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Is reality digital or analog? Announcing the third 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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The Foundational Questions Institute announced this week its latest essay contest, "Is Reality Digital or Analog?", and if it’s anything like the past two contests, we’re in for a real treat: the contest should draw entrants from some of the deepest thinkers of our time. This time around, Scientific American has joined the institute as a co-sponsor of the contest.

The article we published in June on the nature of time, written by philosopher of physics Craig Callender, grew out of FQXi’s first essay contest. The contest, which has a first-place prize of $10,000, is one of the ways that FQXi—a smallish, newish organization that gets money from the Templeton Foundation and other donors—supports cutting-edge research that tends to fall between the cracks at larger, risk-averse funding agencies.

An essay contest might sound like something you’d have done in high school, but such competitions have a distinguished history in science. Cash is always welcome, but the main benefit for most participants is the opportunity to play with an idea in a way they can’t in a formal journal paper. The Gravity Research Foundation, for example, has run one since 1949, and practically everyone who’s anyone in gravitational theory, from Steven Hawking to Roger Penrose to John Wheeler, has entered. Scientific American itself ran a famous essay contest in 1921 to explain Einstein’s theories of relativity.
FQXi’s contest on the nature of time and a second one on the limits of physics drew a huge variety of fascinating contributions from a veritable Who’s Who of physics. It also allowed for new voices who might not otherwise get heard. This is one of the few times when an institution of science is willing to run the risk of psychoceramics in order not to exclude potentially interesting ideas. All the entries were posted to the FQXi website and anyone was free to comment on them and vote for a winner, in addition to the selection of a panel of judges.

As every essay-writer knows, half the fun is to interpret the question. The latest, about digital vs. analog reality, could go in a lot of different directions. The obvious one is to ask whether spacetime is discrete and what that would mean, but I imagine that entrants will come up with even more interesting interpretations. In our November 1999 issue, cosmologists Lawrence Krauss and Glenn Starkman posed the digital-vs.-analog question and discussed what it meant for life in the very far future of our universe.

The FQXi scientific directors, Max Tegmark and Anthony Aguirre, and I have been trying to get our two organizations to work together for several years, but it only came together this year. We brainstormed enough essay questions for the next dozen contests, we’ll work together on the judging, and our hope is that the prize-winning essay(s) will appear in some form in the magazine. In the meantime, bookmark the contest site and check back periodically to read what entries people have submitted!

Update (November 2nd): My mathematician brother points out that the question is biased: it presents a binary choice!


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  1. 1. scientific earthling 1:19 am 11/2/2010

    Caution folk, The Templeton Foundation is an organisation promoting the concept of an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent god.

    If all you are interested in is the money, make sure you somehow include the imaginary concept in your essay.

    Before you do, do yourself a favour and read an essay written John Horgan to and I quote "to exorcise my lingering guilt, and perhaps to help others wondering whether to join the large and fast-growing list of Templeton donees"

    here is where you can find the essay:

    Link to this
  2. 2. scientific earthling 1:25 am 11/2/2010

    Should proof read before posting:
    This: Before you do, do yourself a favour and read an essay written John Horgan to and I quote "to exorcise my lingering guilt,

    Should read:
    Before you do, do yourself a favour and read an essay written by John Horgan to placate his guilty feeling, I quote "to exorcise my lingering guilt….

    Link to this
  3. 3. tegmark 2:48 pm 11/2/2010

    Hey Scientific Earthling,

    I’m Max, the Scientific Director of FQXi, and just want to clarify a few things. Although FQXi has received generous funding from the Templeton Foundation, it’s an independent 501(c)3 organization focused strictly on science, run by scientists for scientists. From time to time, I hear amusing conspiracy theories involving a hidden agenda where winning essays must connect with religion. This is of course silly nonsense, as is easily confirmed by checking out our past winners & grantees:
    Moreover, this particular essay contest is funded mainly by the Gruber Foundation ( ). None of our donors have any involvement with selecting the winners of our essay contests or grant competitions. You can find more information about these issues here:

    I hope this helps clarify things, and that you decide to submit an essay to the contest!
    Max ;-)

    Link to this
  4. 4. lplaud 6:40 pm 11/2/2010

    With regard to the "November 2 update", I am not a mathematician but the same apparent bias immediately struck me. Not being a scientist, I’m inclined to view reality as quantitatively ephemeral.

    Link to this
  5. 5. marom 8:39 pm 11/2/2010

    I’m a long standing science fan and have yet to come across the Foundational Questions Institute – so thanks for that.

    Link to this
  6. 6. scientific earthling 11:43 pm 11/4/2010

    Glad to hear you are not influenced by religious organisations and essays submitted to your competition will not be disadvantaged if they indicate there is most probably no god.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Quinn the Eskimo 1:55 am 11/5/2010

    Neither digital nor analog. Reality, as we perceive it is an illusion. Outside our petri dish, we’re seen as mold.

    The next dish over? That’s a parallel universe. A brane. But then, they’re only another bunch of mold.

    Link to this
  8. 8. jgrosay 4:15 am 11/5/2010

    We don’t know how reality is, we just know the way we perceive it, that as Immanuel Kant said, is an a priori of inner sensibility. For example birds, reptiles and insects do perceive more colors than mammals, as we lost some retinal receptors when our ancestors were forced to night life. The way we use to approach problems is digitalizing them to be able to use mathematics for solving, but probably the human mind has an innate ability to build cerebral models of things and behaviors to produce predictions, and this is some kind of an analogical thinking. The inherent problem is that analogical thinking has limits both in representing very small objects and very big numbers, this is the kind of paradox involved in the problem of squaring a circle and in the Achilles and the turtle race

    Link to this
  9. 9. Steve D. 1:45 pm 11/5/2010

    Hi all,hi Max,

    I must admit that FQXi is a wonderful platform, transparent and very innovant for the sciences community.
    The matters and subjects are interestings and very diversified.
    The debates also are relevants.
    People from around the world can participate.It’s very well.This platform is young and the moderators make a beautiful work without any discrimination.It’s essential.
    Congratulations FQXi,Max, you make a beautiful work.Thanks for that.

    ps,sorry for my english, I am belgian and I speak french.

    Link to this
  10. 10. craighyatt 7:47 pm 06/14/2011

    I’d say that the reality we experience is digital because our brain and sensory systems heavily process inputs from our surroundings before we use the information or store memories. Magicians take advantage of this to fool us. If we really were able to perceive (and store) a continuum, then magicians would be out of business.

    I think that structural reality is also likely to be digital because as far as I know, each element decomposes into something smaller until we reach the Planck length. Even time is ultimately split into Planck time instants. I’d say that any process that appears smooth and continuous is the statistical outcome of a bunch of little digital nudges.

    Link to this

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