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RECENT ARTICLES
click titles to read articles

Painting a QBist Picture of Reality
A radical interpretation of physics makes quantum theory more personal.

The Spacetime Revolutionary
Carlo Rovelli describes how black holes may transition to "white holes," according to loop quantum gravity, a radical rewrite of fundamental physics.

Riding the Rogue Quantum Waves
Could giant sea swells help explain how the macroscopic world emerges from the quantum microworld? (Image credit: MIT News)

Rescuing Reality
A "retrocausal" rewrite of physics, in which influences from the future can affect the past, could solve some quantum quandaries—saving Einstein's view of reality along the way.

Untangling Quantum Causation
Figuring out if A causes B should help to write the rulebook for quantum physics.


FQXi BLOGS
February 20, 2017

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!
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The Disintegration of the Moon; Art & Jazz Meet Physics; (Reverse) Debates on Consciousness; & more…from the 5th FQXi Meeting
By ZEEYA MERALI • Nov. 11, 2016 @ 20:19 GMT

Credit: Jayne Tollaksen & Francesca Vidotto
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.

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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.

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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.

Enjoy!


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[video]

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[video]

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[video]

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