July 22, 2004

Information, strings and eternal life

The New York Times > Science > About Those Fearsome Black Holes? Never Mind

The paragraph that really caught my attention in this story is this one:

Work by several theorists, including Dr. Andrew Strominger and Dr. Cumrun Vafa, both of Harvard, and Dr. Juan Maldacena, now at the Institute for Advanced Study, has contributed to a strange new view of the universe as a kind of hologram, in which the information about what happens inside some volume of space is somehow encoded on the surface of its boundary.

In such a picture, "there is no room for information loss," Dr. Maldacena explained.

I do not offer this as proof for eternal life, but I do think it's one more piece of evidence that points in the direction of some sort of continued existence - even of the individual. And that idea is new to me. (It has long seemed obvious to me both in terms of science and Buddhism that "life" is eternal - that is, life continues in the sense that the basic matter and energy that makes us up right now is recycled and used again - it is not destroyed, just changed. But until now I saw little scientific evidence that infromation - especially the information that makes up us as individuals - continues.)

The thrust of the NYT story, by the way, is that Dr. Stephen Hawking, the celebrated physicists, did not believe information could ever be retrieved from a black hole and made a famous bet to that effect several years ago. He now has admitted his mistake and reversed his position, conceding the bet. He ha done so through some new theoretical work that few at this point understand.

But as the story notes:

This esoteric sounding debate is of great consequence to science, because if Dr. Hawking had been right, it would have violated a basic tenet of modern physics: that it is always possible to reverse time, run the proverbial film backward and reconstruct what happened in, say, the collision of two cars or the collapse of a dead star into a black hole.

Behind all this is the basic concept that the universe consists of three fundamentals - matter, energy, and information. Up until now I had assumed information could be destroyed, therefore I assumed that the information that describes - informs - us could be destroyed. Now I am not at all sure of this.

First, I must admit that I am making a great leap here from little real knowledge. My understanding of modern physics all comes from popular sources. But what does seem quite clear to me is that the most mysterious and essential ingredient here is information. Matter and energy are building blocks. The plan under which they are arranged - a Buddhist might say "manifested" - at any given moment is information.

Given this, I have long toyed with the idea that a good model for ultimate reality is the radio. Using this technology we take the information that appears in one physical form - sound waves - and transfer that information (not the sound, but the information that resulted in the sound) into another form, radio waves. The fundamentals of how this is done are apprent to anyone who has done the most rudimentary study of the technology, but whether you understand the technology or not, it has to be obvious to you that sound originating in New York, for example, is not transmitted as sound to Boston, or we would live in a true tower of Babel, constantly surrounded by incdredible, unintelligible, noise.

So.. . . the information that make the sound noise intelligible to us is lifted from the actual sound and applied to radio waves which we can not see, here, or feel. These radio waves are then sent at the speed of light to another device - many devices, really - that can manifest them. That is, the radio receiver takes the information and applies it once more to the material in our everyday world, thus ressurecting the original sound. (You could think of this as the sound firstbeing alive, then dying, thenbeing ressurected.)

More recently I see the same process over and over again with the computer. This is most easily understood when we consider that no pictures - in our usual sense of a physical, two-dimensional object such as a photograph - no pictures exist in our computers. Yet over and over again we store and transmit the information that, given the correct materials, will manifest itself faithfully as a specific image - a specific picture.

I do not mean, by these examples, that when we die we becomes radio waves or the binary numbers by which computers store information. I mean only that they are understandable (and scientifically verifiable) processes by which information is manifested in different media, some of which are apparent to us and some of which remain entirely out of our reach.

Any primitive culture looking upon a radio or a computer could define this only as magic. They may, in fact, worship it, or the people who control it.

In a similar fashion I think the discoveries of contemporary physics strongly suggest that the information which forms us is stored in some mysterious fashion and could, at some other time, be manifested probably in a form which we in our current manifestation could no more recognize than we can now recognize the sound in a radio wave, or the image in a string of binary numbers. Subject to either of these manifestations of familiar informatin we would be at a complete loss to discern anything faintly resembling the sounds and images which are so familiar to us.

In all of this I am not trying to create an article of faith or even of hope. I simply find it fascinating because I see it as a rational model for ultimate reality.

Note that this model has nothing to do with good or evil, heaven or hell, god or no god - nor does it in any way suggest how we should act during this particular manifestation. That knowledge needs to come from other sources. I believe it does and that is a whole different topic which I will leave for another time, Suffice it to say Emerson outlined this well nearly two centuries ago and so does Buddhism. But I think these concepts of right and wrong - of a sense of universal unity - are independent of my speculation regarding information and our continued existence in some other manifestation. Or at least i don't see the connection. In the system I am speculating about thei nformation that once was Hitler would live side-by-side with the informatin that once was Gandhi.

Posted by Greg Stone at 05:56 AM | TrackBack