Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Tompkins in the Software Universe

George Gamow was a highly regarded theoretical physicist and cosmologist from the last century who liked to explain concepts in modern physics to the common people by having them partake in adventures along with him in alternative universes that had alternative values for the physical constants that are found within our own Universe. He did so by creating a delightful fictional character back in 1937 by the name of Mr. Tompkins. Mr. Tompkins was an inquisitive bank clerk who was the main character in a series of four popular science books in which he participated in a number of such scientific adventures in alternative universes. I bring this up because back in 1979, when I first switched careers from being an exploration geophysicist to become an IT professional, I had a very similar experience. At the time, it seemed to me as if the strange IT people that I was now working with on a daily basis had created for themselves their own little Software Universe, with these strange IT people as the sole inhabitants. But over the years, I have now seen this strange alternative Software Universe slowly expand in size, to the point now that nearly all of the Earth's inhabitants are now also inhabitants of this alternative Software Universe.

Mr. Tompkins first appeared in George Gamow's mind in 1937 when he wrote a short story called A Toy Universe and unsuccessfully tried to have it published by the magazines of the day, such as Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Coronet and other magazines of the time. However, in 1938 he was finally able to publish a series of articles in a British magazine called Discovery that later became the book Mr Tompkins in Wonderland in 1939. Later he published Mr Tompkins Explores the Atom in 1944 and two other books at later dates. The adventures of Mr. Tompkins begin when he spends the afternoon of a bank holiday attending a lecture on the theory of relativity. During the lecture he drifts off to sleep and enters a dream world in which the speed of light is a mere 4.5 m/s (10 mph). This becomes apparent to him when he notices that passing cyclists are subject to a noticeable Lorentz–FitzGerald contraction.

As I explained in the Introduction to Softwarephysics softwarephysics is a simulated science designed to help explain how the simulated Software Universe that we have created for ourselves behaves. To do so, I simply noticed that, like our physical Universe, the Software Universe was quantized and extremely nonlinear in nature. For more on that, please see The Fundamental Problem of Software. Thanks to quantum mechanics (1926) we now know that our physical Universe is quantized into very small chunks of matter, energy, and also probably small chunks of space and time as well. Similarly, the Software Universe is composed of quantized chunks of software that start off as discrete characters in software source code (see Quantum Software for details). Thanks to quantum mechanics, we also now know that the macroscopic behaviors of our Universe are an outgrowth of the quantum mechanical operations of the atoms within it. Similarly, the macroscopic operations of the Software Universe are an outgrowth of the quantized operations of the source code that makes it all work. Now because very small changes to software source code can produce hugely significant changes to the way software operates, software is probably the most nonlinear substance known to mankind. The extreme nonlinear behavior of quantized software, combined with the devastating effects of the second law of thermodynamics to normally produce very buggy non-functional software, necessarily brings in the Darwinian pressures that have caused software to slowly evolve over the past 75 years, or 2.4 billion seconds, ever since Konrad Zuse first cranked up his Z3 computer in May of 1941. For more on this see The Fundamental Problem of Software.

Now the reason Mr. Tompkins never noticed the effects of the special theory of relativity in his everyday life was because the speed of light is so large, but once the speed of light was reduced to 10 mph in an alternative universe for Mr. Tompkins, all of the strange effects of the special theory of relativity became evidently apparent, and with enough time, would have become quite normal to him as a part of normal everyday life. Similarly, the strange effects of quantum mechanics only seem strange to us because Planck's constant is so very small - 6.62607004 × 10-34 Kg m2/second, and therefore, only become apparent for very small things like atoms and electrons. However, if Planck's constant were very much larger, then we would also begin to grow accustomed to the strange behaviors of objects behaving in a quantum mechanical way. For example, in quantum mechanics the spin of a single electron can be both up and down at the same time, but in the classical Universe that we are used to, macroscopic things like a child's top can only have a spin of up or down at any given time. The top can only spin in a clockwise or counterclockwise manner at one time - it cannot do both at the same time. Similarly, in quantum mechanics a photon or electron can go through both slits of a double slit experiment at the same time, so long as you do not put detectors at the slit locations.

Figure 1 – A macroscopic top can only spin clockwise or counterclockwise at one time.

Figure 2 – But electrons can be in a mixed quantum mechanical state in which they both spin up and spin down at the same time.

Figure 3 – Similarly, tennis balls can only go through one slit in a fence at a time. They cannot go through both slits of a fence at the same time.

Figure 4 – But at the smallest of scales in our quantum mechanical Universe, electrons and photons can go through both slits at the same time, producing an interference pattern.

Figure 5 – You can see this interference pattern of photons if you look at a distant porch light through the mesh of a sheer window curtain.

So in quantum mechanics at the smallest of scales, things can be both true and false at the same time. Fortunately for us, at the macroscopic sizes of everyday life, these bizarre quantum effects of nature seem to fade away, so that the things I just described are either true or false in everyday life. Macroscopic tops either spin up or spin down, and tennis balls pass through either one slit or the other, but not both at the same time. Indeed, it is rather strange that, although all of the fundamental particles of our Universe seem to behave in a fuzzy quantum mechanical manner in which true things and false things can both seem to blend into a cosmic grayness of ignorance, at the macroscopic level of our physical Universe, there are still such things as absolute truth and absolute falsehoods that can be measured in a laboratory in a reproducible manner. This must have been so for the Darwinian processes of innovation honed by natural selection to have brought us forth. After all, if Schrödinger's cat could really be both dead and alive at the same time, these Darwinian processes could not have worked, and we would not be here contemplating the differences between true and false assertions. The end result is that in our physical Universe, at the smallest of scales, there is no absolute truth, there are only quantum mechanical opinions, but at the macroscopic level of everyday life, there are indeed such things as absolute truth and absolute falsehoods, and these qualities can be measured in a laboratory in a reproducible manner.

The Current Bizarre World of Political Social Media Software in the United States
Now imagine that our Mr. Tompkins had entered into a bizarre alternative universe in which things were just the opposite. Imagine a universe in which, at the smallest of scales things operated classically, as if things were either absolutely true or false, but at a macroscopic level, things were seen to be both true and false at the same time! Well, we currently do have such an alternative universe close at hand to explore. It is the current bizarre world of political social media software in the United States of America. Recall that currently, the Software Universe runs on classical computers in which a bit can be either a "1" or a "0". In a classical computer a bit can only be a "1" or a "0" at any given time - it cannot be both a "1" and a "0" at the same time. For that you would need to have software running on a quantum computer, and for the most part, we are not there yet. So at the smallest of scales in our current Software Universe, the concept of there actually being a real difference between true and false assertions is fundamental. None of the current software code that makes it all work could possibly run if this were not the case. So it is quite strange that at the macroscopic level of political social media software in the United States, just the opposite seems to be the case. Unfortunately, in today's strange world of political social media software, there seems to be no right or wrong and no distinction between the truth and lies. We now have "alternative facts" and claims of "fake news" abounding, and Twitter feeds from those in power loaded down with false information. Because of this, for any given assertion, 30% of Americans will think that the assertion is true, while 70% of Americans will think that the assertion is false. In the Software Universe there are no longer any facts; there are only opinions in a seemingly upside-down quantum mechanical sense.

The Danger of Believing in Things
In The Danger of Believing in Things I highlighted the dangers of not employing critical thought when evaluating assertions in our physical Universe. The problem today is that most people are now seemingly spending more time living in the simulated Software Universe that we have created, rather than in our actual physical Universe. The end result of this is that, instead of seeking out the truth, the worldview memes infecting our minds simply seek out supporting memes in the Software Universe that lend support to the current worldview memes within our minds. But unlike in our current simulated Software Universe, where those worldview memes can be both absolutely true or absolutely false at the same time, in our physical Universe that behaves classically at the day-to-day scales in which we all live, things can still only be absolutely true or false, but not both. The most dangerous aspect of this new fake reality is that the new Administration of the United States of America maintains that climate change is a hoax, simply because they say it is a hoax, and sadly, for many Americans that is good enough for them. Now climate change might indeed be a hoax in our simulated Software Universe, or it might not be a hoax, because there is no absolute truth in our simulated Software Universe at the macroscopic level; there are only opinions. But that is not the case in the physical Universe in which we all actually live, where climate change is rapidly underway. For more on that please see This Message on Climate Change Was Brought to You by SOFTWARE. In the real physical Universe in which we all actually live, it is very important that we always take the words of Richard Feynman very seriously, for "reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

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Steve Johnston