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Previous Contests

How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
January 9, 2014 - August 31, 2014
Contest Partners: Jaan Tallinn, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, The John Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American
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It From Bit or Bit From It
March 25 - June 28, 2013
Contest Partners: The Gruber Foundation, J. Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American
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Questioning the Foundations
Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?
May 24 - August 31, 2012
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, SubMeta, and Scientific American
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Is Reality Digital or Analog?
November 2010 - February 2011
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and Scientific American
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What's Ultimately Possible in Physics?
May - October 2009
Contest Partners: Astrid and Bruce McWilliams
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The Nature of Time
August - December 2008
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FQXi ESSAY CONTEST
November 23, 2014


2011 Is Reality Digital or Analog? Winning Essays


First Prize

Is Reality Digital or Analog?
Jarmo Makela

Essay Abstract
A report of a discussion with Isaac Newton.

Author Bio
I received my PhD in theoretial physics from the University of Jyv‰skyl‰, Finland, in 1994, and did a post-doc in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics of the University of Cambridge during the years 1995-1996. Since the year 2000 I have worked as a Senior Lecturer of mathematics and physics in the Vaasa University of Applied Sciences located in Vaasa, Finland.

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Second Prizes

Quantum Graphenity
Tobias Fritz

Essay Abstract
One obstacle for further progress on quantum gravity and issues like the discrete vs. continuous debate is the lack of experimental data. To a certain extent, this problem can be overcome by the simulation of models for fundamental physics by other physical systems. Here I focus on graphene as a particularly fascinating example of such a simulator and try to explain how continuous three-dimensional relativistic spacetime emerges from the discrete hexagonal crystal lattice of graphene. The potential of graphene to simulate aspects of fundamental physics is discussed.

Author Bio
As a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona, I mainly work on mathematical methods for quantum foundations and quantum information. I find it enjoyable and challenging to keep a broad scope and to venture into new fields.

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Physics and the Integers
David Tong

Essay Abstract
I review how discrete structures, embodied in the integers, appear in the laws of physics, from quantum mechanics to statistical mechanics to the Standard Model. I argue that the integers are emergent. If we are looking to build the future laws of physics, discrete mathematics is no better a starting point than the rules of scrabble.

Author Bio
David Tong is a theoretical physicist at the University of Cambridge and adjunct professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

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Third Prizes

A Quantum-Digital Universe
Giacomo Mauro D'Ariano

Essay Abstract
Can Reality be simulated by a huge Quantum Computer? Do we believe that Reality is made of something more than interacting quantum systems? The idea that the whole Physics is ultimately a quantum computation---a strong quantum version of the Church-Turing hypothesis well synthesized by the Wheeler's coinage "It from bit"---is very appealing. It is theoretically very parsimonious: an Occam razor's quality-guaranteed description of the world. But, if this is the case, then we need to understand the entire Physics as emergent from the quantum computation. Here I will make a short exploration on how this may come about.

Author Bio
I am professor at the University of Pavia, where I teach "Physical Theory of Information" and "Foundations of Quantum Mechanics", and enjoy research with a marvelous group of much younger collaborators.

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On the depth of quantum space
Daniele Oriti

Essay Abstract
We focus on the question: - Is space fundamentally discrete or continuous? - in the context of current quantum gravity research. In particular, we paint a scenario based on the idea that quantum space is a sort of peculiar condensed matter system, and on the speculation that its microscopic (atomic) dynamics is described by a group field theory formalism. We suggest that, from this perspective, on the one hand the question has no absolute meaning, so no answer, but also that, on the other hand, the reason why this is the case is the quantum space is much richer and more interesting than we may have assumed. We also speculate on further physical implications of the suggested scenario.

Author Bio
Born - Messina, Italy - Italian PhD - Univ Cambridge 2003 Postdoc - Univ Cambridge, Univ Utrecht, Perimerter Institute AEI senior researcher and leader of independent research group "Microscopic Quantum Structure & Dynamics of Spacetime" Sofja Kovalevskaja Prize awardee (A. Von Humboldt Foundation) (2008)

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Continuous Spacetime From Discrete Holographic Models
Moshe Rozali

Essay Abstract
We argue that discrete models of quantum gravity can be reconciled with continuous spacetime, and in particular with local Lorentz invariance. The fundamental discreteness cannot be manifested merely as a short distance cutoff. Rather it is expressed in subtle and non-local correlations, of the sort which are most familiar in the context of the quantum mechanics of black holes. Hence, holography is essential in reconciling any fundamentally discrete view of the universe with our continuous and local description thereof.

Author Bio
I am an associate professor in the department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. I was educated in Tel-Aviv University (degrees in Mathematics and in Physics) and in the University of Texas at Austin (PhD in Physics). Before joining the faculty at UBC, I was a postdoc in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and in Rutgers University.

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Quantum Theory without Quantization
Ken Wharton

Essay Abstract
The only evidence we have for a discrete reality comes from quantum measurements; without invoking these measurements, quantum theory describes continuous entities. This seeming contradiction can be resolved via analysis that treats measurements as boundary constraints. It is well-known that boundaries can induce apparently-discrete behavior in continuous systems, and strong analogies can be drawn to the case of quantum measurement. If quantum discreteness arises in this manner, this would not only indicate an analog reality, but would also offer a solution to the so-called "measurement problem".

Author Bio
Ken Wharton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at San Jose State University. His research is focused on the foundations of quantum theory, with a particular interest in fully time-symmetric approaches.

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The World is Either Algorithmic or Mostly Random
Hector Zenil

Essay Abstract
I will propose the notion that the universe is digital, not as a claim about what the universe is made of but rather about the way it unfolds. Central to the argument will be the concepts of symmetry breaking and algorithmic probability, which will be used as tools to compare the way patterns are distributed in our world to the way patterns are distributed in a simulated digital one. These concepts will provide a framework for a discussion of the informational nature of reality. I will argue that if the universe were analog, then the world would likely be random, making it largely incomprehensible. The digital model has, however, an inherent beauty in its imposition of an upper limit and in the convergence in computational power to a maximal level of sophistication. Even if deterministic, that it is digital doesnít mean that the world is trivial or predictable, but rather that it is built up from operations that at the lowest scale are very simple but that at a higher scale look complex and even random, though only in appearance.

Author Bio
Hector Zenil (BSc. Math, UNAM, 2005; MPhil. Logic, Paris 1 Sorbonne, 2006; PhD. Computer Science, Lille 1, 2011) has held visiting positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University. He is a senior research associate at Wolfram Research, member of the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee, founding honorary associate of the Algorithmic Social Science Research Unit of the University of Trento and editor of Randomness Through Computation (published by World Scientific). His main research interests lie at the intersection of several disciplines in connection or application to the concept of randomness and algorithmic complexity motivated by foundational questions.

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Fourth Prizes

Bit from It
Julian Barbour

Essay Abstract
With his aphorism 'it from bit', Wheeler argued that anything physical, any 'it', ultimately derives its very existence entirely from discrete detector-elicited information-theoretic answers to yes or no quantum binary choices: 'bits'. In this spirit, many theorists now give ontological primacy to information. To test the idea, I identify three distinct kinds of information and find that things, not information, are primary. Examination of what Wheeler meant by 'it' and 'bit' then leads me to invert his aphorism: 'bit' derives from 'it'. I argue that this weakens but not necessarily destroys the argument that nature is fundamentally digital and continuity an illusion. There may also be implications for the interpretation of quantum mechanics and the nature of time, causality and the world.

Author Bio
Since 1968, I have worked as an independent theoretical physicist. My main interest has been the nature of time and the origin of inertial motion. I have published more than 30 scientific papers, two books (The Discovery of Dynamics and The End of Time) and edited Mach's Principle: From Newton's Bucket to Quantum Gravity. I have also appeared in several TV programmes, including Killing Time on YouTube. I am the recipient of two large FQXi research grants, the current one for "The nature of time and the structure of space". Since 2008, I have been a Visiting Professor in Physics at the University of Oxford.

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Reality is ultimately digital, and its program is still undebugged
Tommaso Bolognesi

Essay Abstract
Reality is ultimately digital, and all the complexity we observe in the physical universe, from subatomic particles to the biosphere, is a manifestation of the emergent properties of a digital computation that takes place at the smallest spacetime scale. Emergence in computation is an immensely creative force, whose relevance for theoretical physics is still largely underestimated. However, if the universe must be at all scientifically comprehensible, as suggested by a famous einsteinian quote, we have to additionally postulate this computation to sit at the bottom of a multi-level hierarchy of emergent phenomena satisfying appropriate requirements. In particular, we expect 'interesting things' to emerge at all levels, including the lowest ones. The digital/computational universe hypothesis gives us a great opportunity to achieve a concise, background independent theory, if the 'background' -- a lively spacetime substratum -- is equated with a finite causal set.

Author Bio
Tommaso Bolognesi (Laurea in Physics, Univ. of Pavia, 1976; M.Sc. in Computer Science, Univ. of Illinois at U-C, 1982), is senior researcher at ISTI, the Institute for Information Science and Technologies of the Italian National Research Council at Pisa. His research areas have included stochastic processes in computer music composition (1977-1982), models of concurrency, process algebra and formal methods for software development (1982-2005), and emergence in computational big-bangs (since 2005). He has published on various international scientific journals several papers in all three areas.

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Clockwork Quantum Universe
Donatello Dolce

Essay Abstract
Besides the purely digital or analog interpretations of reality there is a third possible description which incorporates important aspects of both. This is the cyclic interpretation of reality. In this scenario every elementary system is described by classical fields embedded in cyclic space-time dimensions. We will address these cyclic fields as "de Broglie internal clocks". They constitute the deterministic gears of a consistent deterministic description of quantum relativistic physics, providing in addiction an appealing formulation of the notion of time.

Author Bio
Donatello Dolce has obtained his PhD in High Energy Physics at the Florence Univ., in 2007 studying Extra Dimensional Higgsless Models and after a PostDoc at J. Gutenberg Univ. of Mainz, he has just started a PostDoc at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Despite his main research field is Phenomenology, he has dedicated most of his time and efforts in Foundations of Physics publishing a new approach to Quantum Field Theory, where Quantum Mechanics arises by assuming an Intrinsic Cyclic Nature of Elementary Systems.

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In search of continuity: thoughts of an epistemic empiricist
Ian Durham

Essay Abstract
Is the universe digital or analog? In this essay I argue that both classical and quantum physics include limits that prevent us from definitively answering that question. That quantum physics does so is no surprise. That classical physics does so is rather unexpected. In fact, I argue that classical physics is itself really nothing more than a convenient approximation. Either way, it turns out that our knowledge of the universe is discrete and so it is extraordinarily difficult, perhaps even impossible, to determine the underlying continuity of the universe itself.

Author Bio
Ian Durham is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is the founding editor of the American Physical Society's The Quantum Times and is a member of FQXi. This essay is dedicated to his father-in-law who passed away quite suddenly as the essay was being completed.

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A Universe Programmed with Strings of Qubits
Philip Gibbs

Essay Abstract
It has been suggested that reality works like a quantum computer, but such claims are just words if they are not backed up by sound mathematics. In pursuit of the fundamental equations I look to string theory where physicists led by Mike Duff have noticed useful connections between the quantum gravity of black holes and quantum information theory. By building on my earlier work on universal symmetry in string theory and using links between elliptic curves and hyperdeterminants, I find intriguing clues that these connections may be deep as well as useful. Ultimately any theory of the foundations of physics must explain why there are four forces and three generations of fermions. In string theory this would be a consequence of the choice of vacua. If a consistent formulation of string theory constructed from quantum bits can be found, it may be possible to understand the vast landscape of possibilities better and reverse engineer the program that codes our universe.

Author Bio
Philip Gibbs has a PhD from the University of Glasgow in 1985. Since then he has worked independent publishing papers on physics and number theory.

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The Distinct Nature of Physics and Cosmos
Thomas J. McFarlane

Essay Abstract
The question of whether reality is necessarily continuous or discrete (i.e., analog or digital) is investigated by examining the nature of physics. It is argued that the view of physics as describing substance--common since ancient Greece--is today obsolete, and that modern physics is better understood as a way of describing reality as mathematical order. The question of whether reality is discrete or continuous is then reframed as a question of the nature of theories and the mathematics that they use. Because both measurement and theory are fundamentally grounded in discrete mathematical concepts based on distinctions, it is concluded that any description of reality by physics is necessarily discrete at its foundations. This conclusion points to a more fundamental insight into the nature of reality beyond the scope of physics.

Author Bio
After graduating with distinction from Stanford University in physics, Thomas McFarlane earned a graduate degree in mathematics from the University of Washington, specializing in algebraic invariants of knots. He is currently a patent agent and partner at a Silicon Valley patent firm and an independent scholar with interests in the philosophy of physics. In addition to his background in science, he also has a graduate degree in philosophy and religion, and is author of Einstein and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings.

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Continuous and Discrete Aspects of Nature
Vesselin Petkov

Essay Abstract
The aim of this essay is to try to provide an open-minded look at some of the problems in fundamental physics which resulted from the idea of quantization. The sole reason for this attempt is to examine whether those problems might have been caused by an implicit exclusion of the correct, but radical and counter-intuitive research directions. Three topics will be discussed -- (i) the nature of the quantum object, (ii) quantum gravity, and (iii) whether or not the Planck scale implies discreteness of spacetime itself.

Author Bio
Vesselin Petkov received a graduate degree in physics from Sofia University, a doctorate in philosophy from the Institute for Philosophical Research of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and a doctorate in physics from Concordia University. He taught at Sofia University and is currently teaching at Concordia University. He wrote the book "Relativity and the Nature of Spacetime" (2ed, Springer 2009) and edited the books "Relativity and the Dimensionality of the World" (Springer 2007), "Minkowski Spacetime: A Hundred Years Later" (Springer, 2010), and "Space, Time, and Spacetime: Physical and Philosophical Implications of Minkowski's Unification of Space and Time" (Springer, 2010).

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It, Bit, and Us
Dean Rickles

Essay Abstract
The physical world, in the sense of that system matching the description provided by physical theories, is as digital or analogue as the theories themselves. There is no logical necessity either way, and it seems perfectly possible for reality to be described by a dual system. 'Reality itself,' by which I mean whatever it is that physical theories aim to latch on to, might be either or, more likely, something inscrutable: it seems unlikely that intentional-system-centric notions would have counterparts in reality, independently of minds. Inasmuch as our minds are capable of latching physical theories onto reality, the best that can be hoped for is a purely structural/relational matching, and in this sense reality is indeed digital, for our linchpins are precisely discrete, identifiable events, be they the elementary bits of Wheeler, or the elementary correlations of gauge theory.

Author Bio
Dean Rickles is senior research fellow at the University of Sydney where his primary research focus is the history and philosophy of physics. His books include The Structural Foundations of Quantum Gravity (OUP 2006: coedited with S. French and J. Saatsi), Symmetry, Structure, and Spacetime (Elsevier 2008), The Ashgate Companion to Contemporary Philosophy of Physics (Ashgate 2009), and The Role of Gravitation in Physics: Report from the 1957 Chapel Hill Conference (Max Planck Research Library 2011: coedited with C. DeWitt-Morette).

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The three and a half layers of dynamics : analog, digital, semi-digital, analog
Tejinder Singh

Essay Abstract
Quantum theory is extremely successful in explaining most physical phenomena, and is not contradicted by any experiment. Yet, the theory has many puzzling features : the occurrence of probabilities, the unclear distinction between the microscopic and the macroscopic, the unexplained absence of superpositions in positions of macroscopic objects, the dependence of the theory on an external classical time, and the experimentally verified but peculiar `influence' outside the light-cone in EPR experiments. These puzzles point towards a conflict between quantum theory and our present understanding of spacetime structure, and suggest the existence of a deeper theory. In this essay we make the case that in the underlying theory the matter and spacetime degrees of freedom are non-commuting matrices, and yet the dynamics is analog. A digital quantum-theory like dynamics for matter as well as spacetime emerges in the statistical thermodynamic approximation to this deeper theory. When most of the matter clumps into macroscopic structures, it is shown to behave classically, and it induces classical dynamics on spacetime; this is the eventual analog limit, our macroscopic world. In between the digital layer and the uppermost analog layer is the realm of standard quantum theory - microscopic objects and their interaction with measuring apparatuses on a classical spacetime background : the semi-digital approximation. Such a multi-layered description of dynamics can explain the puzzling features of quantum theory, and is testable by ongoing laboratory experiments.

Author Bio
Professor of Physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, India. Research Interests : Quantum Gravity, The Quantum Measurement Problem, The Origin of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, Formation of Large Scale structures in the Universe, Gravitational Collapse of Compact Objects and the Cosmic Censorship Hypothesis. Member of FQXi and Recipient of the John Templeton Foundation Grant (2011) for research on Quantum Measurement. Fourth Prize in FQXi essay competition 2009. Three time Gravity Research Foundation Essay Prize Awardee. Other interests : Teaching and Science Popularization. URL : www.tifr.res.in/~tpsingh

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Exploring the virtual reality conjecture
Brian Whitworth

Essay Abstract
We take our world to be an objective reality, but is it? The assumption that the physical world exists in and of itself has struggled to assimilate the findings of modern physics for some time now. For example, an objective space and time would just "be", but by relativity, our space can contract and our time can dilate. Likewise objective "things" should just inherently exist, but the entities of quantum theory are probability of existence smears, that spread, tunnel, superpose and entangle. Cosmology even tells us that our entire physical universe just "popped up", from nowhere, about 14 billion years ago. This is not how an objectively real world should behave! Yet the usual alternatives don't work much better. That the world is just an illusion of the mind doesn't explain its consistent realism and Descartes dualism, that another reality beyond the physical exists, just doubles the existential problem. It is time to consider an option we might normally dismiss out of hand. This essay explores the virtual reality conjecture, that the physical world arises from non-physical quantum processing. It finds it neither illogical, nor unscientific, nor incompatible with current physics. Its implications include that the world is digital at its core.

Author Bio
Brian Whitworth is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Information and Mathematical Sciences. Massey University, Albany, Auckland, New Zealand. With a B.Sc. (Mathematics), B.A. (Psychology), M.A. (Neuro-psychology) and Ph.D. in Information Systems, he has published in journals like Small Group Research, Group Decision & Negotiation, The Database for Advances in IS, Communications of the AIS, IEEE Computer, Behaviour and Information Technology (BIT), Communications of the ACM, IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, and the online journal First Monday. With Aldo de Moor he edited the Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking Systems (2009). See http://brianwhitworth.com/papers.html

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