Emergence in Condensed Matter and Quantum Gravity

George Musser | Aug 11, 2022

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This book surveys the science at a semipopular, Scientific American-level. It is even-handed with regard to competing directions of research and philosophical positions. It is hard to get even two people to agree on anything, yet a million billion water molecules can suddenly and abruptly coordinate to lock themselves into an ice crystal or liberate one another to billow outwards as steam. The marvelous self-organizing capacity of matter is one of the central and deepest puzzles of physics, with implications for all the natural sciences. Physicists in the past century have found a remarkable diversity of phases of matter–and equally remarkable commonalities within that diversity. The pace of discovery has, if anything, only quickened in recent years with the appreciation of quantum phases of matter and so-called topological order. The study of seemingly humdrum materials has made contact with the more exotic realm of quantum gravity, as theorists realize that the spacetime continuum may itself be a phase of some deeper and still unknown constituents. These developments flesh out the sometimes vague concept of the emergence–how exactly it is that complexity begets simplicity.

Cosmic Origins

M. Mitchell Waldrop | Mar 23, 2022

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Cosmic Origins tells the story of how physicists and astronomers have struggled for more than a century to understand the beginnings of our universe, from its origins in the Big Bang to the modern day. The book will introduce the science as a narrative, by telling the story of the scientists who made each major discovery. It will also address and explain aspects of our theories that some cosmologists are still hesitant to accept, as well as gaps in our knowledge and even apparent inconsistencies in our measurements. Clearly written by a master of scientific exposition, this book will fascinate the curious general reader as well as providing essential background reading for college-level courses on physics and astronomy.

Undecidability, Uncomputability, and Unpredictability

Anthony Aguirre, Zeeya Merali & David Sloan (Eds) | Aug 21, 2021

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For a brief time in history, it was possible to imagine that a sufficiently advanced intellect could, given sufficient time and resources, in principle understand how to mathematically prove everything that was true. They could discern what math corresponds to physical laws, and use those laws to predict anything that happens before it happens.

That time has passed. Gödel’s undecidability results (the incompleteness theorems), Turing’s proof of non-computable values, the formulation of quantum theory, chaos, and other developments over the past century have shown that there are rigorous arguments limiting what we can prove, compute, and predict. While some connections between these results have come to light, many remain obscure, and the implications are unclear. Are there, for example, real consequences for physics ― including quantum mechanics ― of undecidability and non-computability? Are there implications for our understanding of the relations between agency, intelligence, mind, and the physical world?

This book, based on the winning essays from the annual FQxI competition, contains ten explorations of Undecidability, Uncomputability, and Unpredictability. The contributions abound with connections, implications, and speculations while undertaking rigorous but bold and open-minded investigation of the meaning of these constraints for the physical world, and for us as humans.

What is Fundamental?

Anthony Aguirre, Brendan Foster & Zeeya Merali (Eds) | Mar 29, 2019

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Are there truly fundamental entities in nature? Or are the things that we regard as fundamental in our theories – for example space, time or the masses of elementary particles – merely awaiting a derivation from a new, yet to be discovered theory based on elements that are more fundamental?

This was the central question posed in the 2018 FQxI essay competition, which drew more than 200 entries from professional physicists, philosophers, and other scholars. This volume presents enhanced versions of the fifteen award-winning essays, giving a spectrum of views and insights on this fascinating topic.

From a prescription for “when to stop digging” to the case for strong emergence, the reader will find here a plethora of stimulating and challenging ideas – presented in a largely non-technical manner – on which to sharpen their understanding of the language of physics and even the nature of reality.

Wandering Towards a Goal

Anthony Aguirre, Brendan Foster & Zeeya Merali (Eds) | Jun 11, 2018

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This collection of prize-winning essays addresses the controversial question of how meaning and goals can emerge in a physical world governed by mathematical laws. What are the prerequisites for a system to have goals? What makes a physical process into a signal? Does eliminating the homunculus solve the problem?

The three winning essays, by Larissa Albantakis, Carlo Rovelli and Jochen Szangolies tackle exactly these challenges, while many other aspects (agency, the role of the observer, causality versus teleology, ghosts in the machine etc.) put in an appearance in the other award winning contributions.

These seventeen imaginative, stimulating and often entertaining essays are enhanced versions of the prize-winning entries to the FQxI essay competition in 2017.

Trick or Truth

Anthony Aguirre, Brendan Foster & Zeeya Merali (Eds) | Mar 10, 2016

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The prize-winning essays in this book address the fascinating but sometimes uncomfortable relationship between physics and mathematics.

Is mathematics merely another natural science? Or is it the result of human creativity?

Does physics simply wear mathematics like a costume, or is math the lifeblood of physical reality?

The nineteen wide-ranging, highly imaginative and often entertaining essays are enhanced versions of the prize-winning entries to the FQxI essay competition “Trick or Truth”, which attracted over 200 submissions.

How Should Humanity Steer the Future?

Anthony Aguirre, Brendan Foster & Zeeya Merali (Eds) | Sep 30, 2015

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The fourteen award-winning essays in this volume discuss a range of novel ideas and controversial topics that could decisively influence the course of human life on Earth.

Their authors address, in accessible language, issues as diverse as: enabling our social systems to learn; research in biological engineering and artificial intelligence; mending and enhancing minds; improving the way we do, and teach, science; living in the here and now; and the value of play.

The essays are enhanced versions of the prize-winning entries submitted to the Foundational Questions Institute (FQxI) essay competition in 2014.

It From Bit, or Bit From It?

Anthony Aguirre, Brendan Foster & Zeeya Merali (Eds) | Mar 9, 2015

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The essays in this book look at the question of whether physics can be based on information, or – as John Wheeler phrased it – whether we can get “It from Bit”. They are based on the prize-winning essays submitted to the FQxI essay competition of the same name, which drew over 180 entries.

The eighteen contributions address topics as diverse as quantum foundations, entropy conservation, nonlinear logic and countable spacetime.

Together they provide stimulating reading for all physics aficionados interested in the possible role(s) of information in the laws of nature.


Questioning the Foundations of Physics

Anthony Aguirre, Brendan Foster & Zeeya Merali (Eds) | Feb 5, 2015

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The essays in this book look at way in which the fundaments of physics might need to be changed in order to make progress towards a unified theory. They are based on the prize-winning essays submitted to the FQxI essay competition “Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?”, which drew over 270 entries.

As Nobel Laureate physicist Philip W. Anderson realized, the key to understanding nature’s reality is not anything “magical”, but the right attitude, “the focus on asking the right questions, the willingness to try (and to discard) unconventional answers, the sensitive ear for phoniness, self-deception, bombast, and conventional but unproven assumptions.”

The authors of the eighteen prize-winning essays have, where necessary, adapted their essays for the present volume so as to (a) incorporate the community feedback generated in the online discussion of the essays, (b) add new material that has come to light since their completion and (c) to ensure accessibility to a broad audience of readers with a basic grounding in physics.

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