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Thomas Ray: on 1/23/14 at 16:52pm UTC, wrote While we're on the subject, I googled the past (almost all unfavorable,...

Anonymous: on 1/23/14 at 16:09pm UTC, wrote Thanks for the article, James. "The finding makes intuitive sense:...

James Putnam: on 1/23/14 at 14:43pm UTC, wrote Jeremy England, a 31-year-old physicist at MIT, thinks he has found the...

Akinbo Ojo: on 1/8/14 at 14:29pm UTC, wrote "...we’re interested in the maximally irreducible structure that...

Pentcho Valev: on 1/7/14 at 17:08pm UTC, wrote "So if there was any unifying theme of this session it was that entropy is...

Ian Durham: on 1/7/14 at 16:11pm UTC, wrote So here I am in Vieques (off the coast of Puerto Rico) at the Fourth FQXi...


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Blogger Ian Durham wrote on Jan. 7, 2014 @ 16:11 GMT
Perspectives on Information in its many forms
So here I am in Vieques (off the coast of Puerto Rico) at the Fourth FQXi International Conference. I was one of the lucky ones who did not have travel trouble due to uncooperative weather. It is certainly warmer here but it’s also intensely humid. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful location. Strangely the only mosquitoes I have encountered were in my hotel room (one woke me up yesterday morning by buzzing in my ear). Given that all the talks will eventually be posted on the FQXi website I won’t summarize them in one-by-one. Instead, I want to focus on some specific themes that arose in the talks and discussions.

At any rate, there were three sessions yesterday with the middle session consisting of break-out groups working on specific questions. Appropriately the first session focused on entropy. (Photograph of the panellists, above left.) At the last FQXi conference I made a pest of myself (until David Albert managed to shut me up) about the fact that we weren’t all using the same definition of entropy. This first session seems to have vindicated me a bit as it was focused on the varying definitions and their relation to information. Olimpia Lombardi wondered openly if we even need a single, all-encompassing definition of entropy. I mean, in some sense, it’s just a word. Of course, my argument is that we need to have a clear, concise language in order to minimize confusion when discussing these concepts. While words are just words, as Herb Bernstein and Mike Fortun have pointed out, they do matter in science.

So if there was any unifying theme of this session it was that entropy is that it is really a subjective measure, which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing, per sé. In the words of Wayne Myrvold, entropy is "means-relative." It’s the relative aspect of it that makes it subjective. As E.T. Jaynes once pointed out (in a quote Kevin Knuth included in his talk), it’s the ideas behind the mathematics that give power to the models. Part of the issue here is that, as Jos Uffink pointed out, information needs a goal or a task. This is not to be confused with the goal or task of an observer. The difference is subtle but important. The point Uffink was making is that, I think, the meaning of information is distinct from its physical manifestation, which is a point I have often made myself. In fact, as Christoph Koch noted during the Q&A session, from the point-of-view of consciousness it may be that we need a sort of semantic calculus of information in order to make sense of the meaning (which, in the brain, is produced by the neurons).

Breakout sessions
The break-out sessions in the afternoon (photograph, left) were tasked with answering specific questions. The one I signed up for was aimed at answering the question "Is information more fundamental than matter/energy?" The majority of the group actually agreed that it wasn’t (which may be a bit surprising to some), but did agree that something was (we felt Max Tegmark might be more fundamental than matter/energy). The problem harkened back to the morning discussion and the idea that we don’t have a universally agreed upon, single definition of information. The group discussing whether quantum information was required for quantum gravity elected Scott Aaronson to summarize their findings and Scott’s response was that he showed up to the break-out session, answered a definitive "yes" to the question (like, well, duh!) and promptly went for a swim. No one in his group seemed to disagree.

The question about the relationship between complexity and information had a less-definitive answer and seemed to bounce around between topics. Nevertheless, the point was emphasized again that information about a structure is not the same thing as information itself which is similar to the point made earlier that information and its manifestation are not the same thing. In fact there are really three distinct things here: a structure, a physical manifestation of information about that structure, and then the information itself, the latter of which is contextual. In fact in the morning session, Kevin Knuth pointed to something Douglas Hofstadter once said concerning records (as in vinyl records — remember those?): they’re meaningless without a record player to play them on.

Also in the morning session, psychiatrist Giulio Tononi said he once had a patient who insisted that he (the patient) didn’t exist! Tononi used this to note that if the whole is no different from the sum of its parts then the whole might well not exist. Or, to put it another way, Occam’s razor suggests it’s not necessary. So, to him, what we’re really interested in is finding some maximally irreducible structure. I would add the following caveat to that: we’re interested in the maximally irreducible structure that is also maximally informative. That’s really just another way of saying that we like to have theories that balance simplicity with explanatory power: we want theories that explain the most phenomena in the simplest ways (e.g. the universe on a T-shirt). What was interesting from the break-out session on the relationship between information and consciousness was that all but one person in that break-out group agreed that physics would eventually account for consciousness. I must say that, despite being a die-hard logical reductionist and empiricist, I wouldn’t be willing to put money on that.

Anton Zeilinger via Skype (briefly!)
The evening session had a bit of a rocky beginning. We were to have Anton Zeilinger Skype in his talk (photo, left), but the wireless here is spotty at best (Vieques is a tad on the isolated side) and we swapped some talks around. With Ray LaFlamme stuck enroute (along with others, thanks to an ice storm), Andrew Briggs stepped in a day early and discussed whether information has causal power of it is merely explanatory. While it is an interesting question, I’m not sure I agree with his approach. You can judge for yourself once the videos are posted.

Eventually we got Zeilinger on a cell phone which we placed next to a microphone and he was able to deliver his talk which was essentially a summary of his work with entangled photons on the Canary Islands (where I had wanted this particular conference to take place!). I think what was broadly interesting was that it became quite clear that Zeilinger is a fairly strict operationalist to the point that he thinks quantum mechanics is something we invented to describe nature.

The last talk of the session of by Gerardo Adesso (photo below) who spoke about his work on correlations and a method he has devised to identify "quantumness" of which he identifies three "shades" (not fifty!): nonlocal states, entangled states, and discordant states. The evening closed out with a panel discussion, but by this time it was nearing 8 PM and I hadn’t had dinner yet. Today we’re talking about what can and can’t be predicted in quantum/computational/relativistic (not mutually inclusive) systems.

Gerardo Adesso on 3 Shades of Quantumness


--

Ian Durham is a quantum physicist and FQXi member based at Saint Anselm College, New Hampshire. You can visit his blog here.

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Pentcho Valev wrote on Jan. 7, 2014 @ 17:08 GMT
"So if there was any unifying theme of this session it was that entropy is that it is really a subjective measure, which isn't to say that's a bad thing, per sé."

Entropy a subjective measure ?!? And Uffink agrees with that? Scientists are a fickle lot indeed:

Bluff your way in the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Jos Uffink

Pentcho Valev

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Akinbo Ojo wrote on Jan. 8, 2014 @ 14:29 GMT
"...we’re interested in the maximally irreducible structure that is also maximally informative. That’s really just another way of saying that we like to have theories that balance simplicity with explanatory power: we want theories that explain the most phenomena in the simplest ways..."

Apart from editing to maximally irreducible information, I think Ian captures our task succinctly. Next is to be clear what is meant by 'structure', then knowing that, what is meant by 'maximally irreducible'. Having got that right, next is to find out, if there is an information that must remain after maximally extracting all others from the structure, e.g. by answering Wheeler's 20 questions.

Nice to see a medical man, psychiatrist Giulio Tononi hanging in there. Perhaps, doctors may supply the elixir that reduces 'uncertainty' in our thinking. Then in the Podcast I heard we may be nearer a solution in theoretical physics by 2020, that is the time Peter Jackson usually rests his hope.

Akinbo

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James A Putnam wrote on Jan. 23, 2014 @ 14:43 GMT
Jeremy England, a 31-year-old physicist at MIT, thinks he has found the underlying physics driving the origin and evolution of life Quanta Magazine:A New Physics Theory of Life.

I am posting this because Dr. Gavin Crooks: Whither Time's Arrow? is mentioned. The link is to his essay entry in the 2008 Nature of Time Essay Contest:

Quoting an excerpt from the Quanta Magazine article:...

view entire post


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Anonymous replied on Jan. 23, 2014 @ 16:09 GMT
Thanks for the article, James.

"The finding makes intuitive sense: Particles tend to dissipate more energy when they resonate with a driving force, or move in the direction it is pushing them, and they are more likely to move in that direction than any other at any given moment."

My opinion:

This is a weakness of the "equally likely" hypothesis of probability theory when applied to real physical systems, and particularly, systems far from equilibrium, as are all biological organisms.

Evolution is directed by random mutations, and is not random in the sense of closed system thermodynamics. In other words -- Unlike thermodynamics in a closed system, for which a prior probability of 1.0 allows us to predict equilibrium from a linear model on the interval [0,1], where the probability for equilibrium approaches 1.0 according to known parameters and can be adjusted for changing conditions though not reversed -- there is no prior probability for a random mutation of the genetic program.

Frank Tipler (*The Physics of Immortality* 1994) set off a lot of catcalls and "pseudoscience, crank, crackpot" alarms among colleagues who think nature is ruled by probabilism. We see the same labels applied routinely here from the usual suspects, when anyone questions the foundations of probability. What Tipler did find, though, that is that intelligent organisms *participate* in their own evolution, against random mutations and increasing entropy, a fact that probabilists find inconvenient. "Intuitive sense" is far from the method of science, however, and most of what we know of the universe objectively is quite counterintutive.

Tom

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Thomas Howard Ray replied on Jan. 23, 2014 @ 16:52 GMT
While we're on the subject, I googled the past (almost all unfavorable, some hysterically so) reviews of Tipler's POI, and found this interesting paragraph by NY Times journalist George Johnson:

"In some regards, the effort brings to mind Roger Penrose's book "The Emperor's New Mind." Begin with a gut feeling of what you know must be true (Mr. Penrose: the brain cannot be a digital computer; Mr. Tipler: life is everlasting), then try to rationalize it with an elaborate superstructure of physics and mathematics. Ultimately the authors may succeed in convincing no one but themselves, but along the way the reader is taken on a thrilling ride to the far edges of modern physics."

Well, as the saying goes, it's the journey, not the destination. (Personally, I'd rather be on a thrilling ride than hanging out at the cotton candy stand, even when I know the ride is going to stop and that I'm not really going anywhere.)

Anyway -- it's a false comparison of Penrose's mathematics to Tipler's physics, if that's what Mr. Johnson means to imply. All of Sir Roger's work is driven by the assumption that the Platonic ideal of mathematics is far larger than the physical reality. Physically, according to Penrose, nothing is quite up to the level of a quantum mind. What Tipler says, however, is a physical fact -- though I would use the word "continuous" in place of "everlasting" -- because demonstrably, the feedback mechanisms of life, whether biological or hypothetically artificial, compel participation of the organism with the evolution of the system. This is nothing different from what Wheeler said, and nobody that I know of calls him a crackpot.

Tom

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