Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Constructor Theory?

"Theories of Everything" have been a focus of theoretical physics ever since the two main theories that seem to govern the universe, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, were tested and worked out. Even though the two theories model physical events with great accuracy, their fundamental precepts seem incompatible at the surface level. Therefore, the basic concept behind a "Theory of Everything" is that it must in some way unite the two theories and resolve their apparent contradictions.

Since the late 1980's the most prominent such model has been string theory. By treating particles as vibrating line segments rather than point masses, many of the apparent contradictions can in fact be explained. However, string theory is also highly complex and unwieldy. It requires either 11 or 12 dimensions of spacetime, which immediately raises the question of why we only seem to experience 4. The answer string theorists give is that the additional dimensions are "compressed" and exist only at the quantum scale.

I have in the past proposed that it might be possible to treat the additional dimensions as fractional - that is, to model them using fractal mathematics. In nature, a fractional dimension is a dimension that, while infinite in length, still remains bounded within finite space. This would seem to be a good common-sense interpretation, but as I'm not a theoretical mathematician I'll freely admit that I'm not knowledgeable enough to determine whether or not such a thing will work. And part of me imagines that if it did work, somebody probably would have integrated it into the model by now.

Now what magick behaves like, more than anything else, is a way of using personal consciousness to move information back and forth between its own quantum information field and that of some external target. Where my concept of magick differs from a strict information model such as that outlined in Patrick Dunn's Postmodern Magic is that the concept of "energy" is relevant in terms of increasing the "signal strength" of information transmission, and that the existence of independent intelligences formed from quantum information structures (or, if you will, "spirits") is acknowledged.

I wrote up a basic overview of those ideas awhile back in two posts, here and here. And just so we're clear, neither of them is one of those "quantum mechanics proves magick" arguments that New Agers love so much. There's nothing about quantum physics that implies magick has to work; the theory works perfectly fine without such speculations. However, my contention is that if magick can affect the physical world, the influence it creates must somehow manifest in the quantum realm.

Scientific American has an article up today discussing a possible new approach to a "Theory of Everything" proposed by quantum physicists David Deutsch and Chiara Marletto. Their new model, called Constructor Theory, is essentially based on the the idea of a universe that at its base is formed from quantum information itself. In a new paper, they identify a number of ways in which this model could provide additional insights above and beyond those of string theory and other unification models.

To develop their description of information, Deutsch and Marletto homed in on one key task that is possible in classical systems but impossible in quantum systems: the ability to make a copy. Since the 1980s physicists have known that it is impossible to make an identical copy of an unknown quantum state. In their new paper Deutsch and Marletto define a classical information medium as one in which states can all be precisely copied. They then work out which tasks must be possible in such a system to remain in line with Shannon’s theory.

The collaborators then go on to define the concept of a “superinformation” medium that encodes messages that specify particular physical states—in this case, one in which copying is impossible. They discovered that a special subset of their superinformation media display the properties associated with quantum information processing. “We found that with this one constraint in place telling you what you cannot do in a superinformation medium—the task of copying—you end up discovering the weird new information-processing power that is a property of quantum systems,” Marletto says.

The team showed that with this restriction on copying in place a number of other properties begin to emerge: Measuring the state of a superinformation medium will inevitably disturb it—a feature commonly associated with quantum systems. But because it is forbidden to make an exact copy of certain sets of states in a superinformation medium this forces some uncertainty into the outcome of the measurement.

The team has also shown that entanglement—the spooky property that binds quantum objects together so that they act in tandem, no matter how far apart they are—also arises naturally, once this constraint on copying is in place. According to Marletto, the crucial property of a system containing two entangled states is that the information stored in the combined system is more than the information that can be gleaned just by examining each member of the pair individually. The quantum whole is more than the sum of its parts.

The article cautions that the paper has yet to be peer-reviewed, which is always a relevant point. But I find the whole idea especially interesting because unlike string theory, it sets up a set of principles that seem to work well with how magical processes operate in addition to physical ones. If matter, mind, and energy are all types of information, and a magical operation consists of connecting two information fields and then using one to modify the other, perhaps with the assistance of a disembodied intelligence such a spirit, we actually have something that starts to sound potentially feasible.

Recently another theoretical physicist proposed that it may be possible to treat consciousness as a state of matter. In some ways this information model goes the other direction. Instead of treating both consciousness and material substances as matter, it treats them as fields of quantum information. Oddly enough, if this theory turns out to be accurate it might be that the superficially ridiculous idea of "project information at your target" that came up in that original discussion of magical models could in fact be right on.

As with the consciousness as matter model, I'm not buying this one until the paper survives peer review and Constructor Theory is used to make some predictions in a more elegant manner than what can be done with the established theories. But I will say that my experiences working magick seem to line up better with a quantum information model of the universe than that in which magick behaves like a physical force that pushes discrete bits of matter around in order to accomplish an operation's intent.

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mike said...

String Theory..the theory that keeps on giving..money to grants and secure tenure.
String theory is probably one of the worst examples of a pathological pseudo science theory that has choked physics for years..and sucked $$$$ for years...and produced..nothing.
THe best "expose" of how appalling that train wreck is

One of the best books on physics and a grand unified theory is


Scott Stenwick said...

I'm not sure that I would necessarily go that far. By definition, theoretical physics is not "productive" in the same way that engineering is, and it doesn't necessarily make new predictions. Much of the work that's going on is about assembling a single schema that explains all the current observations in both the relativistic and quantum realms.

That being said, I do think that string theory has gotten to the point where it's no longer anything resembling parsimonious. The original idea was elegant - vibrating strings that can form either line segments or loops that give rise to all fundamental particles. However, the math involved has now extended it to 11 or 12 dimensions, and I suspect that if you gave me that many dimensions to work with off the bat I could probably build a model from scratch that explains the data about as well.

The extra dimensions remind me a little of the epicycles added to the Ptolemaic model of the solar system - though it should be pointed out that the original Copernican model actually had 38 of them versus the Ptolemaic's 36. It wasn't until Kepler abandoned the idea of circular orbits that the epicycles fell out of the system and the whole thing made sense. I don't feel like string theory is at that point yet, and I don't know that it will ever get there.

I found this reimagining of string theory interesting when it came out back in December of last year. It turns out that a research group did figure out a way to model all of the string theory interactions in a two-dimensional space, meaning that the extra dimensions are likely superfluous in terms of physical modeling. But I haven't heard anything else about it since then.

Part of the reason string theory gets the research grants is because as messy and convoluted as it is, nobody has come up with a better alternative - at least not yet. My intuition as a magician tells me that something like Constructor Theory might do the trick, since it seems to correspond so well with how magical effects seem to work. But it has a long way to go before it can be considered a viable, serious competitor.