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.
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