Current Essay Contest


Previous Contests

It From Bit or Bit From It
March 25 - June 28, 2013

Contest closed to Entries. Submit Community Votes by August 7, 2013; Public Votes by October 31, 2013.

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Questioning the Foundations
Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?
May 24 - August 31, 2012
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, SubMeta, and Scientific American
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Is Reality Digital or Analog?
November 2010 - February 2011
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and Scientific American
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What's Ultimately Possible in Physics?
May - October 2009
Contest Partners: Astrid and Bruce McWilliams
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The Nature of Time
August - December 2008
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FQXi ESSAY CONTEST
April 19, 2014


2009 What Is Ultimately Possible in Physics? Winning Essays


First Prize

Stardrives and Spinoza
By Louis Crane

Essay Abstract
We discuss a proposal to make small artificial black holes (ABH's) using a huge laser. Because of Hawking radiation, they would be extremely powerful energy sources. We investigate the technical problems of using them to make power plants and starships. The first suggestion is due to Hawking. Next, we consider what challenges the ABH proposal would pose for a future quantum theory of gravity. The form of a theory which would allow us to compute the necessary corrections to classical theory is considered. It is widely believed that every black hole produces a new baby universe on the other side of its singularity. If this is true, ABH technology will involve future humanity in the creation process of universes. Finally, we ponder the effects that the ABH proposal would have on the culture of a future society, particularly if the baby universe theory is correct. The changes in our economic life and understanding of our role in the cosmos would be so profound as to have a "spiritual" aspect.

Author Bio
Louis Crane completed a PhD in Mathematics at the University of Chicago, did a postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and was an Assistant Professor at Yale University. He then joined the Mathematics department at Kansas State University, where he has remained to this day, except for visits to Nottingham University, Universite de Paris VII (Diderot), The University of Western Ontario and Instituto Superior Tecnico in Lisboa, Portugal. His research is on quantum gravity.

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Second Prizes

On the impossibility of superluminal travel: the warp drive lesson
By Carlos Barcelò, Stefano Finazzi, & Stefano Liberati

Essay Abstract
The question of whether it is possible or not to surpass the speed of light is already centennial. The special theory of relativity took the existence of a speed limit as a principle, the light postulate, which has proven to be enormously predictive. Here we discuss some of its twists and turns when general relativity and quantum mechanics come into play. In particular, we discuss one of the most interesting proposals for faster than light travel: warp drives. Even if one succeeded in creating such spacetime structures, it would be still necessary to check whether they would survive to the switching on of quantum matter effects. Here, we show that the quantum back-reaction to warp-drive geometries, created out of an initially flat spacetime, inevitably lead to their destabilization whenever superluminal speeds are attained. We close this investigation speculating the possible significance of this further success of the speed of light postulate.

Author Bios
C. Barcelo did his PhD in IAA (Spain) and postdocs at Washington University in St. Louis (USA) and the ICG in Portsmouth (UK). He is currently deputy director of the IAA and works on gravitation theory. S. Finazzi did his master in SNS (Italy). He is currently a PhD student in SISSA (Italy) working on gravitation theory under the supervision of S. Liberati. S. Liberati did his PhD in SISSA (Italy) and postdoc at the University of Maryland (USA). He is currently a research professor at SISSA working on gravitation theory.

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At the Frontier of Knowledge
By Sabine Hossenfelder

Essay Abstract
At any time, there are areas of science where we are standing at the frontier of knowledge, and can wonder whether we have reached a fundamental limit to human understanding. What is ultimately possible in physics? I will argue here that it is ultimately impossible to answer this question. For this, I will first distinguish three different reasons why the possibility of progress is doubted and offer examples for these cases. Based on this, one can then identify three reasons for why progress might indeed be impossible, and finally conclude that it is impossible to decide which case we are facing.

Author Bio
Sabine Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist who works on the phenomenology of quantum gravity and physics beyond the Standard Model. Together with her husband she writes a blog called "Backreaction".

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Third Prizes

The fairness principle and the ultimate theory of not everything
By Giovanni Amelino-Camelia

Essay Abstract
I build a “case for noteverything", with 3 levels of analysis. I first contemplate the complementary realms of “faith" and “science" and place the concept of “theory of everything" firmly in the faith category. I then consider how “mindsets of faith" affect scientific work, and compare the vast emptiness produced by the last few decades of the theory-of-everything fashion to the long list of wonderful discoveries produced by the “noteverything mindset", which I illustrate through the examples of Planck's description of blackbody radiation, Einsten-deBroglie wave-particle duality and Fermi's powerful rudimentary theory of weak interactions. Finally I argue, of course less objectively, that even as a choice of faith the “theory of everything" is rather awkward. A natural alternative is faith in a “fairness principle", here proposed as a modern version of a principle first formulated by Kepler, which would imply that our journey of discovery of more and more things will not end or saturate.

Author Bio
Born in Napoli, Italia; Undergraduate studies: univ of Napoli; PhD studies: Boston University; postdocs: MIT, Oxford, Neuchatel, CERN; presently: tenured researcher at the Univ "La Sapienza" in Roma, Italy; FQXi member (selected for a Large Grant in august 2008)

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The limits of cosmology
By Amedeo Balbi

Essay Abstract
What can we know about the universe? I outline a few of the fundamental limitations that are posed to our understanding of the cosmos, such as the existence of horizons, the fact that we occupy a specific place in space and time, the possible presence of dark components, the absence of a reliable physical framework to interpret the behavior of the very early universe.

Author Bio
Amedeo Balbi is assistant professor in cosmology at the University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata', Italy. He obtained a PhD from the University of Rome `La Sapienza', working at UC Berkeley on the MAXIMA experiment; currently, he is involved in ESA's Planck satellite mission. He is the author of "The Music of the Big Bang", a non-technical book on cosmology and the cosmic microwave background.

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Unification and Emergence in Physics: the Problem of Articulation
By Ian Durham

Essay Abstract
What is physics? What are the limits of what physics can say about the world? In seeking ever-broader theoretical ‘umbrellas' for physical phenomena, we are seeking unifying principles. Emergent phenomena have turned out to be some of the most difficult to explain, causing ‘clash of umbrellas,' so-to-speak. It is possible some of our difficulties lie in our way of articulating different parts of our field. I use articulation in its broadest sense here to include the purely mathematical as well as the conceptual. As such, even if articulation is not at the root of the problem, paying it special heed as we probe the explanatory limits of physics is imperative. This is especially true if we want physics to possess as logical and consistent a framework as possible. But it is also important from the standpoint of how we communicate (articulate) with each other as well as with the general public.

Author Bio
Ian T. Durham is Chair of the Department of Physics and Director of the Computational Physical Sciences Program at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. He also serves as the editor of the newsletter of the American Physical Society's Topical Group on Quantum Information (The Quantum Times). He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, two kids, dog, and a tankful of guppies.

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Might black holes reveal their inner secrets?
By Ted Jacobson & Thomas P. Sotiriou

Essay Abstract
Black holes harbor a spacetime singularity of infinite curvature, where classical spacetime physics breaks down, and current theory cannot predict what will happen. However, the singularity is invisible from the outside because strong gravity traps all signals, even light, behind an event horizon. In this essay we discuss whether it might be possible to destroy the horizon, if a body is tossed into the black hole so as to make it spin faster and/or have more charge then a certain limit. It turns out that one could expose a “naked” singularity if effects of the body’s own gravity can be neglected. We suspect however that such neglect is unjustified.

Authors Bios
Ted Jacobson earned his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin in 1983. After post-doctoral positions at the Poincare Institute, UC Santa Barbara, and Brandeis, he joined the faculty at the University of Maryland in 1988. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society. Thomas Sotiriou did his graduate work at SISSA, Trieste and earned his PhD in 2007. He spent time as a research associate at the University of Maryland, College Park and he is currently a research associate at the University of Cambridge.

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On the (im)possibility of quantum computing
By Gheorghe Sorin Paraoanu

Essay Abstract
We are witnesses nowadays in physics to an intense effort to build a quantum computer. In this essay, I point out that the failure of this enterprise could be in fact more intellectually exciting than its success. I conjecture that, despite the fact that we do not know any law of nature that would prevent us from building such a machine, it might not be possible, after all, to scale up the few qubits that have been realized so far. If this turns out to be the case, the consequences could be truly amazing: it would mean that quantum mechanics is indeed an incomplete description of reality, as Einstein thought, and it would also imply that certain types of computation - and the knowledge derived from it - are fundamentally inaccessible.

Author Bio
The author has a background in philosophy (M.Sc. - Univ. of Bucharest, 1995) and physics (Ph.D. - Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2001). He currently works as a senior scientist in the Low Temperature Laboratory, Helsinki University of Technology.

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On Explaining Existence
By Dean Rickles

Essay Abstract
What are the limits of physics' explanatory power? Can physics explain everything? In this paper I discuss a somewhat broader question: can physics explain existence itself? I argue that genuinely ultimate explanations - those that really explain everything - involve the most basic and most general elements of logic. Such explanations cannot be done within physics unless physics undergoes a methodology shift more closely aligning itself with mathematics and logic. However, I give reasons for thinking that just such a shift might be in operation.

Author Bio
Dean Rickles is a historian and philosopher of physics at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Symmetry, Structure, and Spacetime (Philosophy and Foundations of Physics, Volume 3. North Holland: Elsevier, 2007) and editor of The Structural Foundations of Quantum Gravity (co-edited with Steven French and Juha Saatsi; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006) and The Ashgate Companion to Contemporary Philosophy of Physics (Ashgate, 2008). He is currently working on a project devoted to the history of quantum gravity.

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Fourth Prizes


Unification of Nuclear Structure Theory Is Possible
By Norman D. Cook

Essay Abstract
The impossibility of achieving a unified theory of nuclear structure has been the conventional wisdom in nuclear physics since the 1960s. However, already in 1937 Eugene Wigner indicated a way forward in theoretical work that eventually led to a Nobel Prize, but not directly to unification. Specifically, he showed that the symmetries of the Schrodinger equation have an intrinsic face-centered-cubic (FCC) geometry. Those symmetries provide for a fully quantum mechanical unification of the diverse models of nuclear structure theory, as indicated by the following facts: (i) The FCC lattice reproduces the properties of the liquid-drop model due to short-range nucleon-nucleon interactions (constant core density, saturation of binding energies, nuclear radii dependent on the number of nucleons, vibrational states, etc.). (ii) There is an inherent tetrahedral subgrouping of nucleons in the close-packed lattice (producing configurations of alpha clusters identical to those in the cluster models). And, most importantly, (iii) all of the quantum n-shells, and j- and m-subshells of the independent-particle model are reproduced as spherical, cylindrical and conical substructures within the FCC lattice – with, moreover, proton and neutron occupancies in each shell and subshell identical to those known from the shell model. These facts were established in the 1970s and 1980s, but the “impossibility of unification” had already achieved the status of dogma by the 1960s. Here, I present the case for viewing the lattice model as a unification of traditional nuclear structure theory – an unambiguous example of how declarations of the “impossibility” of progress can impede progress.

Author Bio
Undergraduate at Princeton University (Princeton, USA), graduate student at Tohoku University (Sendai, Japan) and Oxford University (Oxford, UK), post-doctoral research at Zurich University (Zurich, Switzerland), invited researcher at ATR (Kyoto, Japan), full professor at Department of Informatics, Kansai University (Osaka, Japan). Seventy-plus articles published in refereed science journals, four scientific monographs, most recently, Models of the Atomic Nucleus (Springer, 2006).

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Mountains on the Moon: The Multiverse and the Limits of Physics
By Richard Easther

Essay Abstract
Can we make sense of a multiverse? I argue that many multiverse models can be meaningfully discussed, and confidently albeit not definitively evaluated using conventional theoretical and observational techniques. Further, I suggest that the residual uncertainty in our conclusions about any multiverse model is a novel manifestation of a routine phenomenon in modern cosmology: extreme cosmic variance.

Author Bio
Richard Easther is a theoretical cosmologist, and Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale University.

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Spacetime and Matter - a duality of partial orders
By Hans-Thomas Elze

Essay Abstract
A new kind of duality between the deep structures of spacetime and matter is proposed here, considering two partial orders which incorporate causality, extensity, and discreteness. This may have surprising consequences for the emergence of quantum mechanics, which are discussed.

Author Bio
Hans-Thomas Elze is a theoretical physicist. - Phd at University of Frankfurt (1985), followed by positions in Berkeley, Helsinki, and 3 years spent at CERN. Professorships in Bremen, Regensburg, and Tucson (Arizona). Professor at Brazil's renowned Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (1997-2004). Affiliated with Universita di Pisa (since 2004). - Several Fellowships, notably Heisenberg Fellow Award (German science foundation, DFG) for quantum transport theory in gauge theories. Organizer of biannual DICE (foundations of physics) conferences in Italy since 2002. Present interests include: entanglement entropy, decoherence, emergence of quantum mechanics.

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Unification and the Limits of Knowledge
By Marcelo Gleiser

Essay Abstract
I examine the question of whether it is possible to construct a final theory of Nature in a reductionist sense. Complete unification implicitly assumes total knowledge of physical reality. Can such knowledge be obtained? I examine two fundamental limitations which indicate that the answer is in the negative. To begin, science cannot explain the problem of the first cause, even within a valid quantum mechanical formulation of gravity. Also, our knowledge of reality depends on a fundamental way on our measuring devices. These, in turn, are subject to technological and, at a deeper level, to quantum mechanical limitations. Since we cannot measure all there is, we cannot know all there is. Thus, the boundaries of measurement set the limits of physics and of our explanations of physical reality.

Author Bio
Marcelo Gleiser is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College. He has authored over 80 refereed publications and is a fellow of the American Physical Society. The recipient of a Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from NSF and the White House, Gleiser is also a very active science popularizer, having authored two award-winning books and often appearing in TV documentaries and radio interviews. His new book, expanding on some themes explored in this essay, will be published spring 2010 by Free Press.

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What is possible in physics depends on the chosen representational formalism
By Lev Goldfarb

Essay Abstract
All of science is built on the foundation of the millennia-old numeric forms of representation and the associated measurement processes. Hence, the most promising way to approach physical reality (and physics) afresh is to shift to a non-numeric representational formalism. I discuss here one such formalism for structural/relational representation—evolving transformations system (ETS)—developed by our group. In particular, the adoption of ETS obviates the introduction of consciousness into physics, since under the formalism, the two forms of object representation—by an agent (subjective) and in Nature (objective)—agree. Moreover, ETS suggests the primacy of the new temporal representation over conventional spatial representation, and it is not difficult to envisage that the latter is actually instantiated on the basis of the former, as has also been suggested by some quantum gravity researchers.

Author Bio
Lev Goldfarb obtained Diploma in Mathematics (St.-Petersburg University) and Ph.D. in Systems Design Engineering (University of Waterloo). For twenty five years he worked as an Assistant and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Computer Science, University of New Brunswick, Canada. Now he conducts research and consulting through his company IIS. He has served on the editorial boards of Pattern Recognition, Pattern Recognition Letters, and now Cognitive Neurodynamics. Trained as a mathematician, he realized quite early the inadequacy of the conventional numeric models and has been working on the development of fundamentally new formalisms for structural representation.

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Heuristic rule for constructing physics axiomatization
By Florin Moldoveanu

Essay Abstract
Constructing the Theory of Everything (TOE) is an elusive goal of today's physics. Godel's incompleteness theorem seems to forbid physics axiomatization, a necessary part of the TOE. The purpose of this contribution is to show how physics axiomatization can be achieved guided by a new heuristic rule. This will open up new roads into constructing the ultimate theory of everything. Three physical principles will be identified from the heuristic rule and they in turn will generate uniqueness results of various technical strengths regarding space, time, non-relativistic and relativistic quantum mechanics, electroweak symmetry and the dimensionality of space-time. The hope is that the strong force and the Standard Model axiomatizations are not too far out. Quantum gravity and cosmology are harder problems and maybe new approaches are needed. However, complete physics axiomatization seems to be an achievable goal, no longer part of philosophical discussions, but subject to rigorous mathematical proofs.

Author Bio
Florin Moldoveanu received his PhD in theoretical physics from University of Maryland at College Park working in the area of soliton theory, nonlinear dynamics, and fiber optics. His research interests are algebraic and relativistic quantum mechanics and the foundational issues of physics. Other research interests include general relativity, non-commuting geometry, category theory, geometric quantization, Clifford and geometric algebra, and algebraic quantum field theory.

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Mission Impossible
By Maulik Parikh

Essay Abstract
The laws of physics dictate what is physically impossible. But physical laws are often superseded by newer, more permissive laws. Therefore only the final theory of physics can determine what is and is not ultimately possible. I examine some of the fundamental tenets of quantum field theory and general relativity and argue that it is not certain that any of our current most sacred principles will survive unscathed in the ultimate theory of physics.

Author Bio
Maulik Parikh is a theoretical high-energy physicist. He obtained his bachelor's degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a PhD in physics from Princeton University, where he worked under the supervision of Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek. After post-doctoral stints at the University of Utrecht and at Columbia University, he is now faculty at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in India. In 2004, a paper he wrote on black holes won the first prize from the Gravity Research Foundation. He also won fourth prize in the FQXi essay contest on the nature of time.

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Lessons from failures to achieve what was possible in the twentieth century physics
By Vesselin Petkov

Essay Abstract
For several decades there has been no breakthrough in fundamental physics as revolutionary as relativity and quantum physics despite the amazing advancement of applied physics and technology. By discussing several examples of what physics could have achieved by now, but failed, I will argue that the present state of fundamental physics is not caused by the lack of talented physicists, but rather by problematic general views on how one should do physics. Although it appears to be widely believed that such general views cannot affect the advancement of physics I would like to draw the attention of the younger generation of physicists to three reasons that might have been responsible for failures in the past and might cause problems in the future: (i) misconceptions on the nature of physical theories, (ii) underestimation of the role of conceptual analyses so successfully employed by Galileo and Einstein, and (iii) overestimation of the predictive power of mathematics in physics.

Author Bio
Vesselin Petkov received a graduate degree in physics from Sofia University, a doctorate in philosophy from the Institute for Philosophical Research of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and a doctorate in physics from Concordia University. He taught at Sofia University and is currently teaching at Concordia University. He wrote the book "Relativity and the Nature of Spacetime" (Springer 2005) and edited the books "Relativity and the Dimensionality of the World" (Springer 2007), and "Minkowski Spacetime: A Hundred Years Later" (Springer, forthcoming). He is a member of the Governing Board of the International Society for the Advanced Study of Spacetime.

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Quantum theory, gravity, and the standard model of particle physics: using the hints of today to build the final theory of tomorrow
By Tejinder Singh

Essay Abstract
When a mountaineer is ascending one of the great peaks of the Himalayas she knows that an entirely new vista awaits her at the top, whose ramifications will be known only after she gets there. Her immediate goal though, is to tackle the obstacles on the way up, and reach the peak. In a similar vein, one of the immediate goals of contemporary theoretical physics is to build a quantum, unified description of general relativity and the standard model of particle physics. Once that peak has been reached, a new (yet unknown) vista will open up. In this essay I propose a novel approach towards this goal. One must address and resolve a fundamental unsolved problem in the presently known formulation of quantum theory: the unsatisfactory presence of an external classical time in the formulation. Solving this problem takes us to the very edge of theoretical physics as we know it today!

Author Bio
Associate Professor, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, India. Research Interests: Quantum Gravity, Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, Cosmology. Three time winner of the Gravity Research Foundation Essay Competition [3rd Prize (1998); 4th Prize (jointly with Cenalo Vaz, 2004); 2nd Prize (2008)]

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A Computational Anthropic Principle: Where is the Hardest Problem in the Multiverse?
By Navin Sivanandam

Essay Abstract
The anthropic principle is an inevitable constraint on the space of possible theories. As such it is central to determining the limits of physics. In particular, we contend that what is ultimately possible in physics is determined by restrictions on the computational capacity of the universe, and that observers are more likely to be found where more complicated calculations are possible. Our discussion covers the inevitability of theoretical bias and how anthropics and computation can be an aid to imposing these biases on the theory landscape in a systematic way. Further, we argue for (as far as possible) top-down rather than bottom-up anthropic measures, contending that that the latter can often be misleading. We begin the construction of an explicit computational measure by examining the effect of the cosmological constant on computational bounds in a given universe, drawing from previous work on using entropy production as a proxy for observers by Bousso, Harnik, Kribs and Perez. In addition, we highlight a few of the additional computational considerations that may be used to extend such a measure.

Author Bio
Navin Sivanandam received his PhD from Stanford University in 2008. He now works as a postdoc in the Theory Group at the the University of Texas at Austin, with his research focusing on string theory and cosmology. He also believes that foundational questions in physics are best discussed during the twilight hours over a fine single malt.

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