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Riding the Rogue Quantum Waves
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FQXi BLOGS
April 29, 2017

New Blog Entries
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Towards a Goal — Two Weeks to Go
By BRENDAN FOSTER • Feb. 21, 2017 @ 14:45 GMT

We are not slouching towards our goal, we are not wandering towards it, we are stepping firmly towards it.

We have just under two weeks left until the closing date of our 2017 essay contest, Wandering Towards a Goal, and we have over 80 entries so far. (60 posted, and the rest in processing.) Historically, the number of entries at this moment in the contest triples over the last two weeks. At this rate, we may end up with 240, which smashes our past record.

The due date to enter is next Friday March 3, 2017, just before midnight Eastern Time. Take some time to read our summary of the theme, and the full rules; then think deeply and creatively; then write your essay!

You can also read submitted essays and leave comments and questions for the authors.

Good reading, good writing, and good luck.
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Review of “A Big Bang in a Little Room: The Quest to Create New Universes” by Zeeya Merali
By IAN DURHAM • Feb. 9, 2017 @ 16:51 GMT

In all the talk of the multiverse that gets tossed around these days, there's a subtle but important point that is often lost: there are really two completely different notions of a multiverse. What one thinks of when someone utters the word "multiverse" likely depends on whether one is most influenced by cosmology or by quantum physics. To the latter, the multiverse is typically viewed in the context of the Everett-DeWitt interpretation of quantum mechanics in which every process that includes more than one possible outcome, leads to a bifurcation of the universe in which the process occurred, into multiple universes, one for each possible outcome of the process. In such a multiverse (whose core idea is due more to DeWitt than Everett), everything that can happen, will happen.

In the inflationary multiverse, each "universe" is really a patch of space that becomes isolated due to eternal inflation. This is subtly different than the Everett-DeWitt model which suggests an actual bifurcation of reality. As it turns out, the difference could also have ethical and moral implications, some of which are discussed in Zeeya Merali's new book A Big Bang in a Little Room: The Quest to Create New Universes (Basic Books, 2017; $27.99).

Merali's book explores the quest by some physicists to produce new, "baby" universes in a lab. As preposterous as it sounds, the idea is largely grounded in accepted physics, though does remain highly speculative. In an Everett-DeWitt model, new universes are constantly being created ad infinitum as we blithely go about our day. There appears to be little we could do to affect change in any branching universe within this multiverse model. On the other hand, the inflationary universe model of the multiverse holds the promise of intentionally planning the creation of a baby universe which raises the thorny question of whether we would be responsible for the suffering of any living beings produced in that universe. We would, to some extent, be playing God.

These and other issues are tackled head-on in Merali's book, but in an engaging and subtle manner. The book is largely constructed from a series of interviews with physicists around the globe who are either actively thinking about how to create baby universes or who played a role in the development of inflationary theory. As someone who has been interviewed by Merali multiple times, I can personally attest to her ability to make the interviewee feel at ease and this sense clearly comes across in the book. Interviews are more like discussions with Zeeya.

One get’s the sense, though, that this project was less about writing a book and more about her own quest to more fully understand the universe. At times, one gets the impression that she is wrestling with some deeply personal questions. Far from detracting from the narrative, however, I think it adds to the human aspect of the story.

I did have a few minor quibbles here and there, but Merali is an accomplished scientist herself having received her PhD in physics from Brown University under noted cosmologist Robert Brandenberger, and so some of my quibbles might be considered "professional differences." In all, it was an enjoyable book that addressed an exciting area of modern physics research in a thought-provoking way. For anyone interested in the "big questions," this book is essential reading since it deals with perhaps the biggest question of all: can we—should we—humble human beings create a universe?

A Big Bang in a Little Room: The Quest to Create New Universes is available to buy here.
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2016: The Physics Year in Review
By ZEEYA MERALI • Dec. 30, 2016 @ 23:34 GMT

Free Podcast

Counting down the biggest physics breakthroughs of 2016, with Ian Durham.

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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.

Free Podcast

Concluding our list of the top physics breakthroughs of 2016, as chosen by Ian Durham.

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Updated on New Year's Eve to add the second and last part of our countdown, revealing the top 4 physics breakthroughs of 2016.
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Retrocausality, Terrorism, and How to Write Bestsellers: New Podcast is live!
By ZEEYA MERALI • Dec. 14, 2016 @ 17:18 GMT

LIGO/A. Simmonet
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.

Free 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.

LISTEN:

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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."

Plus Brendan offers more information and tips for this year’s $40,000 essay contest, “Wandering Towards a Goal.”

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.”

Enjoy!
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FQXi Essay Contest 2016: Wandering Towards a Goal
By BRENDAN FOSTER • Dec. 2, 2016 @ 17:46 GMT

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 shift in thought brings us to the next $40,000 FQXi essay contest, brought to you with our partners at The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation!

This year’s theme is: Wandering Towards a GoalHow 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!
365 comments | view comments

Recent Blog Entries

The Disintegration of the Moon; Art & Jazz Meet...
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Defining the Observer
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October 5th, 2016 | 141 comments | view blog entry & comments

Defining Existence
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Science Funding in an Evolving Economy
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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...
September 1st, 2016 | 32 comments | view blog entry & comments

What Happens Inside the Wavefunction? Sean Carroll...
By ZEEYA MERALI
Updated on 11 November 2016. Video of Sean Carroll's' talk is now up. More video is available on FQXi's youtube channel.

[video]

From 21 August 2016:

On Friday, cosmologist Sean Carroll spoke about his latest...
August 21st, 2016 | 69 comments | view blog entry & comments

Dirty Secrets of…Quantum Foundations: Matt...
By ZEEYA MERALI
Updated on 11 November 2016. Video of Matt Leifer's' talk is now up. More video is available on FQXi's youtube channel.

[video]

From 20 August 2016:

Audio from Matt Leifer’s talk from the FQXi meeting has now been...
August 20th, 2016 | 151 comments | view blog entry & comments

Dirty Secrets of...Life: Paul Davies at the 5th...
By ZEEYA MERALI
Updated on 11 November 2016. Video of Paul Davies' talk is now up. More video is available on FQXi's youtube channel.

[video]

From 19 August 2016:

Greetings from Banff, Alberta, where FQXi is currently holding its...
August 19th, 2016 | 16 comments | view blog entry & comments

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...
August 5th, 2016 | 27 comments | view blog entry & comments

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