Category Archives: Physics

The Future of Everything

I just started a book, The Future of Everything [erething?]: The Science of Prediction, by the mathematician qua polymath David Orrell. Orrell was one of the guys who kind of limited the chaos affect in weather (butterfly farts, Hillary wins the election) to almost nothingness, instead attributing large discrepancies (to say the least) in weather prediction to model error, basically the gap between the pretty math model and the real world phenomenon.

The book, thus far at least, has been really interesting, well-written, and erudite-though the beginnings hover on some historical facts that aren’t completely novel, but nonetheless. Dr. Orrell’s main interests in this book revolve around prediction in wealth, weather, and health, tracing the history of prediction from around 1500 BC up through the methods developed by Newton and Kepler that remain in practice to this day (in complicated, derivative forms, I imagine). While it’s not as exciting as the opening of a new Bape store (heh), a couple chunks have popped out thus far, and I should like to quote them and offer some commentary:

“Systems where predictions are of interest-in biology, economics, or climate change-are either alive, influenced by life, or have a similar level of complexity to living beings (1). They are difficult to predict not because of simple technical reasons, which can be overcome with faster computers or better data, but because they have evolved to be that way (2). We pinpoint the causes of prediction error (3).” (italics mfjoe)


1. This is particularly interesting now, when we finally have the ability to recognize the complexity such systems, as well as have a pretty big new one with the Interweb to play with. As an aside, it is also telling of our lack of predictive ability that we can rarely predict how complex systems are going to end up being, per se, let alone how they will be modeled in toto and in situ.

2. I haven’t read far into the book. But the way I look at it is that we evolved to predict certain things very well, and most other things horribly at best. It’s not the system under the scope then, but the one peering through it that cause the error. E.g., I still argue with intelligent (seemingly) people about the ability to beat the house at a casino. As a great thinker, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, pointed out, a casino is the least random, chance destination on the planet. Everything is completely measured and the house always wins (even if your uncle charlie won $10K that one time). However, the games played mimic those we evolved with, and we expect them to be path-dependent (I think I got that right). Hence: ass handed to you. You aren’t more likely to win after losing in a casino a string of times. I am more likely to fall asleep as the hours I haven’t slept continue passing…that’s the gist.

3. Comes from the Popper. Since we have no real ability above chance to know or predict things, why not look for systematic causes for error, so we can start to turn those unknown unknowns into know unknowns (Thanks Rummy, best thing that came out your mouth in your life).

“One type of prediction relates to overall function and can be used to make general warnings. The other type involves specific forecasts about the future. Mathematical models are better at the first than they are the second. (1)

1. Example of first type that I’m fairly sure is largely accurate: Any given Human, a biological system of great complexity, will expire, sometime (for the various reasons consult Aubrey de Grey, also a great offerer of the second type of prediction, of which most will turn out to be very, very far from reality-one could call these Methuselah Mouse Model Errors).

The future of everything book

(Cop it from Amazon)

And now for something completely different…

So, one time in History of Psychology, taught by the brilliant Lynn Winters, I got in this argument with this girl over a passage from Pynchon. Something about equating humans with molecules that don’t really have any control over the oppressive structural forces, A and B can’t do anything they just are, Knowledge and Power, yada yada…and I’m such a nerd, that what bothered me was not her quoting of the most obvious passage in Gravity’s, but that in reality, Pynchon is wrong, and it is far more absurd that that. What bothered me was the relapse into the Manichaeistic dualism that seems to continue to dominate most theory in philosophy, literature, etc., etc. It’s far more connected, empathic, and nuanced than that; definitely a gift and a curse, but what the fuck did you expect? I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Overcoming Bias, and came across a somewhat dense introduction into the shift from thinking in terms of classical to quantum physics (i.e., the physics that is much closer to the truth of the matter.) I’m just pasting a chunk of the original post by

The difficult jump from classical to quantum is not thinking of an electron as an excitation of a field.  Then you could just think of a universe made up of “Excitation A in electron field over here” + “Excitation B in electron field over there” + etc.  You could factorize the universe into individual excitations of a field.  Your parietal cortex would have no trouble with that one – it doesn’t care whether you call the little billiard balls “excitations of an electron field” so long as they still behave like little billiard balls.

The difficult jump is thinking of a configuration space that is the product of many positions in many fields, without individual identities for the positions.  A configuration space whose points are “a position here in this field, a position there in this field, a position here in that field, and a position there in that field”.  Not, “A positioned here in this field, B positioned there in this field, C positioned here in that field” etc.

You have to reduce the appearance of individual particles to a regularity in something that is different from the appearance of particles, something that is not itself a little billiard ball.

Oh, sure, thinking of photons as individual objects will seem to work out, as long as the amplitude distribution happens t factorize.  But what happens when you’ve got your “individual” photon A and your “individual” photon B, and you’re in a situation where, a la Feynman paths, it’s possible for photon A to end up in position 1 and photon B to end up in position 2, or for A to end up in 2 and B to end up in 1?  Then the illusion of classicality breaks down, because the amplitude flows overlap:

In that triangular region where the distribution overlaps itself, no fact exists as to which particle is which, even in principle – and in the real world, we often get a lot more overlap than that.

I mean, imagine that I take a balloon full of photons, and shake it up.

Amplitude’s gonna go all over the place.  If you label all the original apparent-photons, there’s gonna be Feynman paths for photons A, B, C ending up at positions 1, 2, 3 via a zillion different paths and permutations.

The amplitude-factor that corresponds to the “balloon full of photons” subspace, which contains bulges of amplitude-subfactor at various different locations in the photon field, will undergo a continuously branching evolution that involves each of the original bulges ending up in many different places by all sorts of paths, and the final configuration will have amplitude contributed from many different permutations.

It’s not that you don’t know which photon went where.  It’s that no fact of the matter exists. The illusion of individuality, the classical hallucination, has simply broken down.

And the same would hold true of a balloon full of quarks or a balloon full of electrons.  Or even a balloon full of helium. Helium atoms can end up in the same places, via different permutations, and have their amplitudes add just like photons.

Don’t be tempted to look at the balloon, and think, “Well, helium atom A could have gone to 1, or it could have gone to 2; and helium atom B could have gone to 1 or 2; quantum physics says the atoms both sort of split, and each went both ways; and now the final helium atoms at 1 and 2 are a mixture of the identities of A and B.”  Don’t torture your poor parietal cortex so.  It wasn’t built for such usage.

Just stop thinking in terms of little billiard balls, with or without confused identities.  Start thinking in terms of amplitude flows in configuration space.  That’s all there ever is.

And then it will seem completely intuitive that a simple experiment can tell you whether two blobs of amplitude-factor are over the same quantum field.

Just perform any experiment where the two blobs end up in the same positions, via different permutations, and see if the amplitudes add.

(Overcoming Bias)