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Is Physics Almost Complete?

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How Much Do We Really Know About The Universe?

Stephen Hawking, the British physicist who is the topic of a 2014 biopic, makes a surprising statement in his 1992 book, Black Holes and Baby Universes, about the extent to which physics is almost complete. He says: “Although we have not found the exact form of all [the physical laws], we already know enough to determine what happens in all but the most extreme situations.” Hawking adds that he gives it a 50-50 chance that we will find the exact laws in the next twenty years.

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We know already that his second statement hasn’t come to pass: 2012 passed and we’re not very close to a complete theory of everything. I’m not trying to pick on Hawking’s predictions, armed with the benefit of hindsight. Rather, what I want to highlight is how little we really do know about the universe, even at the fundamental physical level, and how little we can predict with any certainty, despite Hawking’s statements to the contrary.

We can obviously point to every social science, such as sociology, psychology, or economics, and recognize immediately that predicting the future is a futile task. Experts distinguish themselves by being able to talk intelligently about theory and the future but few are foolish enough to make firm predictions because these experts know that such predictions are impossible given our present state of knowledge, and perhaps impossible in principle.

But the problem of prediction—the sine qua non of science because it allows for testability of theories and thus their possible falsification—goes far beyond the “soft” social sciences. It’s also inherent to physics, the model of firmness in science.

tambookLet me highlight a well-known problem to illustrate my point. Isaac Newton, the British physicist and mathematician who almost singlehandedly developed classical physics, included at the heart of his system the basic equation of what we now call Newtonian gravity. This simple equation shows that gravity declines between two bodies with the inverse square of their distance. So if we’re traveling in a spacecraft away from Earth the farther we go the smaller the gravitational attraction between the spacecraft and the planet, and it drops off pretty quickly but never disappears entirely. Newton’s famous equation, which showed that gravity was a universal force that applied in the realm of falling apples as equally in the realm of planets orbiting a star, only works for two bodies. In my example, it was the spacecraft and our planet.

What happens when we try to solve the equation for three bodies? Well, it gets exponentially more difficult. In fact, Henri Poincaré famously showed in a 1902 paper that the “three-body problem” couldn’t be solved at all. Huh? Why not?

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Well, it turns out that even introducing one extra body to the gravitational situation trying to be analyzed introduces such sensitivity to initial conditions that it becomes impossible to make accurate predictions over the long-term. (A nerdy aside: some solutions are possible to this problem and it is now recognized that there are 16 families of solutions; however, these are very limited cases and the general problem is recognized as having no solution, in principle).

Hawking’s point about knowing the physical laws of our universe seems to ignore even this obvious example of the limits to our knowledge. Hawking surely knows about this example because he has, after all, for many decades now occupied the Lucasian chair at Cambridge that Newton himself occupied in the 17th Century.

So was Hawking referring to, rather than our ability to make firm predictions, our ability to instead deduce the relevant equations that govern the universe (even if those equations can’t be solved in many cases)? Even if we interpret his statement in this manner it seems clear that he is also more optimistic than the facts warrant. In fact, it seems far more clear that we know very little about the laws that govern our universe.

General relativity leads to similar problems as we just saw in Newtonian gravity because solving Einstein’s gravity equations, a set of eight inter-linked equations, is fiendishly difficult in real-world situations. This is why Newtonian gravity is usually used in practice rather than general relativity. Many solutions to the relativistic equations have been found but solving the equations for three or more bodies is actually even more difficult than in Newton’s equation. Again, it’s impossible, in principle, to solve the “n-body problem” for general relativity in a general sense: only certain limited solutions are possible.

The Big Problems In Physics

Lee Smolin discussed in his excellent 2006 book, The Trouble With Physics, five major problems that modern physics faces. There are, of course, far more than these problems facing modern physics, but Smolin was highlighting the big ones, which include:

  1. Combine general relativity and quantum theory into a single theory that can claim to be the complete theory of nature (“quantum gravity,” “grand unified theory,” or the “theory of everything”).
  2. Resolve the problems in the foundations of quantum mechanics, either by making sense of the theory as it stands or by inventing a new theory that does make sense.
  3. Determine whether or not the various particles and forces can be unified in a theory that explains them all as manifestations of a single, fundamental entity.
  4. Explain how the values of the free constants in the standard model of particle physics are chosen in nature.
  5. Explain dark matter and dark energy. Or, if they don’t exist, determine how and why gravity is modified on large scales. More generally, explain why the constants of the standard model of cosmology, including the dark energy, have the values they do.

We are, unfortunately, far from solving any of these problems. Smolin’s book discusses in depth the problems with string theory, which attempts to resolve the first question by reconciling quantum theory and general relativity under a single framework. That these very large problems remain unsolved weighs heavily against Hawking’s optimism.

Marcelo Gleiser, a physicist at Dartmouth University in Vermont, supports my point in his 2014 book, Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, stating in the prologue to his book:

From our past successes we are confident that, in time, part of what is currently hidden will be incorporated into the scientific narrative, unknowns that will become knowns. But as I will argue in this book, other parts will remain hidden, unknowables that are unavoidable, even if what is unknowable in one age may not be in the next one. We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.

Taking an even deeper look at the nature of knowledge in our modern world, Nancy Cartwright examines in her 1999 book, The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science, how little we know about the universe. The dappled world she refers to is the patchwork of physical laws and theories that work pretty well in some limited situations. But her point is that there are vast gaps in our understanding that remain and our ability to predict outcomes is terrible in all but the most simple of situations.

Are There Even Bigger Problems Remaining In Physics?

A major problem that Smolin alludes to but doesn’t include in his top five list is this: there is another important integration and reconciliation of different physical theories that has yet to happen. Going one step beyond reconciling quantum mechanics and general relativity, we need to reconcile thermodynamics with these two other pillars of modern physics. The nature of time is at the heart of this reconciliation. The problem is that most modern physical theories include a reversible concept of time. This means that the equations can be used to look backwards or forwards in time and there’s no basic difference between these two temporal directions. This is a problem because when we look at the world around us, near or far, we see irreversible processes everywhere, including the stubborn fact that eggs don’t unbreak themselves spontaneously, cream doesn’t unmix itself from your coffee when you stir the spoon the other way, and stars don’t unform gradually as gas drifts away slowly. All of these processes are irreversible despite the fact that our equations are often reversible.

By recognizing that irreversible processes are common in nature we should also recognize that time itself is fundamentally asymmetrical and irreversible. This notion of time allows us to make progress with the big problem of reconciling the concept of irreversible time in thermodynamics with the concepts of time in quantum mechanics and general relativity.

The Belgian-Russian physicist Ilya Prigogine made this point in a series of books and articles over a long career that ended with his death in 2003. He won the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on non-equilibrium thermodynamics, which is all about irreversible processes. Prigogine has this to say on the nature of time in his most readable book, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature (p. 19):

[A]ccording to the fundamental laws of physics, there should be no irreversible processes. We therefore see that we have inherited two conflicting views of nature from the nineteenth century: the time-reversible view based on the laws of dynamics and the evolutionary view based on entropy. How can these conflicting views be reconciled? After so many yeas, this problem is still with us.

Prigogine’s many decades of work is all directed at resolving this problem and his solution is to call for a comprehensive re-working of modern physical theories to incorporate an irreversible/asymmetrical concept of time. In other words, modern physics has yet to incorporate the concept of evolutionary time and an evolving universe. This is a big job, to be sure, but it has to be done if we are going to make real progress on the Theory of Everything that Hawking and many others wish to see happen.

Evolving Time, Evolving Views

Things change and maybe Hawking now agrees with me anyway. He stated in a 2004 talk: “Up to now, most people have implicitly assumed that there is an ultimate theory that we will eventually discover. Indeed, I myself have suggested we might find it quite soon. However, [new developments in quantum gravity have] made me wonder if this is true. Maybe it is not possible to formulate the theory of the universe in a finite number of statements.” Hawking is here recognizing that perhaps his dream of a simple equation or set of equations that can explain and predict the entire universe is an impossible dream.

He adds at the end of this interesting talk:

Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind. I’m now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end, and that we will always have the challenge of new discovery.

Hear hear, and kudos to Mr. Hawking for allowing his views to change and acknowledging that process of evolutionary change.

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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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