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Reality’s NeverEnding Story

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FQXi Awardees: Wojciech Zurek

April 17, 2014

Wojciech Zurek

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Could our universe be in a similar loop?

Wojciech Zurek, a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, believes that this question could bring us closer to understanding one of the deepest mysteries in physics: How our perceived reality emerges from the weird world of quantum mechanics.

"Quantum mechanical states are fuzzy and fragile," says Zurek. In quantum mechanics, the principle of

Zurek hopes that the answer may lie at the intersection of three well-developed ideas in quantum theory. The first is

Decoherence explains how familiar, classical physics emerges from the haze of quantum mechanics, and clears up vexing paradoxes like that of Schrödinger’s famous cat, locked in a box with a poisonous substance that will be released if a radioactive atom decays. While the box is closed, the usual story goes, the radioactive atom is in a superposition state in which it has both decayed and not decayed, leaving the trapped cat in limbo too. Decoherence helps resolve this, however: We don’t need to worry about the cat being alive and dead at once because a macroscopic feline can’t maintain the perfect isolation required to hold the superposition.

Quantum Darwinism

But decoherence does not explain why all observers share the same classical reality—that is, why reality is objective rather than subjective. For that, Zurek turns to the second piece of the puzzle, the theory of quantum Darwinism, which Zurek and his colleagues and collaborators have been developing over the past dozen years. Quantum Darwinism specifies how the environment selects and disseminates information about favored states. These favored states emerge through a process dubbed "einselection," or

The third implement in Zurek’s quantum toolbox is the quantum origin of probabilities that he traces to quantum entanglement. "Probability is a way of quantifying your partial knowledge" about a system, says Zurek. Drawing a random card from a face-down deck, you know that the probability of picking a spade is exactly one in four. Drawing from a deck placed face-up, the odds change: either it’s a spade, or it isn’t, and the probability is either zero or one. Probability, then, was thought to be tied to how much you know about a system. "The less you know," says Zurek, "the more probabilistic are your predictions."

Working with Zurek involves not only

thinking outside the box, but being

outside the box.

thinking outside the box, but being

outside the box.

- Seth Lloyd

Armed with an FQXi grant of over $80,000, Zurek is now searching for a common framework for these three different perspectives of the quantum world, a process that he says "allows for cross-fertilization" that can provoke new veins of inquiry. But what common language may unite the three?

The answer could lie in quantum information theory, a growing movement in theoretical physics that argues for the critical role of information in understanding our universe. Information plays a unique role in quantum physics. By gathering information about a system, we change that system; information shapes existence. This phenomenon has no parallel in classical physics—except, perhaps, the mythical world of "The Neverending Story."

Using the language of philosophy, theorists distinguish between the

Ontic Consequences

If an experimenter chooses to measure wavelike properties of a photon, for instance, that photon will act like a wave. If she elects instead to measure its particle-like attributes—for example, by pinpointing its location—then a particle it shall be. If she locates its position precisely, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle mandates that its momentum will then be unknowable. The nature of the measurement will help determine the state the system takes on. In Zurek’s words, "When the observer or even the environment acquires information, this epistemic act has implications for what exists—it has ontic consequences—as it alters the state of the system and constrains its future evolution."

Wheeler’s Self-Referential Universe

Does the act of observing the universe create it?

Credit: David M. Harrison, University of Toronto

Zurek, like his advisor, the renowned theorist John Wheeler, believes that epistemic and ontic aspects of our universe and intimately linked. To describe this situation, in which epistemic and ontic are in a constant dialogue mediated by the observer, Zurek coined the term "epiontic." Wheeler once illustrated the role of observers with a simple cartoon: a letter U, representing the universe from the Big Bang (the tip of the U’s right arm) to the present (the tip of the left arm), with a human eye perched on top of the left arm, gazing back in time. We bring the universe into being by looking at it, the cartoon seems to say.

By investigating the epiontic nature of quantum physics, says Zurek, we may hope "ultimately to understand how we, as observers, fit into this universe" and how our classical universe, "where epistemic and ontic are in a strict church and state-like separation, emerges from the quantum goings on, where these two functions are inseparably intertwined."

If this sounds like an ambitious goal, Zurek attacks it with a humble, and even playful, technique. "I try to write down things as I understand them at the moment," says Zurek. "That reveals what I don’t know; these holes in what I understand help define questions that can lead to insights."

"It’s always fun to work with Wojciech," says Raymond Laflamme, the co-founder and director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, who worked with Zurek as a postdoc and served as a member of his research group until 2001. Searching for the right word to describe Zurek, Laflamme turns to his native French: Zurek, he says, is a true

"He has an incredible amount of intuition. With Wojciech, you do science everywhere," says Laflamme, fondly recalling ideas generated and shared on the ski lift or while out on a hike. As MIT physicist Seth Lloyd puts it, working with Zurek "involves not only thinking outside the box, but

"He’s a playful intellect, with an intellectual twinkle in his eye," says Lloyd.

"There are some physicists who are good calculating machines," continues Laflamme. "Their skill is not making mistakes. This is

As Zurek puts it: "The hardest problem is asking a good question. I had the good fortune to ask a few good ones in the past—like about the role of the environment in the emergence of the classical from the quantum substrate in our universe. I think I’m getting closer to asking the right question now. But you only know you have a good question when you have an answer."

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LEO VUYK wrote on May 27, 2014

If the big bang was the entangled splitting of the central dark matter Black hole into 12x entangleD ( CP symmetric) copy universes , then we are left with a wavefunction collapse system without CAT PROBLEMS.

SEE:

Democratic Free Will in the instant Entangled Multiverse.

http://vixra.org/pdf/1401.0071v2.pdf

If the big bang was the entangled splitting of the central dark matter Black hole into 12x entangleD ( CP symmetric) copy universes , then we are left with a wavefunction collapse system without CAT PROBLEMS.

SEE:

Democratic Free Will in the instant Entangled Multiverse.

http://vixra.org/pdf/1401.0071v2.pdf

QESDUNN wrote on May 14, 2014

Referencing Quantum Entangled Singularities

http://jamesbdunn2.blogspot.com/2014/05/fatalism-non-deterministic-physics.html

The problem with using the relative perspective is that one cannot see the underlying non-relativistic foundations. Locking perspective in observable physics hides the foundation of causal relationships.

The Big Bang is proposed to represent a cycling through a shift in alternate dimensional states; the shifting of physics constants (relativistic...

Referencing Quantum Entangled Singularities

http://jamesbdunn2.blogspot.com/2014/05/fatalism-non-deterministic-physics.html

The problem with using the relative perspective is that one cannot see the underlying non-relativistic foundations. Locking perspective in observable physics hides the foundation of causal relationships.

The Big Bang is proposed to represent a cycling through a shift in alternate dimensional states; the shifting of physics constants (relativistic...

JASON MARK WOLFE wrote on May 7, 2014

I really couldn't answer that question without getting metaphysical. All I know is that the standard model of particles is arbitrary. Since every particle has a quantum field associated with it, and the standard model is arbitrary, one can only ask why there wouldn't be an extensive list of quantum field things, most of which wouldn't be particles. The existence of quantum fields opens the door wide to anything from an aether to Holy Spirit to ghosts, spirits and near death experiences. A...

I really couldn't answer that question without getting metaphysical. All I know is that the standard model of particles is arbitrary. Since every particle has a quantum field associated with it, and the standard model is arbitrary, one can only ask why there wouldn't be an extensive list of quantum field things, most of which wouldn't be particles. The existence of quantum fields opens the door wide to anything from an aether to Holy Spirit to ghosts, spirits and near death experiences. A...

read all article comments