Monday, July 16, 2018

SciMeter.org: A new tool for arXiv users

Time is money. It’s also short. And so we save time wherever we can, even when we describe our own research. All too often, one word must do: You are a cosmologist, or a particle physicist, or a string theorist. You work on condensed matter, or quantum optics, or plasma physics.

Most departments of physics use such simple classifications. But our scientific interests cannot be so easily classified. All too often, one word is not enough.

Each scientists has their own, unique, research interests. Maybe you work on astrophysics and cosmology and particle physics and quantum gravity. Maybe you work on condensed matter physics and quantum computing and quantitative finance.

Whatever your research interests, now you can show off its full breadth, not in one word, but in one image. On our new website SciMeter, you can create a keyword cloud from your arXiv papers. For example here is the cloud for Stephen Hawking’s papers:




You can also search for similar authors and for people who have worked on a certain topic, or a set of topics.

As I promised previously, on this website you can also find out your broadness-value (it is listed below the cloud). Please note that the value we quote on the website is standard deviations from the average, so that negative values of broadness are below average and positive values above. Also keep in mind that we measure the broadness relative to the total average, ie for all arXiv categories.

While this website is mostly aimed at authors in the field of physics, we hope it will also be of use to journalists looking for an expert or for editors looking for reviewers.

The software for this website was developed by Tom Price and Tobias Mistele, who were funded on an FQXi minigrant. It is entirely non-profit and we do not plan on making money with it. This means maintaining and expanding this service (eg to include other data) will only be possible if we can find sponsors.

If you encounter any problems with the website, please to not submit the issue here, but use the form that you find on the help-page.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What's the purpose of working in the foundations of physics?

That’s me. Photo by George Musser.
Yes, I need a haircut.
[Several people asked me for a transcript of my intro speech that I gave yesterday in Utrecht at the 19th UK and European conference on foundations of physics. So here it is.]

Thank you very much for the invitation to this 19th UK and European conference on Foundations of physics.

The topic of this conference combines everything that I am interested in, and I have seen the organizers have done an awesome job lining up the program. From locality and non-locality to causality, the past hypothesis, determinism, indeterminism, and irreversibility, the arrow of time and presentism, symmetries, naturalness and finetuning, and, of course, everyone’s favorites: black holes and the multiverse.

This is sure to be a fun event. But working in the foundations of physics is not always easy.

When I write a grant proposal, inevitably I will get to the part in which I have to explain the purpose of my work. My first reaction to this is always: What’s the purpose of anything anyway?

My second thought is. Why do only scientists get this question? Why doesn’t anyone ask Gucci what’s the purpose of the Spring collection? Or Ed Sheeran what’s the purpose of singing about your ex-lover? Or Ronaldo what’s the purpose of running after a leather ball and trying to kick it into a net?

Well, you might say, the purpose is that people like to buy it, hear it, watch it. But what’s the purpose of that? Well, it makes their lives better. And what’s the purpose of that?

If you go down the rabbit hole, you find that whenever you ask for purpose you end up asking what’s the purpose of life. And to that, not even scientists have an answer.

Sometimes I therefore think maybe that’s why they ask us to explain the purpose of our work. Just to remind us that science doesn’t have answers to everything.

But then we all know that the purpose of the purpose section in a grant proposal is not to actually explain the purpose of what you do. It is to explain how your work contributes to what other people think its purpose should be. And that often means applications and new technology. It means something you can build, or sell, or put under the Christmas tree.

I am sure I am not the only one here who has struggled to explain the purpose of work in the foundations of physics. I therefore want to share with you an observation that I have made during more than a decade of public outreach: No one from the public ever asks this question. It comes from funding bodies and politicians exclusively.

Everyone else understands just fine what’s the purpose of trying to describe space and time and matter, and the laws they are governed by. The purpose is to understand. These laws describe our universe; they describe us. We want to know how they work.

Seeking this knowledge is the purpose of our work. And, if you collect it in a book, you can even put it under a Christmas tree.

So I think we should not be too apologetic about what we are doing. We are not the only ones who care about the questions we are trying to answer. A lot of people want to understand how the universe works. Because understanding makes their lives better. Whatever is the purpose of that.

But I must add that through my children I have rediscovered the joys of materialism. Kids these days have the most amazing toys. They have tablets that take videos – by voice control. They have toy helicopters – that actually fly. They have glittery slime that glows in the dark.

So, stuff is definitely fun. Let me say some words on applications of the foundations of physics.

In contrast to most people who work in the field – and probably most of you – I do not think that whatever new we will discover in the foundations will remain pure knowledge, detached from technology. The reason is that I believe we are missing something big about the way that quantum theory cooperates with space and time.

And if we solve this problem, it will lead to new insights about quantum mechanics, the theory behind all our fancy new electronic gadgets. I believe the impact will be substantial.

You don’t have to believe me on this.

I hope you will believe me, though, when I say that this conference gathers some of the brightest minds on the planet and tackles some of the biggest questions we know.

I wish all of you an interesting and successful meeting.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Away Note

I’ll be in Utrecht next week for the 19th UK and European Conference on Foundations of Physics. August 28th I’ll be in Santa Fe, September 6th in Oslo, September 22nd I’ll be in London for another installment of the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival.

I have been educated that this festival derives its name from Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” which features the lines
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
If you have read my book, the crack metaphor may ring a bell. If you haven’t, you should.

October 3rd I’m in NYC, October 4th I’m in Richmond, Kentucky, and the second week of October I am at the International Book Fair in Frankfurt.

In case our paths cross, please say “Hi” – I’m always happy to meet readers irl.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Limits of Reductionism

Almost forgot to mention I made it 3rd prize in the 2018 FQXi essay contest “What is fundamental?”

The new essay continues my thoughts about whether free will is or isn’t compatible with what we know about the laws of nature. For many years I was convinced that the only way to make free will compatible with physics is to adopt a meaningless definition of free will. The current status is that I cannot exclude it’s compatible.

The conflict between physics and free will is that to our best current knowledge everything in the universe is made of a few dozen particles (take or give some more for dark matter) and we know the laws that determine those particles’ behavior. They all work the same way: If you know the state of the universe at one time, you can use the laws to calculate the state of the universe at all other times. This implies that what you do tomorrow is already encoded in the state of the universe today. There is, hence, nothing free about your behavior.

Of course nobody knows the state of the universe at any one time. Also, quantum mechanics makes the situation somewhat more difficult in that it adds randomness. This randomness would prevent you from actually making a prediction for exactly what happens tomorrow even if you knew the state of the universe at one moment in time. With quantum mechanics, you can merely make probabilistic statements. But just because your actions have a random factor doesn’t mean you have free will. Atoms randomly decay and no one would call that free will. (Well, no one in their right mind anyway, but I’ll postpone my rant about panpsychic pseudoscience to some other time.)

People also often quote chaos to insist that free will is a thing, but please note that chaos is predictable in principle, it’s just not predictable in practice because it makes a system’s behavior highly dependent on the exact values of initial conditions. The initial conditions, however, still determine the behavior. So, neither quantum mechanics nor chaos bring back free will into the laws of nature.

Now, there are a lot of people who want you to accept watered-down versions of free will, eg that you have free will because no one can in practice predict your behavior, or because no one can tell what’s going on in your brain, and so on. But I think this is just verbal gymnastics. If you accept that the current theories of particle physics are correct, free will doesn’t exist in a meaningful way.

That is as long as you believe – as almost all physicists do – that the laws that dictate the behavior of large objects follow from the laws that dictate the behavior of the object’s constituents. That’s what reductionism tells us, and let me emphasize that reductionism is not a philosophy, it’s an empirically well-established fact. It describes what we observe. There are no known exceptions to it.

And we have methods to derive the laws of large objects from the laws for small objects. In this case, then, we know that predictive laws for human behavior exist, it’s just that in practice we can’t compute them. It is the formalism of effective field theories that tells us just what is the relation between the behavior of large objects and their interactions to the behavior of smaller objects and their interactions.

There are a few examples in the literature where people have tried to find systems for which the behavior on large scales cannot be computed from the behavior at small scales. But these examples use unrealistic systems with an infinite number of constituents and I don’t find them convincing cases against reductionism.

It occurred to me some years ago, however, that there is a much simpler example for how reductionism can fail. It can fail simply because the extrapolation from the theory at short distances to the one at long distances is not possible without inputting further information. This can happen if the scale-dependence of a constant has a singularity, and that’s something which we cannot presently exclude.

With singularity I here do not mean a divergence, ie that something becomes infinitely large. Such situations are unphysical and not cases I would consider plausible for realistic systems. But functions can have singularities without anything becoming infinite: A singularity is merely a point beyond which a function cannot be continued.

I do not currently know of any example for which this actually happens. But I also don’t know a way to exclude it.

Now consider you want to derive the theory for the large objects (think humans) from the theory for the small objects (think elementary particles) but in your derivation you find that one of the functions has a singularity at some scale in between. This means you need new initial values past the singularity. It’s a clean example for a failure of reductionism, and it implies that the laws for large objects indeed might not follow from the laws for small objects.

It will take more than this to convince me that free will isn’t an illusion, but this example for the failure of reductionism gives you an excuse to continue believing in free will.

Full essay with references here.