November 1, 2010 | 10
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!