The Astrophysics of Christmas

December 15th, 2021

Dear All,

I’m sending this link to a 6-minute video I’ve made, as a Christmas greeting to Reality Check subscribers – a sort of Youtube e-card:

[Make sure you have the sound on!]

For me it has the triple appeal of: Scientific authenticity; Mathematical precision; and a real beautiful relevance to Christmas.

(I also feel the Hubble Space Telescope pics are pretty cool…)

[Be sure to read the notes below the video.]

I hope you like it (apologies if you receive it more than once for any reason).

Feel free to forward the link on to others if you consider it appropriate.  You’re also welcome to embed it in a web page if you do that sort of thing.

[Copy of text: .]

Merry Christmas!

Grahame Blackwell

Quantum Uncertainty? Not so sure about that. (How many parallel universes do you need?)

September 15th, 2016

I’ve looked at life from both sides now,
from win and lose, and still somehow
it’s life’s illusions I recall,
I really don’t know life at all.
Joni Mitchell:  ‘Both Sides Now’


The two conventional interpretations of Quantum Uncertainty – ‘Absolute Randomness’ and ‘Many Worlds’ – both start from the view that there’s no objective cause for a specific outcome of a quantum event. But ALL other ‘randomness’ in the universe is actually deterministic, the consequence of a background that’s totally governed by the rules of physics but too complex to be analysed.
Since all matter and energy in the universe is electromagnetic in nature – so the quantum wave equation is a description of those interacting electromagnetic effects – and we know that the cosmic background is a seething ocean of electromagnetic fields . . . then it follows, as night follows day, that Quantum Uncertainty is simply the (deterministic) influence of that chaotic cosmic background on the clearly-defined possibilities of the wave equation. Read on…


At a quantum level, outcomes of microcosmic events are totally random – or at least they seem to be. Every experimental test of the situation shows that the quantum wave equation gives a perfect representation of statistical distributions of the results of interactions at the quantum scale. In other words those outcomes follow patterns as defined by the wave equation – but individual outcomes are totally unpredictable, completely random.

Pic: Lucas Taylor (CERN) [Link in footnotes]

The standard Copenhagen Interpretation of the wave equation, as put together by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg et al., proposes that outcomes are intrinsically random, that there’s no deeper cause for that randomness. Various others disagreed; notably Einstein himself is on record as saying: “God doesn’t play dice”. But Bohr ‘won’ the argument, Einstein ‘lost’ – and that’s how things stand: there’s no underlying cause for that serendipity of quantum events, and hence there’s no possibility of predicting outcomes at the quantum level.

Actually, that’s not quite how things stand: there’s another school of thought that says yes, the outcome is totally unpredictable – for those of us in this universe.

But for every possible alternative outcome of every quantum event there’s an alternative universe hosting that different outcome – so, for example, if there are three possible ways an event could turn out, that event spawns three different universes. In each of those universes one of those outcomes occurs – so every possible quantum consequence is represented in a universe somewhere, we’re just experiencing the one that happened in the universe we happened to go along with. For every possible alternative there’s another you and another me living out the consequences of every different outcome that could happen – and did, in those other universes.

Simple? Maybe. Outrageous? Maybe. Inevitable? Maybe not.

So is there a third alternative to absolute serendipity or innumerable universes?

As it happens, yes there is – one that makes both of those options look a bit silly, not to mention totally un-scientific.

Time to get a bit more certain about quantum uncertainty…


First, a random look at chance

Randomness happens all the time, doesn’t it? All sorts of things are random: the number that you get if you throw a standard six-faced die; whether a coin lands heads or tails; the number of calls in a day to a call centre; the number of men aged between 64 and 65 who die in the UK in a particular year.
We think of all of these things as random, and so they are, in a way. Generally they fall into a sort of pattern, known as a frequency distribution; that pattern can even be described mathematically, as a distribution function. So it is that insurance companies use actuarial tables, giving the likely numbers of people of any given age and background who may pop off in a particular year, on which to base their premiums and their expected profits; they don’t know exactly which of their clients will die, but those tables tell them pretty accurately how many will.

In the same way the company running a call centre won’t know exactly how many calls, or of what duration, to expect in a day – but there are mathematical functions that will tell them the distribution (probability pattern) of number and durations of calls they’re likely to get, so they can plan the number of lines and operators they need. But on any given day the precise number of callers, and the durations of their calls, are quite unpredictable – random.

Even the variation in the number of heads and tails that you’re likely to get if you toss several coins at the same time is defined by a distribution function. So, for example, if I were to toss ten coins over and over again for, let’s say, a million times, the number of times that I could expect them to land as seven heads and three tails is around 117 thousand – give or take an unknown number. That 117,000 is a guideline, it’s almost certainly not going to be exactly that – but it won’t be vastly different, and it will almost certainly be less than half the number of times I get an equal number of heads and tails (since the distribution function tells us that would be around 246,000).

But – and this is where the ‘random’ comes in – on any particular toss of those ten coins I won’t be able to predict what combination of heads and tails I’ll get – still less exactly which coins will land heads-up and which tails-up.

Guessing Games

So where does this randomness come from? Why do those coins land one way on this throw and a totally different way on the next? Is it really just a matter of blind chance?

Coins like these silver Roman denarii were being tossed 1800 years ago and more.

In a word – no. Those coins, and every other so-called ‘random’ outcome (with the possible, but unlikely, exception of quantum outcomes) are all subject to deterministic (definite) factors causing the result to be exactly what it was – it couldn’t have been anything else. When you hold ten coins, for example, they’ll be held in a particular way; as you toss them, the muscles in your hand will give each of them a particular speed and direction, and a degree of spin; air currents, even the temperature and humidity in the room, will influence the motion of each coin individually. And so they fly, and then fall, precisely in accordance with the laws of nature.

The same is true of those 64-65 year olds on the insurance company’s books: each one will have very specific medical circumstances (often unknown in detail, even to them); any one of them may, at some time, walk down to the shop on a wet day when a car gets out of control and mounts the pavement; any one of them may choke on a fish bone or slip on a loose stair carpet – all sorts of deterministic factors may apply in each of those lives. And taken overall, the fact that such factors can occur leads to an approximate number of those 64-65 year olds who won’t make it into their 66th year – though nobody can predict exactly which of them it will be.

Same with those call centres: everyone who calls will have a very specific reason for doing so, based on specific circumstances in their lives; the time they spend on that call will depend on all sorts of factors relating to both them and the operator handling the call; all sorts of deterministic factors will contribute to the number and duration of calls. And taken overall, those factors will form a pattern that’s fairly predictable over each day, even more so over a week.

Just as a very simple analogy, no-one could possibly predict the detailed arrangement of branches forming the leaf canopy of an oak tree, even though the development of each of those branches is totally determined by natural factors – by physical laws; but everyone has a pretty good idea of what the shape of that tree canopy will turn out to be.

Order into Chaos – into Order

In all of these cases, and pretty well every other that we might cite, what we refer to as randomness is in fact unpredictability. It’s not that those events aren’t based on deterministic physical laws and well defined physical events – they are – but simply that we don’t have the information necessary for predicting outcomes of those events. For example, we’re certainly not in a position to collect all the info on our muscle micro-movements or the atmospheric conditions when tossing those coins – and even if we were, the calculations required to define what results that data may produce in terms of heads and tails is way beyond our capacity, and probably beyond the capacity of the most powerful supercomputer. The situation is what we refer to as chaotic, in the scientific sense of that word.

It’s all to do with Complexity Theory: the fact that real-world situations with clear causes can quickly reach a level of complexity where, despite knowing the physical laws concerned, we’re unable to predict the outcome.

A classic example is that of a running tap: we know exactly how molecules of water interact and how gravity affects those molecules – but in the water coming out of a tap there are just so many molecules, so many interactions, that a complete description of the details of that flow is way beyond even the world’s most powerful computers.

So from our point of view that water flow is effectively random – even though it’s determined down to the finest detail by known scientific laws. Likewise those deaths of men in their middle 60s, those calls to the call centre: we know precisely the sort of factors that lead to those deaths, those calls – but those factors are so complex that those events are effectively random no matter how much we may try to analyse them. The very fact that those patterns of deaths, of calls, of any random events, follow well-defined frequency distributions is a clear indication of causal mechanisms that shape those distributions.

But Quantum is Different?

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics says that quantum events, quite uniquely, buck this trend. Sure, they follow well-defined frequency distributions – but those distributions aren’t based on any real-world causative factors, according to Bohr et al. They are, quite simply, random – there is absolutely no physical mechanism to which we can attribute that variation, it’s just an intrinsic serendipity of nature. According to that view, there’s an absolute limit to the ‘knowability’ of what makes things happen; beyond a certain level of detail, nature does just as she pleases without any cause or explanation.

Can this possibly be so? Can we really have clearly-defined patterns of quantum events with absolutely no causal mechanism for those patterns? Well, it’s agreed that the quantum wave equation describes those patterns, but that’s as far as it goes: don’t look any further for a cause, ‘cause there just ain’t one.

Supporters of MWI don’t agree. According to the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum randomness, every possible outcome of a quantum event does happen – each in a different universe. So if a specific quantum event is an either-or event, both of those possibilities happen – one in a universe where it went one way, the other in a universe where it went the other: one universe becomes two, and the consequences of those two different outcomes lead to two diverging realities. We only see one because we’re in the universe where that one happened; another ‘you’ and another ‘me’ continue to exist in the universe where it went the other way.

Quantum events are by far the most frequent occurrences in the universe(s): when you smell a flower you’re experiencing millions of quantum events; when a cloud fades from view that’s typically trillions of quantum events. And every quantum event has at least two possible outcomes, generally more; so ten quantum events spawn over a thousand new universes, twenty give us over a million. The numbers get pretty outrageous within a second – and by all accounts this has been going on for almost 14 billion years.

An infinitesimally tiny glimpse into the ‘many worlds’ view of the cosmos: just a few of the trillions upon trillions upon trillions of earths that would be spawned every second; now expand each of these into a complete universe …

Big claims demand big evidence. The primary evidence for MWI (if one can call it evidence) is that there are indeed multiple possible outcomes to any quantum event, and no recognised explanation as yet as to why one outcome should occur rather than another.

So is that it? Is it really the case that quantum outcomes are, unlike any other ‘random’ occurrence in the cosmos, totally without rhyme or reason – or alternatively, that in ways totally unexplained and unproven, cosmoi (plural of ‘cosmos’) are popping into existence all around us at the rate of untold quintillions every fraction of a second? Is there no better, more rational, explanation?

Since you ask …. Yes, there is, one that makes those other proposals look even sillier.

Alternative Possibilities?
What a Super Position to be in!

The quantum wave equation contains the possibility of various different outcomes – what’s referred to as coherent superposition (or ‘non-contradictory overlaying’) of those different possibilities. Just as a wave from the sea may be measured at different points where it arrives on the beach – and may be different heights at those different points, without any contradiction – so measurement of a quantum observable may take various different values. For example, a (wave-like) photon, or individual ‘bit’ of light, may land at any one of a number of different places on a screen; the slight difference is that the arriving photon will only be detected at one place on the screen, with different probabilities of it appearing at those different places, rather than the different heights of the ocean wave.

This ‘possibility of different outcomes’ is a natural feature of a wave – it can’t be pinned down to being just one thing at one place whilst it’s still a wave. When it’s observed or measured, though, it ceases to be a wave – we say that the wave collapses to one clearly-defined outcome, with the probabilities of different possible outcomes being contained within the mathematics of the wave equation for that situation.

Here’s where the two conventional interpretations of the occurrence come in: the ‘absolute randomness’ interpretation of Bohr & co.; and the ‘many worlds’ interpretation (MWI) of Hugh Everett, that has since attracted a substantial following among the research community. If the result of collapse of the quantum wave function isn’t absolutely random, and it isn’t just one version of events that we happen to get to see – with all other possible versions happening in other universes that split off from ours – then what does decide how the dice fall, so to speak?

Let’s look at a simple analogy.

[First published in Atoms of Light]

Imagine a footballer aiming for a goal from the centre of the pitch.
From that distance there are three possible outcomes [given an unknown degree of spin]:
(a) the ball goes left of the goal
(from the player’s perspective);
(b) the ball goes in the net;
(c) the ball goes right of the goal.

We’ll assume that the likelihood of the ball going to left or right (including hitting a post) is ¼ in each case and the likelihood of scoring a goal is ½.

That’s purely on the grounds of the distance from the goal-mouth, without taking account of environmental factors. Once the ball has passed the end of the pitch, of course, the outcome is certain: just one of those three possibilities will have happened; but at the time the ball is kicked all three outcomes are possible, it’s a matter of probabilities.

Now let’s factor in the environment. The space between the centre of the pitch and the goal-mouth is filled by a seething chaotic body of air, rather like the flow from that tap – except that it’s invisible and, unless there’s a strong breeze, not perceptible any other way either. But that imperceptible environmental effect could prove crucial to the aspirations of our would-be soccer star.

Let’s assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that this chaotic air mass has a very slight general tendency from left to right; not enough for it to be felt, but enough to just tip the balance for a long-distance kick. The ball drifts steadily to the right and misses the goal-mouth, clear of the right-hand post. What was just a 1 in 4 chance (if it hadn’t been observed in the meantime) becomes an absolute cert, and the other two possibilities ‘collapse’ to probability zero.

Now there are various limitations in comparing this to quantum wavefunction collapse but there are also a number of useful comparisons. Without observation there were three possibilities at the outset, each with its associated probability; it was inevitable that with ‘measurement’ (against the yardstick of the goalposts) just one of those three would become objective reality and the other two would ‘collapse’.

Perhaps more important than this, that ‘collapse’ wasn’t a sudden step-change in circumstances, it was simply a smooth flowing progression from a point before any measurement was taken to a decisive single option after that measurement. It was in fact a result of that measurement, just as much as a dot of light on a screen is the result of a photon wave hitting that screen. [On hitting the screen a photon is forced to commit to which of the many points on the screen it was reflected from (or absorbed by, if the screen is a matrix of sensors).]

Lastly, of course, the outcome of that goal-kick wasn’t just the random selection of one of the three options (nor did it spawn three separate universes in which each of the different options was realised). It was the consequence of a chaotic, imperceptible environment that precipitated that apparently-random selection.

This ‘environmental interference’ is a serious problem in quantum computers, which rely on undisturbed progression of the wavefunction in each of their qbits (quantum bits) to generate results using the principle of quantum superposition. Keeping those results free from environmental ‘noise’ is a key goal if quantum computing is to realise its perceived potential.

This, possibly more than anything else, puts a serious question mark over the whole issue of MWI, simply on the grounds that it’s unnecessary. It’s very clear that environmental factors play a significant part in quantum outcomes, to the extent that billions of dollars are being ploughed into research to try to eliminate those factors in the input, processing and readout phases of quantum computation.

So what are the environmental factors in general quantum outcomes?

No quantum event occurs in total isolation. For example, if one atom emits a photon there are inevitably other atoms around; more to the point, every quantum scenario is set in the context of a seething mass of interacting electromagnetic fields – arguably from every tiniest particle in the cosmos.

We know that a particle-antiparticle pair can be formed by the collision of two high-energy photons; in other words, the energy of those two photons becomes ‘localised’ in the form of two elementary material particles. This in turn tells us that such particles are formed from electromagnetic field effects (since that’s what photons are) – and electromagnetic field effects are unlimited in their extent; so the field effects of every particle in the universe extend without limit (though of course diminishing with distance). So it follows that the background to every quantum event in the cosmos will be an incredibly chaotic combination of contributions from every particle that exists – anywhere (plus probably other electromagnetic field effects that we know nothing about).

That quantum scenario is, always, a combination of material particles and electromagnetic energy; so the wave equation for that scenario is, inevitably, a description of the electromagnetic field effects that combine to form that scenario. There’s just one wave equation for that scenario – not several – but that one equation carries within it possibilities for various different outcomes, just as that one ocean wave carries different possibilities for different points on the beach.

At the instant when a quantum outcome is observed or recorded – measured – the composite electromagnetic field for that quantum scenario is interacting with the chaotic background electromagnetic field. Although it wouldn’t be possible to define or predict it, the outcome of that interaction is wholly determined by Maxwell’s equations: there’s only one possible outcome for that specific set of interacting electromagnetic circumstances. Our impression of several alternative possibilities is based on our almost complete lack of knowledge about the state of the chaotic background field.

So it is that, just like that light breeze on the football field, that background electromagnetic influence shifts just one of those possible outcomes from ‘possible’ to ‘definite’ and eliminates all of the others. The technical term for this is quantum decoherence: two or more possible states that previously could exist in superposition can no longer do so – the broader electromagnetic circumstances make them mutually exclusive; it’s now either one thing or the other – and Maxwell’s equations select out which one it’s to be.

It’s pretty obvious from this description that neither do we need ever-increasing numbers of alternative universes nor do we have to credit quantum happenings with a randomness that’s totally unexplainable and totally different from all other randomness. Just like every other ‘random’ event in nature, there’s a clearly-understandable (if non-measurable) reason for each and every quantum outcome. More than that, we can see how the wave equation provides a basis for the frequency distribution for any quantum observable: that equation is a description of the electromagnetic field pattern in the quantum scenario; that field pattern makes some outcomes more likely and some less likely – but which one carries the day in a particular situation depends on how it fits in with the chaotic background.

Put simply: no quantum scenario stands alone; it’s always part of the greater picture – the whole cosmos is in effect the manifestation of one incredibly complex wave equation. When we define a wave equation for a specific situation we are in fact approximating that cosmic wave equation by setting to zero every part of it that isn’t directly part of our chosen situation. This approximation falls down to some extent when we consider the outcome of a quantum event, since that outcome is a function of that whole cosmic wave equation. Since we don’t take that into account, we see the outcome as to some extent random.

Not uncountable numbers of universes, not nature playing guessing games – just electromagnetic fields doing exactly what Maxwell’s equations say they will do. It’s not rocket science.

To discover a whole new perspective on the nature of reality, including Relativity Theory, Gravitation, Quantum phenomena (which may or may not include Consciousness…), take a look at Atoms of Light and The Relativity Myth

Picture credits
CERN pic: Lucas Taylor / CERN , License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Dice, Coins, Electromagnetic field: Wikipedia (Public domain)
Tap:Public domain, Pixabay
Worlds: Based on NASA picture of Earth (copyright-free)
Goal: Composite, various sources (educational fair-use policy)

Brother, Can You Spare a Paradigm (or Three)?

August 11th, 2013

“And don’t speak too soon,
for the wheel’s still in spin
for the times they are a-changin’.”
Bob Dylan.

Catching Up

It’s been a while since the last article was posted on this blog, but that interval hasn’t been without its significant events – and we’re not just talking about the Olympics (or the UK royal birth).

Over that period, in mainstream ISI-ranked international journals, there have been peer-reviewed papers heralding at least three paradigm shifts in major aspects of accepted scientific thinking: particle physics; relativity; and biological science.

So, if fundamental scientific principles are being turned on their heads, why aren’t the newspapers, or at least the popular science magazines, full of it?

Well of course science – all of science – is a naturally conservative discipline. And a herald is there to announce what is on its way – an early warning system, so to speak.

Widespread recognition of a new scientific paradigm, let alone acceptance, doesn’t come overnight.

But the evidence is there for all to see. Let’s have a look at some of it. (We can also check out a radically new learning facility that’s recently come on-line to offer study courses on some of the new scientifically-validated ideas that are surfacing.)


Good Vibrations? Smell Will Tell.

Why, do you think, might one of the world’s leading scientific research foundations declare earlier this year that “Quantum Mechanics Stinks”?

No, it’s not because Planck, Schrödinger and all those who’ve followed in their footsteps over the past century have been proved wrong. Far from it. In fact, QM has been used to show up a long-standing fallacy in another branch of science – and it’s one that could revolutionize an essential aspect of daily life.

Put simply, over the past few years a number of scientists have become increasingly dubious about the standard ‘lock and key’ model of cell receptor sites. This says that the active points on the outside of a living cell recognise complex molecules by their shape, like a key fitting into a keyhole. But this view has become less and less plausible over the years.

No flies on us!

Now some clever experiments with drosophila and specially-constructed organic molecules have shown that two identically shaped molecules with different vibrational patterns smell different to those humble flies (yes, can you believe it, fruit flies just 3mm in length can be trained to respond selectively to particular smells).
Experiments on human subjects have shown the same, also molecules with very similar vibrations but different shapes have been shown to cause a very similar response at the cell receptors of the olfactory organs – the sense of smell.

This has led to a radically new Swipe Card Model of cell receptors, named after the way that electronic sensors recognize a swipe card by its electromagnetic vibrational pattern.

All change!

Functioning of cell receptors is fundamental to the functioning of any living organism, including you and me. If that functioning is based on a quite different property than we formerly thought, this could have far-reaching consequences for our understanding and treatment of a whole host of medical conditions.

This sea-change in our understanding of such a key (!) aspect of cell biology is unquestionably a major paradigm shift with very significant implications.


So what IS stuff made of?

Ever since the time of Democritus (and earlier) people have puzzled over what stuff – any stuff – is made of.

Democritus used the word atomos (‘uncuttable’) to describe the smallest bits of stuff, and that word has stuck long after we knew that atoms are definitely not uncuttable.

But if we keep on cutting – down to electrons, protons and neutrons, then down further to quarks – where does it all end?

The answer comes from a rather unlikely direction: the nature of time itself. Time has always been thought of as a flow, a process, often likened to the flow of a river. Einstein proposed that everything moves through time, as a sort of fourth dimension.

Relativity? Absolutely!

Now, it turns out, all of Einstein’s findings in Relativity can be explained by turning that idea on its head: time moves through everything. More precisely, the effects of time are carried through everything by some sort of energetic flow. The limiting (and invariant) speed of light; relativistic time dilation (slowing down of time); increase of apparent mass with speed – all drop out very neatly just by considering that energetic flow of ‘time’.

That flow turns out to be electromagnetic (EM) energy – what we normally refer to as ‘light’. If we think of every elementary particle of matter as a photon (or combination of photons) of EM energy looped round into a tiny closed circuit, then the maths work out perfectly. That includes the maths relating to time – if we simply recognize that the effects of time must be carried around particles by those formative energy flows, and between particles and objects by the energies passing from one to another.

Back to the future (relatively speaking).

This isn’t news. For thousands of years mystics have been telling us that ‘everything is made of light’. The visionary particle physicist David Bohm believed that matter is made from ‘crystallized’ or ‘condensed’ light. Schrödinger, whose wave equation is central to Quantum Mechanics, deduced the concept of zitterbewegung, a cyclic motion in particles at the speed of light (a concept supported by recent experimental findings).

What is news, though, is that following this concept through mathematically leads directly to all of the scientifically verified findings of Special Relativity as originally intuited by Einstein. Knowing why the speed of light is absolute, why time slows down with increasing speed of motion, why E=mc2, opens the way for other possible findings on the fundamental nature of space, time and matter.

For example, the phenomenon of quantum entanglement – what Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance’ – might ultimately be explained by further exploration in this direction.

The paper Sub-Atomic Particles: The Earliest Adaptive Systems presents this radically new paradigm of particle structure in the peer-reviewed international journal Kybernetes. Having arisen through a systems approach to the interrelationship between matter, energy and time, it’s appropriate that this new perspective should appear in a systems-sciences journal.


When the Frame’s Not the Same (relatively speaking)

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has been pretty well established for a century now. With one or two exceptions, such as Black Holes and the original Big Bang itself, it’s proved very effective at explaining a wide range of physical phenomena.

But there are still nagging questions that bother quite a few scientists. Apart from the fact that Black Holes shouldn’t exist – but they do – there’s the issue of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. How does that fit in, exactly?

A blast from the past.

The CMBR is like a sort of cosmic 3-D wallpaper, a backdrop to everything else that’s going on in the cosmos. It has its own state of motion – the ‘rest-frame of the CMBR’, as it’s called. A spacecraft that’s comoving (i.e. stationary) with respect to that rest-frame is travelling such that the CMBR has the same average frequency all around it.

But Relativity tells us that every inertial state of motion (constant velocity, no gravitational effects) is equivalent; no one state of motion is in any way special. So how can there be just one state of motion that happens to coincide with the ambient state of the relic radiation left over from the formation of the universe? Doesn’t the fact of one special state of motion, defined by the electromagnetic debris left by the emerging cosmos, rather give the game away that all states of motion are not created equal?

Of course it does. But Einstein said that motion has to be 100% relative for all his other results to stand up.

It ain’t necessarily so …

Happily that’s not the case. If we go back to that paper on light-based particle formation we find that all those relativity results drop out without all reference frames (states of motion) having to be equivalent. It just seems that way to all those spacecraft et al that are moving (maybe pretty swiftly) with respect to that unique universal rest frame.

This brings us to yet another paradigm shift. This one – the (non-)absolute nature of motion – could turn out to be the most significant, long-term. Because this one paints a radically different picture of the nature of space and time from the one we’re used to.

Reach for the stars!

Our understanding up to now has pretty well ruled out any possibility of travelling beyond our own planetary system – other than in space-arks that could take generations to get anywhere, with no way back if it doesn’t work out. With this new perspective all the scare stories about faster-than-light travel turning cause-&-effect upside down don’t apply. Light-speed still presents some sort of limit, but ways around that limit suddenly seem a lot more plausible.

That’s not all. This new paradigm of space and time supports Einstein’s idea of gravity causing ‘curved spacetime’, at the same time explaining (in a second published paper) how and why that works in practical terms. If we’re going to get round that light-speed limit, a proper understanding of the mechanisms of curved space- time has got to come pretty high on the agenda.

Three in a row.

So there we have it: three new paradigms – in biology, particle physics and relativity. We never do things by halves in this blog!

If you’re interested in learning more, the website has plenty more good stuff, including free downloads of presentations, articles and the like.

Those who follow this blog will know that it’s been a while since the previous post. This is due to other developments that may be featured in another post quite soon. In the meantime, some food for thought. (Don’t miss the second half.)


Five hundred years ago Easter Island was a subtropical paradise.  Rich and varied vegetation with an abundance of moist broadleaf forest unique to that island; highly fertile soil that by one account “could grow all the crops you’d need with just three days a year of cultivation”; safely clear of the tropical cyclone & hurricane belt; temperatures varying from 64 degrees in winter to 82 in the summer; sensible rainfall patterns; possibly the world’s richest variety of seabirds, with resident colonies of over thirty species; abundant fishing in the seas around the island.

Four hundred years later the trees had all gone, the seabird colonies had gone, along with the five indigenous inland bird species now all extinct.  Extensive soil erosion had drastically reduced the island’s ability to provide those crops of bananas, sugar cane and sweet potatoes that could formerly feed the population with such ease.  Survival was no longer a straightforward matter for the drastically reduced numbers that didn’t even have the wood to build boats for fishing trips.

But no matter.  They did have a monument to their greatness – almost nine hundred of them, in fact.  Massive stone statues hewn from volcanic rock and transported far and wide across the island, using – yes, you guessed it, those tree trunks. 

All apparently in some grotesque game of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, or preferably going one better, an insane riot of egotistical pretension.

But at what a price – and what’s the take-home message for us?

Paradise Lost

As evidence for some form of deity it’s a sure-fire winner: a parable set in a coral sea.  The stone heads of Easter Island (actually full-body statues, usually kneeling, but with large heads) are supposedly devoted to ancestors – but let’s be honest, folks, they’re actually a massive ego trip.  What Easter Island is telling us above all else is “If you plunder your environment for the purpose of boosting and parading your own ego, the odds are that you’ll come a cropper”.

In fact we don’t need a deity to tell us that, it must surely count as a natural law.  The sick thing is that the Rapanui – the islanders – created these tributes to their ancestors in the hope and expectation that this would ensure their own prosperity – good crops and all that.  In fact it did exactly the opposite.
Of course we in the civilised West would never succumb to such foolish superstition.  We sensibly put our faith in real tangible benefits.  According to the news reports, a major indicator that we’re out of the doo-doo and back on track (to where?) would be a return to economic growth – the more the better.

Economic growth.  On a planet of finite resources.  Why does that make me think of the trees on Easter Island?  And why should the totem of ‘economic growth’ confer benefits on the average Joe or Jo, any more than a stone head in the back yard would?  Isn’t that just another form of superstition?  We’ve seen where the god of ‘economic growth’ leads us – in the Gulf of Mexico, in Bhopal, in the trillion-dollar bailouts.
Ozymandias’ should be required reading for all business tycoons (those from that centre of commerce, the city of London, should scroll down to also read Horace Smith’s version).


The plain fact is, this space-island of ours is vastly overpopulated.  Just as a spill of nutrient into a lake can trigger a rapid spurt in growth of algae, that then burns itself out when the nutrient runs out, so the petroleum revolution of the last century or so has underwritten a massive boost in agricultural and technological productivity that’s supported a major expansion in the numbers of ‘human algae’.

But the oil, like that nutrient, won’t be available forever.  Some say we’ve already passed the point of peak oil production, others put it within the next few years.  Those who point to the tar shale deposits need to look at the net return on energy input (taking everything into account), those who believe there will always be another oilfield just round the next bend make the Rapanui seem positively hard-headed.

It’s no accident that there is major political unrest in those parts of the world that still have oversight of sizeable amounts of oil; those who preach ‘economic growth’ know exactly what’s needed to fertilize that growth.  The as-yet small, but steadily increasing, practice of converting former food crops into biofuels – generally not for the local population – is already a contributory factor in food price riots breaking out around the world.

So what’s to be done?


The Easter Islanders were doubly caught by the deforestation of their small island.  That made it less possible for the island to support them – but it also made it impossible for them to build boats to escape to other more hospitable lands.  Certainly, depredations by rats impacted seriously on the rate of new tree growth – but fixation on statue-carving to the extent of not seeing the wood for the lack of trees (to paraphrase a well-known saying) is surely a failing that merits a special mention in the Darwin Awards.  To leave yourself no way of escape if all else fails is the mark of a species that doesn’t seem to want to survive.

Professor Stephen Hawking has observed that the continued survival of the human race over the next hundred years is very much open to question if we continue to be tied to this one planet.  To quote his words, we shouldn’t be putting all our eggs in one basket – i.e. earth.  To look at it positively, the stresses on our race and on our planet at this time can be seen as evolutionary pressures driving us out to take our place in the cosmos (my words, not his) – evolution is rarely a comfortable process.

If Hawking is right – as he surely is – we shouldn’t be waiting, as the Rapanui did, for the last tree to fall (metaphorically speaking in our case).  The time to be designing our lifeboat is now.  And part of that design process must surely be openness to re-examination of scientific assumptions that have stood without proof for over a century.

There’s little doubt that, if it were made a serious priority, interstellar travel within realistic time-scales could be a reality within fifty years, maybe even thirty.  That could provide a much-needed relief valve for the pressure-cooker environment that we’ve created for ourselves on this planet, as well as giving a real sense of purpose that seems to be lacking at present in the field of human endeavour. It would also give our beautiful mother-planet, and those of all species that stay with her, a bit of breathing space.
It appears that we have two choices: to end up as a global Easter Island – or to pursue our destiny out there among the stars.  Not really a choice at all, is it?

Finally, I offer you the last two stanzas of a poem on this subject that came to me unexpectedly a year and a half ago:

Mother Earth’s breasts
grow low on oil.
Her larders
grow low on fish and grain.
Her human offspring,
still attached to her
by the umbilicus of gravity,
stretch her to bursting point.

We have been tied to her apron strings
too long,
like an overgrown adolescent
in need of a new challenge,
in need of space to stretch ourselves.
Like tightly-packed thistledown
on a ripe seed-head
we crowd far too close,
in need of that new lebensraum.

The Final Frontier beckons.

For a new scientific perspective, see here.
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Picture credits
Earth Picture: NASA
Space pic: NASA, ESA & Hubble Heritage Team
(Acknowledgement: D. Gouliermis, Max Planck Inst. of Astronomy)
All other pictures: Wikipedia Commons

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Failsafe: An Entry Test for The Starfarers’ Guild.

November 24th, 2010


To drive a motorised land vehicle in public you need to have passed a test of some sort.  To take to the air in control of airborne transport you first need a private pilot’s licence, for which the tests are even more demanding. To launch out into the seaways of the world you need no qualifications whatsoever; anyone who can get hold of a boat is free to plough straight into busy harbours, estuaries, even the major marine traffic lanes, without any training or certification to their name.

So what’s the situation ‘out there’, in the deep dark reaches of interstellar space?  Is there any form of regulation that requires a would-be Buck Rogers or Captain Kirk to achieve some specific level of proficiency before they can ‘boldly go’?  Does the Final Frontier have frontier guards who can pull you in and check your credentials as you negotiate that hyperspace bypass or cruise down Galactic Route 66?

At first sight it would seem not.  It appears that anyone – at least, any major government or corporate body with the necessary financial clout – can blast off into space for any distant twinkling destination, without a by-your-leave or authorisation of any sort.

But maybe that’s an illusion – we don’t seem to be out there, do we? And with all our techno-wizardry we don’t seem to have any plans to be out there any time soon. Of course we can offer all sorts of reasons why that’s so; perhaps those reasons are themselves the test that we have yet to pass …

Ground Rules

This post explores the possibility that, just like Stephen Hawking’s Chronology Protection Conjecture (see previous post), the universe has some form of Cosmic Aptitude Test built into it that ensures that any species blazing the space-trails first understands certain basic principles. That’s not so unlikely as it might sound – very plausible, in fact. And we can see the necessary aptitude training going on around us right now.

 Let’s sneak a look in on Lecture Hall B …

“Today, class, we’re going to revisit Young’s two-slit experiment. You’ll recall that this is where individual photons of light pass through two slits simultaneously as waves distributed in space, then land on a screen as localised particles. You’ll also recall that the late great Nobel physicist Richard Feynman told us that everything we need to know about quantum mechanics can be learned from the two-slit experiment.”

“So Professor, does the two-slit experiment tell us how a widely-distributed wave becomes a localised particle?”

“Son, wave-particle duality is just one of life’s great mysteries that you have to learn to live with. We get along just fine if we think of light either as a wave or as a particle, but never as both at once.”

“But Professor, if Feynman was right, surely that duality is telling us something really important …”

And in Lecture Hall C …

“Ok class, now remember that if two electrons are ‘entangled’, this means that they can be many miles apart but if we tweak one then the other one will respond immediately – faster than the speed of light. This tells us that there are connections between particles of matter that we don’t understand at all – and those connections aren’t subject to the usual rules of time and space.”

And in Lecture Hall D …

“Einstein taught us that gravity isn’t a force of attraction between two objects. Rather, it’s one massive object – say, the earth – causing a distortion, a dent, in spacetime and another object – say, the moon – following the curves of that distorted spacetime. That’s what keeps the moon in its orbit around the earth, like a marble rolling round inside a bowl.”

“Professor, what does it mean that ‘spacetime is curved’? What is spacetime made of, that it can be shaped? And what is it about the makeup of matter, like the particles in our planet, that causes it to shape spacetime? What is matter made of, that makes it do that? How can an atom in my sweatshirt be contributing to curvature of space that attracts another galaxy from billions of light years away?”

“So many questions, Lucy. ‘Spacetime is curved’ means exactly what it says: it has dents in it, so that objects like the moon roll round like a marble in a bowl. That’s all we need to know. And there’s nothing special about your sweatshirt – every atom in our galaxy is adding to that curvature.”

“Exactly – but how? How can we claim to understand gravity if we don’t even know what causes it? And how could we ever find better ways of crossing space if we’ve not got the least idea what it actually is?”

“So many questions, Lucy …”

Graduate School

So what are the take-home lessons from this module on ‘New Science’ (i.e. ideas that have been around for the past 100 years)? What do we, as a species, need to take on board to qualify as fully-fledged (think about that term) travellers on the galactic superhighway?

First, we need to recognise the interconnectedness of objects spatially far apart, in a way that transcends space and time. In fact, we need to recognise that everything is interconnected, both by gravitation and by more subtle bonds.

It’s a short step from that to ‘Everything is a single undivided whole’ – a view strongly endorsed by visionary Nobel physics nominee David Bohm.

Second, we need to see beyond the paradox of wave-particle duality to what that paradox is actually saying – that at a deeper level there are no particles, that everything is distributed, non-local (or more properly, alocal: i.e.the concept of here/there is something we’ve dreamed up to keep the perceptual books in order). There are clues all around us, if we could just take the blinkers off.

Third, we need to see that everything that we refer to as ‘matter’ is in fact spun out of waveform electromagnetic energy – swirls of energy, just like the ghostly forms that are conjured up by the mist on a late autumn day.

This then immediately raises the question: “How, and by whom or what, are those energy patterns created?” The issue of consciousness, evident in different ways in numerous quantum mechanics experiments and attested to by at least one Nobel laureate, has to be taken into consideration.

Certificate of Spaceworthiness

These aren’t airy-fairy New Agey concepts, they’re serious science – 21st Century science. And it’s a fair bet that key issues of interstellar travel won’t be cracked until we – at least, a critical mass of our species – have got our heads round these concepts as practical considerations, not just philosophical discussion points. In other words, we don’t get to leave home before we’re reasonably street-wise.

This looks very much to yours truly like some sort of aptitude test, a guarantee that no species is let loose on the galactic community without at least a working knowledge of the ground rules. Those rules don’t guarantee responsible behaviour, of course – but they do ensure an awareness of the true nature of things.

Enlightened self-interest applied to such concepts as: ‘everything is interconnected’ and ‘all material form – including us – is spun from energy flows directed by consciousness’ doesn’t necessarily ensure universal peace and harmony. But no-one can then claim “I didn’t know that what goes around comes around”. Individual/group responsibility steps up a notch when we go galactic, and the failsafe of higher physics ensures that we’re well aware of that.

To Sum Up ..

To introduce a radically new form of computer communications not covered by the TCP/IP protocol, we have to go to the layer below that. To introduce a radically new form of travel and communications – FTL (Faster Than Light) – we have to get to grips with the layer of reality that underlies our space-time model of how things work. In doing that we’re brought face to face with deeper truths regarding the nature of the universe.

How we respond to that is up to us, individually and as a species – but we can’t say we didn’t know. We qualify as galactic travellers by truly recognising and implicitly accepting that higher understanding. That’s part and parcel of the process that we refer to as ‘evolution’.

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For further information on this subject, see this website.
Credits for space photos:
Earth and Moon: NASA & NSSDC
Dust Cloud by Merope (Pleiades): NASA
Spiral Galaxy NGC4414: Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA)

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Superluminal: Myths and Realities of Interstellar Travel

November 12th, 2010

“Oh my god … It’s full of stars!”
Dr David Bowman, in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (Arthur C. Clarke)


Many millions of years ago environmental pressures drove our very earliest ‘ancestors’ to break through the surface tension (both physical and metaphorical) of the oceans and set up home on land. It was a seminal moment for life on this planet.

Now, again, we are at just such a moment. Resources are getting scarcer, environmental pressures are reaching extreme levels, tensions both between and within nations are reaching breaking point. A number of public figures have said that there are way too many of us, that the earth’s population needs to be drastically reduced.

There’s only one option that’s in any way thinkable. Evolution doesn’t pull any punches.

At the same time a leading scientist is saying that we shouldn’t be keeping all our eggs in one basket – earth. A major global disaster, man-made or natural, could signal the end of the human race: one strike (e.g. by a rogue asteroid) and we’re out.

Eagle Nebula (detail)

STSci/NASA/Hubble Heritage Team

What a time, then, for astronomers to announce that an estimated one in twenty of the stars in our galaxy has a planet orbiting it with gravity and temperature similar to our earth

That’s around ten billion earth-like planets. Quite a lot to choose from – hopefully even without stepping on any alien toes (or whatever pass for toes).

But there’s a snag. And according to conventional science it’s a ‘forever’ snag – there’s no way of making it go away, ever.

But strong (and mounting) scientific evidence says conventional science has misread the tealeaves in respect of one very significant detail. That detail could make a world of difference – or even several worlds, come to that.

Time to check out those spaceways …


Where do we go from here?

Up until a couple of centuries ago those who found living conditions cramped, or uncomfortable in other ways, could get on a boat and head off for pastures new. In almost every direction there were wide open spaces for the hardy and adventurous to find new living-space for themselves (without them actually having to oppress those who already lived there, that was an unnecessary side-effect).

Not any more. Every bit of land on this planet now has ‘No Vacancies’ signs and conditions in far too many places are more reminiscent of an overcrowded rats’ cage than the Garden of Eden. Or, looking at it another way, the world is like a seed-pod about to burst – but with nowhere for the seeds to go.

Or is there?

We now have it on good authority that there are almost certainly billions of planets in our galaxy with gravity and temperature not dissimilar to the one we now live on. Even if only one in a million has a breathable atmosphere, that still gives us thousands to choose from.

One or two of the nearest of those could maybe even be reached in a few decades of travel, by tolerable acceleration up to a decent fraction of the speed of light then deceleration at the same rate for the other half of the trip.

But, as always, there’s a catch (quite apart from the power source – we’ll assume that can be dealt with). The able-bodied colonists will, of course, not be those that left earth as adults, they’ll be their offspring a couple of generations down the line. That’s ok – if there’s a workable planet at the other end.

If not, you don’t get a second shot. To start the process again – and again, and again – with leaders more and more generations removed from the mother planet raises a host of problems that don’t bear thinking about.

We can only infer even the existence of planets around other stars by variations we can see in the emissions from those stars. We certainly can’t tell whether those planets – if they exist – will be suitable for colonisation. A high level of wastage may be ok for dandelion seeds or coconuts, but not for ships full of pioneering humans. And even a status message home, at light speed, could take a decade or more. Not ideal for planning further trips.

Warp Factor 5, Mr Sulu …??

So chugging around the galaxy at sub-luminal speeds looking for a new home isn’t really a goer.

But according to conventional science neither is the alternative, superluminal (faster-than-light) travel. Not now, not in a hundred years, not in a million years. Not ever.

Copyright statement (fair use) – applies here.

Because that could bring the wrath of the gods down on our heads, playing havoc with the universal principle of causality, or cause and effect, and plunging the whole cosmos into chaos.

Relativity theory says that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. In view of recent scientific findings that makes perfect sense. But that same theory says that if we could find some way of getting round that and moving from A to B faster than light can (such as some form of hyper-dimensional travel or wormholes in space) we’d then be able to travel backwards in time.

So we could change the course of history by stopping Archduke Ferdinand or JFK from being shot, or even accidentally kill our own grandmother – so setting up an ‘I exist – no I don’t – yes I do – no I don’t’ paradox that would rattle on forever without ever being resolved.

You can probably think of some far better examples. But the long and short of it is that nothing in the whole of creation could ever be relied upon, not even your own existence, if we started scooting around the galaxy faster than the speed of light – no matter how we achieved it.

Quite a few scientists have written about this, and about the associated idea of ‘closed timelike curves’ (closed loops in time) which are a possibility according to General Relativity. The noted physicist Stephen Hawking published a scientific paper some time ago on his Chronology Protection Conjecture which proposes that something would intervene to prevent such mayhem.

The word ‘conjecture’ gives you an idea of how certain (or not) he is about that. There’s a distinct impression that scientists are holding back a bit with regard to things superluminal, for fear of nudging open this Pandora’s Box.

And of course there’s the question of “How could it be done, anyway?”

An alternative perspective

What if there wasn’t this risk of cosmic chaos? What if there was a ‘wormhole’ through Relativity Theory that explained all of the effects without bringing in a threat of dire consequences from superluminal travel? And what if that same ‘wormhole’ gave some real insights into the nature of space and time that opened up research possibilities for making that superluminal travel a reality? With a changed mindset on the hazards, and the impossibility, of faster-than-light-ness, who knows what might be possible?

Fast rewind now, nearly a century, to the first physics doctoral thesis that won its author a Nobel prize. In that thesis Count Louis de Broglie put forward the idea of matter having wavelike properties. That concept went on to become Quantum Mechanics, the most firmly established scientific model of reality ever. The conventional interpretation of that wavelike quality says it’s just a statistical description – but both de Broglie and Einstein were convinced it was more than that.

Practical experiments and theoretical research are both increasingly giving weight to the idea that particles of matter are formed from photons – light and non-visible higher frequencies. This idea in turn leads naturally to all the tried and tested principles of Special Relativity without the risk of causality being upset by faster-than-light travel, as described here.

It also gives a completely new perspective on the nature of time and space, a perspective offering possibilities that don’t even exist in the conventional model of reality. [As an aside, the Alcubierre drive, as adopted by Star Trek, depends on warping space locally. Nice idea (in the most unlikely event that it’s possible) - but before you could warp space you’d have to know what space is.]

A slight shift in perspective can turn a vertical stack of cubes (black tops) into a sideways stack of cubes (white tops). An equally small shift in understanding can turn the insurmountable barriers of the conventional scientific view into a mountain pass (or a wormhole) that humankind could move through to reach previously unimaginable goals, both in outer space and in deeper awareness.

Stephen Hawking is certainly right that we shouldn’t be entrusting all our eggs to one basket. It seems he could also be right with his Chronology Protection Conjecture – though that protection may come in a form that he hadn’t quite expected.

Next stop, Alpha Centauri?

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Time Doesn’t Exist: A Step-by-Step Proof

October 21st, 2010

The Illusory Nature of Time: II

“And there we were, all in one place
- a generation lost in space,
with no time left to start again.”
Don McLean, ‘American Pie’.

For thousands of years sages and mystics have been telling us that time is an illusion.

Recently scientists discovered that at levels below Planck Time, even the concept of time drops off the scientific agenda.

Here, in very simple terms, is an explanation for why that is. As an objective cosmic reality, time literally does not exist.

Confused? You won’t be – read on …

Taking a Step Backwards

Picture the scene: broken glass littered all over the floor, small orange thing flapping around on soaking wet carpet. Suddenly glass, water, orange thing lift off the ground and leap towards the table, assembling themselves as a goldfish swimming in a bowl – just as a cat leaping in backwards through the window brushes past the goldfish bowl, off the table and out through the door in reverse gear.

Couldn’t happen? Course it couldn’t, the universe isn’t built that way.

Then what way is the universe built, if the total matter and energy content is identical at both ends of that little episode but it can only happen in one direction? What is this ‘arrow of time’?

That one’s actually quite simple.  Imagine a bag full of grasshoppers: open the bag, and in no time the little critters are everywhere, heading in every direction.  Reversing the process, getting them back into the bag, would be nigh on impossible.  It certainly wouldn’t happen by chance.

The material universe is made up of energy, every bit of which is a good deal livelier than those grasshoppers. Some of that energy is tied up as bundles that we refer to as ‘particles’ – the particles that make up you and me and everything else. The rest is flying about as light, radio waves, microwaves and the like.

All of the effects of time are driven by that energy escaping – just like those grasshoppers.

Every physical or chemical reaction, including those in biological processes, involves energy transfers in which some of that energy gets away.  The nuclear reactions in stars are driven by the release of energy, the energy that comes to us as heat and light from the sun.  Scientists call this increasing entropy, also The Second Law of Thermodynamics.

That lost energy scatters in every direction, making the reverse process about as likely as all those grasshoppers obligingly stepping back into that bag.  [Reversing one of those reactions requires more energy, so there’s always a net energy loss.]  The one-way street of time is the route taken by those grasshoppers and that energy alike: out, never back in; scattering, never regrouping.

… And One More Time Around …

Numerous studies point to particles of matter being light wrapped round in closed loops.  The book Tapestry of Light shows how this precisely fits a whole spread of proven scientific facts.  Here, too, some of that steadily circulating energy can be released ‘into the wild’ by one-way reactions – such as two atoms joining to form a molecule, releasing some of the electron energy from each of those atoms.

So there we have the flow of time.  It’s actually those energy flows, scattering randomly from events that thus can’t run in reverse (since they’d need a random focused input of energy – a contradiction) or circulating round to form material particles.  The rate of those energy flows – the speed of light – defines the rate of time.

Or does it?  Let’s take a closer look.

Anything You Can Do …

If the rate of those energy flows doubled, then energy would get from A to B twice as fast, it would disperse from chemical reactions and nuclear fusion events twice as fast.

But it would also circulate around particles, atoms and molecules, twice as fast …

And that’s what gives us our measure of time, whether it’s an atomic clock or marks on a burning candle – or even the synapses in your brain or mine, giving us an estimate of time.  The faster rate of external events would be precisely balanced by the faster rate of every measure of time that you can imagine, including our own perception.  If something happens twice as fast, and your clock runs twice as fast, you won’t notice the difference.

Those energy flows* could speed up by a hundred, a thousand, a million times – or, conversely, slow down by any of those factors – and it would make no detectable difference whatever to the universe.  Our experience, and the way of being of everything around us, would be absolutely unchanged.
[* Yes, we’re talking about the speed of light here.]

This is because what we refer to as ‘timing’ a process or event is actually a comparison of two distances travelled by energy flows: around the process/event and around the ‘timing’ device, whatever that may be.  That comparison doesn’t change, whatever the speed of those energy flows.

In short: any externally imposed ‘rate of time’ would be 100% irrelevant to the workings of the material universe.  So inclusion of that concept in our world view is a red herring, it simply gets in the way of an objective analysis of material reality.  Time, in that sense, does not exist.

[This reasoning, of course, applies equally to the ‘proper time’ of objects in different frames of reference, for those concerned with relativity theory.]

How the – ?  What the – ?  Who the – ?

But … but … but there is time. We experience it every day, every minute, every second.


Clouds, bluebells,
Houndtor Rocks
[Dartmoor, UK]

Each reinforcing our perception of the steady progress of time – whether it be minutes, days, or thousands of years.

Yes.  We experience sequencing of events – but we also experience sequencing of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and the sequencing of notes on the piano.  Neither of them involves time.  We also have the sensation of duration: we can even check that sensation against a clock – but that’s just comparing the distance travelled by energy flows around the circuits in our brain with distance around energy-flow circuits in our clock.  Two distances again.

So – dammit, what is the thing we experience as time?

It’s the mind rationalising a rather greater (though actually very simple) cosmic principle – just as the mind rationalises some electromagnetic frequencies as colours.  That’ll have to wait for another time – but you could try reading this paper in the meantime (especially the final paragraph). [You'll need to register, free, here first.]

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How long is forever?

August 9th, 2010

The Illusory Nature of Time: I
Condensed from an article by Dr Grahame Blackwell published on The Institute of Noetic Sciences website, Nov. 2009.

“To hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour”
(William Blake)


Science tells us that the universe kicked off around 13.7 billion years ago, give or take half a billion.

So what was going on before then?

We’re told that in the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded at an exponential rate – doubling in size every instant, from the size of the tiniest sub-atomic particle to billions of miles across. This is the explanation offered for how it’s reached the size and form that it has. [See Inflationary Period.]

But all the evidence suggests that it wasn’t space, but time itself that was going through those dramatic changes in pace in those earliest moments. That fits the facts perfectly.

It also fits another very significant issue that doesn’t seem to have been factored in to the standard explanation. Relativity theory tells us that time slows down near a large mass such as star or a black hole – and the whole universe packed into a space much smaller than a pinhead was certainly a pretty large and compact mass. Time would have had trouble even getting started in those conditions.

Fortunately there was another factor at play, quite independent of relativity, that eased things up for time to get moving – once the universe had expanded to a sensible size. That leads us down a very interesting rabbit hole, one that may turn out to have no ending … and no beginning.

How far down that particular rabbit hole are you prepared to go?

A long backward glance …

Ok, so let’s take a trip backwards down the corridor of time and watch the universe shrink as we head back towards the Big Bang (and beyond??), where the cosmos began as a point singularity (science-speak for “??*?!!”).

The usual measure of time these days is given by a caesium atomic clock, but that’ll be affected by gravitational forces as the universe reduces in size (see summary above) so we’ll sidestep conventional time measurement and go by the reducing size of the universe instead. We know that was a lot faster, measured against atomic processes, when the universe was very small (the Inflationary Period – backwards), maybe in this way we’ll see why.

[Technical note: The expansion of the universe isn’t time-based in the conventional sense. All other cosmic processes depend on electromagnetic energy flows, but universal expansion, as first discovered by Edwin Hubble in 1929, isn’t driven by those flows. (We know that because it actually stretches electromagnetic waves). That’s why we can use it as an objective measure of the rate of cosmic processes – the rate of time.]

[Technical note 2: We’ll be counting distance in light years; one light year is about six trillion miles.]

Winding back the light years

Ok, we’re down to a universe 50 billion light years across now, we’ll start watching that caesium clock running backwards as the cosmos shrinks further. 49, 48, 47, 46 … the clock is sticking with us pretty steadily so far. Down to 30, 29, 28, the stars and galaxies are getting a bit closer together now – and is it my imagination or is that clock beginning to run a tad slower?

20, 19, 18 billion light years, stars definitely crowding in now – and yes, that clock is slowing down noticeably. Each billion light years is notching up distinctly less time on the clock, progressively as the universe is shrinking. Not surprising really, the combined gravitational field of all those stars in all those galaxies is getting stronger by the second (if we can still refer to seconds …), slowing that clock down.

Ten billion light years now, and now five … and that clock is positively crawling along, the gravitational time dilation effect is so strong. For every second that ticks by, the universe shrinks by ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times as much as it did in the same time a few seconds ago. We’re heading towards Big Bang Ground Zero at an ever-increasing pace, an exponentially increasing pace – according to our clock.

[For those who missed it, this is the Inflationary Period in reverse – that Inflationary Period can be fully explained by the gravitational slowing-down of time.] 

The universe is just a few thousand miles across now, the energy and mass of millions of galaxies, billions of stars, packed into a volume smaller than the earth. Not surprisingly, with such an absolutely astronomical (!!) gravitational field, our poor clock has pretty well ground to a standstill. We see no change in its reading at all as the universe pops back to that point singularity, then back to who-knows-where-or-what before that.

So sure, our universe may have existed for around 13.7 billion years by that caesium clock or a similar device. But that actually tells us nothing about the real age of the cosmos, since that clock would hardly have got moving until the universe was at least several million miles across. And whilst it was brewing in that point singularity – an infinite gravitational field – the clock wouldn’t have registered anything at all. So how long was that going on for??

This simple analysis offers a clear explanation for the so-called Inflationary Period. It wasn’t the universe expanding incredibly fast, it was time moving incredibly slowly – making it look as if everything was happening at lightning speed (or rather faster than that, in fact).

It also offers us much, much more. For that we need to think briefly about Geometric Series.

Infinity in a Blank Sheet of Paper

You know all about geometric series. You could make one now – all you need is a sheet of paper and a pair of scissors (or just a good imagination). Take your sheet of paper and cut it in half. Put one half to one side, cut the other piece in half again. Put one half of that with your original half-sheet and cut the other piece in half again. Keep doing that …

You should end up with a pile of bits of paper: ½-sheet, ¼-sheet, 1/8th, 1/16th, etc, etc. In theory you could go on for ever and end up with an infinite number of pieces – but you’d never have more paper than you had in that original sheet.

Just as we piled up a never-ending heap of bits of paper from a total of  just one sheet, so we can notch up a never-ending succession of cosmic intervals – each embodying major cosmic development - from 13.7 billion years of clock time. Those intervals show up as smaller, and smaller, and smaller on our clock as it runs ever more slowly backwards towards, but never actually reaches, the beginning of it all.

That point of origin that we think we can put a figure on might prove elusively forever just beyond our reach if we boarded our hypothetical time machine and confidently headed back towards Time Zero. Not because we’re getting slower, but because each successive ‘nearly there’ clock-tick stretches out to a century, a million years, a billion years and far, far beyond, of cosmic evolution in real terms. There was no Time Zero.

So Question: has the universe been around an infinite length of time or hasn’t it? Answer: You’re asking the wrong question. To treat time as if it’s an objective reality is to totally miss the point.

What this actually shows is that time is a construct of consciousness, a tool to help us steer our way through a realm that would seem truly weird if we could see it as it really is. This blog post is just an intro to that weirdness, time gets even weirder than that – see the next post. Similar sorts of observations can be made about distance. But that’s another story.

See two published papers [1] , [2] related to this subject.

“So are we privileged to navigate, with instruments of time and space, the measureless tracts of eternity.”
Quotation from Breath of the Cosmos.

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Photos by NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

Of Quantum Leaps and Paradigm Shifts

July 26th, 2010

The place of Tibetan singing bowls in 21st century physics.


We all know what a Quantum Leap is.  It’s a major step, a big burst of energy – isn’t it?
No, actually, it’s not.  A quantum leap spans virtually the smallest distance imaginable, using the smallest possible measure of energy.

The remarkable thing about a quantum leap is that it involves a particle transferring from one place to another without ever being at any point in between – or so it’s generally believed.

A slightly different light is shed on this, though, by two practical demonstrations. One is a simple experiment first conducted over 100 years ago and repeated countless times since then. The other is a ‘technology’ that’s been around for thousands of years.

It’s clear from these two closely-linked case studies that the transition is continuous, not the step change that’s described in science texts.

It’s also clear that, far from being made of solid durable ‘particles’, every material object in the universe is formed from constantly-moving ever-changing energy flows.  The very nature of material particles is as ephemeral as clouds in the sky.

Conclusion from the post below:
“Until we can shift that fixed mindset and see things as they really are, a whole lot of scientific doors won’t be closed to us – they’ll be wide open, but we won’t even see them.  One could be the door to a very different future from what we see facing us now.”

To learn more about the reality of the quantum leap, and to find out where Tibetan singing bowls come into it, read on …

‘Quantum Leap’ must be the most common scientific phrase  in popular use today. The term is synonymous with a massive stride, a great burst of energy.

In fact a true quantum leap is neither of those things.  It’s the movement of an electron from one atomic orbit to another – just a fraction of the width of that atom.  In making that move the electron will absorb or release a single photon, or ‘packet’ of energy, typically in the form of light – and there’s no smaller amount of energy than a single photon.

The simple act of viewing a flower or a butterfly (or anything else) involves countless quantum leaps in your eye!

No, the thing that makes a quantum leap so special is the idea that that electron disappears from one orbit and reappears in the other without having apparently been anywhere in between in the meantime: now I’m here, now I’m there.

Ok, so the distance is pretty small.  But it’s still a neat trick, to be here one instant and somewhere else the next without having to travel across the gap.  So how’s it done – and more to the point, is it done?

Light Waves and Brighton Pier

First a brief intro to a simple scientific experiment.  Don’t go away, it’s pretty easy to follow and the conclusion is quite astounding.

Light from a single source passes through two slits in a card to land on a screen on the other side of the card.  The resulting pattern of light and dark bars on the screen tells us that every photon of light passes through both slits at the same time.

This effect is down to the wave-like nature of light.  Just as a wave in the sea can go both sides of the posts supporting Brighton (or Cleethorpes) Pier, a light wave can go both sides of the strip of card between those two slits.

Both parts of the wave spread out once they’re through the slits. Like waves on the sea, at some places where they meet again we get an extra high peak and at other places they cancel each other out. This gives alternate bright and dark stripes on the screen.

Oh, Those Two-Timing Photons !

So what does this tell us about the quantum leap? Basically it tells us it’s a process, not a step.

In the lab a photon ‘hit’ is registered by an electron shifting orbit in a detector on the screen. If the waves cancel each other at some point on that screen, it’s because one’s a peak and one’s a trough – they’ve travelled slightly different distances. So they’ll get there at two slightly different times.

The second wave to arrive clearly interrupts an orbital-shift process that’s already underway with the first wave and cancels that process. Has to be that way – otherwise what’s that first wave doing in the meantime?? If there’s no second wave, or if that wave’s in sync, the process completes, no problem.

So how does that work … ?

The Tibetan Connection

A useful clue comes from, of all places, the Tibetan singing bowl.

The orbits of electrons around atoms follow patterns known as Spherical Harmonics – exactly the same patterns as those for the notes produced by Tibetan singing bowls. Electrons have a number of possible harmonics, a good singing bowl has at least three producing three different tones.

To get a note from a singing bowl you run a wooden baton around the rim of the bowl until it starts sounding its lowest tone. Continue with the baton, and after a time a new note of higher pitch will be heard in the background.  Gradually that new note will get stronger and the first note will fade, until eventually only that higher-pitch note can be heard, clear and resonant.

Now back to the quantum leap (noting on the way that what we don’t get from a singing bowl is a sudden leap from one spherical harmonic to another).

Crossing the Great Divide

So where is that electron between the times that each of the two waves hit that screen?  To grasp the answer to this, we have to let go of the idea of an electron being a particle and see it instead as an energy pattern wrapping around the atom.  The lower orbit is one closed energy loop, the higher orbit is another.

To change orbit the electron energy flow must give up its closed-loop ‘particle’ status temporarily and follow an open  spiral path from one orbit to the other, boosted by that first wave.  [Just like the singing bowl moving up from one frequency to another - the baton is the 'wave'.]

In this ‘limbo’ state its situation is unstable; if the wave  helping it along this spiral is cancelled by an out-of-sync second wave, it’ll fall back to its former lower-energy orbit.  But if the follow-up wave is in sync it’ll reinforce that upward spiral, making that orbit-shift even more certain.

Future Science

The take-home message from this scenario is both simple and world-changing.  The only realistic option is that electrons can exist in a state that isn’t a particle – and are doing so all the time, since the quantum leap is by far the most frequent event in the whole universe.  Our world of solid objects gives way to one of constantly-flowing energies that come together from time to time to give an illusion of material structures.

Visionary physicist David Bohm, Nobel nominee and originator of the Holographic Universe concept, observed that our object-based language limits our ability even to think in terms of flowing dynamic processes.  But the universe is a flowing dynamic process.  Until we can shift that fixed mindset and see things as they really are, a whole lot of scientific doors won’t be closed to us – they’ll be wide open, but we won’t even see them.  One could be the door to a very different future from what we see facing us now.


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From Duck Soup to Quark Soup: Is the LHC a Good Idea?

June 29th, 2010

Some thoughts on the Large Hadron Collider

For those not familiar with it, ‘Duck Soup’ was a film made in 1933 starring the Marx brothers.

The Large Hadron Collider, operated by CERN on the Swiss-French border, was built to investigate fundamental properties of matter. It does this by smashing together the nuclei (cores) of atoms at speeds close to the speed of light.

One subject of particular interest is quark soup, the stuff that was believed to be around just after the Big Bang, that congealed into atoms. Separating atoms back out into the quarks that they’re made of could tell us quite a bit about the nature of the matter that we and everything around us are formed from.

Trouble is, it could tell us things in quite a loud sort of way – the Big Bang was quite loud (or would have been, if there’d been anyone there to hear it). And once it starts telling us things it may be quite difficult to get it to stop,

Some people have worried that the LHC might create a black hole that would swallow us all up. That seems rather unlikely. Less unlikely is that we might get quite a dramatic demonstration of Einstein’s famous E = mc2.   Pretty hot soup!

If you’re ready for the main course, read on …
It’s an easy step from Marx to Quarks, and there’s a strange resemblance between the wild-eyed wild-haired look of the Marx brothers and the mental image many of us have of groundbreaking scientists such as Albert Einstein.

More than that, just like the Marx Brothers, quarks are generally to be found in threes and it’s very difficult to separate them. One possible problem that’s looked at in this post is the likelihood that if one does manage to separate quarks then, like the Marx brothers, they may cause even more havoc than if they’re just left together.

[I have to declare an interest here: another of the Marx brothers’ best-known films, ‘A Night at the Opera’, is based on Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’, an opera that overlapped with his 'La Traviata' which I’m currently taking part in.  Also it seems to me that researchers at the LHC may be looking for things that could in some cases turn out to be the scientific equivalent of ‘Horse Feathers’ – the title of yet another well-loved Marx brothers film.]

So what’s the plan, Chico?

One of the objectives of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is to create quark plasma – also referred to as ‘quark soup’.  The protons and neutrons at the centre of every atom are each made up of three quarks, said to be held together by ‘gluons’.

It’s believed that immediately after the Big Bang at the beginning of everything, quarks were seething around together in an intensely high-energy state – quark plasma – before they got together in threesomes to form those components that make up each atomic nucleus. LHC scientists are looking to re-create that state – in a small way, of course.

Now let’s first dispense with what almost certainly won’t happen in the LHC.  Some people have been concerned, even to the extent of trying to get a court injunction, that smashing particles together at near-light-speed could create mini black holes that might suck in everything around them.  This would be first the LHC, then maybe the Alps, followed by the whole world and possibly more.

A black hole is an intense localised concentration of mass – imagine the weight of the whole earth in a pinhead.  Now the amount of stuff being pushed round the inside of the LHC is a lot nearer that of an ordinary pinhead than one the weight of the earth, it’s difficult to see how a black hole is even going to get started.

But all this hoo-ha about black holes has taken the focus off another possibility, one that’s highlighted by probably the most famous equation in the world: Einstein’s E = mc2.

What’s the grouch, Groucho?

We don’t actually know what’s holding those quarks together in threes, it’s all speculation.  They’ve been that way since just after the Big Bang, when conditions were very, very different from how they are now.  What we do know is that matter and energy are just different versions of basically the same stuff – in fact, more and more evidence is emerging that particles of matter are just photons of light wrapped up in a ball.    If that’s the case, it’s the electromagnetic fields in those photons that are holding the particles together.

So, question: if the LHC does manage to whup those particles hard enough and fast enough to split those quarks apart – what happens next?  We’ve actually no way of knowing, except to know that the early universe was a seething mass of energy – and of course that equation of Einstein’s.

It could be that those happy threesomes are all that’s holding that quark energy in stable particle form, that if we crack them apart then each won’t have the electromagnetic effects it needs from the other two to keep it in shape.  Imagine, for example, three mutually interlinked rubber bands – a good analogy for the way quarks behave.  The only way to separate them is to break them – and then they’re not rubber bands any more, they’re just bits of rubber.

In the same way, three interlinked loops of energy, if we break them apart, may turn out to be just three bits of raw energy. And Einstein’s equation tells us that’s bad news. The energy released in a nuclear fission reaction, for example an atom bomb, is around one-tenth of the total energy in the mass of that bomb. This could be the whole lot, all at one go.

As a simple guideline, the total energy in five kilograms of anything is enough to keep a car moving for a million years.

Time to play your harp, Harpo?

So ok, we’re not talking five kilos, we’re talking maybe a pinhead.  Maybe just the equivalent of one year’s-worth of automobile fuel, in a tiny space, all at one go.  That energy could maybe smash particles into the walls of the LHC vessel itself, causing a similar reaction – a chain reaction, as atoms of that vessel disintegrate end release their energy, and so it goes on …

Nah, couldn’t happen.  They know what they’re doing.

Do they?  Then what is the LHC for, if not to find out the basic principles of what matter is made of?  We know a great deal more about the structure of undersea geological formations than we do about the structure of sub-atomic particles – care to go for a scuba dive in the Gulf of Mexico?  That couldn’t happen, either…

The LHC is in fact a calculated risk, a gamble.

If that gamble doesn’t pay off, it could land us all in the soup …

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