Sunday, October 18, 2009
What Language Does Our Universe "Speak"?
Many profound physicist have come to think of physics at the very tiniest length scale (the Planck length) as a computer or information processor. To name a few: John A. Wheeler, Richard Feynman, Roger Penrose, Gerard 't Hooft. Wheeler expressed this view as "it from bit".
One of the main reasons for this view is the realization that physics at that scale will have to be discrete. If not, it becomes very hard to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics into one theory. In the continuous domain calculation simply blow up: they cannot be re-normalized. In addition to that, the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics demands that we can not even pinpoint things down to such precision without creating a black hole which would immediately render any measurement at a scale smaller than its horizon impossible....So these physicist think that physics at that scale is some sort of cellular automaton.
Around the end of every century some people seem the need to make the rather absurd claim that science is coming to an end (I believe we have barely started, but anyway). This century this view is expressed in the book: "The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age" by John Horgan. He argues that there are four recent theories that have shown the fundamental limitations of science:
1. Relativity: anything inside the horizon of a black hole will never get out. So we cannot study the inside of a black hole.
2. Quantum Mechanics: the world is irreducibly random.
3. Chaos: The dynamics of many real physical phenomenon displays extreme sensitivity to initial conditions.
4. Complexity Theory: Godel's theorem of incompleteness of formal systems.
Let's see how these theories would fare in the face of a fundamental theory of "Physics as Computation" (PAC). I think the black hole issue is already close to being resolved. A quantum mechanical treatment of BHs will involve BH-radiation (or Hawking radiation). As such, in-falling matter will cause disturbances on the surface of the BH-horizon that encodes the information of the in-falling matter and which will eventually be radiated out again. No information is lost in the process. (Every BH will eventually die in an explosion that is more violent than the most energetic supernova, but it takes a while..) For the observer that stays outside the BH, the BH horizon is the edge of the universe in a very real sense. It will see his colleague that falls into the BH freeze onto the horizon, get disintegrated and eventually be radiated out again in bits and pieces. For the in-falling observer the edge of the universe is not the BH horizon, but a singularity at the center of the BH. In this case we have to deal with a singularity but it seems evident to me that the final PAC theory will describe that singularity not as an infinitely dense point but rather a sensible finite object.
How the irreducibility of quantum mechanics may be resolved in terms of a cellular automaton was described in my previous blog on "Quantum Mechanics is not the Final Theory".
The phenomenon of chaos in nonlinear dynamical systems makes claims on unpredictability of a more every day nature: for instance the weather patterns are unpredictable because a small error in the initial conditions may result in large differences a few days later (except in California where we don't need weather forecasting). The canonical example is this: x[t+1]=2*x[t] mod 1. This means that at every iteration we move all digits one decimal place to the left and set the number to the left of the dot to 0: 0.12345...
Finally Godel's theorem. It says that within any sufficiently complex formal system there will be true theorems that cannot be proved. I am still thinking about these issues, but I seem to have an issue with the notion of "a true theorem". True can only acquire meaning as an interpretation of the formal system (say mapping sequences to mathematical or physical "truths"). But mathematics is itself a formal system. Truth does not exist outside any axiomatic system and the interpretation that Godel's theorem shows that truth is bigger than formal reasoning just doesn't sit well with me. Anyway, some future blogs will unquestionably be devoted to these deep issues.
It will be very interesting to be able to answer the question: "what is the complexity class of the sequences generated by the cellular automaton that governs our universe". Or phrased more informally: "What language does our universe speak". Here is my prediction: Dutch ;-) (or maybe a language of the same complexity). It seems that Dutch is more complex than context-free languages due to cross-referencing but still decidable in polynomial time. It represents a possible level of complexity where things are not too regular but also not too unwieldy. Anyway, my prediction here should be taken with a huge grain of salt of course.
Soooo, the universe is a huge computer that is computing "something". It is our task as scientists to figure what and how it is computing. Actually, we already know the answer: 42 ;-). But what was the original question? Let's leave that to religion.