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My Relativity Journey: A Series Of Unlikely Events

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The name Einstein is synonymous with “someone who is really smart.” His name crops up frequently in pop culture and perhaps even more in scientific discussions about the nature of matter, energy, space and time. As someone with a science background (evolutionary biology and ecology) and a deep curiosity about how our universe works, I began to dive into the world of Einstein about six years ago. I’ve been pretty surprised by what I discovered and this little essay is about my own personal journey and some thoughts on modern physics and the nature of time specifically.

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I’m scientifically literate but my physics math isn’t well developed so after seeing Einstein’s popular book, Relativity: The Special and the General Theories at the bookstore in the SFO airport I snapped this little tome up and was pleasantly surprised to find it quite accessible and interesting to read. It was also a nice introduction to his technical papers on his theories.

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I learned in his little book about Einstein’s two relativity theories. The first, special relativity, was proposed by Einstein in 1905; the second, general relativity, in 1915. I’m going to focus on Special Relativity in this essay.

Special Relativity was Einstein’s first foray into upending our long-standing notions on the nature of space and time. Counter-intuitively, Special Relativity holds that both space and time are malleable and the speed of light is absolute (i.e., constant for all observers, no matter what their speed). In our normal life, of course, space and time seem pretty absolute in a physical sense. Yes, time can seem to pass more quickly or more slowly based on our mental state but generally we realize that this feeling is psychological and not indicative of an actual change in the passage of time in the world around us.

Einstein’s “time dilation” was not, however, merely psychological. He suggested that time dilation was real and is a function of the speed of the observer. The faster you go the more time slows down. “Moving clocks run slow” is the shorthand for this phenomenon. If a person in a spaceship were able somehow to get to the speed of light, time would literally stop. This isn’t actually possible in Special Relativity because the mass of the spaceship increases the closer it is to the speed of light, requiring more and more energy to go even faster. So massive things can never reach the speed of light. Only massless particles, like photons and neutrinos, can travel at the speed of light.

tambookSimilarly, “length contraction” is a function of the speed of an object. This means that what you would measure as a one-meter stick when the stick is at rest would be measured as shorter than one meter when it is in motion. And if that stick were accelerated to almost the speed of light it would be very short indeed when measured by you as a stationary observer.

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Why do these things happen? Well, Einstein describes it very clearly in his little book: it all comes down to his choices in defining simultaneity. As described also in Peter Galison’s excellent book, Einstein’s Clocks; Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time, clock synchronization was a big issue when Einstein was writing on relativity. Railroads, map-making, colonization and other economic activities all depended in various ways on the ability to synchronize clocks. This is what is meant by simultaneity: how do we know when two events occur at the same time? Einstein chose to define simultaneity operationally, that is, by how we can measure it, rather than as a more abstract notion about when events are “really” simultaneous. Einstein’s approach was part of a tendency toward “positivism,” the scientific choice of focusing only on what can be measured, and downplaying or eliminating entirely those concepts that can’t be measured directly.

Einstein suggested that simultaneity should be defined operationally as the perception of simultaneous events, and this perception would include an assumption that the information being perceived traveled at the same speed no matter where it came from. The example he gives relies on a passenger on a moving train. If the passenger sees two lightning strikes at the same time, one in front and one in the rear of the train (using mirrors if necessary in order to see both ways), they will be considered simultaneous.

But for a person on the embankment next to the moving train these same two lightning flashes would not be simultaneous because of the time it takes for those flashes of light to reach each observer. This is because the train is moving toward one flash and away from the other. But that’s not the case, of course, for the person on the embankment. In this way, simultaneity becomes relative and depends on the motion of the observer. This is a key point and is literally the origin of the entire structure of Einstein’s relativity theories and the strange relativistic effects of time dilation and length contraction.

There is a remarkable and telling passage in Einstein’s little book where he explains his reasoning for his proposed definition of simultaneity (p. 27 of the 1952 edition, emphasis in the original):

“There is only one demand to be made of the definition of simultaneity, namely, that in every real case it must supply us with an empirical decision as to whether or not the conception that has to be defined is fulfilled. That my definition satisfies this demand is indisputable. That light requires the same time to traverse the path [from the first lightning flash in front of the train and from the second lightning flash behind the train] is in reality neither a supposition nor a hypothesis about the physical nature of light, but a stipulation which I can make of my own free will in order to arrive at a definition of simultaneity.”

Einstein is, then, stating his view that he’s simply assuming (stipulating) that the speed of light is constant for all observers, no matter their speed, and then seeing where this assumption takes us. A key consequence of the relativity of simultaneity is the idea of a “block universe” in which past, present and future all in some manner exist already. As Einstein stated in a 1952 letter: “The distinction between past, present and future is a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Einstein’s ideas became widespread after his theory of general relativity was spectacularly confirmed in 1919 by Sir Arthur Eddington’s scientific expedition to Sao Tomé and Principe during a solar eclipse. Eddington found that light did indeed appear to bend around the sun during the eclipse and by the amount Einstein predicted in his general theory. The rest is history.

But not so fast. Once I understood what Einstein had done in crafting his special theory, I objected to his logical moves. When I read and re-read the passage above, I objected to his statement that there is “only one demand” to be made of the definition of simultaneity: that the empirical demand of judging simultaneity in each case is fulfilled. There is also a need to avoid contradiction and to avoid contravening empirical facts. I’m going to focus here on the latter item: contravening empirical facts.

Here’s my beef with Einstein: Special Relativity leads to the idea that the flow of time we know intimately is actually an illusion, as suggested by the Einstein quote above. Even though in every moment of our experience time proceeds from moment to moment, with each present becoming a new present, Special Relativity says this flow is an illusion. And even though the past is, based on our common experience of time, only memory, and the future only imagined, Special Relativity says that the past and future co-exist in some manner with the present “in block.” Moreover, if the past, present and future are all in some manner already in existence then there is no room for free will. As with the flow of time, I sure feel like I have free will so there is an empirical issue when a theory suggests otherwise.

What are we to do?

What do we do when a widely accepted theory seems to clash so directly with our direct evidence of the world around us, particularly with our experience of the flow of time? Falsification is the gold standard of good science and this simply means that experiments that disprove (falsify) a prediction of a theory should lead to rejection of that theory. Now, with our experience of the passage of time there’s no experiment even required for a certain kind of falsification of Special Relativity. We can simply look around us and look to the heavens and see that there is indeed an arrow of time and a flow of time, everywhere we see. This isn’t a trivial issue for Special Relativity. Reconciling time’s arrow and the flow of time with special and general relativity remains a serious issue in physics today.

When asked by my colleague Jonathan Schooler how he reconciled the illusory nature of time in relativity theory with our experience of the flow of time, the physicist Brian Greene said that he sees a psychiatrist. This moment of humor highlights the very real problem that modern physics faces in reconciling the flow of time with our best physical theories about time. Lee Smolin’s 2013 book Time Reborn, examines these issues in detail and he asserts that perhaps relativity theory isn’t the last word about time. He suggests a number of ways in which time may be reclaimed.

We are, then, in a new era of debate about the nature of time. I’ve written a number of short essays challenging the completeness or accuracy of the interpretations of relativity theory that render time illusory and these are included in my book, Eco, Ego, Eros: Essays on Philosophy, Spirituality, and Science. My book also includes an interview with Smolin about his ideas.

Back to the present moment. I’m writing this little essay on a train to Seattle on the winter solstice. I’ve seen no lightning. Yet. Night has just fallen on this, the longest night of the year, a nice reminder of the historical importance of the passage of time and of the seasons.

It turns out that my ongoing interest in Einstein’s theories has led me to chairing a panel on these issues at a conference next June in Helsinki, Finland. Part of the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference, our panel will look at “The physics and metaphysics of time in relation to consciousness.” More interestingly, my colleague, Jonathan Schooler, who I mentioned above, will be joining me on that panel.

Not only that, Schooler is on the same train with me now and we’ve been discussing the implications and alternatives to relativity theory for some time. There was a nice synchronicity in our discovering that we’d be on the same train. It’s the first time for both of us to take Amtrak from Santa Barbara to Seattle. My family is in Seattle and Jonathan’s girlfriend’s family is too. I only found out that he’d be on the train with me a few days ago, after we’d been discussing for a matter of months the Helsinki conference panel and our respective presentations. What’s even weirder about this particular synchronicity is that I got my days wrong with respect to when I was actually supposed to board my train. I boarded the train a day too early! I was able to avoid getting kicked off the train by calling Amtrak and changing my ticket. So the synchronicity of being on the same train with Schooler was even more striking because I wasn’t actually going to be on the same train until I made the mistake of thinking my train left on Sunday when it actually left on Monday.

Anyway, I bring up this personal anecdote because it relates directly to the nature of time and our experience of time. Synchronicities (“same-time”) are all about strange and meaningful coincidences. What do they mean? That’s for each of us to decide. But for now, I’m going to continue to take it as a cue from the universe that I’m on the right (train?) track in continuing to examine the nature of time in relation to consciousness. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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Consciousness

The Study of Fundamental Consciousness Entering the Mainstream

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Consciousness is appearing to be a fundamental property, just like liquids, solids and gas, consciousness and its connection to the physical material world is now gaining big time credibility.

  • Reflect On:

    How much do we have yet to discover? Are we ready to abandon what we thought we knew in light of new discoveries and evidence?

The world-renowned neuroscientist Christof Koch, spent nearly two decades working alongside the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, Francis Crick. Their mission was to find the neurobiological basis of consciousness. They discovered many insights into cognition and the functioning of perception, yet the central enigma, the nature of consciousness itself, remained mysteriously elusive.

In 2009, Koch shocked the scientific community by publishing his conviction that consciousness probably isn’t just in brains, but is a fundamental feature of reality. This is a view known to philosophers as ‘panpsychism.’ The theory Koch is now dedicating his research to is called ‘Integrated Information Theory’ or ‘IIT.’ It is the brainchild of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In explaining his theory, Tononi asks us to consider a simple light sensitive photo diode like those found in a digital camera. A simple diode might respond to just two states: light or dark. We could present our diode with any number of images, yet regardless of the picture, the diode conforms to one of only two possible states. Is it light, or is it dark?

Now consider yourself looking at the same picture, lets say, of the Eiffel Tower on a beautiful spring day in Paris. For us, looking at this image results in a reduction from a near infinity of possible states. Not an image of the Andromeda galaxy, not a childhood picture of your mother, not cells dividing in a Petri dish and so on.  Because of the vast number of images we are capable of recognizing, each one is highly informative. For Tononi, the vast amount of information capable of being integrated in the brain means that we have a comparatively huge capacity for consciousness.

Tononi’s theory, that consciousness is born out of networks with high integrated information, has novel ways of being tested in the laboratory.

In studies with sleeping participants, Tononi and his colleagues used transcranial magnetic stimulation to send a ripple of activity through the cortex of sleeping participants. The researchers found that when dreaming, this ripple reverberated through the cortex longer than when participants were in stages of dreamless sleep. This demonstrated that during dreaming, when the brain is conscious, the cortex has a higher degree of integration.

In another experiment, the researchers built tiny robots known as ‘animats’ that were placed into mazes. The animats used simple integrated networks capable of evolving over sequential generations. To their surprise, the greater the degree of integration that the animats evolved, the quicker they were able to escape the mazes. For Tononi this finding suggested that consciousness may play a more central role in evolution than had previously been thought.

The mathematical value of integrated information in a network is known as phi. But Tononi’s theory, now the topic of serious mainstream discussion, has an extraordinary implication. Phi didn’t just occur in brains, -it is a property of any network with a total informational content greater than its individual parts. Every living cell, every electronic circuit, even a proton consisting of just three elementary particles have a value of phi greater than zero. According to Integrated Information Theory, all of these things possess something, albeit but a glimmer of ‘what it is like’ to be them. Tononi states:

“Consciousness is a fundamental property, like mass or charge. Wherever there is an entity with multiple states, there is some consciousness. You need a special structure to get a lot of it but consciousness is everywhere, it is a fundamental property.”

Integrated information theory is in its infancy and there are still many questions it must face. Did the information of brains operate at the level of the neuron, or the protein, or something deeper still? The electromagnetic field of the brain, as observed by psi researcher Dean Radin, is always re-establishing its quantum connection to the entire universe. Could a much richer informational interaction exist than has yet been imagined?

Physicists such as John Wheeler have laid the groundwork for a radical new understanding of reality, in which matter, the laws and constants of nature, and indeed the entire universe is best described, not in terms of physical objects, but through the play and display of a fundamental dynamic information.

Quantum mechanics suggests that at the deepest level of nature, the entire physical universe is interconnected. Might the total information of the universe be integrated in some deep sense? Is it in a mysterious way conscious of itself?

As spiritual traditions throughout the ages have long asserted, instead of isolated and separate experiencing beings, we may experience on behalf of the greater evolving system in which we find ourselves.

In Koch’s highly anticipated 2012 book, ‘Consciousness – Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist’, he states:

“I do believe that the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness. The universe is a work in progress. Such a belief evokes jeremiads from many biologists and philosophers but the evidence from cosmology, biology and history is compelling.”

Regardless of the validity of Tononi’s theory, today increasing numbers of scientists and academics are convinced that the existence of consciousness simply cannot be sensibly denied. The study of fundamental consciousness is now entering the mainstream. This movement consists of thinkers in and outside of the mind sciences. Yet despite their different academic backgrounds, they are united by two common convictions: that consciousness is an intrinsic rather than incidental emergence in the universe, and that any complete account of reality must include an explanation of it.

 Sources:

 Koch, C. (2009, August 18). A complex theory of consciousness: Is complexity the secret to sentience, to a panpsychic view of consciousness? Scientific American.

 Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: A provisional manifesto. Biological Bulletin, 215(3), 216-242.

 Edlund, J. A., Chaumont, N., Hintze, A., Koch C., Tononi G., & Adami, C. (2011). Integrated information increases with fitness in the evolution of animats. PLoS Computational Biology, 7(10).

 Radin, D. I. (2006). Entangled Minds: Extrasensory experiences in quantum reality. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Koch, C. (2012). Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. MIT Press Books.

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Alternative News

If You Could Power Your Entire Home With 60 Minutes Of Cycling, Would You Do It?

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Mechanical energy, converted into kinetic energy can provide the energy that we use on a regular basis to power our homes and electronic devices.

  • Reflect On:

    Rather than focusing on the current problems in our world it is great to change gears and have a look at all of the solutions that are popping up all over the world.

Imagine if your morning workout could power your home for the entire day, all the way until your next morning workout. Well, you may not have to imagine, as this technology exists now. Manoj Bhargava has invented a new exercise bike that can power some homes for 24 hours after use for only sixty minutes per day.

This invention was a part of a new initiative to bring electricity to places that undergo frequent power outages or may only have access to power for a few hours during the day. In our modern age, going without electricity can really separate a person from the rest of the world. Bhargava’s mission is to bridge the gap for those who suffer from poverty and make it easier for them to access the same information as the rest of the world, potentially giving them more opportunities in life.

The Free Electric

The above heading is also the name of this awesome and innovative bike serving as a solution to a pretty significant issue in the underdeveloped nations of the world.

According to Bhargava, the Free Electric is meant to lead to “better health, more leisure time, better access to education and opportunities for entrepreneurship.” He also feels that it could, “literally change the world.”

Power to change the world? Bold statement, but if this is able to be implemented worldwide, I would absolutely have to agree with him. This technology not only has the capacity to assist those in poverty, but can also be used by the rest of the world as well as more and more people around the world who are aiming to reduce their usee of fossil fuels. I have a feeling that Millennials (such as myself) and younger generations would be all over this if its made available! Not only is it a great way to get your cardio in, but it provides FREE electricity that produces no other pollution.

As mentioned in the video, it is also a great solution in the face of natural, or even man made disasters because this type of electricity would not rely on that generated and sold by power companies. Perhaps even one day a way to stock up and store this energy will be possible — then, the opportunities here will be much more plentiful and could be a huge factor in reducing the amount of pollution our current methods of energy production are creating.

The Future Is Friendly

As much as there is sometimes destruction all around us, there is also innovation and ingenuity. Human beings have tremendous potential. Even though there are many problems that we as a society are facing, solutions are popping up and fast, and in most cases they already exist. Finding solutions doesn’t seem to be the problem, so ask yourself, what is?  It’s so great to see ideas such as these being conceptualized and then created and put into use so efficiently, it shows how our species is capable of stopping and potentially reversing some of the destruction that we have caused over the years.

This is absolutely a double win! We are constantly bombarded with news stories and articles that are telling us to be more active, stop sitting so much, and now with the Free Electric, we will have to be active before we can relax and enjoy the use of our precious technology.

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Discover

Physicists ‘Grow’ A Man Made Diamond From Nuclear Waste That’s Able To Generate Electricity

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Scientists have developed a technology that can convert leftover radioactive materials into diamond batteries to power a wide range of electronics.

  • Reflect On:

    Could this be the solution to use op all the radioactive materials on the planet and shut down nuclear power plants worldwide?

Currently there is more than 2 billion tons of nuclear waste across the globe. This nuclear waste is a hazardous threat to the environment if not disposed of correctly. Scientists have recently begun attempting to transform nuclear waste into batteries that could last for thousands of years. If they are successful with this conversion project it would be a double win, less nuclear waste contaminating our environment, and a way to reuse energy that was generated to give power to whatever requires it.

Diamond batteries that use the energy from leftover radioactive materials have been developed and tested by researchers at the University of Bristol. They are now hoping to be able to recycle the waste leftover from decommissioned nuclear power plants in the UK. According to the University, “New technology has been developed that uses nuclear waste to generate electricity in a nuclear-powered battery….A team of physicists and chemists from the University of Bristol have grown a man-made diamond that, when placed in a radioactive field, is able to generate a small electrical current.” (source)

How Does This Work?

According to The Independent,

Carbon-14 isotopes extracted from graphite blocks produced by the plant are infused with wafer-thin diamonds to create the batteries, which researchers say are capable of providing power on a “near-infinite basis”.

Potential applications range from powering hearing aids and pacemakers, to extending the range of spacecraft to distances much further than are currently possible.

“Eventually, a highly powerful version of a diamond battery could power a mobile phone,” James Barker, from the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, told The Independent.

“Primarily though, they are best for devices requiring long lifetime, low power and where it is difficult to replace energy sources.”

In order to make these diamond batteries safe for medical and consumer use they are encased in a non-radioactive diamond layer, which will absorb any radiation given off by the C14 source.

According to the University,

Unlike the majority of electricity-generation technologies, which use energy to move a magnet through a coil of wire to generate a current, the man-made diamond is able to produce a charge simply by being placed in close proximity to a radioactive source.

Tom Scott, Professor in Materials in the University’s Interface Analysis Centre and a member of the Cabot Institute, said: “There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated and no maintenance required, just direct electricity generation.  By encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds, we turn a long-term problem of nuclear waste into a nuclear-powered battery and a long-term supply of clean energy.”

Could This Be The Solution We’ve Been Searching For?

“The ultimate aim is to have a factory based at one of the former power stations in the South West that takes Carbon-14 isotopes directly from the graphite blocks for use in diamond batteries. This would significantly reduce the radioactivity of the remaining material, making it easier and safer to manage,” said Professor Tom Scott, director of the South West Nuclear Hub.

“With the majority of the UK’s nuclear power plants set to go offline in the next 10-15 years this presents a huge opportunity to recycle a large amount of material to generate power for so many great uses.”

Time will tell how effective this method that scientists have come up with will be able to be implemented worldwide, but if it is, just imagine the implications of what this technology could represent.

Is It Time To Move Away From Nuclear Energy?

You’d think since the Fukushima disaster there would be a worldwide agreement for countries to stop generating power from nuclear reactors and to safely shut down these plants. Nuclear disasters have devastating effects on our planet and all of it’s inhabitants, recovery from such accidents can take tens of thousands of years to lose their hazardous radioactivity. Take the Chernobyl disaster that occurred in 1986 and is now contained under a metal shell, this site will likely remain radioactive for up to 20,000 years.

Instead of waiting for these disasters to occur, shouldn’t we be safely dismantling these sites before any more devastating disasters occur? Thankfully many countries are vowing to shut down their nuclear power plants and we can only hope that the rest of the world will follow suit.

The Future Is Here

There are so many amazing technologies that have the capacity to revolutionize the way we use energy on this planet. Of course many of those are hidden from us, especially if they cannot be in some way profited from, and unfortunately as it seems, if they don’t exploit the environment and our resources in some way.

As innovative ideas abound and technology continues to rapidly develop, we have to assume that safer and more innovative means of producing electricity will be uncovered. Hopefully these technologies will also have the capacity to undo some of the damage that we have done to our planet.

At the end of the day, using nuclear energy is not needed anymore, and in reality nuclear waste should not even exist at this point in our development as a collective.

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