Fact and Fiction

Thoughts about a funny old world, and what is real, and what is not. Comments are welcome, but please keep them on topic.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The end of the Darwinian interlude

Freeman Dyson has written a fascinating article in this week's New Scientist entitled Make me a hipporoo. The theme of the article is that Darwinian evolution is merely an interlude, that was preceded and will be be followed by a different style of evolution.

Darwinian evolution operates on species. Each species has its own set of genes that carry the biochemical processing "wisdom" that has been accumulated by that species. These genes are not shared between species, so tricks that are discovered by one species cannot be shared across different species, which means that there is a lot of reinvention going on.

An alternative type of evolution, that is akin to the sharing of open source software, occurs in systems where the interspecies boundaries are dissolved. Such a situation held before cells evolved to hold small packets of biochemical processing separately from the surrounding soup, and thus prevented the free sharing of tricks that were discovered by evolution. Free sharing leads to very rapid evolution, in the same way that open source software leads to rapid software development.

When the equipment to sequence genes and to synthesise genes becomes small and cheap, and when the knowledge of how to effectively operate this type of equipment becomes widespread, the boundaries between species will dissolve away. This will lead to the end of the Darwinian interlude. This has already occurred to a limited extent with the (sometimes controversial) transfer of useful genes between species that is currently done. This requires substantial resources to implement, and it is not yet what would be called a "table top" activity, but this limitation will not hold for much longer.

Freeman Dyson is very optimistic about the possibilities for the post-Darwinian era. I wish I could convince myself that he is right. As with all technologies there is the potential for good and bad applications. With nuclear weapons technology you can't produce a weapon in your garage without a lot of outside help, but with "table top" genetic engineering a single individual could conceivably cause havoc. The scenario in the book White Plague by Frank Herbert is a frightening realisation of what could happen.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The cosmic landscape: chapter 2

This is my interpretation of chapter 2 of Leonard Susskind's book The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design.

Susskind uses this chapter to introduce the problem that physics has with correctly predicting the value of the cosmological constant. What we naively call the "vacuum" actually contains a seething mass of virtual particles (or vacuum energy), because that is what is implied by our most fundamental theory of how physics operates (i.e. quantum field theory). This mass will affect the gravitational field and thus have observable consequences.

Unfortunately, our fundamental physics theory predicts an infinite (or, at least, very large) vacuum energy, which is not what we observe experimentally. The discrepency is about 120 orders of magnitude!

Susskind then describes the cosmology that was introduced by Einstein (i.e. a static universe governed by the equations of general relativity), by introducing the analogy that space is like the surface of a balloon, where the tension in the ballon is analogous to a gravitational attraction that causes all objects in space (e.g. galaxies) to attract one another. Thus an additional repulsive force is needed to hold the galaxies apart from each other. Einstein noticed this problem, and introduced a suitable term into his equations to provide the necessary repulsive force; this was his famous cosmological constant.

It turned out that Einstein's cosmology was wrong, because the astronomer Edwin Hubble observed that galaxies actually recede from each other, so the universe was not static, so Einstein had no need for a non-zero cosmological constant.

Now, Einstein's cosmological constant is physically the same thing as the vacuum energy mentioned above, so we know that it is non-zero, and in fact we predict (by adding up the effects of all of the virtual particles) that it has a value that is enormously too large. We know the value is too large because this vacuum energy implies the existence of a gravitational field that is not actually observed.

Even calculating this vacuum energy is fraught with problems because a naive calculation gives an infinite result, so we have to make some adjustments to the calculation in order to eliminate the infinity in a "natural" way. The method used is to ignore the contributions from all virtual particles that are so energetic that they would form a black hole if they collided.

One possible way of predicting a zero vacuum energy is to notice that virtual bosons (e.g. photons) have positive vacuum energy, whereas virtual fermions (e.g. electrons) have a negative vacuum energy, so there is the possibility that they produce cancelling effects. Unfortunately, such a cancellation does not materialise for the known types of bosons and fermions. However, if the universe were such that bosons and fermions existed in matched pairs (which they don't!), then cancellation would occur; this is what happens in the so-called supersymmetric theories.

Finally, Susskind points out:
  1. Cosmologists regard the cosmological constant as something with a small non-zero value that needs to be measured.
  2. Physicists (especially string theorists) regard it as something with an exactly zero value that is produced by an as-yet-not-understood cancellation in their theory.

However, there is a Third Way! It is called the Anthropic Principle: some property of the universe must be the way it is, because if it wasn't then we wouldn't be here to observe it. Can this approach be used to explain the values that fundamental physical constants? Should this approach be used, or is it not even science?

Generally, physicists hate the Anthropic Principle for various reasons:

  1. It abandons their cherished hope of deriving everything from first principles. It questions the very root of what science is, and if it turns out to be true it would certainly be a "new kind of science". This possibility cannot be discounted.
  2. It smells suspiciously like an "intelligent design" argument, where the properties of the universe are tuned so that we can exist. In fact, this suspicion is ill-founded, because it fails to recognise the difference between the weak and strong forms of the Anthropic Principle (see the last paragraph below). This possibility is based on a misunderstanding, and can thus be discounted.

Steven Weinberg has looked closely at the Anthropic Principle, and he concluded that a value that is not much larger than the observed upper bound would prevent galaxies, stars and planets from forming from the original very small density fluctuations that existed in the matter distributed throughout the universe. These sorts of arguments can also be used to place a bound on how negative the cosmological constant can be, and again its magnitude has to be extremely small.

Steven Weinberg has thus used the Anthropic Principle to place bounds on the magnitude of the cosmological constant that are consistent with observations. This work has been largely ignored because physicists mistakenly assume that it is necessarily based on an "intelligent design" argument. This is not the case if there is an ensemble of universes each with its own laws of physics, one of which is the fortuitously tuned version that we observe around us

Susskind then describes a thought experiment in which he rediscovers the "natural" (i.e. Planck) units of length, time and mass. These units turn out to be fundamentally important in the unification of quantum theory and Einstein's general theory of relativity, because they tell us where the naive picture of space as being analogous to a smooth rubber sheet breaks down (i.e. Einstein's gravity) to be replaced by a deeply wrinkled and knotted surface (quantum gravity).

The most important thing to understand in this chapter is the Anthropic Principle, which is not an "intelligent design" argument. None of Susskind's book will make sense until it is appreciated that Susskind is using the weak form of the Anthropic Principle, in which there is no prior tuning of the laws of physics, but rather there is an ensemble of universes each with its own laws of physics, one of which is the fortuitously tuned version that we observe around us.