Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Nobel Prize for Nick?

Nobel Prize Medal: Heads, Alfred Nobel; Tails, Science unveiling Nature
In the early days of the web, real men (and women) coded directly in HTML code. And that's how I started too. But soon, primitive website-building programs came along that made things easier. I got my start working on a site called Eros Island which under our direction aspired to be a place of sophisticated and humorous sensuality but, after we were dismissed, turned into a cheesy porn site. Al Lundell and I used a program called Netscape Navigator (as I recall) while Sun McNamee coded directly in naked HTML.

We all used Apple Macs then with the pizza box shape and low-number operating systems that weren't named after wild animals. One of my favorite pieces of work from those early days of the internet was called A Nobel Prize for Nick? which I originally published on the few MB of free storage space gave me with my new eMail account and which deserves to be republished today both because of its crude graphics (nostalgia) and for its imaginative proposal for universal peace (Can quantum physics provide us a better way of being human?)

Hence I invite you to examine:

in which all will be revealed.

Nick shows off his Reality Club gang colors.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Pity the Nation

Possible US stamp honoring poet, publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (2007)
(After Khalil Gibran)

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
And whose shepherds mislead them
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars
Whose sages are silenced
And whose bigots haunt the airwaves
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
Except to praise conquerors
And acclaim the bully as hero
And aims to rule the world
By force and by torture
Pity the nation that knows
No other language but its own
And no other culture but its own
Pity the nation whose breath is money
And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed
Pity the nation oh pity the people
who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away 
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!

Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Kaleidoscopic Optical Schrödinger Cats

Oktay Pashaev & Aygul Koçak, Izmir Institute of Technology
Most mornings I begin my day by looking at two of my favorite web sites -- NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) where you are sure to find some stunning view of our Universe to lift you out of your daily grind and the Cornell/Los Alamos ArXiv which publishes preprints of fresh new science papers in dozens of different specialties, putting anyone with an iPad in daily touch with some of the most brilliant minds on the planet. All this while sipping a cup of exotic coffee from my friends at Boardwalk Beans in New Jersey.

A few days ago, I discovered a paper on the quantum physics arXiv by two mathematical physicists from Izmar, Turkey (formerly known as "Smyrna") entitled "Kaleidoscope of Quantum Coherent States". These two researchers, Oktay Pashaev and Ayguy Koçak, had devised an infinite set of brand new breeds of Schrödinger Cats.

Schrödinger's Cat in bra-ket notation
In quantum mechanics it is commonplace for a system to be in a SUPERPOSITION of states. An (unmeasured) electron's spin, for instance, can simultaneously exist in a spin-up state |UP> and a spin-down state |DOWN>. When measured, however, the electron is always observed to be in one definite spin state. Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, shortly after he invented his famous quantum wave equation, argued that if unmeasured electrons could exist in two states at once, so could cats, and he devised a famous thought experiment in which an unobserved cat could, according to the laws of quantum physics, exist simultaneous as a live cat |ALIVE> and as a dead cat |DEAD>. Schrödinger's famous alive/dead cat conjecture has generated thousands of physics papers on the possible application of quantum superposition to macroscopic objects and numerous jokes, cartoons and T-shirts ("Schrödinger's Cat is a zombie" reads a T-shirt my neighbor Debi gave me for my birthday.).

Schrödinger's cat walks into a bar. And doesn't.

A brief note on notation. When physicists write down their quantum equations, they commonly use the compact and powerful bra-ket notation devised by British physicist Paul Dirac. In Dirac notation, a quantum initial state A is symbolized by a ket symbol |A> and a quantum final state B by a bra symbol <B|. When multiplied together <B|A> represents the probability amplitude that a quantum system A will be measured to have property B. The probability (different from probability amplitude) that A will be measured to have property B is given by the absolute square of the quantity: <B|A>

As a rough example of this kind of physics talk, let the ket |p,p> represent the initial quantum state of two protons. Let transformation T represent the act of accelerating each of these protons to an energy of 6 Gev in CERN's Large Hadron Collider and nudging them into a head-on collision. And let the bra <H,a| represent the final state that contains a Higgs boson and anything else.

Then, in Dirac's concise notation:


represents a number that expresses the probability amplitude of observing a Higgs boson. Square this quantity to get the probability of observing a Higgs boson.

Dirac's simple notation tells you basically what's going on by concealing a ton of detailed math that you really don't want to know about.

So, using Dirac's bra-ket notation, the quantum state of Schrödinger's cat can be simply represented as:


Or, in a more picturesque description, as:

This is the picture one usual gets about Schrödinger's famous cat -- he's both dead PLUS alive.

Quantum mechanics, however, is more complicated than that, and allows for many more existential possibilities for this hapless quantum cat. Quantum mechanical superposition uses COMPLEX NUMBERS (which possess a direction: North, South, East, West,  for instance) as well as a magnitude. (Numbers that possess only magnitude but not direction -- the kind of numbers we use every day -- are called REAL NUMBERS).

Using the extra degrees of freedom provided by complex numbers, the |ALIVE> and |DEAD> states can be "added together" in an infinite number of ways. If we let the direction "East"  represent "+", then the direction "West" will represent "-". Using "West addition" to combine the two cat states we obtain what might be called a MINUS CAT KET.

Schrödinger's MINUS CAT KET, in pictures, might look like this:

In addition to the PLUS CAT state and the MINUS CAT state, the arithmetical freedom provided by complex numbers allows us to imagine NORTH CAT, SOUTH CAT and NNW CAT states. And, in fact, LIVE and DEAD cats may be added together along any conceivable compass direction.

Whether actual cats can be subjected to quantum superposition is still a matter of some controversy, but there does exist a class of macroscopic states of light that can be placed in a variety of quantum superpositions.

Today's physicists probably know more about light than about any other natural phenomenon. Starting with all the natural forms of electromagnetic radiation, we have created both in theory and in practice a large variety of "unnatural" forms of light, some of which were recently invented in this new paper by Pashaev and Koçak.

Pashaev and Koçak begin their work with a familiar quantum state of light |α> called the "Glauber State" after optical physicist Roy Glauber. The Glauber state is a quantum state (also called "coherent state", hence the title of P&K's paper) that most closely approximates a classical state of light, possessing Heisenberg uncertainty and photons (light quanta) which, however, the corresponding classical state of light does not.  The quantity "α" which labels the Glauber state is a complex number. The square of α represents the average number of photons in the Glauber state. And the direction of α (North, South, East or West) represents the location of the Glauber state in a flat space physicists call the "optical phase plane".

The larger the number α, the more photons in the Glauber state |α>. The special case of α =  0 represents no photons whatsoever, or the vacuum state. Many books could be written about the properties of |0>, the quantum vacuum state. "I've got plenty of nothing. And nothing's plenty for me." might well be the theme song of this particular Glauber state, a state that is completely empty of photons.

Prior to the P&K paper, the Optical Schrödinger Cat (OSC) was well known. It consisted of two states from which all other OSCs could be constructed: the PLUS OPTICAL CAT STATE

|plus optical cat state> = |α> + |-α>


|minus optical cat state> = |α> - |-α>

The heart of the Schrödinger Cat controversy concerns the question of how big a system can get before it becomes impossible to place it in a quantum superposition. Optical Schrödinger Cats are in a particularly fortunate position to investigate this question because the larger the number of photons in an optical S-Cat state, the "bigger" the state -- and the more it resembles a classical "cat". In the other direction, when α is small (close to 1 photon), the resulting optical states are sometimes referred to as "Schrödinger Kittens".

To construct their "Optical Cat Kaleidoscopes", the two Turks take advantage of the fact that both α and the coefficients multiplying the optical quantum states |α> are complex numbers -- that is, they possess direction as well as magnitude.

The well-known plus and minus optical cats may be considered "cats of order two (C2)." The first new cat in P&K's infinite series of kaleidoscopic cats may be labeled "cats of order three (C3)." Cats of order three are constructed by adding particular cats with different kinds of dead/aliveness along directions that are separated by 120 degrees (similar to the Mercedes emblem). A caricature of the P&K "three cat" might look like this:

Quantum optical trinity cats in Dirac ket notation.

Or, in keeping with the kaleidoscopic metaphor, C3 could look like this:

Three-fold kaleidoscopic optical Schrödinger's Cat (artist's conception)
Pashaev and Koçak go on to show how kaleidoscopic optical Schrödinger Cats of any order can be constructed, depending on which angle you tilt your mathematical mirrors. On its own terms, theirs is a simple but beautiful achievement of pure mathematics. But the authors go further and show how their kaleidoscopic optical cats may someday find a practical use in quantum computing -- each order of cat representing a different number of quantum bits. Thus, if I am not mistaken, the eighth-order cat (octopussy?) can encode eight quantum bits, the same byte size as the ancient Altair computer and many of its successors.

As a poetic reprieve from so much gratuitous quantum math, this may be a good place to quote British mystic William Blake from a letter to his friend Thomas Butts:

Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in supreme delight
And three-fold in soft Beulah's night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton's sleep.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Catechism Bath Hadith


Who is God?

God is the Supreme Being
Who made all things
And keeps them in existence.

Why did God make us?

God made us
To know, love and serve Him
In this world
And to be happy with Him
In the next.

To know Him?
Physics, mathematics,
Mysticism, ritual, drugs:
Trying to know God.

To love Him?
Now that's a hard one:
Can you simply decide
To love somebody?

Why did She make us?

Why did She bear us,
Supreme Mother all alone?

I was a Hidden Treasure
And desired to be known.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Red Fox
     (For Beverly before a breast exam)

To each creature who nurses
and bears its young alive

O bread-baking
lipstick-wearing kin of 
coyote, dolphin, leopard, ox
jaguar, weasel, whale, fox

May you be secure in your fur
In your flesh and its attachments
In the calcium and phosphorus
Of your bones

May you feed, sleep, breed
In season, as you please
Drinking deep of that sweet cup
Peculiar to your species.

O star-gazer
cotton-covered sister of
squirrel, oryx, ring-tailed cat
platypus, aardvark, vampire bat

May prey be abundant
Your teeth and muscles swift
Ears sharp, eyes clear
May your belly be full
Your blood hot and clairvoyant
May your mind be empty of fear

May every gash
                cut be healed
May your wounds make you wise.

And when words finally fail you
All your powers falter
May you flee as Joyful Prey
Before the great Eater of All.

Sunday, May 7, 2017


Doctor Jabir 'abd al-Khaliq

You didn't catch it on TV
K jumped straight out at you and me
Just when the world seemed bleakium.

Half-way between matter and the mind
Far outside the science grind
K connected us all to Unspeakium.

K followed the usual quantum math
But not by the usual quantum path --
Discovered in far Boulder Creekium.

Next morning after K was found
Men laid their lives upon the ground
And joined the new Hide-and-Seekium

To prospect for alchemic gold
In sites invisible to the old.

New glimpses of the Real are rare:
Khaliqium looks on Nature bare.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Nick's Chakras 2017

The seven classical chakras (after Sir John Woodroffe)

When I was in graduate school in the '60s studying for my PhD, I worked in an odd little book shop in Menlo Park called EastWest which eventually turned into the largest occult bookstore on the West Coast. I knew the owners well (the late Virginia and Bill Scharfman) and had unlimited access to books one could never find in a physics library, as well as daily commerce with the kinds of people who read and write such books. It was at EastWest (now under new ownership in Mountain View), along with Aleister Crowley, I Ching, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Yogananda, Carlos Castañada and Seth; Manly P. Hall, Madame Blavatsky, soma, peyote, vril, od, blarney, ki, crystal balls and Tarot, that I first found out about the human body's alleged "chakra centers".

Sir John Woodroffe was a British High Court Judge in India who became fascinated with native religious culture and, under the romantic pen name of "Arthur Avalon", wrote several scholarly works about Hindu mysticism, chief of which is The Serpent Power which describes seven psychic centers in the human body ("chakras" or "wheels"). The "serpent power" starts its movement at the lowest root chakra located at the base of the spine, winds its way through each chakra in turn, then exits through the crown chakra at the top of the head, resulting in a powerful experience called "kundalini".

Or so I've read in books.

Fifty years later, one still runs across books picturing the same seven chakras exactly as illustrated in Arthur Avalon's classic tome.

Why, I wondered, has this curious field not evolved? There used to be only four elements; now there are more than one hundred. How about a twenty-first century update to Arthur Avalon's Serpent Power?

For several years I have been working on possible new additions to the conventional seven chakras -- one scheme featured as many as 68 chakras -- and have recently completed a new collection of chakras that mostly meets my criteria for a new system of body centers.

First: the new chakras must contain the old chakras as a subset. Second: the symbols must be graphically simple as well as suggestive of the body centers they represent. Third: each chakra should possess an "anti-chakra" (similar to an antiparticle in physics) whose symbol is the inverse (colorwise) of its partner chakra. Four: the number of chakras should be small enough to comprehend yet large enough to encompass the whole body in both its physical and (tentatively) its metaphysical aspects.

Since I know almost nothing about tantra except what I have read in books and gathered from a few private lessons passed on to me (sometimes inadvertently) by lovely tantrikas (Many thanks, sweet teachers of the way.), this project is bound to appear amateurish and crude. A more sophisticated version awaits someone more knowledgeable than me.

Nick's Chakras 2017

Here's the latest version (May 2017) of Nick's Chakras -- consisting of 24 chakras, each with its own anti-chakra or partner chakra arranged in four columns. From left to right, these columns represent: 1, Four Right Limb chakras; 2. Eight Classical chakras; 3. Eight Spinal chakras and 4. Four Left Limb chakras.

To get a sense of how this works, let's ignore the Limb chakras and begin at the bottom of the Classical chakra column that starts: "Moon, Root, Sex ..."

Skip the Moon chakra for the moment; it is a new addition. And start with the Root. This chakra represents what keeps us stable and secure: its symbol "X" could represent a surveyor's mark (or the anal sphincter, the body location most associated with the Root.) The Root's partner is the Brow which represents the power of cognition: its symbol, the plus sign, could represent mathematics.

The Sex chakra is represented by a vertical line, standing for phallus or yoni -- your choice. And Sex's partner is the Throat chakra whose vertical line could stand for vocal cords or lips.

Similarly the Belly chakra is viewed in martial arts as the physical center of gravity; while Belly's partner is the Heart, the center and origin of our emotional stability.

Next we come to the Crown chakra at the top of the head which represents our connection to the divine and to high inspiration. The Crown's partner is the Moon (my innovation) which connects us to the lower sources of life -- to the soil, to the sea and to our ancestors. I'm not sure where in the body to locate the Moon chakra -- whether under the soles of the feet, or at the nape of the neck where the spinal cord enters the bottom of the brain.

Now I hope you are beginning to see how this system works: a few simple symbols each paired with its "opposite" partner.

Let's progress to the top of the Spinal chakra column. And skip for the moment the chakra named Whole Body.

The second Spinal chakra is the Neck, an upward-pointing bar representing the cervical vertebrae. The Neck's partner is the Tail, a downward-pointing bar representing the tail bones (my cat has one of these that he can articulate but my Tail is vestigial and merely reminiscent of my animal origin).

The Thorax is partnered with the Sacrum, each a triangle whose base is connected to powerful limbs, and whose points meet in the small of the back at the Lumbar chakra.

The Lumbar symbol is saddle-shaped to indicate where a saddle would be placed if you were being ridden. Lumbar's partner is the Perineum which is where the saddle would fit if you were doing the riding. In Chinese esoteric systems of body points, the Perineum plays an inordinately important role.

To finish up the Spinal chakras, let's return to the Whole Body chakra at the top of the column. Whole Body means just what it says: being aware of my whole body, symbolized by a little five-limbed cartoon figure. The Whole Body's partner is Body Hole chakra which means being aware of everything that is NOT my body, that is, the whole Universe. I imagine this chakra as representing the entire Cosmos with a small Nick-shaped chunk taken out of it.

So what is this system good for? First of all, notice the cross shape. This arrangement forms a Tantric Crucifix on which to hang your own body, not for torture as in the classic Christian Crucifix, but for whatever bodies can be used for -- for sport, for science, for pleasure, for religion or for play. Nick's Tantric Crucifix visualizes the body in a new way for whatever ends you might want to imagine.

One of the nice things about the mind is its ability to pay attention to anything we choose. In particular we can pay attention to different parts of the body. Many parts of the body barely get any notice at all -- and then only when they're in pain -- while others get the lion's share of the Mind.

Nick's Chakras offers you a simple way to change all that.

When I'm trying to fall asleep or waiting at the dentist's office, I sometimes silently say a Tantric Rosary.

I usually begin with the Right Limb chakras. Even though there are only four of these chakras, each of them can be unpacked to produce a great deal more.

I begin the Tantric Rosary by paying attention to my Right Thumb, then Index Finger, etc and last of all my whole Right Hand. That's 6 hand chakras in one Hand symbol, to which you can pay successive attention.

Then move to the Arm chakra and do Wrist, Forearm, Elbow, Upper Arm and Shoulder Joint chakras, giving each of these locations some focused attention. That's 5 arm chakras packed in one Arm symbol.

Next move your mind to the Leg chakra, starting with the Hip Joint and give successive attention to each of the 5 chakras packed into this Leg symbol, ending with the Ankle Joint and progressing to the Foot chakra with its 6 sub-chakras, including each of your toes which for most of us have been starving for the slightest taste of your Mind.

After doing my Right Limb (22 chakras to pay attention to, but what else had you planned to do with this time?) I move on to my Left Limb and attend to its needy 22 chakras.

The awareness path you take through the remaining 16 Classical and Spinal chakras is up to you (as is all of this, of course) but a favorite of mine is to take these remaining chakras in pairs, starting with Moon and Crown chakras and divide my attention between them, just to see how it feels. Then I move pair-by-pair through both columns ending on Whole Body-Body Hole, feeling myself at last both as a complete body and as a part of the entire Universe.

The Body of the Universe: nice place to end up after innocently paying attention just to my Right Thumb. And, because consciousness is invisible, nobody even knows I'm doing this!

Much of the time I fall asleep before finishing the Rosary, or I get distracted. Or the dentist calls me in to give some professional attention to a Nick-neglected body part not yet symbolized by a chakra.

Happy May Day, my friends. Mind your body. It's the only one you got.

May Day 2017

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

All is Mind: Matter is an Illusion

Bernardo Kastrup, Dutch Philosopher (Veldhoven, NL)

Esse est percipi. (To be is to be perceived): A thing exists only if it is perceived.
    -- George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, Ireland

And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream,
That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its
farrow that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme.
    —William Butler Yeats, Blood and the Moon

For a time I totally believed that the world is made entirely of Mind.
Then the acid wore off.
    -- Nick Herbert

There is only universal consciousness. We, as well as all other living organisms, are but dissociated alters of universal consciousness, surrounded like islands by the ocean of its thoughts. The inanimate universe we see around us is the extrinsic appearance of these thoughts. The living organisms that we share the world with are the extrinsic appearances of other dissociated alters of universal consciousness. 
    -- Bernardo Kastrup

Recently Dutch philosopher Bernardo Kastrup published a book Why Materialism is Baloney criticizing the dominant "theology" of our time, namely that everything (minds included) is made out of matter. The prime doctrine of the First Church of Materialism was first set down by Democritus of Abdera (around 500 BC):

Nothing exists but atoms and empty space: all else is opinion. 

In the following millennia, natural philosophers have immensely expanded Democritus's ontology by getting more specific concerning the nature of "atoms" (we now call them "quarks and "leptons") and the forces that govern their motion and transformation (modern jargon for these forces is "vector bosons"). The immense success of modern physics at every scale from photon to galactic cluster is a powerful argument for the Democritean ontology. The undeniable existence of conscious experience is the only fly in the Democritian ointment. To explain the entire world, does Mind have to be added as an extra ingredient to the list of what exists (mind-matter dualism = Dualism)? Or will physics someday explain Mind as a particularly complex arrangement of atoms (matter monism = Materialism)?

The usual tactic of the antiMaterialist heretic is to argue that Mind can never be explained by mere physical brain processes because consciousness is 1. intrinsically OTHER than matter and 2. can do things (classified broadly as parapsychology) that are impossible for matter to do. Edward and Emily Kelly's book Irreducible Mind is a giant encyclopedia of things supposedly difficult or impossible for matter to accomplish.

AntiMaterialist Bernardo Kastrup takes an radically different, audacious and utterly preposterous approach by 1. denying the existence of Matter entirely and 2. arguing that everything is made of mind.

Kastrup's bold position is called idealism, a philosophy associated with Bishop Berkeley (1685 - 1753) and epitomized by his phrase:

All those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, that their being is to be perceived.

 Kastrup recently published an 18-page paper describing his idealistic ontology which I was tempted to dismiss out of hand on the grounds that mind-only views such as Berkeley's are utterly preposterous. But as I looked further into Kastrup's paper, I realized that he was playing by the rules, lining up his premises and assumptions and attempting to put forth a coherent and persuasive argument for his preposterous model of reality. This is a show worth watching, I thought! How is this guy going to logically demolish "all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world" and how is he going to replace every single one of them with mere thought?

BK's first postulate is that the fundamental reality is "That which experiences" (TWE). That is all there is -- and all that there ever was and will be. We might as well call TWE by the name "God", but this primal reality is immensely larger than any God we mere humans could ever conceive.

Next there exist parts of this unitary reality that have separated themselves off from TWE and are somewhat independent of Big Reality. We can designate these Reality Rebels (which include ourselves and all other conscious beings) as "twe" (lower case). We like God are also "that which experiences" but our experiences are rather small.

A part of God that has separated from the Whole.
I'm beginning to like this metaphysics. According to Kastrup, we are all "Shards of God", in the words of Fug/poet Ed Sanders. Shards like us have two modes of perception: inner and outer. We are directly aware of some of our inner thought processes and indirectly aware of the outer world through membrane-mediated external thoughts.

Because we have separated ourselves from the Mind of God, we are mercifully unaware of the Supreme Diety's massively complex thought processes but perceive God dimly and indirectly as "the physical world". In Kastrup's view the physical world appears to us Reality Rebels as "the Body of God". And we perceive our fellow "shards of God" as those parts of the physical world that behave like physical beings with consciousness.

But what does it mean to perceive "the external appearance" of God and the "external appearance" of fellow shards? If we have truly separated ourselves from divinity, why do we perceive anything "external" at all?

And here we come to the most crucial point in Kastrup's philosophy. (We must be constantly aware that this guy is performing a philosophically dangerous high-wire act without a net and try to give him lots of support.) The separated shard is in a desperate position. If he separates completely from Reality, he ends up in a boring prison of solipsism. On the other hand, if he connects fully with Reality, his little personal twe dissolves into the universal sea of Supreme TWE.

Kalstrup's solution: the shard surrounds himself with a protective membrane of Minds That Lie (MTL). The sole function of a Mind That Lies is to take one thought and turn it into another. Once surrounded by this Decepticon Shield, the shard no longer experiences Reality-as-it-is, but merely a particular Representation of Reality. Kastrup calls this necessary shard-protective membrane the "Markov Blanket". And this Blanket's the weakest link in his argument.

How the world might look, information-wise, from inside a human-size Markov Blanket
For just as Kastrup points out that the weakest link in materialism is its failure to deliver a materialist model of Mind, the weakest link in Kastrup's philosophy is his failure to produce an idealist model of matter. Kastrup's magical Markov Blanket must manifest a lot of solid marvels out of purely mental material. It must produce, for instance, the very notion of "a simple material object" -- that exists by itself whether anyone is thinking of it or not. (To be fair, quantum theory possesses a similar weak link in its inability to clearly characterize the notion of "a macroscopic measuring instrument".) 

Materialists can't explain Mind. Idealists can't explain Matter.

A landmark achievement of Kastrupian philosophy would be to demonstrate from purely mental arguments (presumably including specific Markov Blankets made of Minds That Lie) why we seem to live in a physical space consisting of three spatial and one time dimension with a Minkowski metric. 

Kastrup's imaginative philosophy is entertaining and leads one into unconventional ways of thinking about the world. But always the proof is in the pudding. A truly successful model of reality should provide us entirely novel human experiences -- marvelous new experiences that were previously inconceivable. Yes.

Gentleman and ladies, start your engines. May the best reality win.

God wakes up and realizes the whole thing was a really bad dream.
Illustration by Sligo, Ireland artist Annie West, famous for her satirical cartoons of Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire

Nick meets a Luck Wave (design by August O'Connor)

I have spent more than a third of my life speculating (with congenial physicist friends) about what quantum mechanics might actually mean -- and have even written a book about it. The gist of the quantum dilemma is that we have a Quantum Theory that successfully predicts the results of every physical measurement. But with this theory comes an utter inability to tell a plausible story about what's really going on in the world -- both before, during and after a measurement. Physicists today possess an essentially perfect Quantum Theory, know how to experimentally produce subtle and delicate Quantum Facts, but cannot convincingly tell their kids a Quantum Reality story that adequately explains both Quantum Theory and Quantum Facts.

Many words concerning quantum reality were exchanged by quantum theory's founders -- especially Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr -- but not much progress was made until the remarkable discovery of Irish physicist John Stewart Bell who formulated an experimental test that could confidently eliminate an entire class of quantum reality models. Not only is it rare for physicists (or anybody else) to TALK ABOUT REALITY, it is even rarer (such was the importance of Bell's discovery) to come up with EXPERIMENTS ON REALITY. Consequently, Bell's original 1964 paper has become one of the most-cited publications in physics.

Bell's original experiment involved TWO ENTANGLED PHOTONS -- one sent to Alice and one to Bob. About this setup, quantum theory says two seemingly contradictory things: 1. that the quantum state of Bob's photon depends instantly (faster-than-light) on Alice's choice of what to measure; 2. that this apparent instantaneous action can never be used for signaling.

The physics jargon for instantaneous voodoo-like connections is the word "non-local". Non-local effects (either in theory or in practice) are as welcome in physics as a corpse at a wedding feast.

So before Bell came along, the theory of entangled systems was manifestly non-local (BAD!), but the same theory also assured that no experiment would ever be able to directly reveal this non-locality (GOOD!).

So quantum theory of entangled systems is NON-LOCAL: But all quantum facts are LOCAL.

What about quantum reality -- the underlying causal dynamics behind both theory and fact? Do we live in a world that's deep-down linked by abominable (to the physicist) non-local connections? Or is quantum reality nicely local, just like the quantum facts?

Bell's surprising conclusion (a powerful mathematical proof, not a mere conjecture) is that no local reality can underlie this everywhere local world.

Quantum reality must be non-local, according to Bell's proof.

To a physicist, Bell's conclusion is preposterous and must certainly be wrong. My first entry into the Bell's Theorem game was an attempt to disprove John Bell. Which ended in my formulating the world's shortest proof for the non-local nature of quantum reality.

Bell's Theorem is so simple that it is difficult to find a flaw. But Bell's greatest weakness can be summed up in the dichotomy: if reality exists, then it must be non-local; but if you DENY REALITY, then you are let off the hook.

But what could "denying reality" possibly mean?

One innocent (but crucial) assumption in Bell's proof is called "contrafactual definiteness" (or CFD, for short).

When you do the Bell experiment on a single pair of entangled photons, both Alice and Bob can set their detectors at only ONE SETTING. But to prove BT, you need to consider the possible results of FOUR SETTINGS. Four settings for the same two-photon event.

CFD assumes that: if we had performed three other measurements -- other than the actual one -- we would have gotten three definite (but unknown) results.

But if the nature of the quantum world is such that CFD is not valid, then you can't prove Bell's theorem. In fact, in a non-CFD world, you cannot even formulate Bell's theorem.

A recent paper by Gerold Gründler from Nürnberg, Germany, (What Does Bell's Inequality Actually Prove?) analyzes a few ways of "denying reality" by postulating (and perhaps even proving -- I am not sure) that we live in a world which does not support CFD. Gründler revisits and revises an earlier work by Israeli physicist, the late Asher Peres, entitled Unperformed Experiments Have No Results (3 page pdf).

Peres's paper suggests that we might live in a world where Unperformed Experiments Have No Results. But what are the details of such a world? How does it actually work?

What would it be like to live in a world where CFD is inconceivable?

Here's one attempt to visualize such a world.

Our thinking about the classical world is dominated by movies. It is easy to imagine rewinding the film, changing only one thing, then doing an (imaginary) retake. Certainly this cinematic model of reality allows us to at least imagine what the results of Unperformed Experiments might look like.

We can even add quantum randomness to the picture by allowing some features of the scene to depend on pure chance. Imagine filming a gambling table -- each reshoot, even of the same game, will give definite but different outcomes -- outcomes that are governed by statistical laws -- analogous to the probabilistic outcomes predicted by quantum mechanics. Bell's Theorem can be proved in a world like this -- a world of definite but statistically determined results.

To move into a non-CFD world, consider the case of a single Uranium atom. Physics considers all Uranium atoms to be EXACTLY THE SAME. Yet this one decayed in one second, while its identical sister is still alive after a million years. The first atom's short life is not due to some defect in its constitution. That's just the way the quantum world works -- identical quantum objects behave differently -- FOR NO REASON AT ALL.

Now consider how the movie analogy might work in a fully quantum world. We rewind the film, KEEP EVERYTHING THE SAME. Then change just one setting and reshoot the experiment.

Keeping everything the same is easy in a quantum world: every photon, electron, quark has always been just the same as every other. But the big problem is that each particle in the universe now behaves differently than in the first take -- giving rise to an entirely different universe -- a universe in which not only does the camera not exist, but the cameraman, the human species, and all life on Earth have vanished. In this second take on our present quantum reality the familiar Earth has no doubt disappeared as well.

As Heraclitus warned, you cannot step twice into the same river, because the river is never the same.

Might an Asher-Peres world in which Unperformed Experiments Have No Results be "hyper-Heraclitean" in the sense that in this kind of quantum reality even the same river is not the same river? In fact this river revisited second time round might not even be a river at all but the insides of a black hole.

Trying to visualize quantum worlds in which CFD is inconceivable might push us to think more deeply not only about fully quantum concepts such as "superposition", "entanglement" and "wave/particle duality" but also to revise our old-fashioned assumptions about everyday classical concepts such as "same", "different", "spontaneity" and even how to correctly use the word "again" when it comes to properly refilming in our imagination the very same event that has already happened once.

We house-broke quantum reality
Trained Schrödinger's Cat to purr
Now daily life's more uncanny
Than atoms ever were.

Asher Peres, who titled his bio "The cat who walks by himself", played a vital part in publicizing the role both he and myself played in the discovery of the quantum "no cloning rule". (How the no-cloning theorem got its name.) which eventually inspired MIT professor David Kaiser to write his popular science history book: How the Hippies Saved Physics. In addition to his pioneering work in quantum information theory, Asher Peres will probably be remembered most as a member of the team of six people who devised the remarkably clever Quantum Teleportation process.

The title of this post was taken from Gerard Manley Hopkins's splendid poem: That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection.

Asher Peres (bottom right) and his five buddies who invented Quantum Teleportation

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Xian Yao (Immortality Elixir)

Nick seeks the Elixir

At winter's end
Residing in Santa Cruz County
In year of Cassini's plunge into Saturn
My physician prescribes
Yang Forest Amber
For melancholy.

One taste:
My pains recede
Like morning mist
Upon Two Bar Creek.

Two taste:
My sluggish brain dissolves
Pops, prances, flies like sparrow.
I grow sly, wise
Observant as a child.

Three taste:
I rise to heaven as music
I sing to my supper, laugh at my woes.
Wellness flooding my being
Overflowing my banks

I cry:
Doctor, Doctor
No more medicine please.
Three taste make me
One with the Immortals.