So, you think physicists got it wrong?

So, you think physicists got it wrong?

If so, why not tell them—or, even if they wouldn’t listen, at least to the world—what precisely it is?

The obvious reference is to the latest FQXi essay contest. The topic they have selected for this edition of the essay contest is:

“Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?”

For more details, see here [^]. Note that the last date of submitting your essays is August 31, 2012. There also is a chance that “proper” physicists may end up reading your essay; see the “Who is FQXi” page here [^].

However, in case you didn’t know about FQXi, also note that this is not the first time that they are conducting such an essay contest. Check out the winning essays from the earlier contests: 2008 (on “The Nature of Time”) [^], 2009 (on “What Is Ultimately Possible in Physics?”) [^], and 2010-11 (“Is Reality Digital or Analog?”) [^].

To read the essays already submitted for the current (still open) contest—and the ongoing public discussions on them—follow this URL [^].

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In case you are curious to know my opinion of this essay contest, the reason why I didn’t participate in it so far, whether I would participate at least now, etc.:

Why I didn’t participate thus far. Well, there are different reasons for it, not a single one.

As to the very first contest, I would have liked to participate in it. However, I simply wasn’t even aware of the FQXi itself at that time. In fact, despite my fairly extensive browsing of physics-related sites, I didn’t come to know of the first edition of the essay contest any time before it was already over.

What would I have written for the first contest (“The Nature of Time”)?

I would have written about the nature of space before coming to that of time. If further curious, my position would have been in many ways quite similar to Ron Pisaturo’s [^]. A few asides: (i) I didn’t know about Pisaturo or his position at that time. (ii) Pisaturo, in his articles, addresses more points than I would have. In fact, some of these points existed only faintly on my radar; it was he, who, in addressing them, highlighted their existence/importance to me. (iii) Regarding the nature of space itself (not to mention other issues like the finitude or otherwise of the physical universe), my position was (and remains) independently arrived at. In fact, I found out via an exchange of a few emails with him that there could be some differences in our positions, may be even some essential ones, esp. at the level of details. In particular, it’s concerning whether space is a concept of mathematics, physics, or both. Now, as far as my own position is concerned, I had been jotting down my points in small pocket notebooks (the paper version!) that I usually carry around. I hope to find the time, and more importantly, the right frame of mind, to convert these into an essay. I would certainly like to do that, but only after I am more than halfway through writing my QM book. Which means: after about a year or more. Ok. Enough about the first contest.

For the immediate next contest (“What Is Ultimately Possible in Physics”), while the topic selection here was rather smart, I personally didn’t think that it was well focused enough. And so, in all probability, I wouldn’t have participated in it. However, it didn’t matter one way or the other because I happened to miss the deadline once again. (FQXi contests are not held periodically i.e. regularly.)

As to the last contest (“Is Reality Digital or Analog”), I thought that the topic was, at least at the very first sight, a bit frivolous. However, as it happened, what I thought of it on the second thoughts also didn’t matter anyway because I once again missed the deadline, this time round by just a few days or so.

I think there was some discussion on HBL on a related topic roughly around that time, and I, in fact had a subscription to the HBL at that time. That topic, I think, began with the discussion on whether 0.999999… equals 1.0 or not; then went a bit on to series and infinitesimals in a geometrical context; and then, another related thread made appearance: whether, as we go “all the way down,” does the physical stuff at that level have sharp boundaries or not. BTW, this is a far, far better way of formulating what the FQXi contest topic had merely hinted at. … My answers, without providing full justifications here: the stuff “all the way down” cannot have (infinitely) sharp boundaries, because infinity does not exist in the physical reality (HB had this same position); 0.9… does equal to 1.0, but only in the limiting sense—the former does not “go to” the latter. Here, surprisingly, HB differed from me, in the sense, he didn’t at least immediately agree with me; he kept quiet—perhaps was thinking about it. (In case you missed the reason why I might have found it surprising: the infinitesimal is nothing but the infinitely small. Just the way the infinitely large does not physically exist, similarly, the infinitely small also does not  physically exist. Both are mathematical concepts—concepts of methods.)

… Anyway, coming back to the FQXi contest, notice the difference that the FQXi topic had from that discussed at the HBL: both digital and analog are, primarily, mathematical concepts, not physical. The fact that they can be successfully applied to physical reality does not, by itself, make them physical. That’s the reason why I said that the terms in which the issue got discussed at HBL were better—the formulation there captured the essential issue more directly, in fact, quite explicitly. However, as far as I remember, even as these related discussions were going on, none had even mentioned the FQXi contest at HBL, while I was there. So, I missed that edition too.

So, this is the first time that I have run into a FQXi contest while there still is some time left for it.

Would I participate now?

As of today, frankly, I don’t know. … As you can see by now, as far as I am concerned, it’s the topic that matters more than anything else, actually.

Come to think of it, I am not afraid of putting even the inchoate among my thoughts, in an essay contest like this. And, that’s to a large extent because, I am most certainly not at all afraid of participating in it and also not winning anything—not even a fourth prize. One doesn’t enter an essay contest in order to win a prize (just the way one does not take an examination to score the highest marks/ranks). In case you are sufficiently idiotic to not get it, notice that what I said in the last line is not an argument against having prizes in contests (or taking them home if you win them). It is merely a way of highlighting the fact that prizes do not deterministically elicit better responses (just the way top examinations ranks do not necessarily always go to the best guy). (If you are not convinced, substitute “fatalistically” in place of “deterministically.”)

The main function of prizes is to attract publicity, and thereby, possibly increase one’s chances of finding, or reaching out to, the right people, the right minds. Prizes serve to attract a better audience rather than a better set of participants. That is, statistically speaking, of course.

You don’t necessarily have to win prizes in order to reach out to a better audience. (And, what’s a better audience, you ask? Obvious. It’s an audience that is itself capable, employs you, pays you, respects you, etc.—overall, values you on a rational basis.) That is the reason why participation matters more than winning.

(The Olympics participants usually get it right—and most of the humanities folks, never do. For example, consider: If it were to be just a matter of exceeding one’s own past performances, or to see the limits of one’s abilities, why not go to a secluded place, exceed your abilities to your heart’s content, and then, never let anyone else get even the wind of it? Ditto, even if your motivation is less exalted, and consists solely of exceeding others’ abilities—beating others. Here, suppose that there are just the two of you, you and your opponent (or the ten of you, or ten teams), and suppose that you (or your team) win (wins) over (all) your opponent(s)—but strictly under the condition that no one else ever gets to know of it. None. You continue to know that you exceeded your past records, or that you beat others, but there is no audience for it, no better consequences to follow in your own life, out of it… And, now, also consider a contrasting scenario: What if you do get to connect to the right kind of an audience even if you don’t win a contest in which you participate. What would it be like? Here, I am tempted to speculate: It would be just like any of our (India’s) sports teams, especially, our cricket team. … So, either way, it is the participation that matters more than the winning. QED, nah?)

So, the idea of participating in a contest like FQXi is quite OK by me. So, coming back to the topic for the current edition of this contest:

As soon as I read about the contest (which was something like the last week or so), I got the sense that the topic selection was, once again, rather smart—but also that the topic was a bit too open-ended, though probably not too broad. Reading through the vast variety of the essays that people have submitted so far only confirmed, in a way, this apprehension of mine.

If a well-informed physicist friend were to ask me in an informal but serious chat the question  of the topic (“Which of our basic physical assumptions are wrong?”), the first set of things to strike me would have been rather philosophical in nature. But then, this is not an essay contest in philosophy as such, though, I guess, certain parts of philosophy clearly are not out of place here—in fact, dealing, as the contest does, with questioning the foundations, philosophy of physics, and also relevant principles from general philosophy, are clearly welcome. However, the main part that philosophy can play here would be limited to identifying the broad context; the essay cannot be concerned with expounding philosophy itself, as such.  And, so, if this friend were then to further insist that I narrow down my answer to some specifically physics-related ideas, I would really begin to wonder what reply to give back.

That, in particular, was the position in which I found myself for the past few days.

I found that, if I have to think of some issues or ideas specifically from physics to answer that question, I could easily think of not just one or two but at least five-six issues, if not ten or more of them. And, I found that I could not really pick out one over the other without also substantially involving general philosophy as well—comparing and contrasting these issues in the light of philosophy, i.e. using philosophy to put every one of them in a common broad context embracing them all—in which case, it would become (at least a small) book and cease to be just an essay i.e. an article.

So, honestly speaking, this essay contest has, in a way, foxed me.

In a way, it had become a challenge for me to see if I could find just one or two issues out of all those numerous issues. Without there being adequate space to put all of those issues in context, treating just one or two of them would come to mean, I thought, that I consider the selected issues to be at least more pertinent if not more foundational than the others left out of the essay. And, there, I realized, my home-work is not yet well done. I don’t have a very clear idea as to why I should pick out this issue over that one. That’s why, at least as far as I am concerned, the essay topic had, in fact, become a challenge to me.

I then decided to see if I could challenge the challenge (!). Namely, what if I pick up a few issues almost at random, and write something about them, without thereby necessarily implying that these selected issues must be taken as the hierarchically more foundational/at the core/important than the others? Would it then be possible for me to write something?

BTW, there would have been another point against participating, which no longer matters: Sometimes, the discussion at FQXi seemed to digressed too much into inconsequential matters. Submitting an essay is to commit to having discussions. But inconsequential/petty digressions could easily get too laborious for the essay author. Here, however, I have noticed that as the contest and its management matures, the degree of such largely pointless digressions seems to be going down. I think you now can more easily ignore the issues/folks you don’t want to tackle/answer, especially so if you really don’t care much about winning the prize. So, that’s another point in favor of participating.

So, the churning in my mind regarding the topic, regarding whether to participate in it or not, is still going on, even as I write this blog post. However, I think I am getting increasingly inclined towards the idea of writing something anyway and dumping it there. … Let me see if I can do something along that line. And, the only way to see whether that is doable or not is to actually sit down and start writing something. I will do that. … If something “sensible” comes out it, you will see me submitting an entry by August 31. If not, here is a promise: I will at least share a bit from whatever that I wrote (and decided not to submit for the contest), here at my personal blog, and possibly also other blogs/public fora.

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No “A Song I Like” section, once again. I still go jobless. Keep that in mind.

[Minor corrections and updates were made on July 23, 2012.]
[E&OE]

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