But some of his subjects are subject to revolt.

Quantum gravity is a blurred vision of physics. But Stephen Hawkins has demonstrated that black holes are always ‘hot’. Hot space creates time in flux. The quanta of space, the vibrating ‘molecules’ that heat the surface of the black hole and are heated by the black hole generate change. Time in flux. Flux in time.   

Fifth Lesson: Grains of Space

grains 2

Twentieth-century physics has given us two lodestars: general relativity and quantum mechanics. Some of the fruits of these are the study of cosmology, astrophysics and at more microscopic level, gravitational waves and black holes. Yet the two theories cannot both be correct, because they are, in essence, contradictory. The paradox is both also work in their domains remarkably well. Einstein’s Theory of All Things was a search for that something missing that would square the circle.

Rovelli suggests there is nothing new in this eclecticism. He gives example of Newton discovering gravity by combining Galileo’s parabolas with the ellipses of Kepler. Maxwell found the equations of electromagnetism by combining theories about electricity and magnetism.  Einstein discovery of relativity was a way of resolving the contradictions between electromagnetism and mechanics.  Rovelli is suggesting a progression, standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing anew. Theoretical physics does not stand still.

Modern physicists are he suggests currently working on a hypothesis that partially solves The Thoery of All Things and Rovelli calls this research ‘loop quantum gravity’. But he suggests, if correct, we will have to also reconsider how we see the world. Space is no longer space, but a granular substance made of a type of quanta, a billion billion times smaller than the smallest atomic nuclei. A continuous loop, like chainmail, that undulates and flows. Again, I think, we go back to the medieval notion of ether or aether, a very rarefied and highly elastic substance thought to permeate through all of space and between the interstices of matter. The medium and the message. Space is nowhere and everywhere.

Time no longer flows but is contained in granular space. Subject and object. Here and now vanish. Space and time are illusions, like the picture of a X-man standing on the flat earth with the sky above him. Because he cannot see or feel the wave of space and time he is not sure it exists, but he is part of the granular structure of space/time.  The relationship between quantum events are the source of time and space.

Where’s the evidence for this?

Rovelli suggests the study of black holes may offer some clues. If the theory of the loop of quantum gravity is correct, matter in stars collapsing into a black hole cannot have collapsed into an infinitesimal point, because only finite quanta of space exist. Their working hypothesis is inside a black hole the sun’s matter would continue to collapse until it no longer could. Theoretical physicists have called this imploding star a Planck star. They have suggested the entire matter of the sun would be condensed into the size of an atom. But it would not be stable. In fact it would be highly reactive. But because these conditions are so extreme and take place over such long periods of time it would seem to the observer as if there is stasis and nothing is happening. Neither of which is possible in classical physics and improbably in quantum physics.

It’s not a large jump to suggest, and search for evidence, that prior to the ‘Big Bang’ there was a ‘Big Bounce’ and that our universe was created from a preceding universe contracting and expanding under its own weight. Fiction or friction?  Before you were, I am.

Fourth Lesson. Particles

quantum

Atoms are the smallest things we can see. Each atom consists of a nucleus orbited by electrons. We’re looking more closely at the nucleus here. Each nucleus consists of protons and neutrons. If we go even smaller protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller units given the name quarks by the American physicist Murray Gell-man. The force that ‘glues’ quarks together inside protons and neutrons is called gluons.

In medieval philosophy an element was thought of as something fundamental that couldn’t be broken further down into anything else. Look at the periodic table. Superimpose on it these building blocks of space and time. Ephemera comes from the Greek and the narrative is linked to a plant the ancients thought lasted only for a day. Elementary particles exist for a much shorter time than that – a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second. Like quanta in an electromagnetic field they do not have a pebble-like reality and their effect can only be measured in terms of probability. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva for example is a loop designed to smash subatomic particles together at increasing speeds. We already knew that elementary particles such as neutrinos existed and swarm throughout the universe, but have little interaction with us, but CERN was able to confirm the existence of the more elusive ‘Higgs bosons’.

This makes it sound like the straightforward world we are used to that of cause and effect. But quantum mechanics has its own laws, which are not laws, but more like whispered suggestions. From the early 1950s to the 1970s physicists such as Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann suggested a set of commonalities and parameters that could be used to experiment with elementary particles called ‘the Standard Model of elementary particles’.  The Higgs Bosons (named after the Scottish physicist Professor Higgs) for example was a thought experiment using quantum mechanics before its existence was confirmed by CERN.

Despite the Standard Model’s success, or perhaps because of its success, it has attracted criticism. It lacks the austere beauty of Einstein’s equations. In comparison it is cobbled together with piecemeal and patched theories without any clear order; an uncertain number of fields; interacting between themselves within certain and uncertain forces; determined by certain constants whose values are unclear; but show a certain (unknown) symmetrical pattern and stirred with a big wooden spoon called the Standard Model.

The Standard Model’s predictions about the unobserved world do work in describing the world as the Higgs Boson shows but it also leads to nonsensical predictions which have to be ignored or counterbalanced; a procedure called ‘renormalisation’.  Paul Dirac, the great architect of quantum mechanics, whom Rovelli places second only to Einstein in the pantheon of twentieth century scientists, concluded ‘we have not yet solved the problem’ of quantum theory.

Quantum theory has more recently been unable to account for what has been termed ‘dark matter’, a large cloud of material observed by astronomers whose gravitation pull deflects light in distant galaxies. Quantum theory is itself in flux, as it always has been.

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Third Lesson: The Architecture of the Cosmos.

set squareIn response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Odd Trio Redux.”

Carlo Revelli (2015) Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segree.

We’ve got a floor plan. In a reductionist world two features of space and time stand together in the battle-scarred macroscopic twentieth-century theories of Einstein. He explains how the cosmos came into being and hangs together. Contrast this with the mirrored microcosm of Bohr’s theory of how elementary particles work, the flickers of the creeping subjectivity of the observer effect and creating seemingly something from nothing. We have something that undermines the mechanical movements and objectivity of classical physics, but does not undermine the beauty and grace of Einstein’s equations. It complicates what is complicated – the architecture of the cosmos. Theories, like the individuals that produced them, don’t stand still. They say prove me wrong. The sky doesn’t fall down, but we can move onto the next theory that explains why it is still above, or indeed, below us.

Rovelli in his third lesson traces the scientific visions that have gone before and the revolution in thinking that has increased our understanding of how we ‘see’ reality.

In his first box, a figure of a little man (or woman) stands like an X with the earth below him and the sky above. For millennia, thousands of years, for any man that could see, this was unquestioned reality.

Borelli tells us that Anaximander twenty-six centuries ago questioned this reality. He asked how it was possible for the sun, moon and stars to revolve around us. His answer was that the sky was not just above us, but also below us. Thus in the second box the sky takes up the four corners and the little X-man is standing on a block of earth and has his arms raised to the sky, and his counterpart, another upside-down X-man, has his arms raised to the sky.

There is uncertainty in Borelli’s attribution of who first though of the earth as a great floating stone suspended in space, whether that honour goes to Parmenides, or Pythagoras (perhaps both and it took different cultural paths into our understanding?). Here the resultant diagram is no longer a box, but the more recognisable Ptolemaic system of circles within circles of unnamed stars and moon with the earth a shaded bullseye, and a little X-man standing on it, at the centre of the known universe.

The Copernicus revolution was the end of the Ptolemaic worldview. The earth was no longer the centre of the universe, but just one, among other planets, bigger and smaller than ours, in a diagram of a rock, with an X-man on it, circling the sun.

Here I’m going to step outside Borelli’s high-speed chase through time and interject Galileo Galilei.  The Renaissance astronomer and polymath famously was forced by the Catholic Church to recant his proofs that Copernicus was correct and to swear that the Ptolemaic worldview was the only model that worked in allowing God to put X-man at the centre of the universe and give God parental visiting rights. The mind of a visionary and the heart of a visionary may be pulling in different directions.

A contemporary comparison would be global warming. Scientist at the end of the 1960s charted the greenhouse gas effect of fossil fuel use in parts per million. The Third World War has begun with the loss of human life far more likely to be greater than the First and Second, and indeed all previous wars, combined all within two generations. A child born now will see the start, but not the end of it. But in terms of the solar system that’s not even a blink of light.

With improved instruments our measurement of the solar system has improved exponentially. The Hubble telescope which orbits the planet and allows us to see deep into space, studded with splashes of  galaxies moving endlessly in time since an estimated fifteen billion years ago; the earth a small ball exploded into being with the other planets that surround it, lies not at the beginning or the end, but part of time and space.

Harper Lee (2015) Go Set a Watchman.

go set a watchman

I searched for my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, but was unable to find it. Harper Lee’s classic was published before I was born and is one of those books I’ve no doubt someone would steal. Go Set a Watchman was published posthumously.  It’s one of those books that you could leave on the bus, on the train and hidden in plain sight among a collection of Showaddywaddy, Under the Moon of Love, classic rock singles, and it’s the latter, rather than the former that would be more likely to go missing. Get this. A couple of old guys dressing up as Teddy Boy clobber and getting to Number 1 in the charts with complete pap. We expect that. What we don’t expect is Harper Lee to be too boring to read.

Go Set a Watchman, of course, went to Number 1 in all the book charts. A brilliant marketing exercise. Scout, is now long legged, twenty-six-year old Miss Jean Louise Finch, a resident New Yorker, travelling back to her home town Maycomb by train. She would fly, but among other things Atticus would insist on getting up at three in the morning and driving a hundred miles to Mobile to meet her, and then do a full day’s work. He’s seventy-two now, and his arthritis means he can longer hold a spoon, fork or knife, but he’s Atticus and we know what that means. It means Gregory Peck. It means Jesus asking himself before he made any big decisions – what would Atticus do? So we, the reader, tag along to see and hear and breeze through the post-atomic world of Maycomb County.

Later, in the book, Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, accuses Miss Jean Louise Finch of confusing her father with God. Of course she does, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, doesn’t everyone?  But here we find he’s got feet of clay. He’s a bigot. He believes that blacks should be treated like the children they are and kept in their place. That they don’t qualify as right-minded citizens with all the responsibilities that entails. He’d defended the black man accused of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird because it was the right thing to do. Not because he was innocent. He was guilty of statutory rape as the girl was under sixteen, but she was willing. It was a technicality he was willing to overlook. I’m telling you all this so you can overlook this book. I might as well add Scout’s brother, Jem, dies of a heart-attack before he reached twenty-one and is only mentioned a few times. A genetic condition, inherited from their mother. And Dill doesn’t appear. Instead we get Henry Clinton, Atticus’s protégé and eyes and ears in Maycomb’s convoluted political and social hierarchy. He’s in love with, and of course wants to make an honest woman of, Miss Jean Louise Finch. God forbid, sex before marriage. The one bright spot is when Miss Jean Louise Finch remembers when she was a tomboy as the local school, and because someone had kissed her, and put their tongue in her mouth, she believed she was pregnant. There’s a story there somewhere.

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Second Lesson: Quanta.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Trick Questions.”

god does not play dice

Carlo Revelli (2015) Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segree.

If Isaac Newton is the father of physics, Albert Einstein is the mother, but he didn’t love all his children equally. Remember before Einstein, physics was spread out like a dirty nappy between subjects as diverse as Mathematics, Philosophy and the industry leader, Chemistry, in universities and colleges. A fresh-faced Richard Feynman after leaving the Manhattan Project, for example, found himself teaching at Cal Tech. He was the Physics’ department. The atom bomb changed everything, but before the atom bomb, quantum theory (or quantum mechanics) changed everything we know, or think we know, about atoms. Einstein’s theory of gravity, space and time wrapped reality up in a big red bow. Quantum mechanics picked it apart and introduced uncertainty into equations. No one was quite sure how it worked, but quantum mechanics did work. Nowadays, for example, quantum computers exist. Birds navigate from continent to continent by ‘seeing’ the curve of space/time.  Einstein before he died was trying to reconcile the known and the unknown. His theory of everything was championing the god of objectivity in science. And Niels Bohr, whose ongoing dialogue with Einstein enriched science, suggested at a subatomic level the devil of subjectivity played a part. Before he died Bohr had a photograph taken, in the background, a blackboard in his study. The drawing on it is a ‘light filled box’ something Einstein conceived as a thought experiment.

‘Imagine a box filled with light, from which we allow a single photon to escape for an instant…’

Photon from phos/phot ‘light’, but light is both singular and pleural. One cannot be separated from the other.

But that is exactly what Max Planck did. He imagined a hot box. In it an electric field in equilibrium. His genius was suggesting that the energy of this field could be broken down into quanta, packets or lumps of energy. Light, which travelled at a uniform speed through space, in relation to the energy expended in creation, was somehow at a subatomic level, lumpy. It made no sense, but made perfect sense. Einstein confirmed Planck’s hypothesis was correct.

Bohr’s genius was the nowadays clichéd quantum leap of gaining the philosopher’s stone, without quite knowing how it worked. He described how electrons gain and lose the energy of light (that quantum leap) from one oscillating orbit to another and how Mendeleev’s periodic table of how everything remains the same, but is different, could be best understood.

A fellow German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, put a new spin on it by suggesting, at a subatomic level, electrons do not always exist. Objective reality therefore does not exist. An apple, for example, either exist, or it does not. But Heisenberg suggested we did not to follow that strict dichotomy. We could calculate the probability of an electron existing, but only when colliding with something else and making a quantum leap. Before and after, is not measureable, and in the same way, when I’m offline I no longer exist and have no place in the world.

Rovelli puts it very succinctly: ‘It’s as if God had not designed reality with a line that was heavily scored, but just dotted with a faint outline.’

Possibility and probability replace all the old certainties. But like alchemists of old not only were electrons called into being when observed jumping from one random state to another, but the subjective element of looking or measuring could not be teased from cause and effect. I, for example, only exist online when you look at me. I don’t exist otherwise. Or I may exist, but you can’t prove it. And if you try and look at me offline you can no longer see me online. The real and unreal become wrapped around one another. And in observing you become part of the ongoing equation. Look away now. Next up, in the third lesson, ‘The Architecture of the Cosmos’.