Friday, January 13, 2006

Physics and The Wild Web

What draws some people to develop fundamental theories of physics even though they are well beyond the circles of the professional physics community? The odds against success seem overwhelming. Professional initiation into much advanced mathematics is required just to get to the frontiers of current physics, let alone succeed in pushing the boundaries of those frontiers into new areas. And yet have look at some of the titles from the Web enabled Print On Demand publishers. In their science sections you will find a plethora of books from “Do It Yourself” theorists, many of who radically challenge the basis on which current physical theory is founded. Added to this are the numerous offbeat physics papers to be found published directly on the Internet. This phenomenon is probably most prevalent in the USA with its go getting, “anything is possible”, frontiersman ethos. Where I live (the UK) people are less inclined to try anything so ambitious. This may be because a trace of medieval ambiance still lingers here and people are more likely to accept their station in life. If one wants to do different in the UK, it helps to be eccentric and it helps even more if you don’t care.

Fundamental physics, it seems, is fair game for a variety of outsiders who come to the subject with a mixture of motives and backgrounds. One can find, for example, electrical engineers who believe an extension of Maxwellian electromagnetism provides the key to the problem of gravity. The are also practically minded technologists hunting for the Holy Grail of star travel – the anti-gravity drive; why let the laws of physics get in the way of technological goals? Less practical are the New Agers trying to get a mystical handle on the fundamental laws as they seek spiritual enlightenment in physics. There are self-proclaimed geniuses, egotists whose totalizing theories rewrite physics to its last word. There are quasi-paranoiacs who despise academia and believe Relativity and Quantum Mechanics to be the product of a conspiracy of deception. There are, I think, even some professionally trained maverick scientists working independently – the distinction between crank and genius has never been clear-cut, as exemplified by the great Isaac Newton himself. An exhaustive taxonomy of the kind of worker we are talking about here is quite a study, but all in all this is physics with attitude, often bad attitude. Some of these workers carry their physics forward with ill humor and have a complete and unwavering conviction that they alone are right. Unshakeable self-belief is the survival strategy that keeps them going against the odds, and guards against any crisis of confidence. Self-awareness is a trait that sits uneasily with high confidence.

Whatever their temper and frame of mind these self-motivated theorists nevertheless share, with the greatest theorists and mythmakers of the past, the time honored aspiration to compress a profusion of complexity and mystery into relatively simple logical narratives and to perhaps discover deep meaning therein. Moreover, contemporary physics is suffering an intellectual logjam as a glut of concepts founder on the relation of Gravity and Quantum Mechanics. As professional practitioners attempt to resolve this issue they are disappearing rapidly over the intellectual horizon with Byzantine depictions of reality not conducive to a favorable social perception of physics. Many independent workers are aware of these problems and are exploiting physics in its hour of need as they short cut the thick undergrowth of professional theoretical physics. The subtext is: “Enough is enough. If you can’t come up with intellectually economic models of reality, then we will”. The feel-good factor that comes from knowing that you have a chance of undercutting the experts with bargain basement theory is not to be underestimated. Moreover, it is probably true that convincing one’s self of the groundbreaking importance of one’s work enhances one’s self image and thus the ego gets a boost. But then who doesn’t strive to feel good about themselves in this way? And who doesn’t know the strife and grief caused when social kudos and ego clash, with all the concomitant mental stress?

If it sounds as though I fancy myself as an authority on this subject then maybe that’s because I speak from the insights of “done that, got the T-shirt” experience. Yes, my T-shirt says “Cranko-Physics Fringe” and I tell my story of freelance physics and what it’s like to be closeted away struggling with difficult ideas from a perspective inside that closet. The fundamental physics bug got me around 1990 (although the roots go even further back). At the time I was totally absorbed minding my own business writing a piece of search engine software with no idea where this work was ultimately going to lead me. This software really depended on the idea of simulating word association. For example, “red” is associated with “blood”, “blood” with “liquid”, “liquid” with “wet” and so on. In fact, every word is embedded in a network of associations, where each node of the network is a word, thus giving rise to a so-called “semantic net”. Thus, activating “red” in one of these networks will not only activate “blood” – it will also activate “ink” or “Traffic Light”, or anything else that is commonly red in color. When my piece of software was complete, offering a word to the network resulted in simulated signals being radiated out to a halo of potential targets. However, if two words were offered to the network, like say “red liquid”, then this resulted in two haloes of signals which intersected and overlapped in a Venn-diagram like way, and effectively reduced the list of potential output solutions to the input problem. Thus, for example, an input of “red liquid” would return “blood” as a possible solution – it could also return “ink” as ink is sometimes red, but it would exclude “Traffic Light” as the latter has little to do with liquid. An understanding of probability was crucial to this project as “solutions” to “problems” were returned with an assigned probability. Some of the ideas I deployed here were based on a notion of probability I had developed and published in the June 1988 edition of The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Ultimately I brought this software to bear on the problem of searching text for meaning rather than literal character patterns. But before I could get a practical product up and running I dropped the project. Something exciting had caught my attention. Perhaps I should have ignored what I had seen, but for me it was like stumbling across a gold mine.

Most physics freelancers, I suspect, bring to bear the insights of their particular walk of life. I was no exception. If I had been an electrical engineer I would have applied induction. If I had been employed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory I would have discovered an inertial discrepancy. If I played the violin I would have become a String Theorist. If I had been a cook I would have seen some connection between self-raising flour and the expanding universe. But I was a programmer and probability theorist so I fancied I saw a connection between my fields of probability in a semantic network of nodes, and the wave fields of Quantum Mechanics. Moreover, my fields, like quantum wave fields, had an “output” in the form of a “field reduction” – in this case a reduction to the Venn-diagram like intersections. Furthermore, these “intersections” could be activated as the input to a new problem. In fact, I perceived a kind general “computation” serially structured as halo-intersection-halo-intersection-halo…etc, and this seemed to mirror the alternation in quantum mechanics between wave development and wave reduction. Here was a process with a strong time asymmetry; a computation that disposes of possible outcomes in favor of other outcomes cannot be wound backwards.

Quantum Mechanics seemed to be carrying out the same kind of computational task that I found in my semantic net. Was there some mileage to be had in this similarity with Quantum Mechanics? Was there a profound clue here about the nature of reality? I thought there must be: I found the whole vision of the declarative programming model that my semantic net conjured up a very compelling metaphor imputing meaning to the enigma of quantum theory. It was at least as compelling as the action principles so beloved by some mathematical physicists. Many scientists do not expect to connect in some way with the objects of their study – quite the opposite, in fact, they expect to enter a world that gets more and more alien, inhuman, difficult and meaningless the more it is removed from the level of street and furrow. This ethos must surely impede the rationale and hope that drives them. But if one suspects that humanity is set up to connect with physical enigmas then the fuel of motivation is more readily found to help drive the project of physics forward – that and a little reverse engineering.

But one must be wary: Kepler was compelled by what he perceived to be a connection between the five regular solids and the relative sizes of the planetary orbits – a hunch which, of course, proved to be spurious. More recently another compelling concept that proved to be wrong was the neat idea that the four letters (A, T, G, C) and three place words of the genetic code does not need to include a word separator if only 20 of the 64 possible word combinations are used. By strange coincidence this elegant and seductive logic was actually supported by the observation that 20 equates to the number of amino acids used by the genetic code to build protein chains. With this sort of thing at the back of my mind I certainly had doubts about a solitary foray into Quantum Theory. However, there was nothing for it but to give my own metaphor a chance and follow the path that had opened up before me. It was risky; in all likelihood it would prove to be a garden path. I am cutting a very long story short when I say that I developed (or should I say “reverse engineered”?) a form of quantum mechanics along similar lines: Nodes signaling Nodes with complex signals – and to incorporate the effects of relativity it was necessary for these “quantum signals” to squeeze and contract the separation between nodes, and thus apparent “space-time curvatures” dropped out quite unexpectedly and naturally: Gravity, it seemed, was staring me in the face. In time some bits of Einstein’s equation emerged. That was a bonus - if you can get Einstein’s name somewhere in your work then that puts you in the cranko-fringe premier league. Though I tend to despise the conceited theoretical totalizers who presume to clear the board completely, I found to my horror that I was starting go that way myself. One thing lead to another and it wasn’t long before I fancied I had “discovered” explanations for “dark matter” and the positive cosmological constant.

Needless to say someone coming along claiming to have, in one decisive action, blazed a trail (or at least a garden path) from the tiny quantum world through to the cosmological constant, solving the problem of gravity on the way, goes down like a feather sandwich with your average academic. I can’t say I blame them - the whole field is awash with ideas, and approaches from unaccredited upstart theorists must seem as unwanted distractions from time wasters. Nevertheless, I generally support the sterling work of many academics and unlike some other freelancers I don’t see myself as a competitor. But even so, given the enigma of gravity I say it ought to be all hands deck and freelancers should be welcomed - the more the merrier, because an outsider might just rumble the solution (or should I say “a solution”?) by daring to do different: Collect together enough monkeys and perhaps one of them will come up with something. And it is just possible that the experts could be looking in the wrong place; their tight knit and well networked community might actually be a disadvantage because a spurious perspective, if it takes hold, is likely to lock itself in. In fact, when one hears String Theory aficionados claim that theirs is the “only game in town” it’s not good news for physics, because if they are wrong, they are likely to stay wrong. Moreover, this goes to show that bad attitude and a lack of self-awareness are not only to be found amongst freelancers. Perhaps the String Theorists have tied themselves down with the most sophisticated mathematical trap the world has yet seen. If a pair of magic scissors, in the form of new 21st century mathematics, doesn’t turn up to help them cut the knots of String Theory, then they’ve got their work cut out because, as one internet correspondent has quipped, “The theory is brighter than we are!”. Perhaps one day the strings dancing in atoms will be as much a non-issue as the Byzantine angels dancing on a pinhead and the extra dimensions of String Theory will seem like Aristotle’s Quintessence. In any case what do they mean “The only game in town”? There are some very capable and respected theoretical physicists like Roger Penrose who seem to be playing another game altogether. (That’s actually “Sir Roger” to the likes of me – like I said, we are still feudal in the UK)

However, let me return to my humble story. Is this story really one of an obscure persona stealing a march on the experts and in one swoop solving the greatest scientific problem of all time? Well, I endeavor to be self aware enough to understand that there are lots of pretenders to that! Nevertheless, I still think my story does at least have some human interest value, if not scientific interest, for it is a story of the human struggle to understand and testament to the extraordinary ability of the human mind to fit a theoretical narrative around experiential complexities – at least for a while – for in science a spurious theory can fit some of the experiments some of time, but it can’t fit all of the experiments all of the time. Scientific chickens come home to roast in the real world and in my case my theory has yet to receive a roasting from that world. I take some consolation, however, in my philosophical view that all theories are likely to be limited simulations with a sell-by-date, even though it is a Newton or an Einstein who annunciates them. Limitations or not, theories are very useful sense making aide-memoirs organizing the complexities of a cosmos built around what I believe to be a Divinely ordained grand rationality, a rationality that makes that cosmos amenable to human theorizing. In this sense my theory is scientific; its thesis may prove to be of limited applicability and organizing power, but it is science in as much as it is at least a protem comprehension of my own perspectives, a comprehension that is open to logical and experimental challenge.

The story I tell is of a very personal engagement with a rational Cosmos. It recounts my own version of the time-honored strivings for understanding and the human aspiration to integrate cosmic variety into relatively simple narratives. I present it first and foremost as the story of my own quest into the unknown, regardless of its scientific status. I try to be self-aware enough to accept that the likelihood of me producing anything of long-term scientific value is small. However, at the very least my theoretical proposal does fit the perceptions that have come to my attention, and given my perspective on the Universe, it is my best shot. In the final analysis this personal project may have nothing whatsoever to do with official science, but it still remains as at least a partially successful attempt to create a unifying “myth” around some of the disparate raw texts generated by our society, texts which are deemed to contain the “facts”.

Thanks to the technological innovations of the Print On Demand (POD) companies, book printing nowadays is not just for best selling exclusive elites, and the canonical publishing process can be circumvented. Like other technological changes this has resulted in a shift of controlling interests, which in turn has caused some hard feelings. However, balancing potential Internet exposure against both the high feelings generated by non-canonical publishing, and the improbability of a single draught manuscript even being looked at, I decided to publish my story in a POD book called “Gravity and Quantum Non-Linearity”. A limited number of free copies of this book are available for those who might wish to seriously review it. However, don’t necessarily expect any more than an idiosyncratic excursion into mathematics and physics. If it’s going to be the theory that will ultimately sweep the board then it’s just as well I wrote that paper on probability, because I think I am going to need all the “luck” I can get. If you want to find out more about that luck (or lack of it) try “Google=Quantum+Non-Linearity”, because, like all freelancers, “I’m feeling lucky”. You’ve got to; otherwise you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.

c. Timothy V Reeves, June 2005

With many thanks to AuthorsOnline

Note: To access the probability article try Google=Reeves+probability

Friday, January 06, 2006

Position Statement: Religion

The world has always seemed a wonderful and strange place to me. Its sheer existence is a one-off miracle that evokes a sense of numinous awe, a miracle that some philosophers probe with language stretching questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Strangest of all is my own sense of conscious being. Everything takes place within the theatre of one’s conscious cognition: sensations, feelings, understandings, concepts, and explanations etc. Even physical theories that attempt to explain conscious cognition are effectively a subcategory of the very thing they purport to explain in as much as they use conceptual artifacts, such as neurons and atoms, which are themselves constructed and hosted by the mind. It is impossible, therefore, to carry out an absolute reduction of mind stuff to a purely physical ontology (say to “just atoms”, for example) because all such ontological reductions, in the final analysis, are reductions to logically structured cognita. All attempts to get at the nature of the “thing-in-itself” only has the effect of generating more cognita.

The first person perspective, for me, has therefore always seemed an irreducible aspect of reality. The peculiarity of the central role of consciousness in ontology has made the existence of a primary Divine Personality at least an intelligible notion to me. However, intelligibility doesn’t entail existence, and so uncertainty always dogged any attempt of mine to relate to this Personality. It is an irony, however, that this very skepticism lead to my own faith, for a consistent skepticism is unable rule out that which it cannot rule out with certainty and therefore invites further investigation and testing. Moreover, the primary and irreducible place of conscious cognition in the greater scheme of things meant that the logical status of the conjectured Divine Persona is not on a par with Bertrand Russell’s teapot in solar orbit.

For a skeptic such as myself Pascal’s wager always seemed worth playing and in time this lead to my acceptance of the New Testament Jesus as the revelation of the Grace of God. I have studied other religions and in comparison I have to say, whatever revelations may be therein, they are in my opinion far surpassed in quality and gravitas by the unspeakable riches we find in the New Testament story of Divine sacrifice. Like my grandmother who used to bet on horses, a study of form lead me to lay Pascal’s wager on the best in field. Nevertheless, in spite of the exclusiveness of Christian revelation in terms of its perfect synergy of quality and historical influence, there is, I believe great variation and leeway in how God reveals His grace from individual to individual, and I would be anxious to operate an inclusiveness on this level.

It is clear that Christains are no longer stewards or authors of the authoritative texts of society. A consequence of this, perhaps, is that many Christains are diffident toward the text as a form of revelation. Quite common in contemporary Christian circles is a notion of revelation bound up with naked abreactions and “Touches of God”, neither of which is easily articulated without using quasi-sensual imagery. There is, I feel, nothing wrong with this per se provided it is not exclusive, uncontrolled, or is in fact a subliminal strategy to either avoid polemical engagement with texts challenging Christianity, or to excuse a suspension of the mind in order that the crass illustrations and fideist philosophy of some cliché surfing preacher can be ingested without difficulty.

For myself the joy of the faith is in knowing that one really can ‘investigate’ one self into the presence of God. For as I have said “Revelation is what we cannot discover unless God chooses that we discover it.” The act of seeking only brings fruit unless God chooses that it does so, whether through the seekings of reason or mystical experience (Jeremiah 29:13-14 , 33:3).