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Constructing a Theory of Life
An all-encompassing framework of physics could help to explain the evolution of consciousness, intelligence, and free will.

Usurping Quantum Theory
The search is on for a fundamental framework that allows for even stranger links between particles than quantum theory—which could lead us to a theory of everything.

Fuzzballs v Black Holes
A radical theory replaces the cosmic crunchers with fuzzy quantum spheres, potentially solving the black-hole information paradox and explaining away the Big Bang and the origin of time.

Whose Physics Is It Anyway? Q&A with Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Why physics and astronomy communities must take diversity issues seriously in order to do good science.

Why Time Might Not Be an Illusion
Einstein’s relativity pushes physicists towards a picture of the universe as a block, in which the past, present, and future all exist on the same footing; but maybe that shift in thinking has gone too far.

August 17, 2018

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Losing the Nobel Prize: Book Review and Special Podcast
By ZEEYA MERALI • Jul. 23, 2018 @ 20:44 GMT

Scientific autobiographies tend focus on history’s successes, with proud scientists revelling in the genius that led them to make groundbreaking discoveries. Very few scientists, however, are brave enough to dissect their spectacular failures, reflecting with brutal honesty on the biases, the fears, and the greed that led them to make poor ethical choices and high-profile blunders. But in a riveting account of the now infamous 2014 BICEP2 claim—and the subsequent humiliating retraction—of the first detection of ripples in spacetime, astronomer and BICEP2 team member, Brian Keating does just that.

"If true, this is one of the most important discoveries in the history of science." So said FQXi’s scientific director Max Tegmark, in response to the BICEP2 team’s announcement in March 2014 of the first detection of signs of so-called "primordial gravitational waves," set in motion just a fraction of a second after the big bang. These signs were picked up by the BICEP2 telescope, in the South Pole, which was scrutinising the leftover radiation from the big bang for a twisty pattern of light ("B-modes") made by these ripples. The gravitational waves were thought to have been generated during a cosmic growth spurt, when our early universe inflated at an exponentially fast rate. This process of inflation is something that many cosmologists believe must have occurred, but which has yet to be definitively confirmed.

A swish press conference at Harvard hailed the findings as the first detection of gravitational waves of any sort (coming, as it did, before LIGO picked up gravitational waves emanating from the collision of two black holes), as the first direct proof of inflation, as the first indirect evidence of the multiverse of parallel universes predicted to exist by inflation theory, and as the first probe of quantum gravitational effects. The astronomers behind the experiment, and the theorists behind inflation theory, seemed shoo-ins for Nobel Prizes. The media, and much of the physics community, went wild.

The only trouble was, of course, it wasn't true.

A few months later, the BICEP2 collaboration had to somewhat embarrassingly retract their claims. The team had indeed spotted the B-mode pattern they were looking for, but it was not caused by primordial gravitational waves, as they had initially hoped. Instead, they realized, the imprint was made as a result of light bouncing of galactic dust.

Free Podcast

Losing the Nobel Prize: In this special edition, physicist Brian Keating discusses his new book, which recounts the ill-fated BICEP2 announcement--and retraction--of the claimed discovery of primordial gravitational waves in 2014.


Go to full podcast

So what went wrong? That's the question at the heart of "Losing the Nobel Prize," by cosmologist Brian Keating of UC San Diego, who invented the telescope's predecessor, BICEP, and played a major role on the BICEP2 project. In a special edition of the podcast, Keating talks us through the events that led a team of brilliant scientists to make such a monumental mistake, and then proceed to unwittingly announce a bogus result—with huge fanfare—to the world.

Keating's intrigue-filled account of the BICEP2 team's dubious ethical conduct along the way to reaching the wrong conclusion makes a captivating read. The mess would have been averted if the team had an accurate measure of the dust contaminating the patch of sky they were viewing. The ground-based telescope's only rival in the hunt for B-modes, the far-costlier Planck satellite, was equipped to create precisely the dust map that they needed. But Planck's team members would not release this valuable data to the BICEP2 team—understandably so, given that they were potentially racing to the same result. As Keating eloquently puts it on the podcast (though with tongue firmly in cheek): “We desperately wanted to borrow their data. And when we couldn’t borrow it, after begging for it, we basically stole it.”

This 'theft' came about after one of the Planck collaboration gave a public talk with a slide that appeared to contain the dust information that BICEP2 needed. Some grateful BICEP2 members lifted it from the internet, and digitised this qualitative slide in an attempt to extrapolate quantitive information about dust levels, without consulting the Planck team. Therein lay their undoing. Had the channels of communication been open with Planck, they would have known that they were mishandling the slide, leading them to underestimate the role of dust and over-interpret the B-mode effect, wrongly attributing it to inflation. Their fear that Planck would sweep the Nobel Prize out from under their noses led them to rush their announcement, going public before the results had passed peer review.

On the podcast, Keating openly describes his concerns about the ethics around the use of this slide, and ways he would like the scientific community to change, to avoid similar dastardly deeds happening in the future. We also discuss the media hoopla that surrounded the announcement. Speaking as a science journalist, it was clear within days of the press conference that some cosmologists had doubts about whether the signal was more than just dust; yet it was a while before we in the media critically reported on the BICEP2 claim and gave voice to those misgivings. Interestingly, though, Keating stands by the team's decision to go public before peer review, arguing that, in this case, peer review may only have served to delay the claim's unravelling.

There are two major villains Keating identifies that, he says, must share some of the blame for the debacle. The first is the galactic dust that quite literally clouded the team's judgement. In the book, he skilfully presents the history of the universe seen through the eyes of an experimentalist. Rather than simply focusing on the much-lauded successes of Galileo, Hubble, and others, as so many popular accounts have done before, he provides the lesser-told stories of how they too, like many others throughout history, were sometimes tricked into misreading their observations by that pesky dust. This alternative version of cosmology is deftly interwoven with his witty account of his own personal, and at times deeply moving, quest to build a Nobel-winning experiment, in part, to impress his estranged father.

It's this hunger for fame and recognition that sets up the second villain of the book: the Nobel prize itself. Keating calls for a wholesale change in culture away from “Nobelism”—the religious devotion that scientists have for this hallowed award. On the podcast, he enumerates ways to improve the prize to make it more inclusive, and to better represent the large-scale collaborations that underpin successful experiments. Perhaps most provocatively—and something we don't get into in the podcast, but you can read about in the book—Keating also argues that Nobels should only be given for "serendipitous" findings. In that case, neither BICEP2 nor Planck would have been eligible, had either found signs of primordial gravitational waves, because both were designed to hunt for these, from the outset. By contrast, the accidental discovery of the accelerated expansion of the universe by the two competing teams, which garnered Nobels for Brian Schmidt, Adam Reiss, and Saul Perlmutter, on both teams, would have qualified. But, I wonder, even if all Keating's suggested changes were taken on board by the organisers of the Nobel Prize, would that really prevent future scientists from being tempted to the dark side, by a lust for the award? On the podcast, we chat about just that issue.

If there is a weakness in Keating's book, it is in the sections devoted to criticising the prize. That's not because I particularly disagree with his suggestions, but because it seems unlikely that the Nobel bigwigs will pay much heed; Keating may as well rage against the dust in the heavens that plagued his experiment. Nonetheless, I would highly recommend the book for its terrific and rarely-told alternate history of cosmology from an experimentalist's viewpoint, and its compelling insight into the human frailties behind what ultimately failed to be one of the most important discoveries in the history of science, but still stands as one of the most fascinating incidents in the sociology of science.
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SciMeter: A New Way to Search ArXiv
By SABINE HOSSENFELDER • Jul. 16, 2018 @ 13:00 GMT

I have a bad memory for names. But it’s not equally bad for all names. I recall Germanic and Anglo-saxon names more readily than Indian or Chinese names. I recall short names better than long names. I recall common names better than uncommon ones. So, when I organize a conference, how do I avoid a bias for people whose names my brain happens to have stored?

I used to ask my colleagues, and scan participant lists of similar conferences, and browse papers on the conference topics. But often I wished there was a way to just bring up a list of all physicists who worked on a topic or a combination of topics. This, so I thought, wouldn’t only be useful to organize a conference, it would also help journalists who search for an expert’s comment, or editors who search for reviewers.

And – drums please! –  you can now do such a search on our just-launched website SciMeter. Just enter one or several topics, hit submit, and you get a name of everyone whose arXiv papers have focused on the topics you look for.

Wait, that’s not all. On our website you can also create a keyword cloud from your arXiv papers, you can learn how broadly distributed your research topics are (over all arXiv topics), and you can search for authors with similar research interests. For example, here is the keyword cloud for Brian Greene:

This website was made possible by a mini-grant from FQXi. Frontend and backend became reality thanks to my collaborators Tobias Mistele and Tom Price.
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New Online Course: Algorithmic Information Dynamics
By HECTOR ZENIL • May. 18, 2018 @ 19:54 GMT

Supported by the Foundational Questions Institute, a new MOOC (massive open online course) on the new and exciting field of "Algorithmic Information Dynamics" will be released on June 12ve by the Santa Fe Institute. The course offers a novel computational perspective to causality and living systems, from complex networks to reprogramming cells. You are all welcome to sign up for the course, for a small fee with access to certificate and materials, or to watch it for free.

You can learn more about the MOOC from this brief introductory video:

Harnessing the power of computational models:

Probability and statistics have long helped scientists make sense of data about the natural world — to find meaningful signals in the noise. But classical statistics prove a little threadbare in today’s landscape of large datasets, which are driving new insights in disciplines ranging from biology to ecology to economics. It's as true in biology, with the advent of genome sequencing, as it is in astronomy, with telescope surveys charting the entire sky. The data have changed.

Algorithmic Information Dynamics is an exciting new field put forward by our lab based upon some of the most mathematically mature and powerful theories put together in harmony to tackle some of the challenges of causal discovery from a heavily model-driven and mechanistic perspective.

Taught by me and my friend and colleague Dr. Narsis A. Kiani, co-leaders of the Algorithmic Dynamics Lab, the course will provide a conceptual introduction to the field focusing on mathematical and computational aspects in the study of causality. The course covers key aspects from graph theory and network science, information theory, dynamical systems and algorithmic complexity. It will venture into ongoing research in fundamental science and its applications to behavioral, evolutionary and molecular biology.

After a conceptual overview of the main motivation and some historical developments, we will review some preliminary aspects needed to understand the most advanced topics. These include basic concepts of statistics and probability, notions of computability and algorithmic complexity and brief introductions to graph theory and dynamical systems. We then dig deeper into the core of the course, that of Algorithmic Information Dynamics which brings all these areas together in harmony to serve in the challenge of causality discovery, the most important topic in science. Central to the course and the field is the theory of algorithmic probability that establishes a formal bridge between computation, complexity and probability.

Finally, we move towards new measures and tools related to reprogramming artificial and biological systems, applications to biological evolution, evolutionary programming, phase space and space-time reconstruction, epigenetic landscapes and aspects relevant to data analytics and machine learning such as model generation, feature selection, dimensionality reduction and causal deconvolution. We will showcase the tools and framework in applications to behavioral, evolutionary and molecular biology, in particular genetic networks.


1. A Computational Approach to Causality

2. Technical Skills and Selected Topics

3. A Brief Introduction to Graph Theory and Biological Networks

4. Basics of Computability, Information Theory and Algorithmic Complexity

5. Dynamical Systems as Models of the World

6. Foundations of Algorithmic Information Dynamics and Reprogrammability

7. Applications to Behavioural, Evolutionary and Molecular Biology

Tuition is $50, which is required to get to the course material during the course and a certificate at the end. But the course will also be made available free to watch and if no fee is paid materials will not be available until the course closes. Donations are highly encouraged and appreciated in support for SFI's ComplexityExplorer to continue offering new courses.

In addition to all course materials tuition includes:

• Six-month access to the Wolfram|One platform (renewable for other six)

• Free digital copy of the course textbook to be published by Cambridge University Press

• Several gifts will be given away to the top students finishing the course, check the FAQ page for more details.

You can register yourself at here.

We look forward to you doing us!

Hector Zenil is co-leader of the Algorithmic Dynamics Lab, and a member of FQXi.
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What Is Fundamental? – Winners Roll
By BRENDAN FOSTER • May. 14, 2018 @ 16:02 GMT

Rho Ophiuchus Photo By Rogelio Bernal Andreo -
There may be no better question for FQXi to ask then, What Is “Fundamental”? We asked this question last October for our latest essay contest, and over 200 deep-thinkers sent us their ideas.

You might agree with what they have said, or you might not.

It is now time to reveal all the answers! — or, I mean, reveal all the winners.

Let me first thank our sponsors, for making the contest possible. The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation have long been a great help, and The Fetzer Franklin Fund has joined us in our ongoing Agency in the Physical World program. Thanks also to our panel of judges for their diligence. And thank you to all of you who took the time to answer our question and write us an essay.

Here we go with the winners, to be revealed as the day goes on. You can follow along as well, on Twitter, @FQXi —

This year we have two special prizes to announce.

An award for Creative Writing ($1,000) goes to Mozibur Ullah and his dialogue, Socrates, Atoms, and Being.

And an award for a Student Author ($1,000) goes to Aditya Dwarkesh, for ’Fundamentality' as a Linguistic Paradigm (and Linguistics as a Fundamental Paradigm).

Next, we have our Fourth Prize Winners. These will all receive $1,000. In first-name alphabetical order, we have:

Ian Durham, Bell's Theory of Beables and the Concept of ‘Universe'

Ken Wharton, Fundamental Is Non-Random

Marc Séguin, Fundamentality Here, Fundamentality There, Fundamentality Everywhere

Markus Mueller, Mind Before Matter: Reversing the Arrow of Fundamentality

Tejinder Singh, Things, Laws, and the Human Mind

Next, we have the Third Prize Winners. Each essay will receive $2,000. We have:

Gregory Derry, Fundamentality, Explanation, and the Unity of Science

Karen Crowther, When do we stop digging? Conditions on a fundamental theory of physics

Sabine Hossenfelder, The Case for Strong Emergence

Sean Carroll and Ashmeet Singh, Mad-Dog Everettianism: Quantum Mechanics at Its Most Minimal.

And now, for our Second Prize Winners. Our panel felt that each of these was all-around excellent quality, and chose to award each one a full $5,000. We have:

Alyssa Ney, The Politics of Fundamentality

Dean Rickles, Of Lego and Layers (and Fundamentalism)

Matt Leifer, Against Fundamentalism.

And now finally, we have our top winner. Last year, you may recall our panel could not decide between three essays for first. This year, they unanimously agreed on one entry. We are pleased to award the $10,000 First Prize to:

Emily Adlam, Fundamental?

Congratulations to all our winners. Here’s looking forward to the next contest. On behalf of FQXi, thanks to all of you for reading along.
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Cosmic Dawn, Parallel Observers, and a Science Hostel in Maui: New Podcast
By ZEEYA MERALI • Mar. 21, 2018 @ 20:04 GMT

EDGES antenna, by Suzyj, Wikicommons
This month’s podcast features the exciting discovery of signs of the first stars made by astronomers using the EDGES experiment, in Western Australia (right), published in Nature, in February. It’s long been predicted that they should see such an indirect signal, which they picked up as a dip in the intensity of radiation in the cosmic microwave background (the afterglow of the big bang). But while this signal was where they thought it would be, and confirmed when they thought the first stars appeared — some 180 million years after the big bang — the detection raised new puzzles. The signal was far stronger than had been predicted. So, I spoke with cosmologist Rennan Barkana, of Tel Aviv University in Israel, who published a companion paper in the same edition of Nature, offering a possible solution: the boosted signal could be caused by an unexpected interaction with dark matter, in the early universe.

Free Podcast

Remembering Stephen Hawking; light from the first stars in the universe, with Rennan Barkana; our place in the multiverse, with Eugene Lim; & setting up a science hostel in Maui, with Garrett Lisi.


Go to full podcast

Next, reporter Sophie Hebden chatted to cosmologist Eugene Lim, of King’s College London, about what we may be able to infer about observers in parallel universes. Lim, and his colleague Richard Easther, at the University of Auckland, are examining the possibility that we live in a multiverse of neighbouring cosmoses that each have different physical laws. But how likely is it that sentient observers will arise in those regions? What are the minimal set of physical properties needed for such observers to evolve? And what might our multiversal neighbours be able to measure? Answering such questions might help explain why our universe has the peculiar rules that it does. (You can read more about Lim and Easther’s work in Sophie's article, "Our Place in the Multiverse.")

And, if you're wondering what we do when we're not podcasting, the answer, for Brendan Foster at least, is he enjoys relaxing in Maui. But on this holiday, he took some time to meet with theoretical physicist Garrett Lisi, who has opened a hostel for scientists to visit and spend time working. Listen now to hear Brendan’s verdict on whether staying in such an idyllic location can be productive for research.

Finally, we've been away for a while. In the meantime, we saw the sad passing of two giants of theoretical physics, Joe Polchinski and Stephen Hawking. The latter died after we recorded the main edition, but we've added a few words to commemorate these huge losses. Both shall be missed.
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Recent Blog Entries

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