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It from Bit or Bit from It? Announcing the 5th Foundational Questions Institute Essay Contest

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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What a great way to start the week: the Foundational Questions Institute has just announced its fifth essay contest. The topic is the physics of information. It could hardly be more timely, and not just because of the cultural Zeitgeist. Going to a physics conference these days is like landing in The Village of the old TV series The Prisoner, where all anyone talks about is information.

Information theory makes sense of the Second Law of thermodynamics and much of the formalism of quantum mechanics. Black holes are bad ass not because they destroy matter per se, but because they destroy information. The holographic principle holds that the universe has an unexpectedly limited capacity to store and process information, perhaps indicating that space and time are not fundamental ingredients of nature, but derived from some deeper level.

Might information be more basic than the material things that carry it? As physicist John Wheeler famously put it, can we get “it from bit”? Does that idea even make sense? Information is always information about something, isn’t it? There is quite a knot of questions to disentangle. I expect that a Who’s Who of physicists and philosophers will enter the contest, not to mention new voices with provocative ideas.

Scientific American is a co-sponsor of the contest, which, in practical terms, means that one of the editors will serve on the official judging panel and the magazine will consider the top-placed winners for publication. The article by David Tong in December, “The Unquantum Quantum”, came out of the third essay contest, “Is Reality Digital or Analog?” The editors are now considering essays from the fourth, “Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?”

The contest will accept entries through the end of June. The fun part is that you don’t need to submit an essay to participate. All the essays are available online for reading, remarking, and rating. FQXi uses the community ranking to short-list entries for the official judging panel, and the institute plans to announce the winners in October.

George Musser About the Author: is a contributing editor at Scientific American. He focuses on space science and fundamental physics, ranging from particles to planets to parallel universes. He is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory. Musser has won numerous awards in his career, including the 2011 American Institute of Physics's Science Writing Award. Follow on Twitter @gmusser.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. gesimsek 6:21 pm 03/25/2013

    If e=mc2 is true, we have no way of knowing the value of energy is before it turns into matter, since observation requires position that interferes its value. Therefore, in order to find the bit we need it.

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  2. 2. rloldershaw 9:39 pm 03/25/2013

    I hope someone leads off with a definiton of “information”.

    Douglas Hofstader had a nice riff on this subject in Godel, Escher and Bach, as I remember.

    Can information exist independently of sentient beings? If not, can it be fundamental?

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 5:58 am 03/26/2013

    The article states:
    “The topic is the physics of information.”
    However, the fundamental issue here is the conception of information in physics.

    More importantly, physicists seem to have no useful conception of how information, thought to determine the configuration of any physical system, is stored much less processed. It seems to be presumed that information storage is some ethereal aspect of multidimensional spacetime. As best as I can tell, no physical process has been hinted at that could manifest the physical configuration of material on the basis of the seemingly crucial information describing it.

    Even the idea of black hole entropy, or the “information paradox”, is predicated on the conception that dimensional material actually enters a black hole’s event horizon, to be physically stored within a dimensionless ‘black box’ singularity and essentially removed from the universe.

    Alternatively, atomic matter may processed by the event horizon by disintegration (similarly to particle collider experiments) and ejected through relativistic polar jets – only the binding mass-energy of disintegrated material is retained, imparting incremental curvature to external spacetime, directed towards the dimensionless singular focal point. In this case, no material energy is seemingly paradoxically consumed or removed from the universe.

    Of course, I may be biased, having spent my career working with information systems. One thing I did learn is that information that is not reliably stored is of little value, as is stored information that cannot be precisely processed to produce some desired result. Without knowing how information might be reliably stored in the universe and used to produce its physical properties, this conception of the information of physics is purely fantasy.

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