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September 5, 2004

'10 (66) and All That'


Title of theoretical physicist Michio Kaku's sprightly piece in Thursday's Wall Street Journal, about the theoretical possibility of fast-forwarding reality to see the results of the upcoming presidential election.

He concludes that we couldn't even if we possessed the ultimate supercomputer, but does hold out the possibility that historians of the future could hit a "rewind" button and get an instant replay.

What I found interesting about his take on things - he's considered one of the world's finest thinkers on such matters - is that if such is the case, then you and I, right this second, might be starring in a hugely amusing reality show in the year 3033, say.

Here's Kaku's essay.


10 (66) and All That

At the carefully scripted GOP convention, with transcripts of speeches passed out beforehand, journalists are describing events in the past tense, even before they happen.

Information, traveling at light speed, seems to blur the distinction between past, present and future, and a question arises: Can we fast-forward reality to see the outcome of the November election?

In the movie "The Matrix," the universe was stored on a supercomputer. Machines enslaved humanity by creating a vast, artificial reality.

That was just Hollywood.

But now physicists ask: Does the quantum theory, which rules the subatomic world, allow for a universe on a computer?

Physicist Jacob Bekenstein has claimed that our universe might be an illusion, perhaps consisting of 10 (100) bits of information which can be stored on a disk.

Outrageous as this may sound, this means that everything around us might be a CD in which a super-being has pushed the "play" button.

To calculate this number, we have to ask: What is the smallest distance, and how much information can you cram into it?

Zeno declared that any distance could be sliced up into infinitely small pieces.

He then confounded philosophers for 2,000 years by proving that it was impossible to cross a river.

Since it takes an infinite amount of time to pass through an infinite number of slices which span the river, it was mathematically impossible for anything to move. (So the universe cannot be placed on a CD, and you cannot even hit the "play" button.)

Zeno's paradox was finally solved by Newton and the coming of the calculus.

In a Newtonian universe, it was possible to cross a river, but it was impossible to truly simulate reality.

For example, our greatest computer cannot accurately model every molecule which makes up the weather. (Perhaps the smallest system which can truly simulate our weather is the weather itself.)

However, in the 1970s, Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking began by noting that a black hole (hundreds of which have now been catalogued by Hubble) represented the maximum possible compression of information.

Oddly enough, the total info packed into a black hole was proportional to its surface area, not its volume.

If you threw a book into a black hole, its information was somehow encoded on the surface. (You really can judge a book by its cover!)

And today, physicists believe that the "smallest distance" is the "Planck length" (10 (-33) cm), the distance where space-time itself becomes unstable (becoming "foamy" and frothing with tiny wormholes and bubble-universes).

If we put one bit of information into each Planck interval, we can re-derive Bekenstein and Hawking's results.

Bekenstein calculates that an aging mini-black hole, decayed down to about a centimeter across, may contain 10 (66) bits of information on its surface.

From there, he estimated how much information can be stored in the visible universe, and came up with 10 (100).

His results seem to agree with string theory, the leading candidate for a "theory of everything" which can describe quantum black holes. (In string theory, we can also obtain an even more bizarre possibility, that the universe is also a hologram.)

Alas, this does not mean we can hit the "fast forward" button and see the outcome of the November election (because of the uncertainty principle).

But it does raise a possibility that super-historians of the future, instead of reading bland histories of the election, might simply hit the "rewind button" and get an instant replay.

September 5, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink


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