Tuesday, January 19, 2010

And the Winner is: Second Prize for "At the Frontier of Knowledge" in the FQXi Essay Contest

The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) runs an annual Essay Contest, and last year's installment asked for papers on the question: "What is Ultimately Possible in Physics?"

Bee had submitted an essay titled At the Frontier of Knowledge.

In my eyes, it's a wonderful text but, well, I might be biased. But it also convinced the Jury: Out of more than 100 submissions, "At the Frontier of Knowledge" was awarded a second prize, shared with "On the impossibility of superluminal travel: the warp drive lesson" by Carlos Barcelo, Stefano Finazzi and Stefano Liberati. As the FQXi announcement explains:

The essay of Sabine attacks our presumption that anyone could answer the essay question, arguing that we can never know if we have hit a limit of scientific knowledge. Judges praised the witty and logical style and the author's creative questioning of the question.

Congratulations, Sabine!

At the Frontier of Knowledge

At any time, there are areas of science where we are standing at the frontier of knowledge, and can wonder whether we have reached a fundamental limit to human understanding. What is ultimately possible in physics? I will argue here that it is ultimately impossible to answer this question. For this, I will first distinguish three different reasons why the possibility of progress is doubted and offer examples for these cases. Based on this, one can then identify three reasons for why progress might indeed be impossible, and finally conclude that it is impossible to decide which case we are facing.

(continue reading the PDF file of the essay)


  1. Sincere congratulations, Bee. It`s not all video games after all :-)

  2. Brilliant! I hope there was a large cash prize attached.

  3. My warm congratulations with this prize for your very topical, well-written and open-minded essay, ending with a wonderful "It lives from creativity, from stubbornness, and from hope."

  4. Congratulations! I remember Bee blogging about that essay. Her approach was quite original.

  5. Good work, Bee, and congratulations!

    Roman Catholic Archbishop Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot was killed when the Haitian quake threw him off his balcony at the papal nunciature. What does this teach us?

    God prefers experiment over theory. "8^>)

  6. Bee, those sort of "meta-proof" claims are really deep, and an insight into the fundamentals of things. As I said at FB, I am not surprised you won something. Congrats. I wish FQXi got more press.

  7. Hi Bee,

    Congratulations!!! In having read your essay shortly after it was posted I certainly agree with their discussion. However to tell you the truth I never expected it to win, being as your essay contention is to have it shown the question posed is not a valid one. So I have to also take my hat off to the FQXi judges for seeing it for what it was and not have dismissed it out hand by way of taking offence. They've clearly demonstrated the physics community to still find room to not only have its answers questioned, yet also the questions themselves.



  8. Bee: I must say I found your essay quite fascinating, as it addresses the true questions without detour. It inspired many comments, which proves that it was brilliant. What really caught my attention was the emergence concept: how to attain the explanation of everything by means of one single source model, i.e., the Standard Model?

    If reductionism is not enough, one could then argue that holism would then be THE solution we missed. But are we missing it? Isn't modelling chemistry with reductionism equivalent to modelling physics with holism? Isn't modelling biology with reductionism equivalent to modelling chemistry with holism, and so on? I think so. Each higher level can be talked about because there are entities of the lower level which let the detail of their being irrelevant; there seems to be a loss of information, which opens the possibility of dealing with the emergent subject.

    To me, our brain is not limited in understanding emergent structures, as it has always understood what an emergent object is, and invented different fields of science thanks to this particular ability. The problem is somewhere else: it is in the discourse that one can generate talking about emergent structures.

    Within a same science field, the brain does perform comparisons between objects that can logically be compared to each other according to their properties, so as to sort and categorize those objects within the same field. Physicists categorize particles, describing which one has mass greater than another, which one has an electric charge, which one has not one. Chemists sort molecules, stating which one can transform into another through reaction processes, which cannot or faster. Cell biologists categorize cells, so as to be able to claim which one has such physiological role in the body, which one does this, etc. But who can smartly compare an electron and a molecule? Regarding their properties, it makes no sense, as we cannot superimpose them. Clearly our brain then tells us: Heh, there you need TWO different fields, not ONE, because one cannot compare colours and paintings, tyres and cars, leaves and trees, consumers and economy, the each and the all... No doubt a putative science of emergence should lead to a different discourse, in which categorizing things (inclusions) is merely trivial. What is the brain then supposed to say about an object (the Universe) of which categories appears trivial to us? If I talk about mass, then I can effectively compare an electron and a molecule: the latter has greater mass than the former, since the latter includes the former. So What? Here triviality of the discourse. The problem remains there: can we comprehend a system in which categories are obvious to the brain.

    To me, one of the impossibilities you are dealing with in your essay may be there.

  9. Big Congrats ! Onward and upward, into the night.

  10. Congratulations Bee! What an honor. wtg!

  11. Hi All,

    Thanks for cheering :-)

    Andrew: yes, it comes with a prize of US $5,000.



  12. Cool! But it's more the honour of course. :)

  13. Of course it's the honor :-) I'm particularly flattered they found my essay witty since I was afraid it would come off as cynical.

  14. Hi Bee,

    congratulations to this success. It doesn't come up cynical to me. It deals with the necessary questions and is well written.

    Best Kay


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