Morning Ed: Science Fiction {2017.06.06.T}

[SF1] Frank Tipler wants more people to know about quantum mechanics and parallel universes.

[SF2] Ethan Siegel looks at parallel universes and explores the question of Other Yous.

[SF3] Paul Davies writes about time travel and changing history. How would it all work, anyway? I want to write a novel about a time traveler just so I can call it Undo Influence.

[SF4] Are we even real?

[SF5] Scientists claim they can now prove parallel dimensions! As always, the question is whether the reality where Mitt Romney is president realizes that, to the Monitors, their reality is called The Control Group.

[SF6] Math, vampires, and the annihilation of humanity. Also, Frankensteins. But by all means, let’s make robots with artificial intelligence.

[SF7] And a look at the multiverse! My view as to whether or not we are living in Liebniz’s “best world” or Schopenhauer’s “worst world” has altered over the last couple years…

[SF8] Tom Sorell writes of the limitations of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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43 thoughts on “Morning Ed: Science Fiction {2017.06.06.T}

  1. Huh. Clicked two of ’em – “other yous” and “are we even real” – and got a page about publishing mugshots of johns and a 404.

    Elaborate prank, or just way too early in the morning?

    (The “multiverse” and “other yous” thing interests me from the purely selfish standpoint that when I’m having a very bad day I like being able to imagine that there’s a dimension somewhere where my life is different and I am happier somehow.)

    And the multiverses one goes to train safety. Okay, either I’ve got some bizarre malware on my computer, this is an elaborate prank, or someone done donked up.

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  2. And there are other reasons to think we might be virtual. For instance, the more we learn about the universe, the more it appears to be based on mathematical laws. Perhaps that is not a given, but a function of the nature of the universe we are living in.

    I’m confused. If a computer simulation is written using mathematical laws to model the “real world,” then doesn’t it follow that the real world is based on those same mathematical laws? How does that suggest a simulation?

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    • Unless the Sim You’re In is written to explore what would have happened if the Big Bang & the moments immediately after had shaken out a bit differently.

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      • There’s one thing interesting to me about the idea of living in simulations and that’s what happens when you start to try to define the differences between a simulation and “the real world.” Because when you start to try to work that out, you realize that “the real world” is already bit of an illusion. The only thing that defines reality is what we can measure. So, it gets kind of frustrating when people deploy the simulation hypothesis as way of trying to work around the existing measurement problems in physics.

        Here is my favorite overly grumpy response to this topic: http://backreaction.blogspot.hk/2017/03/no-we-probably-dont-live-in-computer.html

        The money shot is this:

        In summary, it isn’t easy to develop theories that explain the universe as we see it. Our presently best theories are the standard model and general relativity, and whatever other explanation you have for our observations must first be able to reproduce these theories’ achievements. “The programmer did it” isn’t science. It’s not even pseudoscience. It’s just words.

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        • As a commenter points out, he likes the idea that the universe can be described as a computer.

          You can do more with this idea than with the whole “we live in a simulation”.

          I’ve never been a fan of the whole Sim You’re In idea, it’s too pat.

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          • One is a metaphor, the other is description. There’s utility in a metaphor insofar as it allows you to apply explanatory tools from one domain to another. But there’s no reason to believe the simulation description as anything other than a logical possibility. Personally, I’m not even sure it’s logically possible.

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              • I disagree. The question “is it possible that X?” is epistemic in nature, relating to what we (claim to) know about reality. An affirmative answer to the question “is it possible that….?” doesn’t change reality, it only changes the level of certainty (if at all) with which we hold our descriptive theories.

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        • And now we are in the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic.

          I would not have immediately made that connection, but thinking about it, yeah. It says something when a philosophical idea has that kind of lasting meaning.

          You can do more with this idea than with the whole “we live in a simulation”.

          Yeah, you can. Here’s something to think about. The earliest belief systems were animistic, rooted in the natural world. And that evolved into the belief in a monotheistic religion that posits that we are all thoughts in the mind of an anthropomorphic God. What does it say when people start migrating towards the belief that we are all code in some machine?

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  3. [SF8] neither present day autonomous cars nor present day flying killer robots are ‘robots’ in the Asimovian sense.

    Half of Asimov’s stories in that vein were about the limitations and possible loopholes in his law’s of robotics. At the end, he came up with a supernumerary (or I suppose, subnumerary) law to address the singular big ethical limitation. I found it unsatisfactory (or rather, I find it now unsatisfactory, now that I’m no longer fourteen years old), but the concerns Sorell were not ignored even by Asmiov himself.

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    • …neither present day autonomous cars nor present day flying killer robots are ‘robots’ in the Asimovian sense.

      Indeed. The use of the term “flying killer robot” to describe military drones really grates on me and, quite frankly, detracts from the quite valid criticism of the policies being enacted with the use of those drones. The military drones are really just big, powerful, and sophisticated versions of the model planes you buy at a hobby shop.

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  4. SF7 – there’s a connection between trains and the multiverse via the Back to the Future movies (and maybe Harry Potter, too) but I don’t think that’s what you were going for.

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  5. SF4 – It’s embarrassing that this stuff gets treated as scientific thinking, and by people who dismiss religion as superstition no less.

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  6. The Parallel Universe article made it seem like all the parallel universes are basically identical. We would all be reading the same article at the same time in the same place.

    So it seems to me (and this might be because I am not an advanced physicist) that all the parallel universes are folded into each other and basically one.

    What am I missing?

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  7. Has anyone here ever linked a post about entropic gravity?

    When I first read Erik Verlinde’s papers they blew my mind. Even if they’re wrong, his idea is mind bending.

    He derived Newton’s laws (local motion and gravitation), general relativity, and got rid of dark matter with just a few simple derivations from statistical thermodynamics that treated gravity as an emergent phenomenon due to entropy, not a fundamental force.

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      • It’s really interesting. He starts with information theory, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics developed to examine the physics near a black whole, and asks how matter would react next to a bounded empty space that has a temperature and in which time exists (although I think he derived the existence of time in about one step). Anyway, from the entropy of the bounded space comes a force that we call gravity, and in just a few steps he derives F=mA and F=Gm1m2/r^2, and continues on from there.

        One of his results is that at extremely low gravities, the behavior would change to a linear law instead of a square law, and that this would show up at the outer edges of galaxies. Astronomers took the theory and compared it to observations and found that observations are in agreement with his theory, a theory that has no fudge factors or arbitrary constants to make it work.

        Another interesting result is that macro-physics would look the same regardless of the underlying quantum mechanics.

        Entropic gravity theory

        You can also find his papers online just by googling Erik Verlinde.

        One thing I wonder about is that we started with F=ma and all the rest, and over the centuries extended that until we were developing physics for the edge of a black hole, all still tracing back to those early formulas. Perhaps he’s simply stumbled across the fact that you can cancel out terms in these later formulas to end up back at the original F=ma and F=Gm1m2/r^2.

        Sometimes that happens.

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        • Feynman rewrote the Cal Tech frosh physics curriculum so that it was no longer based on Newton’s laws in terms of force, but in terms of energy and momentum. (If I recall and understand correctly)

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          • Well, it’s complicated. We tend to go from observable relations (impacts and pendular motions, which is sword physics, once the greatest problem in all of physics – note between Christian Huygens and Marine Mersene uncovered by Princeton’s history of science chair in response to an e-mail from me) to lower level physics of energy, thermodynamics, particles,and such. We approach it in the order we encountered it, and usually teach it in that order.

            Verlinde’s approach is backwards from that. His approach is to start with virtually nothing except extremely low level concepts about information, energy, and time, a particle soup popping in and out of existence but obeying a few accepted conservation rules, and then basically deriving the known laws of the universe as an inevitable consequence.

            He might be right. He might not. But just seeing the utter simplicity of how he did it is a mental transformation. His theory has holes, as did Newton’s, but the elegance can’t be denied, and it completely gets rid of dark matter, which is the 21st century’s version of luminiferous aether. If you can’t detect something’s existence with our most sophisticated instruments, it’s probably because it’s not there. His theory explains why that is.

            I might sum it up as saying “What we know about the bizarre world at the edge of physics, when you get down to enforcing all the weird laws about conservation, says stuff should behave like this, and if you simply extrapolate from that you get the known universe,

            If your brain follows his logic (and writing, as English is not his first language), it is better than any acid trip you can imagine. Something that simple and elegant might not be true, but the elegance tells me his mind is conceiving something that is. This conception reorders reality, although in my experience the revelation doesn’t impact the scale of female hotness. Newton, Darwin, and Einstein didn’t impact that either, so I’m pretty sure you can read the new work without jeopardizing your family structure.

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  8. [SF3] – I find it odd that no one has mentioned Niven’s third law.

    Basically, if we are in a universe where time travel is possible, and time travel can alter the past of the universe we are in (As opposed to time travel being self-consistent or creating another universe.)

    …then no one will ever invent time travel. Eventually.

    Why?

    Because every time travel is invented, people will alter the past. Again, and again, and again. Eventually, and it might take a hundred septillion alterations, but at *eventually* (Whatever that means over meta-time!), we will, by sheer chance, happen upon a universe where time travel is never invented…and it will *stick*. Obviously. Because no one can ever change it, because in that version of reality, no one invented time travel!

    Scarily enough, the *easiest* way for time travel to never be invented is for someone to destroy all intelligent life right at the start.

    So, paradoxically, if we can alter the past with time travel, we *better hope* that we’re in the universe where we never figure that out. Which, weirdly, means we better hope *we don’t ever fully understand physics*! Better us be too stupid to figure that out, than to be smart enough to do that and erase ourselves from history, which will *inevitably* happen.

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    • Well, my view is that time travel is not possible. I don’t say that as a representative of the Donald Trump XVLIIIth Federated Galactic Government, but as an honest Joe in 2017 who is telling you that time travel is not possible.

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  9. And, uh, I don’t know why this Frank Tipler decided that the Many-Worlds interpretation of QM was totally proven and true, but Many-Worlds is just a slight majority due to it being very old and having a lot of outside knowledge. (Which is a good reason to *not* tell everyone about it, actually. Pretending it’s known to be true biases incoming scientists.)

    And the Copenhagen ‘interpretation ‘ is still the ‘official’ one, to the extent it is an interpretation. It’s really just saying ‘The only reality is the observations, don’t make anything out of it’, so it’s actually a *non*-interpretation. But it’s still the ‘official’ one.

    And there’s a lot of stupidity in Many-Worlds. When you actually look at how Many-Worlds handles the split of the universe, which it claims happens at *light speed* (Yes, seriously!), you’ll realize it can’t handle the EPR paradox the way you probably think it does. (I.e., it can’t just split the universe out from under everyone and give them all the right results.)

    So how does Many-Worlds handle EPR? Well, it claims if I have an entangled particle, and I’m a light-year away from the other one, and the other end measures their particle, with an outcome that is 50/50, the universe will split into two at *the two different points* and then the universes will somehow hook up with each other when they reach each other.

    So, uh, what happens to the splits that happen *inside* each bubble of universe? Or before? Like, two minutes before I do my entanglement experiment, I do something else that splits the universe. (I mean, surely this would happen by accident anyway.) So, I have…four universes on my end and two on the other, and they will…merge together when they meet? Huh? So the two on the other end split into four…but they would split at the joining point, and have to propagate *backwards* back the source, which by that time has already split into *more* universes, so now it has to propagate back in the *other* direction.

    Wait, no, it’s not four universe heading out from me, it’s two universes, each of which has two universes inside it. So first the ‘before’ split would hit the merge place, turning that into two universes and, uh, doubling the incoming universes (?!?!) and then the entanglement-created universe would sync?

    How…how does an incoming universe split double a universe split coming from the other direction? What the fuck are we talking about? This has turned into total gibberish. Many-Worlds is goofy enough when you just think the universe is instantly splitting, but when you learn it supposedly happens *at the speed of light* instead, and realize that it has to account for *non-locality* in that, it’s just mouth noises that no one can explain.

    So much for this being the ‘obvious’ theory, which is something that Many-World proponents like to say all the time. I sure as hell don’t see what is *obviously* happening with EPR in it, and *no one seems to be able to explain it* (Seriously, google it.) besides just vaguely shrugging and claiming the universe splits in both places at once and it all somehow works out when they reach each other. (Alternately, a few people seem to think my end doesn’t split until the measurement side wave hits it, which a) isn’t what the theory says, and b) raises even more problems, because now somehow me and my parallel version are living in the ‘same universe’ for a year!)

    Another fun problem with speed-of-light splits: This means that *every single version of Earth* is sharing the same universe on the other side of the universe. (Because we cannot ever reach that at light-speed.) Many-World is less ‘Many-Worlds’ that a Bajillion-Partially-Split-Worlds.

    When you sit down and think about it, you’ll notice that Many-World is just a dumb-person version of Relational Quantum Mechanics, which manages to do everything Many-Worlds does *without* creating tons of extra universes.

    RQM says, basically: Everything is a superposition, and those wave functions *never* collapse.

    When we see a ‘collapse’, what we are actually noticing is *the observer entering into a shared superposition* with the thing it’s observing. When we separate objects, they merely *stop* sharing the same superposition, so from the POV of each other, they are now in a superposition.

    I.e, metaphorically, when you look in Schrodinger’s Cat’s box, now *other* people can talk about how they don’t know *your* state…you both saw a dead cat and saw a living cat, and they have to open the door to the lab to resolve you into one or the other state…except all they’re really doing is putting *themselves* in the same superposition and the guys in the next building now don’t know *their* state… (Metaphorically, of course. In reality this happens at light speed.) It’s both living and dead cats all the way down. Or rather all the way ‘out’.

    So if two people measure things that happen FTL, like quantum entanglement, it is completely meaningless to talk about what the other person saw or did at a *distance*. They can only do that when they get together to compare notes…which means their superpositions will merge, and thus they (obviously) cannot be inconsistent with each other, because they are one superposition. Thus RQM is both entirely local and has no hidden variables. Just like Many-Worlds, in fact.

    *Unlike* Many-Worlds, however, it doesn’t have a hundred bajillion parallel universe constantly propagating outward at the speed of light from basically every particle in the universe, which I can’t even conceive of how anyone thinks makes sense. RQM instead says that *superpositions* just merge and split like amoebas (And they don’t propagate any farther than *interactions*, they don’t try to reach the entire universe.), which makes a million times more sense than entire universes somehow doing that. (Especially since we *factually know* superpositions can merge together.)

    Now, it is possible that this entire group of interpretation is entirely *wrong*, that the correct interpretation is De Broglie–Bohm, or Transactional or something else. Whatever. But considering how close RQM and Many-Worlds is *except that Many-Worlds has some extremely insane conclusions and turns into raving gibberish with EPR*, I think RQM is much more likely via Occam’s Razor.

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    • BTW, even if you didn’t follow what I was talking about with EPR, everyone should remember:

      Many-Worlds expands new universes at light speed, which almost certainly means everyone’s mental image of it is wrong. It is not sheets of paper laying on top of each other, it’s weird bubbling paper with bubbles expanding at the speed of light and piling on top of each other. Maybe more like exploding sea urchins or something.

      This also means it is *way* more complicated than it sounds, and not any sort of ‘obvious’ thing.

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  10. SF3: I’ve watched and read a lot of sci-fi stories featuring time-travel of the “go back and fix something in the past” variety and I have yet to encounter one that makes any logical sense.

    I mean… if the traveler is successful then the impetus for the intervention vanishes, so why would he ever go back in the first place? It’s a variation on the Grandfather Paradox.

    Now there’s a couple of variations on this theme of course. One is that the traveler is simply unsuccessful. He makes changes to the past which he then later (subjectively) realizes are just part of the history that always existed anyway. Perhaps an inexplicable bit of history but history nonetheless. Worse is the variation where the traveler ends up being the actual cause or at least a crucial element of the causal chain leading up to Bad Thing in the past.

    These last two are at least logically consistent and (I think) are consistent with the weird rules of QM, but have this weird tautological quality of just being dropped into the timeline for no particular reason. Sort of like a knot in the grain of wood.

    There’s an episode of ST Voyager where Tom Paris and Harry Kim are trying to figure their way out of some “temporal anomaly” situation and the one turns to the other and says something like, “I hated temporal mechanics at the Academy. I never could make heads or tails of this sort of thing.” Which seemed like an admission from the writers that these stories don’t make any damn sense.

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    • These last two are at least logically consistent and (I think) are consistent with the weird rules of QM, but have this weird tautological quality of just being dropped into the timeline for no particular reason. Sort of like a knot in the grain of wood.

      You’re thinking of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novikov_self-consistency_principle

      Specifically, Novikov and some others claims that quantum mechanics puts the probability of any event altering the past at 0.

      This doesn’t address the issue if physics actually *allows* time travel. (So far, the only way we’ve ever figured out seems to require impossible gravitational super-structures we cannot possibly ever build.) It just says, if physics does allow it, the probability of altering the past is *literally* zero.

      When you consider what is *allowed* (although extremely unlikely) under quantum physics, this basically gives us an out for everything.

      For example, you travel into the past to kill your own grandfather, you walk up to his house, reach out to ring the door bell, and suddenly every molecule in you will quantum tunnel fifteen feet into the ground.

      While this is technically ‘allowed’ by quantum physics, it is extremely extremely extremely extremely extremely unlikely, so unlikely it would probably never happen in a universe that lasted a googelplex times longer than this one.(1) But according to Novikov, it’s *technically* more likely for that to happen than you succeeding at altering the past, which is a flat, absolute _0_. So don’t *entirely* discount it happening.

      Although in reality there’s a lot more likely things that could stop you. A brain embolism, for example. Non-functioning time-machine. A car accident.

      However, note this is a *principle*, not a theory. It can’t be a theory until we have a way to test it, which would require some plausibly way of altering the past.

      1) Barring someone inventing Douglas Adams’ Finite Improbability Device. Which people then used to do exactly that, only just to underwear.

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      • I’ll take your word for it. But I’m not even talking about the physics. It could be a story from Hogwarts, Brakebill, or Narnia where we’re talking about magic magic.

        The logic of time travel with a purpose just doesn’t work regardless of the mechanism.

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        • If you’re talking about narrative purposes, Connie Willis has a sorta crippled version of Novikov in her books.

          Specifically, the universe does use coincidences, and changing where and when time travelers show up (They call it ‘slippage’ and actually measure it to calculate how fragile the situation is…and it also means you will, coincidentally, never arrive in view of someone who isn’t a time traveler.), and even outright time travel machinery malfunction, and all sorts of things, to stop the past from being altered…except that only works to a limited extent.

          You try to assassinate Hitler, the timespace continuum will have the time machine will dump in the right time, but in the middle of America.(1) Or the right location but in 1952. Or 1731.

          But if time travelers do convoluted things that will alter history, they might indeed managed to alter history…at which point stuff starts getting *really weird* as the timespace continuum starts trying to manipulate the universe in general, and time travelers specifically, to fix things.

          At the end of one of the books, they calculate the *entire events* of the book, with apparently involved time travelers having to fix something, instead, as far as they can tell, really happened because, 500 years from now, the universe needed a building built in a specific location. Or possibly needed cats brought back of extinction. Or, as one of our heroes suggested, perhaps it just needed our heroes to met, fall in love, and get married. Or maybe all three.

          So it *first* made a paradox, and then it got our heroes to fix it decades later.

          Moreover, in that universe, if you very carefully read between the lines in that universe, and pay attention to the theme, there are hints that the Allies might have *lost* WWII originally, and the universe used absurd coincidences(2) and time travel to change that out from under everyone.

          1) Weirdly, the obvious relocation to ‘middle of the Atlantic Ocean’, which is not only closer, but solves the problem permanently, does not seem to have occurred to the timespace continuum.

          2) Which, frankly, is not that odd a reading of WWII. There actually *were* a lot of really lucky breaks for the Allies in it. Asking why Hitler wasn’t assassinated by time travelers is the wrong question…time travelers probably instead killed off the *competent* guy who would have been in charge and *won*.

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