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March 30, 2017

CATEGORY: Is Reality Digital or Analog? Essay Contest (2010-2011) [back]
TOPIC: Bit from It by Julian Barbour [refresh]
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Author Julian Barbour wrote on Feb. 15, 2011 @ 12:44 GMT
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 \emph{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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BrundleFly wrote on Feb. 15, 2011 @ 20:41 GMT
Very interesting article.

When the subject of primacy is brought to the front, wouldn't it be prudent to state that the most primary and fundamental feature of nature is change itself? Time itself is then fundamental as it is simply a synonym for change. It is our way to parameterize change and play the bookkeeper.

In this view, it is not laws that are static and immutable. It is the regularity in patterns of change that give rise to the perception of laws. We arbitrarily pick out those patterns that exhibit regularity, as they are of practical use. On the quantum level, patterns of change which exhibit random, stochastic behavior tend to get passed off as irregularities that are the offspring of 'spooky' laws.

Change vs immutable, fixed substance subject to laws. I wonder what Democritus and Heraclitus would have to say if they were around today.

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Anonymous wrote on Feb. 15, 2011 @ 22:05 GMT
Dear Julian,

I think you have done a magnificent job in the essay. It is such an eloquent stand for realism.I was not just interested but thoroughly enjoyed your presentation. You speak with authority and clarity and such good sense. I do so agree that realism is necessary because otherwise we are left with just the abstraction that can neither nourish nor sustain us.

The question...

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Georgina Parry replied on Feb. 15, 2011 @ 22:07 GMT
That anonymous was me. Best regards Georgina.

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egal wrote on Feb. 16, 2011 @ 00:34 GMT
With all due respect I wonder how people talk about the digital view and computation without even mentioning the seminal ideas of Turing, or the current developments of information theory beyond Shannon's theory developed in the 1930s. Only a couple of essays in the contest actually have some contributions considering the state of the art in the field.

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Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on Feb. 16, 2011 @ 05:20 GMT

Thank you for addressing a topic that apparently needs addressing. I have nothing but respect for Wheeler, but 'It from Bit' went way over the edge.

I have argued on these threads that information is descriptive, not physically real, and been amazed that it could be thought otherwise. I attribute this partly to the "information-in-Black Hole-->area-of-Black hole", wherein 'information' is discussed as if it were particles. (Exactly the same area relation can be derived in terms of energy impinging on the Black Hole with no mention of information at all.)

It is probably the extreme confusion that accompanies the interpretation of 'non-locality' associated with the so-called 'violations' of Bell's (incorrectly calculated) inequality that has led to so much confusion about information. If I believed in non-locality and non-realism, it's hard for me to say what I would be willing to believe to be 'real'.

You state "Wheeler's thesis mistakes abstraction for reality." Korzybski's central message in 'Science and Sanity' is that "the map is not the territory." There would not appear to be anything simpler to understand, yet evidence is found everywhere that maps are confused with the territory. There must be something about the way our brains are structured that leads to such confusion. Clearly it may sometimes be useful in a Darwinian fashion for a brain to use the model "as if" it were the reality, but who would suspect that so many brilliant physicists would fail to discern the difference?

So thanks again for stating the obvious in a way that I hope most will follow.

Edwin Eugene Klingman

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Marcel-Marie LeBel replied on Feb. 17, 2011 @ 00:11 GMT
" There must be something about the way our brains are structured that leads to such confusion. Clearly it may sometimes be useful in a Darwinian fashion for a brain to use the model "as if" it were the reality, but who would suspect that so many brilliant physicists would fail to discern the difference?"

Edwin Eugene Klingman


Glad to see you here in the contest. This is not "brilliant" the physicists need. It is the visceral courage to address concepts that are in violent contradiction with all the assumptions required for our reality to be. It is scary and disturbing, but we must overcome this in order to move forward. My essay tells you about it, without any warning.

Good luck,


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Georgina Parry replied on Feb. 17, 2011 @ 02:11 GMT
Hi Marcel-Marie,

I can not agree. I know we are deceived by the limitations of out sensory capabilities and only imagine the experience to be objective reality itself. I do not accept that there is not a foundational level source of the input that is interpreted and also misinterpreted. Space-time is the appearance of reality that is observed but the sub atomic reality, that is unobserved, is in the most concrete sense of the word real. I have said this for a long time.

Mr Smith in his competition entry last year spoke of the timeless spatial configuration that Julian Barbour here names Onta. Which is a nice catchy term, relevant to what it -is- and is short and easy to say. The word is original (as far as I know) but the concept is not. There are a number of people, some have been conversing on FQXi blogs, who think this realism is necessary. Some have also entered the competition. Though perhaps it takes someone with Julian's reputaion and experience to say it for it to become an acceptable concept.

Without this kind of realism we are creating fantasies and making them real or believing that the magic of incomplete information is more real than solid objects that can not be observed. Quantum magic rabbits!

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Marcel-Marie LeBel replied on Feb. 17, 2011 @ 22:47 GMT

All I wanted was to understand the universe by allowing it to exist and evolve by itself. i.e. without us in the way. "Understanding" logically the universe requires that we remove the observer.

The Copenhagen school knew about the underlying reality and said: There is nothing there worth our attention" They did quit in our name, so close .... They got scared and physics has been in a "refuge" mode since. Loitering around exotic ideas when they knowvery well were to look for answers...

Maybe, we are not looking for the same thing...? Me, I found what I was looking for.

Good luck,


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Cristinel Stoica wrote on Feb. 16, 2011 @ 09:09 GMT
The essay is beautiful and I agree with the conclusion "Bit from It", in a way I will try to make clear. But I disagree with the way the conclusion was reached - it seems to me that the central part of Wheeler's 'ontology' "It from Bit" was overlooked, and this makes it look naive, while it is in fact very profound.

In a classical world, Wheeler's "It from Bit" would be obviously silly....

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Cristinel Stoica replied on Feb. 16, 2011 @ 11:25 GMT
On the other hand, the "Bit" itself is part of the solution of the Schrödinger's equation, that is, of the "It". This is why I said at the beginning that I agree with "Bit from It". But if we have some "delayed initial conditions" - the "Bit"s - the "It" that satisfies to them is not necessarily unique. So, in fact, what we have is not a pair (It, Bit), but a pair ("It"s that satisfy to the observed "Bit", the observed "Bit"). There is a relation "one-to-many" between the "Bit" and the "It"s. The "Bit" appears to be discrete, but the "It" may very well be continuous. So, although "It from Bit" reflects an important aspect of Quantum Mechanics, it should not be taken too far.

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Roger Granet wrote on Feb. 16, 2011 @ 17:27 GMT
Dr. Barbour,

Hi. Your essay was very good. In regard to your thinking about a "thing" with "The way that they [the distinguishing attributes of a thing] are knit together defines the structure of the thing", I would strongly agree and made the same point in my essay ("Reality is digital, but its perception as digital or analog depends on the perspective of the observer"). There and elsewhere, I conclude that a "thing" exists if it is completely defined as to what is contained within, or meant by, that thing. This complete definition is an edge or boundary defining and delimiting what is contained within. This complete definition/edge/boundary gives substance and existence to a thing. I go on to show how this definition can be used in thinking about the question of "Why is there something rather than nothing?".

Again, very nice essay, and I would be interested in any feedback you might have. Thank you.

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Roy Johnstone wrote on Feb. 17, 2011 @ 02:09 GMT
I'm not sure how it is possible (I have not read Roger's essay yet though) to define a "delimiting boundary" for a "thing" in the context of information, where "things" both create information, which we convert into various "bit" forms *and* are created by information from a more fundamental level. Can a "thing" be considered as complete in isolation from it's causes? For example a logic gate ("it") creates information by a given state, open/closed, which we interpret in bit form, yes/no, 1-0 etc. The gate itself is however constructed from more fundamental elements such as atoms which have supplied "information" that we have used to construct the physical gate. Atoms in turn are composed of elementary particles in a way determined by laws according to the "information" those laws carry. A regression by decreasing (more fundamental?) scale would seem to then leave us ultimately with just "laws of nature".

What status should we attribute to those laws? Are they primary in the sense that, as Dr Barbour says - "message sources could not exist if the universe were not subject to laws of nature". This would seem to attribute informational status to the laws. On the other hand, to quote Dr Barbour again - "I claim that the configuration carries intrinsic semantic information in the sense that different intelligent beings can in principle deduce the law or process that explains the observed structure". This implies "bit from it" whereas the former implies "it from bit"!

I guess it all depends on your definition of information, but I see physical laws as primary and "informational" in the above sense. Should the goal of science ideally be to find and describe necessary and sufficient causes for all "things" at ever more fundamental scales? This is in fact what the history, at least of physics, shows to be the case. Are there global natural laws , in the sense of (dare I say) a "multiverse" or "string landscape", which are primary even though there may be different mass spectra and gauge couplings locally and perhaps more fundamentally, compactified manifolds/brane geometries which are "informed" by these primary, global laws? Or perhaps a Bohm type primary "information field" giving form to what we see manifested as the "explicate" physical world? Again, "it from bit", but in a different sense to Wheeler's (I think absurd!) "self observing universe" meaning.


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Roger replied on Feb. 17, 2011 @ 18:01 GMT

Hi. Thanks for reading my posting. By "thing", I meant any existent state. This could be a typical "it" like a car or a logic gate, but it could also be concepts, information/bits, physical laws, etc. These are all existent states. A car exists outside the brain, but a mental image or concept of the car or information about the car can also exist inside the brain. There, it's composed of electrical gradients, neurons, etc., but it's still an existent state. To exist, all these things must be defined as to what is contained within, or meant by, those things. This definition is an edge or boundary giving substance or existence to the existent state.

In regard to physical laws, I pretty much agree with what Edwin wrote in that these laws also must be existent states. Many physicists and mathematicians say they exist in a Platonic realm somewhere that we can't see or examine. I can't argue with or refute that point. But, I could also say that a cheeseburger exists in that realm and that it is the source of all reality (sorry for the stupid joke). But, even if this Platonic realm does exist somewhere, it and the physical laws inside it are still existent states.

I think real progress in physics will come not when we decide what to call the most fundamental of all existent states (ie, call it a physical or mathematical law, information/bits, things, etc.) but when we can figure how and why that existent state can exist in the first place and what its properties are and use these to build a physical model of the universe. That's what I was trying to get at in my essay.

Thank you!


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Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on Feb. 17, 2011 @ 02:43 GMT
Roy states: "Atoms in turn are composed of elementary particles in a way determined by laws according to the "information" those laws carry. A regression by decreasing (more fundamental?) scale would seem to then leave us ultimately with just "laws of nature".

While this is probably the consensus, it begs the question of where the 'laws of nature' come from. Originally everyone knew that laws came from the 'king' and the laws of Nature came from the 'King', ie, God. But over the last century or two the King has been banished but his 'Laws' have been retained. In my model this is not kosher, and the laws must evolve from the 'self-interaction' of the basic substance of which the universe consists.

It does appear that we are capable, as conscious beings, of abstracting these behaviors in such a way that coded 'laws' can be derived that effectively generate an infinite amount of information, in the same way that the relation y=x^2 generates an infinite amount of information. I have developed the theory of such 'evolution of theories' in The Automatic Theory of Physics.

But do the 'laws' exist 'out there' governing what's happening 'in here' or are we simply part of a self-evolving, self-interacting 'substance' (for lack of a better word) that behaves according to Marcel's "law of non-contradiction". If the latter, then we have a unitary universe, complete in itself, and capable (despite Roy) of eventually 'observing itself'. Otherwise, we have a dualistic (schizophrenic?) universe where we have not only to figure out what 'reality' is, but where and how the 'laws' came to be. It's an easy choice for me.

The confusion of descriptive information, of meaning only to certain observers, with substantial reality that exists for all observers, leads to problems. In another thread it was suggested that "Watch out for the bus!" has consequences and so this information should be considered 'real'. But if you only speak Chinese, "Watch out for the bus" means nothing. Yet the energy of the moving bus is real in all cases. Information has reality only with respect to an observer. To deny the substantial reality one should stand in front of the bus and argue this point.

Edwin Eugene Klingman

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Roy Johnstone wrote on Feb. 17, 2011 @ 03:19 GMT
Dr Barbour,

There are sections of your essay where you seem to be arguing against yourself. For example, you argue that QM "probablities are determined by the wave function/configuration space and the Schrodinger wave equation" and go on to say the probabilities are the "bits based on the its". Yet, by it's very nature, the standard interpretation of QM must deny real physical status for the wave function and therefore it's state space, as it is explicitly interpreted as representing only our knowledge of the system (information) and probabilities for *measurement outcomes* with *no reality in between observations*. It would seem that you are therefore attributing primacy to *information* contained in the state evolution.

You then equate the QM "laws and configurations" with classical mechanics, yet classical configurations have real physical status. By applying the analogy between QM and classical "laws" you would be arguing more along the lines of my previous post wherein primary laws are primary information content. This would seem to clash with - "Try eating a 1 that stands for an apple" in the sense that it would become - Try eating a law that describes the particles and interactions that compose what we call an apple!

Congratulations on the essay though. It is as usual, most thought provoking, just as "The End Of Time" was!

Good luck!

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T H Ray wrote on Feb. 17, 2011 @ 22:06 GMT
Dear Julian,

As my second favorite writer on time (you get three guesses as to the favorite--it's not I--and the first two don't count) -- you never disappoint. And when you speak geometry and information theory, it's with the same crisp authority and delightfully melodic prose that captivates from the beginning and carries to the end.

So it's not easy to suggest to a master of his subject that he's missed an opportunity. Fools rush in. Appendices are not part of the competition, so you're still a safe "10" -- still, I would point out in appendix B that your diagram for translations and rotations in Euclidean space, if my arithmetic is correct, is Euler characteristic 2. That of course implies a closed manifold of dimension 3 which corresponds to your N = 3 dimensionality. What's missing from this picture is what you're famous for; i.e., those rotations and translations are time dependent, and if there is nothing "left over," so to speak, through any transformation of points in 3-space, then time as least action has disappeared from your domain and quantum configuration space is static, as you hold. Nevertheless, the dynamics of mass points (Mach's principle) necessitates the inverse of Einstein's universe which is finite in time and unbounded in space -- i.e., to one which is finite in space and unbounded in time. Unbounded in time in this context gets you T = 1, and your static quantum universe holds.

A superior essay. Thank you.


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Ray Munroe wrote on Feb. 18, 2011 @ 01:03 GMT
Dear Julian,

I enjoyed your "Bit from It" essay. It was well-written, good examples were given, and I agree with your perspective (or clarification) of "Bit from It" being more fundamental than Wheeler's "It from Bit". I was a little disapponted (I still think that your paper deserves a perfect "10") that you addressed the continuous vs. discrete nature of reality in just a footnote (#7), but I was likewise guilty of addressing the concept of information in a mere footnote. I enjoyed your clarification of information vs. entropy - the two are similar enough that they often get mixed-up.

One example was how the explaination (from Aristotle to Ptolemy and ultimately to Kepler) of planetary motion on a 2-D background of space implied motion in a 3-D space. I think that clues exist in our apparantly (3+1)-D existance that imply more dimensions.

I also liked your example that "1" - by itself - is meaningless without units, thus emphasizing that the "It" is more fundamental than its "Bit" length of measure. Your example was that you can't eat "1" unless your "units" are something like "apple". Peter Van Gaalen's essay discusses various combinations of "units", and I think that each distinct type of unit may imply a distinct type of dimension.

You also mentioned that we can only observe half (at most) of the variables in a given experiment. My essay emphasizes that this is due to wave-particle duality and reciprocally-scaled dynamic variables (such as position and momentum). I also think that this implies that dimensions (and degrees-of-freedom - i.e. SUSY) need to be doubled.

Regarding Qubits, I recommend Larence Crowell's and Philip Gibbs' essays.

Have Fun!

Dr. Cosmic Ray

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re castel wrote on Feb. 18, 2011 @ 04:16 GMT
Dr Barbour,

You say: "What we observe and interpret as the outcome of an individual quantum event does not reside in space and time; it is embedded in a configuration."

If the configuration is in space and time and the 'outcome' is embedded in a configuration, then the 'outcome' should at least be in time if not in space.

The 'outcome' of an 'event' is 'embedded' in a...

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Thomas J. McFarlane wrote on Feb. 18, 2011 @ 19:18 GMT
Dear Julian,

You write at the bottom of p.2 of your essay that "my position is that something that one does not directly observe exists if it explains phenomena."

However, there are often multiple distinct explanations for the same phenomenon (i.e., under-determination of theory by the facts). Thus, on this definition, existence is not unique, and the ontological basement of reality is a collection of different realities, each corresponding to a different way of saving the phenomena. Could you comment on this?



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Lawrence B Crowell wrote on Feb. 19, 2011 @ 01:41 GMT
Dear Julian,

The one problem I might have with what you say is that information in the Shannon sense does not include what appears to be a sematic depth you associate with it. The association of ontology seems to imply something with respect to realism which may not be quite operative. This is in particular since a quantum bit is just a particular way of formulating a quantum state. In effect there is an isomorphism between the quantum state and qubit. We then have nonlocality issues with quantum states, and Bell inequality violations which illustrate there is no underlying realism to quantum mechanics.

I have done work with quantum information with respect to black holes and it is in Discrete Time and Kleinian Structures in Duality Between Spacetime and Particle Physics. This covers some of the issues which the associated AdS sspacetime. There is a discrete quotient group, which as it turns out subsequent to submitting this has to do with a discrete structure on the Calabi-Yau form. This results in a “stringy derivation” of integer paritions.

The Bit from It or It from Bit I touch on in my essay, but where in effect I leave that up in the air. Quantum mechanics is really in effect devoid of reality outside of its measurement or reduction of states in some classical setting. The classical reality, though it is built up from quantum states, or may interfering quantum paths, or further from lots of quantum bits, is what we can say has “ontology,” or is what we can tangibly identify as real. It also is what we might call “continuous, even if that breaks down when a small enough of a unit is looked at. This appears to connect with the ρ as evaluating the probability for some outcome, which you state in your paper.

I rather suspect the answer to this question is beyond our grasp, at least at this time. The process by which certain quantum states are stable under decoherence or quantum noise, and thus constitute a classical world, is marginally understood. Further, this einselection model requires invoking a prior estimate on such stability, which makes the einselection somehow observer dependent. The role of consciousness is utterly beyond our scope. It might require that to understand this in completion requires we have an understanding of how the universe through IGUS (information gathering and using systems) within the universe are able to completely characterize the universe itself. So the universe as a quantum computer, if we are to use that idea here, in effect generates a Turing machine which is capable of executing everything, including how that universal Turning machine is classical. This seems mathematically impossible.

Cheers LC

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Phil Warnell wrote on Feb. 19, 2011 @ 13:57 GMT
I much enjoyed reading your essay as to find it to be both a clarification and continuation of J.S. Bell's central complaint regarding the confusion inflicted when 'words' find themselves into theory as to be taken to have meaning exceeding what is reasonable.

"The concepts 'system', ' apparatus ', 'environment', immediately imply an artificial division of the world, and an intention to neglect, or take only schematic account of, the interaction across the split. The notions of 'microscopic' and 'macroscopic' defy precise definition. So also do the notions of 'reversible' and 'irreversible'. Einstein said that it is theory which decides what is 'observable'. I think he was right - 'observation' is a complicated and theory-laden business. Then that notion should not appear in the formulation of fundamental theory. Information? Whose information? Information about what? "

-J.S. Bell, "Against 'Measurement' ", Physics World (August, 1990)

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Albert wrote on Feb. 19, 2011 @ 16:17 GMT
Dr. Barbour,

I have read a book of yours in the past about Dynamics and Newton's Laws of Motion and I liked it. However, I do not agree that you proved that things, not information, are primary.

When we observe things, it is not the things themselves we observe but the electromagnetic energy they emit. Therefore, physically, we cannot verify this realism and it remains in the realms of metaphysics.

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Edwin Eugene Klingman replied on Feb. 19, 2011 @ 21:54 GMT

You seem to deny that it is "the things themselves we observe but [only] the electromagnetic energy they emit." Why is the 'electromagnetic energy they emit' to be granted reality?

By your remarks it would seem that absolutely nothing is 'provable', and everything is meta-physical. I don't disagree with that, but it not only applies to Dr Barbour, but to everyone here.

I found your remarks on Dean Rickle's thread much more cogent.

Edwin Eugene Klingman

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Ignoranitum wrote on Feb. 19, 2011 @ 17:00 GMT
I am confused how this essay is not rated higher than 7.3.

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egal replied on Feb. 19, 2011 @ 19:17 GMT
Perhaps because the author ignores that what he calls 'factual' information is actually 'algorithmic' information? that is information where individual meaning of a message can be somehow defined, in opposition to Shannon's information that is purely probabilistic and suffers of the caveats of probability when it is about single objects rather than distributions.

The author of the paper, who unfortunately seems to have no time to drop a line in this discussion section, overlooks (perhaps because he is not aware of) the current state of information theory.

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James Putnam wrote on Feb. 19, 2011 @ 23:12 GMT
"I am the recipient of two large FQXi research grants, the current one for ``The nature of time and the structure of space''. "

What does the author of "The End of Time" have to say about the nature of time? A specific question: Why is space real and time is not?

For this contest from Dr. Barbour I am reading about different definitions of information. I wonder though: Intelligence needs information in order to reveal itself, so, what is information from the point of view of intelligence? In other words: What is interpreted by experience before theory begins?


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Dan J. Bruiger wrote on Feb. 20, 2011 @ 02:23 GMT
Dear Sir,

Thank you for your sensible elucidation of ‘information’—much needed. I fully agree that information must reflect real structure, and that ‘bit’ is a concept derived from experience with real things, not the other way around.

You are quite right that “A dot on a screen is not the unadorned answer to a straight question.” Your example of the information preserved in rocks, about their geological history, is very much to the point. It amazes me that some thinkers see information “encoded” everywhere, without asking, encoded by whom and for what purpose? Yet, as you note, “Wheeler is explicit: bits are detector-elicited answers to yes or no quantum binary choices.” This forcing of answers from nature as a binary decision response seems to be the latest evolution of an idea expounded by Aristotle (and which, ironically, he feared could produce only “monsters of nature”, not true descriptions). It then progressed as Bacon’s procuring nature’s secrets under “torture”. What next, one wonders?

I believe there are cultural reasons for the current information craze. I explore some of these in my own submission (“topic/852”), which I invite you to read. I also suspect that interest in the utility of ‘information’ as an ontological basis for ‘reality’ probably stems in part from its promise as a common bridge between the categories of ‘mind’ and ‘matter’. In that context, its adaptation into physics from cognitive psychology can be no better than the understanding of physicists of the mind-body problem.

Best wishes,

Dan Bruiger

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James Putnam wrote on Feb. 20, 2011 @ 02:39 GMT
Information certainly has to do with 'its' but not with 'bits'. Why not, because bits are truncated, frozen, pieces of code. While a code can be considered information, for the sake of argument, it is only an incomplete symbol used to represent information.


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James Putnam replied on Feb. 20, 2011 @ 22:43 GMT
Dr. Barbour,

You are welcome to use whatever description your deem to be appropriate to describe the value of what I ask or what I say. Perhaps silly is the correct description; however, I request that you say that is so. Otherwise, I assume that my points are irrefutable.


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James Putnam replied on Feb. 22, 2011 @ 19:18 GMT
Dr. Barbour,

With all due respect for your qualifications: I think that your theoretical positions are near, actually beyond for me, to being unrealistic. Good luck to you in this contest and in the future.


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James Putnam replied on Mar. 1, 2011 @ 23:38 GMT
Dr. Barbour,

Are you there please? What is interpreted by experience before theory begins?


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Ray ASCHHEIM wrote on Feb. 21, 2011 @ 01:58 GMT
Dear Julian,

Congratulation for your clear essay on a fundamental Skakespearian question: bit from it or it from bit, (to bit or not to bit). I totally agree with your conclusion than "The set of all onta is the ultimate Shannon source." and argue that the answer is "It from bit from thing".

I would like to reconcile your point of view with Wheeler's and his followers. You write "It is a mistake to believe that the digits 0 and 1, being abstract, represent the immaterial". The main point is there: what does sounds that a bit is immaterial ? Is it totally abstract and not made of any 'thing' where a thing is not necessarily made of matter; or is it just not made of matter.

An immaterial bit can be both, not made of matter for Wheeler and made of thing for you. Here is how:

For me a bit is a topological feature of a very fundamental structure, a trivalent network in graph theory, or a set of cardinal 3 subsets in set theory (both are equivalent); This feature may be that if the node is in a 3-loop it holds value 1 otherwise value 0.

With this definition, I agree with you, bit is made of thing, the thing being one or three nodes, or cardinal 3 subsets; but remains immaterial, not made of any matter, nor having coordinates in any space background; because matter only get sense at a larger scale (a supernode of 48 bits). So, "They do not exist in isolation. A bit is not a single-digit atom of reality as it from bit implies."

But they exists together in a simple network that is a proto-space, encoding space, bosons and fermions.

Time is another story. Configurations (spin networks) are linked by pachner moves, forming spin foam, with a causality but no need of absolute clock. So my conclusion is: "It from bit from thing"; This "thing" is well documented in my essay.

Best regards


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Emmanuel Moulay wrote on Feb. 22, 2011 @ 15:51 GMT
Dear Julian,

Your essay is very interesting. However, I have a remark. You use the Shannon theory of information in your essay. The Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem gives a result on the frequencies showing when it is possible to discretize a continuous signal without losing information. This result is often used in engineering. Considering the Planck time, the Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem implies that the frequency of a particle must be limited if we don't want to lose information. For instance, it implies that the energy of a photon must be limited.

Best regards,


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Peter Jackson wrote on Feb. 25, 2011 @ 18:26 GMT
Dear Julian

"The catch, all too often forgotten, is that an inertial frame of reference is needed to define the motion."

That sentence alone sums up the problem that remains central today. Do you think physics may recognise it one day?


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Israel Perez wrote on Feb. 25, 2011 @ 22:27 GMT
Dear Julian

I have read your essay which is interesting. I am aware that information is important to convey or storage data among physical entities, but, it seems to me that it is not a fundamental concept for physics. I believe that more fundamental concepts like space, time, matter, force, etc. should be properly addressed first. In this sense my essay is aim at giving ontological arguments of space and time. These can serve to build stronger basis for a new edifice of physics. Perhaps, you may be interested in seeing my work. Amazingly Helmut Hansen treat the same topic as you do. You should read his too.

Kind Regards


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Yuri Danoyan wrote on Feb. 26, 2011 @ 03:51 GMT
If Holographic Universe exist, then the time really an illusion.

Julian would be right.

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Tommy Gilbertson wrote on Feb. 27, 2011 @ 15:58 GMT
Hello, Mr. Barbour:

I still have your winning essay on the nature of time. It's like a fractal to me, I find new structure upon re-reading. new insight and ways of thinking. Anyway, your's and Mr. Rickles and several of the top essays in the contest are what inspired me to join this third one and give it a try.

Mine was one of thelast entries as I frantically proof-read, re-read, and gathered the gumption to actually enter. Then I noticed your entry a couple days before with dread. It's one thing to enjoy you essay as a non-competitor, etc....

Anyway please check out my essay, "A Method to Measure Consciousness, and Demonstrations of Worldy Multiplicity" when you can, and comment if you can. There is no reason here to try to bolster you ego, so I'll just be honest: if you read and/or comment on my own essay, that to me would be a sucess no matter the outcome of this contest. (and encourage me to continue my mid-life foray into natural philophy proper)

Anyway, I'll be back with my comments. But I wanted to past a reply just submitted on another author's thread, as it is germaine to all of the essays, it seems (post follows):

Importantly, though, it would seem there is an over-arching theme (framework) emerging from these essays (among others). That is a debate about hidden dimensions and/or hidden internal structure in the subatomic particles.

The LHC website has a surprising result that is so far unexplained: when protons collide with enough or more force to produce more than 122 particle products or so, the excess partiles travel off in the same direction! Clearly, either a heretofore unknown internal structure is being revealed, and/or those particles are expeiriencing the same force (or the same resultant forces).

FRom your thread, you have touched upon this in your essay, with the help of other's results. In my own essay is an explanation for this. I plan on continuing to develop the implications of my essay whatever the results of this competition, due to the excitement and critical thinking that I've been forced to hone therein. There is another exciting result from my essay, I am learning.

Another article in last months scientific american; where a theoretical physicist bemoans the fact that as a group they are having great trouble picturing what is going on with their various models of reality, due to the great complexity of the equations. Again, the path is laid out in my essay, and the clarification of modern theoretical concepts can be explained " in language a patient bartender can understand".

This is simple, and I can contribute to the advancement of our understanding if given the opportunity.



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re castel wrote on Feb. 27, 2011 @ 16:42 GMT
Dear Dr Barbour and all you folks,

I just read Paul N Butler's essay at This may be good reading for you, too.


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Anonymous replied on Feb. 27, 2011 @ 22:20 GMT
Absolutely castel. good essay so far. it is fantastic actually. up to page six...

Nevertheless before continuing with the essay, I must ask no-one in particular: isn't ad hoc introducing a new dimension just adding a degree of freedome? So really you could prove anything with that device. However, to in addition add on a second assumption (degree of freedom) doubly a device to explain a theory? To whit, that the new dimensions are so small as to be not observed just a facile attempt to further remove the consequences of a possible false proposition from its conclusions?

{This is so fun.}

Then again, the LHC experiment recently confirmed for quark-gluon plasmas that the assumption of perfect fluids in theoretical models is correct! Just like the thing you describe, with the "wind" analogy,, mr. jurgenson. Fascinating. In the Mr. Spock sense; not the objective one.

I will continue that essay, and comment tomorrow in this, this thread very few (if any) will actually ever see, much less read lol.


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re castel replied on Feb. 28, 2011 @ 01:14 GMT

Yes. Page six and seven dampens the essay quite a bit. But I still think that overall his essay is good reading. His essay struck a chord - you would understand if you've read my essay.


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Anonymous wrote on Feb. 27, 2011 @ 22:22 GMT
TommyG., anonymously stumbling his way through esoterica and the essential both.

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Steve Dufourny wrote on Feb. 28, 2011 @ 09:45 GMT
beautiful essay full of spirituality, congratulations, I understand better why you won in the past, good luck.



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Author Yuri Danoyan+ wrote on Mar. 2, 2011 @ 00:15 GMT
Dear Julian

I would like reminding you about your answer by mail Mon 6/7/2004 2:57 AM

to my question.

"I do not know the answer to your questions. However, I do believe continuous symmetries are fundamental except perhaps the Lorentz boosts.

Best wishes, Julian Barbour."

Now i have my own answer

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Tommy Gilbertson wrote on Mar. 2, 2011 @ 17:56 GMT
Atta boy, Yuri, don't let the Gentlemen sit on his laurels like that! I'll check out your essay right now!

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Tommy Gilbertson wrote on Mar. 5, 2011 @ 16:09 GMT
Thanx for your outstanding essay Mr. Barbour. I mustneeds read it three more times to fully enjoy. but alas time is short. minimal. limited. must vote soon....

please see my comment in Mr. rickles thread for my final word on the subject matter. I mean my final equation in this one contest lol

double dog dare you

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Tommy Gilbertson wrote on Mar. 6, 2011 @ 10:36 GMT
Dr. Barbour:

Please disregard all of my previous threads. I had a plan to raise interest in at least getting my essay read, but if you get a chance to check out my own essay thread, you'll see why that is no longer the case.

I have a day-job (night-shift) and basic Aristotellian Rhetoric is being used as a weapon in my threads to paint me the ignorant villian. Dont' have the energy to provide a long explanation as to what these false arguments are to all, or what Rhetoric is , and even Aristotle himself despised the techniques he invented. But every courtrm practices Rhetoric every day.

So now my thread has untrue charactarizations from other groups that make my essay look incorrect and riddled with mistakes!

While I don't give up now, I may surrender later (future contests): these threads are rip-roaring fun from the other side of the aisle. But when it's a contest, the red herringss let fly and stick to my threads. This will probably be enough to convince every-man to check out another essay as there are so many.

It's no long er quite so much fun.

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Tommy Gilbertson wrote on Mar. 7, 2011 @ 15:37 GMT
OK OK your Silence is deafening me!!!!

I hear you and I've listened. I shall now respond on my thread in the spririt of Dr. Newton's Prinicpia, if nothing else...

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James Lee Hoover wrote on Mar. 8, 2011 @ 05:07 GMT
that nature is fundamentally digital and continuity an illusion.


Your points were well-defended, but my prejudice, perhaps argued with less precision, is that reality is analogue, not too popular for physicists.

Does your statement above imply that nature is reality? I know we can easily get into semantics.

Best regards,

Jim Hoover

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Michael Jeub wrote on Mar. 9, 2011 @ 02:35 GMT

I read your other essay about the nature of time. So long as you don't measure anything you get this holistic that you are believing in as ultimate. If you measure anything at all you are left with N log N as general ontology of your measurment. I think that there is too much dependencies, duals, symmetries to make the ideas of yours as NP complete; the structure of the three part event could be contained in just one N but measured would reveal N log N of the event? I don't see where this weakens discretization of the reality when you are forced to give the reality of things themselves a triad ontology. Mathematically, i think that you could some charcter for this maximal variety, maybe a zero or a one.....

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Janko Kokosar wrote on Mar. 14, 2011 @ 12:59 GMT
Dear Julian Barbour

Your essay is the first, which I found, where reference to Zeilinger theory of information exists. I think that this is almost necessary for such a topic.

You write that information needs things. I thing similarly. So in the essay from 2009 I write that this thing, which is needed from information is consciousness.

You write that Bohm-Aharonov experiment needs a lot of bits to determine location of the screen. (It is similarly for double slit experiment etc.) I think that our physical theories and experiments are not enough to be described with only a few bits. But maybe my theory of quantum gravity is enough primitive to give such a possibility. I will think.

I was late for this contest so I published my essay on viXra.

Good essay are such which gave new ideas. I hope that your essay will give me new ideas.

Regards Janko Kokosar


I need an endorser on arXiv for publication of my article: It is not speculative. It is a base for the above article. But the above article is speculative. But I need such a publication that my theories will be read and discussed.

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Russell Jurgensen wrote on Mar. 14, 2011 @ 20:34 GMT
Dear Julian,

I wanted to be sure to say hello and let you know I enjoyed your essay and gave it a high rating. In reading it a second time after reading many of the other essays I appreciate it even more. My few disagreements were minor in comparison to my appreciation for the philosophy you present in how we look at scientific observations. It was very educational to have help in understanding the different concepts of information.

Back to the philosophy of how we look at things, it seems like our philosophical approach is highly important. For example, Roger Penrose in The Road To Reality suggested that perhaps we need to view modern observations from a different angle so that a fundamentally new perspective may be obtained (P. 1024). I see your discussion being similar with your example of how we view data such as Wheeler's magnetic field measurements with several perspectives.

Following along those lines, it seems there could be perspectives or philosophies in science that are so well established that they discourage inquiry from other useful perspectives. As we see in this essay contest, physics is analyzing the philosophy that drives current thinking and is opening the door a crack to consider other views. The views that are actually considered will provide a logical (probably mathematical with accurate units) view that shows more about "it" and explains the "bit" that once was thought to be the explanation in itself.

By the way, I have enjoyed the debate between your essay and posted comments. Information could actually be considered a smallest reality device. The problem with any smallest reality device is how to define what produces it. Of course we are all realizing there may be some limit of what can be known in physics and we are trying to define it.

Thanks for a thoughtful, educational, and enjoyable essay!

Kind regards, Russell Jurgensen

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Tommy Gilbertson replied on Mar. 17, 2011 @ 13:13 GMT
Shoot, that is exactly what I wanted to say...

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Alan Lowey wrote on Mar. 18, 2011 @ 14:49 GMT
Dear Julian,

Congratulations on your dedication to the competition and your much deserved top ten placing. I have a bugging question for you, which I've also posed to all the top front runners btw:

Q: Coulomb's Law of electrostatics was modelled by Maxwell by mechanical means after his mathematical deductions as an added verification (thanks for that bit of info Edwin), which I highly admire. To me, this gives his equation some substance. I have a problem with the laws of gravity though, especially the mathematical representation that "every object attracts every other object equally in all directions." The 'fabric' of spacetime model of gravity doesn't lend itself to explain the law of electrostatics. Coulomb's law denotes two types of matter, one 'charged' positive and the opposite type 'charged' negative. An Archimedes screw model for the graviton can explain -both- the gravity law and the electrostatic law, whilst the 'fabric' of spacetime can't. Doesn't this by definition make the helical screw model better than than anything else that has been suggested for the mechanism of the gravity force?? Otherwise the unification of all the forces is an impossiblity imo. Do you have an opinion on my analysis at all?

Best wishes,


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basudeba wrote on Mar. 19, 2011 @ 00:31 GMT
Dear Sir,

Congratulations for your excellent analysis of information theory in relation to describing reality. We will like to further add something to your analysis.

You quote the views of two scientists that information is “physical” and “real” and “occupies the ontological basement”. Both argue that information is more basic than quantum fields or energy. They...

view entire post

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Georgina Parry wrote on Jun. 6, 2011 @ 10:46 GMT
Dear Julian,

Congratulations on your prize. It is no surprise to me as I thought your essay would do well. It is very well written. It is a pity you have not participated at all on this thread. Still, I know now that it is a waste of my time writing as you do not reply. So to spare -my- time I'll just say, Very well done - again!

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Tommy Gilbertson wrote on Jun. 12, 2011 @ 17:11 GMT
Congratulations, Mr. Barbour:

Good job placing 4TH with your essay. I'm abashed to say, I havent' read it yet. In my own defense I work a non-Theoreticl Physics day job, so only get a couple hours a day to dedicate to this first Passion (Philosophy and Physics). Yet due to the three factors of your Time essay being so excellent, getting 4th place, and your very large recent grant to basically 'keep thinking', there is little doubt this current essay will be better than ok!

My own meagre Essay languishes in the middle of the bunch. Of which I am thrilled and humbled in such company. It continues in it's conclusions and results and applications (whether actual or not is of no moment, as to the veracity of my definition of Consciousness therein) on my website and threads here. These are all off-shoots of my travails in getting the gumption to write an entry and dealing with my daily environment of a dearth of fellow Thinkers in Physics and Philosophy.

What I love most a bout rubbing shoulder s in here is that I am the tiny intellect among experience Giants. When I'm in my normal work-enviroment, this situation is reversed, and it is almost impossible to convince anybody otherwise. Mr. know-it-all doesn't, whether you believe him or not.

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Tommy Gilbertson wrote on Jun. 16, 2011 @ 22:28 GMT
Well, I guess if I had a ginormous Grant to Think about Thinking, I wouldn't diegn to match wits with the common Rabble either, sad to admit. Probably wouldn't engage in these thread if I had a chance of winning that way too. Bad news is, I wouldn't neglect to recall that there is a third point here, which is that I might have been a world-famous Author and Philosopher and have a quite cornacopious and interesting and ongoing--obviously, you are reading this Kind Sir--Thread-ology.

So if you will permit--and by your absence of Reply--we in the -ology can all assume you permit... Let me take this opportunity to offer up a fantastic sea-change in the world Monetary System. My newly created store, Quantum Auto Parts is now offering at huge discouts globally, oil of any kind. Most have free shipping. The most important product is sythetic oil, of course, for Energy Security... Soon, my probability AIs informed me before i deleted them, we will all have a web-presence. Soon (defined as 1-3 years) we will use those individual sites to pay very little. For everything. Soon (right now, partially) my own site will be offering absolutely any [useful] item for the lowest prices globally. Soon (defined as 6-9 months) everyone on Terra will have an identical, biodegradable disposable device which my AI's termed an AntiKythera. Anyway blah blah they were deleted. Last thing i saw on the screen was something about the determining factor in this new Star Trekkian future, where money don't matter is what you do with your identical handheld de\vice that's special, since they're all the same.

So apologies for the length. By your continued and now weighted silence in light of your Triumph you permit. Adieu!

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Tommy Gilbertson wrote on Jul. 8, 2011 @ 05:11 GMT
Wow: still here sitting back and trying to absorb this Threadology. It meanders quite interestingly from shrill ejaculations to insightful input. Like it was written by a genius with a mental illness, but with a heart of Gold...

Anyway, hello fqxi hello Scientific American. I'm looking for a job now. Maybe web Development? Or a little writing? Consulting? Don't make me look for another technician job (I've had 2 now since 2002), and waste away some more of my relative youth for the love of money. My advisor could have grabbed me by the collar and shook me when I graduated in 2002 and said, " the only way to make money with a physics degree is to stay in academics, get an even higher degree, and stay in that world. or you'll be doomed to practice some subset of Physics by being a technician forever..." So all you undergraduates out there, take heed to this wisdom, which wasn't shared vehemently enough with me.

As a demonstration of my web-erly Kung Fu, search my full name in a google search. Third relevant hit is this thread, right here. It ain't another coincidence, you know. (Won't last, now it's said out loud!)

And as an individual, with no relation to my job experience, in addition to my normal duties in a new position, I offer for purchase any kind of battery whatsoever, any kind of auto part, any kind of translator, backpack, software, tools, oils, rfid-blocking apparel; all at the lowest prices on Earth and free shipping. Even cheaper than from the sites themselves!

All of these extra skills were acquired and developed in response to, and in retaliation for, the horribly abysmal performance of my essay in this contest. And all are consequences of said horrible essay. There I feel better now it's said. So keep up the non-recognition, and I'll keep on developing consequences. Wish someone would stop me: it's inevitable, if current trending continues, that the site will eventually offer absolutely everthing useful at absolutely the lowest prices. Quick, hire me before I collapse the world monetary system. It' sgoing to happen relatively soon, I'll wager, anyway. But why let me accellerate this process for all the wrong reasons?

Quantum Auto Parts

Travellor's Companion

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Tommy Gilbertson wrote on Jul. 27, 2011 @ 08:53 GMT
Dank u vriendelijk, Wilhelmus. How' s Nederland? Ik zou zo willen bezoeken als u kon helpen? Uw commentaren waren divers en enigszins beknopt bij verscheidene punt. U bent duidelijk hartstochtelijk over u verhandeling. Dank die voor hij inspanning mijn poging eigenlijk om te lezen nemen. Het zou het begin van vrij verreikend iets kunnen zijn. En zal zo van u. Ik verheug me op het lezen van het. En ernstig, ive nooit aan scandanavia? kreeg een kleine ruimte voor een couupleweken. lol? voorzien van een netwerk here.give me tijd en voor u verteren om met contact te onderbreken. zullen aan me voor bepaald… krijgen thanx opnieuw

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Sridattadev wrote on Aug. 2, 2011 @ 13:37 GMT
Dear Julian,

I would like to introduce myself in quantum terminology and share the truth that I have experienced with you. who am I?

I superpositioned myself to be me, to disentangle reality from virtuality and reveal the absolute truth.



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Pentcho Valev wrote on Aug. 7, 2011 @ 16:39 GMT
Julian Barbour wrote: "However, the notions of particle and field remain crucial to our interpretation of quantum phenomena."

Einstein had to apply one of the two notions in 1905, picked up the wrong one and made the following confession in 1954:

Einstein's 1954 confession: "I consider it entirely possible that physics cannot be based upon the field concept, that is on continuous structures. Then nothing will remain of my whole castle in the air, including the theory of gravitation, but also nothing of the rest of contemporary physics."

Clues to Einstein's 1954 confession:

"The two first articles (January and March) establish clearly a discontinuous structure of matter and light. The standard look of Einstein's SR is, on the contrary, essentially based on the continuous conception of the field."

John Norton: "In addition to his work as editor of the Einstein papers in finding source material, Stachel assembled the many small clues that reveal Einstein's serious consideration of an emission theory of light; and he gave us the crucial insight that Einstein regarded the Michelson-Morley experiment as evidence for the principle of relativity, whereas later writers almost universally use it as support for the light postulate of special relativity. Even today, this point needs emphasis. The Michelson-Morley experiment is fully compatible with an emission theory of light that CONTRADICTS THE LIGHT POSTULATE."

"Relativity and Its Roots" By Banesh Hoffmann

"Moreover, if light consists of particles, as Einstein had suggested in his paper submitted just thirteen weeks before this one, the second principle seems absurd: A stone thrown from a speeding train can do far more damage than one thrown from a train at rest; the speed of the particle is not independent of the motion of the object emitting it. And if we take light to consist of particles and assume that these particles obey Newton's laws, they will conform to Newtonian relativity and thus automatically account for the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment without recourse to contracting lengths, local time, or Lorentz transformations. Yet, as we have seen, Einstein resisted the temptation to account for the null result in terms of particles of light and simple, familiar Newtonian ideas, and introduced as his second postulate something that was more or less obvious when thought of in terms of waves in an ether."

Pentcho Valev

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Georgina Parry wrote on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 21:21 GMT
Dear Julian ,

so sorry I will not be able to attend the symposium on time and have the opportunity to hear you talk, and possibly even meet you in person. It is not that I would not like to attend but I am on the southern hemisphere at present and do not have the funds or the opportunity to fly over for it. I expect it will be a very interesting day indeed. Enjoy it.

Regards Georgina.

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Would-Be Author replied on Aug. 28, 2011 @ 23:15 GMT
Yeah, fqxi, how 'bout some free tix to fly there (and a room)? It would encourage us 'would be' authors to contribute more to see that if you don't win this contest, at least there's more to the aftermath than getting trounced in these threads! Signed--one of the most trounced!

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