My answers to the Edge questions

I was supposed to come back and write a better version of the QM-related comment which I had made at Scott Aaronson’s blog (see my last post). However, I am not going to do that right away because of two reasons: (i) I think that leaving aside a typo or two, the comment isn’t in all that bad a condition, and (ii) I have begun thinking about some of the issues involved, and so would like to come back only after getting them straightened out (with a better order of presentation).

In the meanwhile, I decided to check out my blog-ideas folder (yes, I do “maintain” one), and found that I already had some material for a post.

It had so happened that while going through Scott’s post on the Edge question, especially the beginning of that post, an idea had struck me:

why not write my own one-line answers to all the Edge questions thus far?

So, I had gone to the Edge home page, and jotted down my answers in a .txt file. That was on 4th January 2016, between 4:17 PM–5:43 PM, IST (which means, one day before I wrote my comment on Scott’s blog). The answers were jotted down very, very rapidly—average time between reading a question and starting typing answer could be barely 10–15 seconds. That’s because we were very busy with the accreditation related work, remember? Though I don’t remember that particular day, I must have finished the day’s work and only then done this thing. Here I am going to mostly copy-paste its contents.

A couple of notes before we go over to my answers:

  1. I just copy-pasted the Edge questions in the order I saw them on their home page. The order of answers was, thus, determined more or less by their Web page layout. So, the answers are not in the chronological sequence of the years over which they were raised.
  2. I am reproducing the contents of a very whimsically written file (which was written, as I said, near the end of a long work-day), and without effecting any editing at all. Today, right within a week of writing the answers, I find that I want to change the answers to some of the questions. In any case, I would certainly want to make the answers more streamlined. But, today’s editing is minimal; whatever whimsicality that had crept in, I have decided to keep its original flavor as is.

So, here we go, with a copy-paste from that file:


The front velocity in the linear diffusion is a finite quantity (and in the first-order analysis, it is a constant).


The nation (i.e. USA): I don’t care a hoot about. The position was reciprocally derived.
The world: More or less the same. More or less the same.
My advise (to any President of the USA): Embrace 100% pure capitalism.


In his evolution, exactly for how long has the modern man been in the junglee-like state? (Rough estimates go like: lakhs of years of the jungle state vs. 5700 years of civilization, if you want to believe in the Western/modern science.)

Why it’s important? From many viewpoints: What led to the dominance of reason implicit in civilization? To what extent are the biological structural features really important in the mind-body connection? In what subtle ways must we still be junglee-like?

2001 : WHAT NOW?

Revising my viewpoint concerning non-relativistic quantum mechanics.
Reaching a conclusion concerning the issue of “stress or strain—which one is more fundamental?”
Writing some toy CFD code


Whether the following phenomena are real or not: (i) rebirth, (ii) tele-many things such as telepathy, mind-reading, etc. (iii) psychic attacks, (iv) the actual American depravity in practice. Also the question of where Osama was hiding. Answer: In a cantonment town in a mostly army-ruled country that is a friend of USA.


How telecommunications actually changed the attitudes of rural people in India


I don’t answer such silly questions. Idea? I would have attempted; generalization is possible with ideas. But not with inventions.


Are the reported incidents in which some people could predict the future events true? If yes, what could be the mechanism in the pycho-somatic i.e. yogic terms? What implication does it hold for free will (properly defined, most fundamentally, only as the choice to focus or to evade), and the nature of soul and of consciousness.


It’s a stupid idea. Thinking requires a conceptual (i.e. volitional) consciousness, which in turn requires life.


None. Proper ideas belonging to proper science never retire, they get subsumed away.

There are any number of ideas that should be retired because they were neither proper ideas nor scientific. For instance, the idea of an infinite physical universe. Or, the idea that ascribing anything quantitative to the universe (as a whole) is epistemologically valid. Etc. Also, string theory.


The String Theory.

More seriously, government control of science and education.


The mathematical aspects of the non-relativistic quantum mechanics. (A proper theory for its physical aspects is not yet available—despite my own attempts to build one.)


The idea that all physical theories should be local.

I wrote that down, and then realized that the question asks for a toolkit.

I think computational modeling as easily realizable using Python and its ecosystem. It should be a part of every scientist’s grooming up. (Python is already being used to introduce programming to the CBSE XI-XII students in India.)


It hasn’t changed *my* way of thinking, much. I always was more conceptual, and always had relatively lower working memory (and therefore also lessser maths skills) as compared to the class-mates who I ended up competing or at least [being] compared with. Internet has made more people forgetful and overall more like me, simply because they can just google up a lot of the concrete information.


I have no idea. Also, I don’t think it really is important or even desirable to change everything.


My view of quantum mechanics. I used to think that physicists were conceptually dumb. I now know that the original discoverers were not dumb—not even conceptually—but that their major flaw was either too much of careless[ness] about basic philosophical ideas, or too much of a diffidence towards bad philosophers.

Also, my view of Objectivists, Americans, and in fact, Western people in general. I no longer think that any of them could be fully relied on, practically speaking. They are not bad. [Here I meant morally bad.] In fact, they are pretty OK. They are just OK in the sense, they can be nice if you already are a practical success yourself. But if you are not a success, [they won’t bother to find that] hidden talent or spark in you. They are too crude and/or dumb and/or isolated, to be able to do that. Especially to an Indian-born. (They are rather like Brahmins in the Indian cities [and in the SF Bay Area]. The Brahmin-borns are not bad [by birth]. It’s just that a Maratha-born growing up rural areas cannot rely on them. He may receive acknowledgement of his talents from them, but not so reliably frequently to be a social norm. [Note today: It’s the elite vs non-elite phenomenon, really speaking, but the point is: I had never imagined as a young man that it would be as bad as it is, esp. in America.]


That my new theory of QM will work out.

Actually, on most things, and speaking in terms of how I am habitually like, I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Habitually, if there is any one option towards which I do almost habitually get inclined, it is that: I like to know.


Dangerous in general? I have none. But if you mean those tiny cultural points of conversation that society people and people of culture (esp. writers of novels like Ayn Rand) use, you know, BS like: “he is too dangerous because he is too independent,” etc., then guess *my* most dangerous idea has been my sharing of the dimmed view of many people (Americans, Objectivists, Brahmins, army people, Indian University people, Westerners). Dangerous to me, that is.


But I don’t always look for proofs, that’s the point. Validation is one thing, proofs is another. I do make sure to know the meaning and the roots of the concepts that I use. (And, sometimes, I have spent decades understanding their meaning and/or roots.)

But knowing the roots isn’t the same as proving, esp. to someone else, esp. to his satisfaction. You know how increasingly pointless and dangerous this enterprise gets.

Anyway, as the “cultural” kind of a fraud kind of an answer: My new theory of QM.


I can’t think of any. It has to be at least interesting, right? And, it has to be recent. Sorry. Can’t think of something that has both. At least not off the hand.

It would be fun knowing your answers.

It would also be fun writing my own answers afresh some time later on.

A Song I Like:

(Hindi) “dil lagaa kar hum yeh samajhe”

Singers (separate versions each): Mahendra Kapoor and Asha Bhosale
Music: C. Ramchandra
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni

[Another whimsicality of mine: Unlike most people whose opinions I usually find sensible, here I find that it is tough to decide which singer’s version is better. I mean to say, I don’t automatically find Asha’s version better. In fact, I like Mahendra Kapoor’s version [just] a shade better.]





The Mechanical-vs-Metallurgy “Branch-Jumping” Issue—Part II: Not Attending Inter-/Multi-/Trans-Disciplinary Conferences

0. To know the context and the primary intended readership of this post, please see my earlier post in this series, here: [^]. Of course, as mentioned earlier, everyone else is welcome to read this series, too.

1. The 57th (annual) Congress of the Indian Society of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (An International Meet) was held at Pune this week, from 17th through 20th December, 2012 [^]. The venue was the Defence Institute of Advanced Technology (now a deemed university) [^]. (Caveat: Their Web site is often down, and with the PDF documents almost always missing. For example, try to download their faculty recruitment form.) I attended it, but this time round, without presenting any paper.

2. The conference was inaugurated by Dr. V. K. Saraswat [^], himself a PhD in combustion engineering. [Yes, the stupid primary intended readership [see part I to know exactly who all], this too is a topic common to both metallurgy and mechanical engineering.] The inaugural and valedictory functions were presided over by Dr. Prahlada [^], the vice-chancellor of the host institute (DIAT).

3. Some 180 papers were presented in the parallel sessions, many of them of multi-/trans-/inter-disciplinary nature, and with their authors coming from almost all departments of science and engineering. Even including electronics engineering, and mining engineering, apart from, of course, the usual ones: applied mechanics, mechanical engg., aerospace engg., civil engg., metallurgical/materials engg., mathematics, physics and astrophysics.

4. Even going just by my personal informal observations, people came to this conference from a lot of places: Guwahati, Kharagpur, Coimbatore, Kanpur, Chennai, Bangalore, Visakhapattanam, Hyderabad, Gulbarga, Surat, Mumbai, etc.

The foreign participation was somewhat limited this time round, with just a couple of Americans (both of Indian origin, both well-honored HoDs of mechanical or mechanics departments), and, off-hand, I suppose, one or two leading researchers or professors each from Canada, Germany, Israel, Japan, Taiwan, etc.

But, come, they did.

In contrast, the IIT Bombay QIP PhD D. W. Pande (of mechanical engineering branch from Aurangabad, now lording over at COEP); the meteorology (?) PhD degree holder G. B. Pant (sitting on the board of governors of COEP [a new addition to the stupid intended readership that should have been effected right the last time, and I will explain the reason for his inclusion the next time]); the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Pune, PhD degree holder Gajanan Kharate (from Amaravati, now lording over at Pune, and per government, perhaps an OBC); his PhD guide the IIT Bombay QIP PhD Ashok A. Ghatol (formerly, Director, COEP, per government, certainly an OBC) did not come. Neither any of the others of their ilk.

Not even if they all are employed, and even if the places of their employment are all in or around Pune, and the conference was held right in Pune. [And that being academics, they would get discounts for the conference registration fees, and being government/university employed etc., they would get the conference fee refunded back anyway. Unlike me, who borrowed Rs. 3,500/- to attend it. Despite all that discount and its refunds, these characters still did not attend.]

And, of course, they didn’t send a single student of theirs to attend this conference either. Forget for paper presentation, not even for plain attendance.

The acceptance rate this time round was a bit higher, at about 60%. In the earlier ISTAMs which I attended, it has been 50% and lower; in fact, perhaps as low as 33% (if not 25%, but I don’t remember it too well, so let’s say, 33%). Pretty decent. Better than many reputed international journals. Even then, they still didn’t send a single student. [And, I am sure, this evil + stupid primary intended readership, while evaluating my employment application, would immediately pounce on the fact that I have no journal paper to my credit, only conference papers—if they could get past this metallurgy-to-mechanical “branch-jump” issue.]

These stupid idiots (and possibly evil characters—remember, free will as the basis of morality) with government-assured jobs and pensions and prestige, perhaps realized that if they attended the ISTAM conference, they might run into inter-/multi-/trans-disciplinary researches in mechanics and mechanical engineering. They perhaps also further realized that such a fact might then run counter to the one specific belief they fondly cuddle, cherish, openly advocate, defend and profess, and unhesitatingly act on: namely, that metallurgical graduates with PhD in mechanical cannot teach in or be hired by mechanical departments.

5. As to the research presented in the conference, much of it was not related to my current interests. But still, getting to know about the topics that other people are working on, the ideas they are pursuing, is always intellectually invigorating. I would like to write about the research part separately. Research, in fact any productive work, is such a noble thing. In contrast, for this post, I would not like to dilute the intensity of the focus on my joblessness due to the downright stupidity/evil of these above-mentioned professors/directors/government’s son in laws, etc.

However, I guess I could still mention just a couple of things in the passing.

5.1 One was the mention of the infinite speed of propagation of heat flux in conduction, during the invited lecture by Prof. I. Chung Liu of the National Chi Nan University, Taiwan. (I involuntarily sat up straight from my habitual slump while sitting in that cozy main auditorium at DIAT.) The approach Prof. Liu began with, was already known to me from my arXiv browsing. [No, the stupid intended readership of Mechanical Engineering Professors, Deans and Directors etc., arXiv usually does not have mechanical engineering related articles. So, you need not bother with this research any further, going by your government-funded and -enforced “logic.”] This approach consists of having a hyperbolic equation (the telegrapher’s equation) in place of the usual parabolic one. These days, a fairly neat Wiki page also exists to explain this approach; see here [^]. After his talk, I walked up to him and tried to explain how a particles-based approach makes it possible to remove the instantaneous action at a distance (IAD). However, Prof. Liu was not very well conversant with the Brownian movement/Weiner processes, and so, I could not pursue the conversation further. I just passingly mentioned my own research on diffusion equation to him. [The stupid primary intended readership of government-funded Mechanical Engineering Professors, University Deans and Directors etc., wouldn’t be able to make out why the IAD at all is an issue in the first place. They wouldn’t be able to make out even after being explicitly told twice.] Anyway, even if very brief, this discussion with Prof. Liu did help bring up some of my own thoughts. There is a certain paper on diffusion equation by a Berkeley professor which I had discovered after publishing my paper, and I would like to discuss it. Guess I will write a post at iMechanica (and, naturally, also here) about it, before sending a revised paper on this topic to a journal.

5.2 The second thing was this idea that had struck me while teaching a course on FEM to the COEP undergraduates in Spring 2009. [Yes, stupid/evil intended readership, I did teach the students of the mechanical branch as well, but only as a visiting faculty, and only for one semester. I was not repeated, despite very good student feedback [which Prof. Anil Sahasrabudhe, Director, COEP, didn’t quite share with me, unlike with his practice with other professors, but I do surmise with some pretty good basis—the direct feedback of students to me–that even my official student evaluation/feedback must have been pretty good.]] The idea is concerning finding a physical interpretation for the method of weighted residuals (MWR)—or, at the least, connecting some more mathematical context to MWR, anyway. My idea being too premature, I had not shared it with these undergraduate students back then. However, since the MTech-level students are a bit more mature, I did briefly hint at it while teaching the course on FEM at Symbiosis this year.

SPOILER ALERT: I may write a paper on this idea.

The idea is this: It first struck me that there was some kind of an analog between fitting a straight line to a scatter plot (say, the least-squares fit), and the method of weighted residuals. Sure, the first is an algebraic system and the second one involves differential equations. (Even if the ansatz is algebraic (a polynomial), before getting to the residuals, you still have to differentiate it, thereby changing the nature of the game.) The algebraic vs the infinitesimal is a big difference, and it is there. Yet, the idea of a residual (and setting it to zero) is common.

Then, I recalled that it was basically the same guy who had thought of both of these ideas, at least in their seed form: C. F. Gauss. (Ok, off-hand, I think that the least squares had already been used by someone else, before Gauss, but Gauss reinvented it independently, anyway. (Turns out, that earlier guy was Legendre [^])). The fact that the same mind had invented both the techniques helped gain more confidence in this idea of treating something like the least squares as an analog of the MWR.

In this conference, I got a chance to sound out this idea to two senior professors of mathematics: Prof. Kaloni of University of Windsor, and Prof. Rathish Kumar of IIT Kanpur. Specifically, I asked them if someone had already worked out something following, say, a function spaces-based approach.

Here, I was trying very hard to recall my earlier general reading decades ago concerning topological interpretation of the differentiation operation and all, and its recent mention by Prof. Tim Poston in a brief communication that I had with him. (It was a point which I had not at all understood at all.) Now at this conference, while talking in the hallways and all, I was trying to recollect those words. But somehow, in the hustle and bustle of the conference and the very short time available for those lounge/hall discussions, I could not recall any of such words. So, I tossed the first word I could catch hold of: function spaces.

Prof. Kaloni thought that someone must have worked on it already. In contrast, Prof. Rathish Kumar raised an entirely different point: where is convergence on the algebraic side of it, he asked. According to him, MWR was not limited to just getting to the residual and setting its domain integral to zero. The essence of MWR also had to include the idea of convergence—of a (possibly infinite) sequence of steps, of a systematic process of reducing the discretization error. In contrast, on the algebraic side of it, he observed, it’s just a one-time affair: you just take the fit, and that’s it. There is nothing more to be done; there is no second step; there is no sequence; the idea of convergence doesn’t apply.

In the busy-ness of such sideways discussions, there was no time to explain that I could get (i.e. I already was thinking of) an algebraic system that can still involve the ideas of convergence. In fact, I thought about it and got at an example right on the fly. But I was sure I couldn’t have explained it in the right words—the idea just flashed right during the conversation. So, not to waste his time, I asked him what would he think of it if I could get such a system (a multi-step, converging but algebraic system), and try to establish an analog with the differential equations-involving MWR. He then said that perhaps such a thing has not been done before, and that it would be nice to have a connection like that formally worked out. [I will repeat this part in a separate post, also at iMechanica, but in the meanwhile, if you know that someone has already worked out something along these lines, please drop me a line; thanks in advance.]

So there. The stupid/evil primary intended readership, these discussions, per your government-funded and government-enforced “logic,” had nothing to do with mechanical engineering. After all, both the professors were from the department of mathematics. So, you the stupid/evil primary intended readership (consisting of folks like G. K. Kharate, A. A. Ghatol, D. W. Pande, G. B. Pant, their friends, etc.), you all sit cozy and quiet and keep on drawing your respective 6th-pay commission-enhanced salaries, allowances, refunds, etc. Keep faithfully doing that, you stupids/idiots/evils.

[I remain jobless; the “A Song I Like” section is once again being dropped.]


I am not participating in this FQXi competition

Actually, I had more or less reached this decision right by the middle of this month, but still, just because there was some time in hand, kept on indulging in aimless, useless, baseless, energy-less vacillations about it. Until it was the evening of August 31st, anyway.  … Yes, yes, I know there still is some more time in hand, even if only because India is ahead of USA in terms of the time of the time-zone. The time still in hand (about 15 hours) is enough to write a mere nine-page essay anyway. However, read on to get to know why I would still not be writing. …

The reason, ultimately, turns out to be grounded in the competition topic itself, viz., the question: “Which of our basic physical assumptions are wrong?”

Loosely speaking, the nature of this question makes it a “negative” topic, not a “positive” one. … That could take some explanation. …

OK. No. I am not a New Age idiot. So, I don’t mean to say that the reason I decided to keep away from this competition is because the topic invites some of kind of a criticism of others. That’s not what I mean by the adjective “negative” here.

What I mean by “negative,” here, is: the (logical) compliment of “the positive.” And, by “positive,” what I mean is: a direct existential kind of a statement. … More detailed explanation is called for.

OK. For example: “The Sun exists” is a positive statement. It directly captures a fact of reality. Another example: “The Sun shines brightly,” again, is a positive statement. Not primarily because the word “brightness” has a connotation of clarity, efficacy, joy, happiness, etc., all supposedly positive things, but simply because the adjective “brightly” does not logically negate the sense of the basic truth contained in the rest of that sentence.  On these lines, the statement: “A black hole sucks in everything, even light” also is a positive statement. Its purpose is to identify the nature of an existent rather than to deny, qualify, or question one.

In Ayn Rand’s way of putting it: The positive statements are of the kind: Existence is identity. Or: A is A. They are not concerned with what possibly might belong in the non-A. They are not concerned with the logical complement of A.

Alright. … What’s that to do with not participating in the essay competition?

I think I have already ended up hinting at this aspect, right during my last post.

The FQXi competition question does not ask: “What new, foundational thing have you got right?” It asks: Where did physicists got it wrong?

Answering the first question is always easier; the second one is not.

Physics is a science. It establishes its truth via a laborious process, one that proceeds through observations, analysis, hypotheses, experimentation, analysis of data, validation, integration, etc. And, it’s a cyclic or iterative process; the parts of it are interdependent. You don’t begin thinking of integration only after conducting the experiments; considerations of integration are part of the context of analysis and hypothesis generation as well. You don’t do analysis only before experimentation; you need it right during validation, too. So on and so forth. All in all, establishing a new truth requires a whole lot of real, hard, work. Naturally, the progress is slow. Naturally, therefore, there is very little to show in any annual/biennial essay contest, if at all one has produced anything in that time period. Naturally, therefore, it is very easy to identify what one does have to show, if one has it.

However, precisely due to the nature and extent of the hard-work involved, it is very difficult to even summarize what all things one does not have.

In a way, it’s a matter of teleology—and the crow-principle of epistemology. The goals are few. But they lead to a whole big “tree” of issues, factors, possibilities and considerations to manage. It’s always possible to tell the goals—and it’s even easier to tell the actually achieved goals from among them  (which are even fewer than the goals). But it’s always too complex to even indicate the extent and scope of the “tree”s directly involved in it: the teleological one, and the epistemological one (by which, here, I mean: the “tree” arising out of the basic meanings of the concepts, generalizations or issues at hand).

Beyond these complex trees, there also is that biggest of all considerations, when it comes to all matters concerning knowledge, viz., the consideration of integration. Integration of the new knowledge with the sum total of all of the rest of the knowledge.

Statements of goals and achievements are easier to make. But since the process of knowledge creation is so intricate, difficult and laborious, statements of what went wrong are far more difficult to make. The “A” is easy enough to identify if it involves the goals and the achievements; the “non-A” is far too voluminous for the mind to separately deal with.

That’s the basic reason why mere polemics never succeeds. Even if a polemics (the non-A) is objectively valid, and even if it’s done very neatly or sharply, the listener’s mind still is simply unable to hold on to much of it, unless the positive part—the “A” of it—is not explicitly identified.

So, you get the idea of why I couldn’t get much past that question.

Of course, as I stated in my last post, I could still have written something on some one important issue and simply dumped it. I did try. … As it so happens, I was participating in a LinkedIn discussion on the nature of randomness (“Is anything truly random?”). I wrote a lot there, and also got misunderstood—at least some, if not a lot. (Expectedly so.) So, it seemed like a good topic on which to write the FQXi essay. I did try along this direction.

However, as soon as I finished my initial take on the “outline” part of it, I realized the essential dissonance. What I was addressing was an identification of the basic nature of randomness. But what I was supposed to be addressing was a survey of the physical assumptions that are not only wrong but also obvious enough in their wrongness as to be ripe to be acknowledged by the (astro)physicist community (at MIT) as indeed being wrong. Too much of a chasm in there. Too much of dissonance.

The essay indeed would have carried some (what I think are) good contents. Indeed,  I should sincerely try to bring it all together, give it some good, additional touches—specifically, the scholarly kind of touches (doing a real serious lit search etc.). And, then, submit it to a suitable journal (e.g. Foundations of Physics/AJP/The Physics Teacher/Whatever; not Nature/Science/PRL). However, just the fact that it can make for a good essay, doesn’t mean that it makes for a good essay for this competition.

Could anyone have written a good essay to address that particular question?

For the reasons indicated above, I don’t think anyone could have. There is just too much that is bad with the present-day physics. The situation is so (or such) bad that, as mentioned in my last post, in one’s attempts to condense it all, the first things to strike one happen to be all philosophic in nature. And, rational philosophic principles are not always well-known to people. So, you also have to face the issue of having to explain even simpler among the terms, as you go along.

Further, things have gone bad to such extent that not just the Platonic intrinsicism but even classical subjectivism looks brightly rational in comparison. For example, in the so-called Many Worlds Interpretation, originated in an American’s 1950’s PhD at Princeton, people don’t just create their own reality, as a classical subjectivist would have you believe. The Many Worlds Interpretation’s point is that no people are basically necessary to create world, not even a creator god (the idea of it). Physical processes, occurring in the universe, by themselves, are enough to spawn infinity of universes. Yes, you read it right. That’s the actual thesis. (And, idiots at places like Princeton, Berkeley, MIT, etc., have by now developed a tradition of taking such nonsense seriously.) So, in short, there indeed is a lot of nonsense out there. (It’s precisely because the situation is so bad philosophically that it also is so bad quantitatively.)

But there still is that nine page limit. So, you can’t possibly both write well and comprehensively enough to actually address the essay question. There are objective principles because of which an essay of the kind that the competition question demands, is impossible to write.

So, no, I don’t think that anyone else could possibly have a good essay that also actually addresses the actually posed question. They may have good essays that don’t address the question or bad essays that do. But they can’t possibly have both. Now, that’s something that looks like modern physics, doesn’t it, FQXi?

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

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

[This is initial draft, published on August 31, 2012, 6:31 PM, IST. May be I will make some minor corrections/updates later on]

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 [^].

* * * * *

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.]