Category: cosmology

Gravity and the Dark Star

Totality in Nebraska

I began at 5 AM from the Broomfield Aloft hotel, strategically situated in a sterile “new urban” office park cum apartment complex along the connecting freeway between Denver and Boulder. The whole weekend was fucked in a way: colleges across Colorado were moving in for a Monday start, half of Texas was here already, and most of Colorado planned to head north to the zone of totality. I split off I-25 around Loveland and had success using US 85 northbound through Cheyenne. Continuing up 85 was the original plan, but that fell apart when 85 came to a crawl in the vast prairie lands of Wyoming. I dodged south and east, then, (dodging will be a continuing theme) and entered Nebraska’s panhandle with middling traffic.

I achieved totality on schedule north of Scottsbluff. And it was spectacular. A few fellow adventurers were hanging out along the outflow lane of an RV dump at a state recreation area. One guy flew his drone around a bit. Maybe he wanted B roll for other purposes. I got out fast, but not fast enough, and dodged my way through lane closures designed to provide access from feeder roads. The Nebraska troopers were great, I should add, always willing to wave to us science and spectacle immigrants. Meanwhile, SiriusXM spewed various Sibelius pieces that had “sun” in their name, while the Grateful Dead channel gave us a half dozen versions of Dark Star, the quintessential jam song for the band that dates to the early, psychedelic era of the band.

Was it worth it? I think so, though one failed dodge that left me in a ten mile bumper-to-bumper crawl in rural Nebraska with a full bladder tested my faith in the stellar predictability of gravity. Gravity remains an enigma in many ways, though the perfection of watching the corona flare around the black hole sun shows just how unenigmatic it can be in the macroscopic sphere.

But reconciling gravity with quantum-scale phenomena remains remarkably elusive and is the beginning of the decades-long detour through string theory which, admittedly, some have characterized as “fake science” due to our inability to find testable aspects of the theory. Yet, there are some interesting recent developments that, though they are not directly string theoretic, have a relationship to the quantum symmetries that, in turn, led to stringiness.

So I give you Juan Maldacena and Leonard Susskind’s suggestion that ER = ERP. This is a rather remarkable conclusion that unites quantum and relativistic realities, but is based on a careful look at the symmetry between two theoretical outcomes at the two different scales. So how does it work? In a nut shell, the claim is that quantum entanglement is identical to relativistic entanglement. Just like the science fiction idea of wormholes connecting distant things together to facilitate faster-than-light travel, ER connects singularities like black holes together. And the correlations that occur between black holes is just like the correlations between entangled quanta. Neither is amenable to either FTL travel or signaling due to Lorentzian traversability issues (former) or Bell’s Inequality (latter).

Today was just a shadow, classically projected, maybe just slightly twisted by the gravity wells, not some wormhole wending its way through space and time. It is worth remembering, though, that the greatest realization of 20th century physics is that reality really isn’t in accord with our everyday experiences. Suns and moons kind of are, briefly and ignoring fusion in the sun, but reality is almost mystically entangled with itself, a collection of vibrating potentialities that extend out everywhere, and then, unexpectedly, the potentialities are connected together in another way that defies these standard hypothetical representations and the very notion of space connectivities.

Quantum Field Is-Oughts

teleologySean Carroll’s Oxford lecture on Poetic Naturalism is worth watching (below). In many ways it just reiterates several common themes. First, it reinforces the is-ought barrier between values and observations about the natural world. It does so with particular depth, though, by identifying how coarse-grained theories at different levels of explanation can be equally compatible with quantum field theory. Second, and related, he shows how entropy is an emergent property of atomic theory and the interactions of quantum fields (that we think of as particles much of the time) and, importantly, that we can project the same notion of boundary conditions that result in entropy into the future resulting in a kind of effective teleology. That is, there can be some boundary conditions for the evolution of large-scale particle systems that form into configurations that we can label purposeful or purposeful-like. I still like the term “teleonomy” to describe this alternative notion, but the language largely doesn’t matter except as an educational and distinguishing tool against the semantic embeddings of old scholastic monks.

Finally, the poetry aspect resolves in value theories of the world. Many are compatible with descriptive theories, and our resolution of them is through opinion, reason, communications, and, yes, violence and war. There is no monopoly of policy theories, religious claims, or idealizations that hold sway. Instead we have interests and collective movements, and the above, all working together to define our moral frontiers.


Spurting into the Undiscovered Country

voyager_plaqueThere was glop on the windows of the International Space Station. Outside. It was algae. How? Now that is unclear, but there is a recent tradition of arguing against abiogenesis here on Earth and arguing for ideas like panspermia where biological material keeps raining down on the planet, carried by comets and meteorites, trapped in crystal matrices. And there may be evidence that some of that may have happened, if only in the local system, between Mars and Earth.

Panspermia includes as a subset the idea of Directed Panspermia whereby some alien intelligence for some reason sends biological material out to deliberately seed worlds with living things. Why? Well, maybe it is a biological prerogative or an ethical stance. Maybe they feel compelled to do so because they are in some dystopian sci-fi narrative where their star is dying. One last gasping hope for alien kind!

Directed Panspermia as an explanation for life on Earth only sets back the problem of abiogenesis to other ancient suns and other times, and implicitly posits that some of the great known achievements of life on Earth like multicellular forms are less spectacularly improbable than the initial events of proto-life as we hypothesize it might have been. Still, great minds have spent great mental energy on the topic to the point that elaborate schemes involving solar sails have been proposed so that we may someday engage in Directed Panspermia as needed. I give you:

Mautner, M; Matloff, G. (1979). “Directed panspermia: A technical evaluation of seeding nearby solar systems”. J. British Interplanetary Soc. 32: 419.

So we take solar sails and bioengineered lifeforms in tiny capsules. The solar sails are large and thin. They carry the tiny capsules into stellar formations and slow down due to friction. They survive thousands of years while exposed to thousands of rads of interstellar radiation without the benefit of magnetic fields or atmospheric shielding. And once in a great while (after all, space is vast) they start a new ecosystem. Indeed, maybe some eukaryotes are included to avoid that big probability barrier to bridging over to multicellular organisms, specialization, and all that.

The why of all this is interesting. Here is the list from Section 9 of the paper used to create an ethics of “Life”:

  1. Life is a process of the active self-propagation of organized molecular patterns.
  2. The patterns of organic terrestrial Life are embodied in biomolecular structures that actively reproduce through cycles of genetic code and protein action.
  3. But action that leads to a selected outcome is functionally equivalent to the pursuit of a purpose.
  4. Where there is Life there is therefore a purpose. The object inherent in Life in self-propagation.
  5. Humans share the self-propagating DNA/protein biophysics of all cellular organisms, and therefore share with the family of organic Life a common purpose.
  6. Assuming free will, the human purpose must be self-defined. From our identity with Life derives the human purpose to forever safeguard and propagate Life. In this pursuit human action will establish Life as a governing force in nature.
  7. The human purpose defines the axioms of ethics. Moral good is that which promotes Life, and evil is that which destroys Life.
  8. Life, in the complexity of its structures and processes, is unique amongst the hierarchy of structures in Nature. This unites the family of Life and raises it above the inanimate universe.
  9. Biology is possible only by a precise coincidence of the laws of physics. Thereby the physical universe itself also comes to a special point in the living process.
  10. New life-forms who are most fit survive and reproduce best. This tautology, judgement of fitness to survive by survival itself, is the logic of Life. The mechanisms of Life may forever change, but the logic of Life is forever permanent.
  11. Survival is best secured by expansion in space, and biological progress is best assured by adaptation to diverse multiple worlds. This process will foster biological and human/machine coevolution. In the latter, control must always remain with organic- based intelligences, who have vested interests to continue our organic life-form. When the future is subject to conscious control, the conscious will to continue Life must itself be forever propagated.
  12. The human purpose and the destiny of Life are intertwined. The results can light up the galaxy with life, and affect the future patterns of the universe. When the living pattern pervades nature, human existence will have attained a cosmic purpose.

Many of these points can be scrutinized for both logical entailments and, yes, for a bit of fun. OK, let’s get started. The paper deals effectively with any complaints about teleology in 3-5 by using an argument that the appearance of purpose-like outcomes is equivalent to purposeful outcomes and therefore not necessarily the same. Fair enough. Teleonomy is a fine term to deploy in these circumstances.

So then we get to 6. Couldn’t we equally say that the purpose of human life is to safeguard human life to the exclusion of other life forms. Deploying the Red Queen Hypothesis concerning the evolution of sexuality, for instance, would mean that we should be engaged in a carefully orchestrated battle against parasites that continuously lay siege to us? And, indeed, we are, with just today minor victories against Ebola. What would our Red Queen alternative to 6 look like? Maybe:

6. Assuming free will, the human purpose must be self-defined. From our identity with Life derives the human purpose to forever safeguard Life such that it maintains the highest order of achievements by living things and their preservation against contending living organisms. In this pursuit human action will establish Life as a governing force in nature.

This might be argued is too limiting because the advanced state of human existence is necessarily tied to the panoply of parasitic threats that we evolved “around” and therefore should be embraced as part of the tough love of life itself, but such an ethics among humans would be considered ridiculous and cruel. Propagate the Ebola virus because it holds a seat among the host of heavenly threats?

Among other problems with this list (and they are manifold) is 11, whereby survival, being a good thing for Life (capitals per the original), is best promoted by expansion in space. It’s a kind of biological Manifest Destiny: go up, young biome, go up! This assumes there is nothing really out there, for one. Our life, though possibly seeded from space, is clearly vastly different, having been magnified through multiple probability lenses into the aggressive earthly forms of today. It could wreak havoc on indigenous forms already out there in a kind of infectious plague against the natives. If we value Life, shouldn’t we also value existing Life?

And we get down to the overall goal in 12. Is a “cosmic purpose” a desirable goal for human life? It sounds good at the surface, but we generally regard more narrowly focused goals as ethical goods, like building better societies for our children and eradicating those pesky biological parasites that used to wipe them out in large numbers. If we have a cosmic purpose, built upon our strivings in this universe, it might be best served by survival, true, but it might be best if that survival is more intimately human than the spurting of our seeds throughout the undiscovered country of the future.

A Paradigm of Guessing

boxesThe most interesting thing I’ve read this week comes from Jurgen Schmidhuber’s paper, Algorithmic Theories of Everything, which should be provocative enough to pique the most jaded of interests. And the quote is from way into the paper:

The first number is 2, the second is 4, the third is 6, the fourth is 8. What is the fifth? The correct answer is “250,” because the nth number is n 5 −5n^4 −15n^3 + 125n^2 −224n+ 120. In certain IQ tests, however, the answer “250” will not yield maximal score, because it does not seem to be the “simplest” answer consistent with the data (compare [73]). And physicists and others favor “simple” explanations of observations.

And this is the beginning and the end of logical positivism. How can we assign truth to inductive judgments without crossing from fact to value, and what should that value system be?

Keep Suspicious and Carry On

I’ve previously argued that it is unlikely that resource-constrained simulations can achieve adequate levels of fidelity to be sufficient for what we observe around us. This argument was a combination of computational irreducibility and assumptions about the complexity of evolutionary trajectories of living beings. There may also be an argument about the observed contingency of the evolutionary process that is an argument against any kind of “intelligent” organizing principle though not against simulation itself.

Leave it to physicists to envision a test of the Bostrom hypothesis that we are living in a computer simulation. Martin Savage and his colleagues look at Quantum Chromodynamic (QCD) theory and current simulation methods for QCD. They conclude that if we are, in fact, living in a simulation, then we might observe specific inconsistencies that arise from finite computing power for the universe as a whole. Those inconsistencies would be observed in looking at the distribution of cosmic ray energies, specifically. Note that if the distribution is not unusual the universe could either be a simulation (just a sophisticated one) or could be a truly physical one (free running and not on another entity’s computational framework). It is only if the distribution is unusual that it might be a simulation.

The Universe is Smeary Stuff

What should our expectations be regarding scientific theories? That question regularly bobs to the surface for me. When I taught physics in the Peace Corps over twenty years ago I worried over it. And now, with an inquisitive thirteen-year-old curious about the recent results from the pursuit of the Higgs Boson asking me questions, I continue to think that the conceptual shifts requisite for scientific understanding are perhaps as important as the science itself.

You see, none of it makes simple, clean sense. And none of it makes sense precisely because there is no conceptual similarity between our everyday scales of interaction and those of the mega and the micro. They are baffling and complex and not fully understood. We should take great pride in this, as human beings. We should revel in the rise of experimentation and rationality that has led us to this baffling precipice. We should not back away into the gray simplicity that predates what our scientific investigations have brought us to, because they make enough sense that they can be understood with some effort. But the urge is there; relent at the scale, scope, and complexity of the edifice that is required to get even basic traction. It either doesn’t impact me or is inhuman at some level.

But it needn’t be. The Higgs Boson is simply badly explained because it it based on preserving explanatory footholds that relate to everyday physics of cars and bowling balls. Drop that assumption and things get both weirder and simultaneously simpler. The universe appears to be composed of stuff that has a holographic quality to it in the sense that holograms replicate images throughout their structure. Break a piece off of a hologram and you can still see the image in it. In other words, the information for stuff (avoiding the terms “particle” or “wave” deliberately) is spread out but is also localized. It has tails that spread out but its information is largely in a certain time/space location. A field is another word for the way stuff reaches out and entangles other stuff. We can even describe fields as being “virtual particles” that are interchanged between other particles. So, electromagnetic fields that are not too energetic and are close are really virtual photons zipping between other stuff to carry charge and energy. Virtual particles are really just extensions of this notion of the spread-out nature of stuff itself, however–they are a way of accounting for the entanglement between stuff.

No surprise that mass is the entanglement of stuff with space itself resulting in properties that we call inertia and momentum, for instance. Equally unsurprising is that the electromagnetic force is due to the entanglement of charged particles with one another. The former is mediated by a Higgs Boson while the later by a photon. Gravitons are still to come, but are still placeholders for this same general tendency for stuff to entangle against other stuff. The wicked complexity is in the details, of course, but the conceptual desire to unify our everyday model of normal scale events needn’t create unnecessary cognitive dissonance with our sharpening picture of the nature of the universe.

Stuff could have been more smeary but instead it has exactly the properties that we observe (~120GeV for the Higgs Boson, for example). It could have been mediated by more forces reflected in more different types of bosons (different types of resonances of smeariness between the stuff that we refer to as particles), but it isn’t. It’s all gratuitously weird while being just understandable. And that makes it luminously fun.

Apache Point Memories

When I was eight or nine, I traveled with my father up into the rarefied air of the Sacramento Mountains of Southern New Mexico. Getting there was long, hot and complicated. Our VW van pushed up over the mountain passes as thunderheads rolled in from the west, plum and steel-gray, and the sky flashed and shuddered under the monsoonal effects of the late-summer deserts. I avoided touching the metal surfaces of the VW van as my father, a professor of electrical engineering, explained how the lighting, were it to hit the car, would likely melt the tires and travel through the shell of the van and into the ground below.

We were in search of another kind of lightning, however, as we passed through the Border Patrol check-point near White Sands and ascended into the Ponderosa Pines of the high, western mountains. The van chugged along but kept ascending and any limitations it may have had were lost on my youthful mind as the smell of pine needles and the cooler air rolled in through the open windows until we finally slowed to a crunching stop in a gravel lot near a couple of unimpressive shacks. We were above the clouds, with just the tops of the cumulonimbus visible to the south and west.

I knew that I was at a place called Sunspot and that there were telescopes there that were used to look at the sun. It was an act of technological disregard of the countless warnings I had received about looking at the sun as a child, including when my father brought home dense smoked filters from the Naval Observatory in Washington DC when I was four to let us watch a full solar eclipse. Yet, here at Sunspot, hidden among the shacks was a telescope that monitored the sun’s surface by day, defying the limitations of the human eye through reflections, filters, and care.

We wandered a bit among the buildings and then entered one with a simple cement floor. A few cobwebs hung in the corners of the unfinished and uninsulated shed-like structure. And there was the object of his interest: a plain cube of plywood around two feet on a side with wires emerging from it. There was no open sky or blazing trail of sunlight poking down through a tube into a hot, boiling reactor. It was inside a closed building.

I was given an explanation that day, but didn’t really understand what the device was until around my junior year in college during a particle physics course. Simply put, it was a cosmic ray observatory that consisted of a sandwich of charged metal plates with plastic between them. When cosmic rays hit the plates they would, with regularity, impact atoms and transfer their energy by dislodging electrons. Because the plates had a potential difference between them, little lightning bolts would erupt between the plates and the emitted light would trigger a camera to take a picture. I suspect the camera was a film camera, but it might have been video or something more exotic.

I remembered that visit to Apache Point while reading a paper on my iPad in Boulder Colorado two days ago. I was in Denver for a conference on defense intelligence issues and wandered up to Boulder for dinner. The paper I was reading was about the ongoing efforts to understand “Dark Energy,” a hypothesized energy that pervades the universe and can be used to account for the observed accelerating expansion of the universe. And, frankly, no one really understands this. It could be that physics is really wrong. It could be that physics is partly wrong but only at very large scales. It could be that the vacuum of empty space is energetic and productive at the quantum level. I had gone to Boulder because my father had done a postdoc there briefly prior to moving on the Naval Observatory and I had vague, snowy memories of the place and wanted to revisit.

Moreover, connecting the threads together is that the current efforts to understand this expanding universe are centered on a sky survey in infrared being conducted at Apache Point. The telescopes and cameras are extremely sophisticated compared with the stack of steel plates that were so unremarkable in my childhood memories, but the goal remains to understand the universe in all its magical details.

After finishing the article over an IPA paired with an elk burger and sweet potato fries, I read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s article in Foreign Affairs on The Case for Space.