If you are aware of an interesting new academic paper (that has been published in a peer-reviewed journal or has appeared on the arXiv), a conference talk (at an official professional scientific meeting), an external blog post (by a professional scientist) or a news item (in the mainstream news media), which you think might make an interesting topic for an FQXi blog post, then please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to the original source and a sentence about why you think that the work is worthy of discussion. Please note that we receive many such suggestions and while we endeavour to respond to them, we may not be able to reply to all suggestions.
Please also note that we do not accept unsolicited posts and we cannot review, or open new threads for, unsolicited articles or papers. Requests to review or post such materials will not be answered. If you have your own novel physics theory or model, which you would like to post for further discussion among then FQXi community, then please add them directly to the "Alternative Models of Reality" thread, or to the "Alternative Models of Cosmology" thread. Thank you.
Cutting things fine, but just before we say goodbye (and good riddance!) to 2016, we're taking a look back at the physics highlights of the past year.
As usual, I'm joined on the year-end podcast by quantum physicist and FQXi member Ian Durham of Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, who has chosen his top 5 physics stories of the year, plus a couple of bonuses.
The first part of the countdown is now up, with the rest to follow soon. See if you agree with his choices, and can guess what's next on the list.
Concluding our list of the top physics breakthroughs of 2016, as chosen by Ian Durham.
The latest edition of the podcast is now up. (For those expecting our regular December countdown of the year’s top physics stories with Ian Durham, do not fear: I will be posting that too, later this month.)
I recorded a couple of the interviews featured in this edition back at FQXi’s meeting in Banff, back in August. As well as the main talks (videos of which are constantly being added to our Youtube channel), we also have a “lightning round,” in which participants have a few minutes to talk about their latest research. Two of those, in particular, caught my attention, so I asked the speakers to explain a bit more for the podcast.
Retrocausal reality with Ken Wharton; tips for FQXi's new essay contest; the Breakthrough prizes in physics; the science of terrorism, with Peter Byrne; & Carlo Rovelli gives a brief lesson on writing a physics bestseller.
First up is physicist Ken Wharton, of San Jose State University, who talks about retrocausality—the idea that at the microlevel, events in the future can influence the past. This time-twisting view of reality might help solve some quantum paradoxes, if we’re willing to give up our everyday notions of cause and effect. Listen to Wharton to find out more about why some physicists are taking this so seriously. You can also read more about the topic in this profile of quantum physicist Matt Leifer, who is also delving into retrocausality, by Kate Becker.
If that wasn’t provocative enough, journalist Peter Byrne’s lightning talk was called “The Science of ISIS”—which certainly made the audience sit up and take notice. In his podcast interview, he explains why this topic, which he is researching for a new book, fitted well with one of the themes of the conference, “the Physics of the Observer.”
We should also congratulate Byrne because he recently won a gold award in the Kavli Science Journalism awards.
Two other FQXi members, string theorists Joe Polchinski and Andrew Strominger, along with Cumrun Vafa, were honoured in recent weeks, sharing the $3 million Breakthrough prize for Fundamental Physics. Polchinski was nominated in part for his work on the firewall paradox; with colleagues, he realised that if quantum theory is correct, then black holes are surrounded by a firewall, a ring of high energy particles (contradicting general relativity), or there is no firewall, but quantum theory is wrong. The LIGO collaboration also won a special Breakthrough prize for their discovery of gravitational waves generated by the merger of two black holes, earlier this year.
In the news round-up, Brendan and I chat about the Breakthrough winners—as well as a new piece of research that brings both Breakthrough physics awards together: Cosmologist Niayesh Afshordi recently carried out an analysis looking for echoes of the gravitational wave signals, which would signal the breakdown of general relativity at the black hole’s edge, its event horizon, which could even, he says, be signs of a firewall, or other exotic physics. As I wrote in a news article about the work for Nature, Afshordi’s team has found tentative signs of such echoes—potentially the first signs of general relativity unravelling. You can read more about that in my story, "LIGO Black Hole Echoes Hint at General-Relativity Breakdown."
And finally, Carlo Rovelli chats to reporter Colin Stuart about how to write an international bestseller, like his phenomenally successful “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.” You can also read Colin’s profile of Rovelli, and his work looking for observational signs of loop quantum gravity, in the form of black holes turning into white holes, in the article, “The Spacetime Revolutionary.”
In physics we tend to stick to asking what happened, how did it happen? We like to describe, usually in minute details. We like to use the smallest possible components, “building blocks”, “unit cells".
But there are other ways to think about physical reality. We can ask why did it happen? Was there a reason, or a reason it seems to have a reason? We can go beyond describing and try to explain, motivate. We can see beyond parts and think in terms of systems and wholes.
This year’s theme is: Wandering Towards a Goal – How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intentions?
One way to think of physics is as a set of mathematical laws of dynamics. These laws provide predictions by carrying conditions at one moment of time inexorably into the future. But many phenomena admit another description – sometimes a vastly more useful one – in terms of long-term, large-scale goals, aims, and intentions.
The motion of the most basic particle can be described by the action of forces moment by moment or as the attempt to extremize an action integral, calculated over the particle’s entire path throughout time. Many-body systems can seem hopelessly complex when looked at in terms of their constituents' detailed dynamic motions, but neatly elegant when viewed as attempting to minimize energy or maximize entropy. Living systems efficiently organize their simplest components with the intricate aims of survival, reproduction, and other biological ends; and intelligent systems can employ a panoply of physical effects to accomplish many flexibly chosen goals.
How does this work? How do goal-oriented systems arise, and how do they exist and function in a world that we can describe in terms of goal-free mathematical evolution?
Relevant essays might address questions such as:
* How did physical systems that pursue the goal of reproduction arise from an a-biological world?
* What general features — like information processing, computation, learning, complexity thresholds, and/or departures from equilibrium — allow (or proscribe) agency?
* How are goals (versus accomplishments) linked to “arrows of time”?
* What separates systems that are intelligent from those that are not? Can we measure this separation objectively and without requiring reference to humans?
* What is the relationship between causality – the explanation of events in terms of causes – and teleology – the explanation of events in terms of purposes?
* Is goal-oriented behavior a physical or cosmic trend, an accident or an imperative?
We are accepting entries from now until March 3, 2017, with winners announced in June. The contest rules will operate as in past contests. Please read the contest pages for instructions and full rules.
The contest is open to anyone, so please share this info with everyone. Good luck and good writing!
While you weren’t looking, more content from FQXi’s 5th International meeting in Banff has started to trickle through, including a bit more audio and a lot more video. Thanks for your patience.
First up, Brendan Foster and I recorded a special edition of the podcast in Banff on creativity and science. We were lucky enough to be joined by science fiction author Neal Stephenson, who chatted about how he came up with the idea for his latest bestseller, Seveneves—a story about the aftermath of the moon’s disintegration—and how authors tread the line between respecting established science and pushing into more speculative realms.
Science & Creativity: Conversation with bestselling science fiction author Neal Stephenson, artist Jayne Tollaksen, and musical physicists Ian Durham, Stephon Alexander & Brendan Foster. With Zeeya Merali.
We also spoke with artist Jayne Tollaksen, who recently ran an art-physics program at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario. This involved co-creating a series of portraits of various physicists (and FQXi members), in which the physicists themselves took an active role in producing the pieces. The image on the top right is a portrait of Francesca Vidotto, by Tollaksen and Vidotto. You can hear Tollaksen talking about how these portraits were made, and the influence they had on the physicists who took part—providing the scientist with new insights into their modes of thinking, the creative process, and their physics research. At the end of the collaboration, each physicist was invited to describe their experiences. Here are Vidotto’s words, written for the project:
My hands are offering you my collaboration and all my passion for the mysteries of the universe. From my hands, my craftsmanship, a whole universe can take shape. In the theory I work with, Loop Quantum Gravity, the whole universe collapses and then bounces back into the expanding universe that we observe today. The geometry at the bounce is a quantum geometry, described mathematically by a net of lines connecting the quanta of spacetime. Modeling the shape of the universe requires craftsmanship—a mathematical craftsmanship—but comes always first from a vision, very much in the same way of an artistic creation.
Also joining the discussion were a couple of FQXi’s favorite physicist-musicians, Stephon Alexander and Ian Durham. (Brendan is a musician too.) Alexander, a cosmologist and jazz saxophonist, recently published a terrific book—part popular physics, part musical memoir—called The Jazz of Physics. One connection between the two disciplines that Alexander highlights is the importance of improvisation, something we commonly associate with jazz, but perhaps don’t normally think of in terms of the everyday workings of physicists.
Having pondered the links between art, music and science, the next natural question for me was whether we can (and should) change the way that physics and science is taught in schools and universities, to embrace the creative process more openly. One theme that Durham, Alexander and Tollaksen all came back to was the importance of making mistakes in order to progress, and how we need to give students space to “fail” —because this is such a crucial part of the creative learning process. What are your thoughts?
Even at the professional level, scientists often feel stifled and lack the confidence to put forward ideas that may, at first, seem absurd, for fear of appearing ridiculous. Of course, FQXi is always happy to help scientists get comfortable with being laughed at. As a case in point, I’ll leave you with a video of a debate on consciousness between philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers, who formulated the “hard problem of consciousness” (the problem of explaining how we have phenomenal experiences), and physicist Carlo Rovelli, who takes a more materialistic stance. Here they are arguing about the role of consciousness in physics, but with a twist: Chalmers and Rovelli must passionately argue their opponents’ position, as if it were their own—while wearing bear hats and carrying hockey sticks.
This August, I was honored to make my first visit to Australia as the winner of the 2016 Women in Physics International Award of the Australian Institute of Physics (AIP). I gave a series of lectures across Australia, holding about 30 seminars and conferences in a number of universities, research centers, colleges and public sites. The series started in Tasmania and moved to Sydney (where I lectured at the astronomical observatory), the Wollongong Science Centre, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Canberra and Melbourne. A real tour de force which was possible only due to the support from the AIP colleagues who organized the tour in the best way.
While lecturing across Australia I met children as young as six, but I also met with interested audiences of all ages, including some poets that took part in my conferences. I talked about stars, black holes, quantum mechanics and about my research activities at the DAFNE collider in Frascati (LNF-INFN) and at the Gran Sasso underground laboratory, including my FQXi financed project about testing collapse models of quantum theory. (You can read more about what collapse models are and my research in my FQXi Q&A.)
One of the goals of the tour was lecturing about science to girls and encouraging them to pursue a career in science—a goal which was achieved, considering the girls’ overwhelming enthusiasm and participation in the meetings. One of the most successful activities was the Girls in Physics Breakfast, which involved—despite the early start at 7 am—more than 100 girls from 20 different Melbourne colleges. They asked so many questions about my life and about "what it is like to be a scientist."
Maybe the most interesting question during the tour was asked to me by an enthusiast 8 years old boy—he wanted to know "How big is space?"
I met so many girls and boys wishing to study science; looking into their eyes I saw a universe of beautiful possibilities, I saw the future.
I also visited wonderful laboratories in universities and science centres in the towns I visited and discussed with Australian colleagues about physics, research activities and possibilities to collaborate in the near future both on technological developments (detector systems and their possible use in fundamental science and applications) and new experiments at the underground laboratory near Melbourne in construction. Why not to test the collapse models in the Southern Hemisphere as well?
I also understood what makes Australia such a wonderful country: people with different cultural backgrounds, coming from all places in the world, all of them proud to be Australians! I believe that we, the rest of the world, can only learn the lesson Australia teaches us!
I didn’t have the chance to meet many koalas or kangaroos, but I met a lot of enthusiastic people, who love science and consider it a fundamental resource for our society.
Still a connection was established between koalas and…quantum mechanics: in a girls’ college in Melbourne, where I was lecturing about the Schroedinger’s cat paradox and future quantum technologies, I had the surprise to receive from the girls, after my presentation, a very nice little box. Opening it I found a koala toy—the girls told me they wanted to use the koala instead of the cat to express the “measurement problem” which they had studied to prepare for our discussions.
Defining the Observer By IAN DURHAM
The main theme of August's FQXi conference was centered around the physics of the observer and so, in wrapping up our discussion of the conference, it remains to be asked if any progress was made toward a better understanding of the concept. As with...
Defining Existence By IAN DURHAM
What exists? On the one hand, this seems like the kind of naval-gazing question that provokes derision and mockery from those more interested in practical matters. I exist, you exist, this blog post exists. It's self-evident, right? Of course one...
Science Funding in an Evolving Economy By IAN DURHAM
While it isn’t the sexiest topic for a blog post, this year’s FQXi conference did include a panel discussion on science funding that raised a number of salient points worth discussing. I will slightly abuse this space and pontificate a...
Debating Consciousness and its Measurability By IAN DURHAM
One of the many highlights of the recent FQXi conference on the Physics of the Observer was the session on consciousness. Consciousness is quite possibly the most enigmatic aspect of human existence. It is at the core of who we are as individuals...
Announcing Physics of the Observer Grant Search... By BRENDAN FOSTER
[picture]Last October, FQXi announced its new program on Physics of the Observer, including a request for proposals on research and outreach projects. We asked applicants to consider questions like, what does it mean to be an observer? What sort of...
Happy 10th Birthday FQXi! Podcast: Space News,... By ZEEYA MERALI
[picture]Believe it or not, it’s a decade since FQXi launched, back in May 2006. There’ll be more celebrations on the site to come, but to commemorate our birthday month, we invited one of FQXi’s directors, Anthony Aguirre, on to the latest...