Sunday, July 05, 2015

Future Physics

This is an interesting essay by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Frank Wilczek, “How Physics Will Change—and Change the World—in 100 Years.” A pretty big topic! Can you say anything definitive? Not really, but it reinforces something I have thought about sometimes, that we are nowhere near the finish line in understanding the universe. One hundred years ago, quantum physics and relativity had just arrived. At least now we know better how far things can be from what they seem. But we may still be closer to Jon Snow (“You know nothing!”) than to God. A few points from the essay…
Newtonian physics is a system outside time that describes how things change from some set of initial conditions. This is practical and helpful for lots of problem solving and engineering, but not fundamentally satisfying from a God's-eye view:
For the answer, “Things are what they are because they were what they were,” begs the question, “Why were things that way and not any other?”
Einstein 's space-time integration helps:
In the light of relativity theory, the God’s eye view seems, much more natural. There, we learn to consider space-time as an organic whole, whose different aspects are related by symmetries that are awkward to express when experience is carved into time-slices. Hermann Weyl expressed this memorably:
The objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling along the lifeline of my body, does a section of this world come to life as a fleeting image in space which continuously changes in time.
He also foresees further integration of physics and information and life and mind:
In 100 years, biological memory, cognitive processing, motivation, and emotion will be understood at the molecular level. And if physics evolves to describe matter in terms of information, as we discussed earlier, a circle of ideas will have closed. Mind will have become more matter-like, and matter will have become more mind-like.
He also has a lot to say about technology, though in broad terms, such as vast expansion of computational chemistry (something I briefly worked on at a very primitive level in high school with my NSF Summer Science Program professor in Ohio, simple molecular orbital calculations). Better computers, quantum computers, robotic control of matter to build anything, AI, and even better human senses:
Human perception leaves a lot on the table. Consider, for example, color vision.
Whereas the electromagnetic signals arriving at our eyes contain a continuous range of frequencies, and also polarization, what we perceive as “color” is a crude hash encoding, where the power spectrum is lumped into three bins and polarization is ignored. Compared to our perception of sound, where we do a proper frequency analysis and can appreciate distinct tones within chords, it is impoverished. Also, we are insensitive to frequencies outside the visible range, including ultraviolet and infrared. Many other animals do finer sampling. There is valuable information about our natural environment—not to mention possibilities for data visualization and art—to be gained by expanding color perception.
Modern microelectronics offers attractive possibilities for accessing this information. By appropriate transformations, we can encode it in our existing channels in a sort of induced synesthesia. We will vastly expand the human sensorium, opening the doors of perception.
Now the LHC at CERN is coming back online with even higher energy than the levels that finally outed the Higgs Boson. Some mysteries may be solved and others created. Will advanced physics research lead to advanced technologies that make use of space-time and quanta as we see in SF books and movies like Interstellar? I don't know, but nearly every past breakthrough in physics has led to some new technology. I hope I can stick around long enough to see some of this crazy next chapter of the Adventures of the Human Neocortex.

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