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Current Essay Contest


Previous Contests

It From Bit or Bit From It
March 25 - June 28, 2013
Contest Partners: The Gruber Foundation, J. Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American
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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
August 21, 2014


2013 It From Bit or Bit From It? Winning Essays


First Prize

"It From Bit" and the Quantum Probability Rule
Matthew Leifer

Essay Abstract
I argue that, on the subjective Bayesian interpretation of probability, "it from bit" requires a generalization of probability theory. This does not get us all the way to the quantum probability rule because an extra constraint, known as noncontextuality, is required. I outline the prospects for a derivation of noncontextuality within this approach and argue that it requires a realist approach to physics, or "bit from it". I then explain why this does not conflict with "it from bit".

Author Bio
Matthew Leifer is currently an independent scientist living in London, UK. He completed his Ph.D. in quantum information at the University of Bristol in 2003. He has since held postdoctoral positions at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the University of Cambridge, the University of Waterloo and University College London. His research interests encompass the foundations of quantum theory, quantum information, and the intersection of the two.

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Second Prizes

Information and the Foundations of Quantum Theory
Angelo Bassi, Saikat Ghosh, & Tejinder Singh

Essay Abstract
We believe that the hypothesis 'it from bit' originates from the assumption that probabilities have a fundamental, irremovable status in quantum theory. We argue against this assumption and highlight four well-known reformulations / modifications of the theory in which probabilities and the measuring apparatus do not play a fundamental role. These are: Bohmian Mechanics, Dynamical Collapse Models, Trace Dynamics, and Quantum Theory without Classical Time. Here the 'it' is primary and the 'bit' is derived from the 'it'.

Author Bios
Angelo Bassi works on foundations of quantum mechanics and has a Ph.D. degree in Physics from University of Trieste. After completing post-docs at ICTP and LMU, Munich he joined University of Trieste as faculty. Saikat Ghosh obtained his doctoral degree from Cornell, and after completing post-docs at MIT and Cornell he is now faculty at IIT Kanpur. He is an experimental physicist with interests in quantum optics, precision spectroscopy, quantum measurement and information theory. Tejinder Singh is Professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. His research interests are in quantum gravity and foundations of quantum mechanics.

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Relative Information at the Foundation of Physics
Carlo Rovelli

Essay Abstract
I observe that Shannon's notion of relative information between two physical systems can effectively function as a foundation for statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics, without referring to any subjectivism or idealism. It can also represent the key missing element in the foundation of the naturalistic picture of the world, providing the conceptual tool for dealing with its apparent limitations. I comment on the relation between these ideas and Democritus.

Author Bio
Carlo Rovelli is professor of theoretical physics at the University of Aux-Marseille. His main interest is quantum gravity, but he has worked also on the foundations of quantum theory and general covariant statistical mechanics, and on the ancient history and philosophy of physics.

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Third Prizes

Informational Characterizations of Quantum Theory as Clues to Wheelerian Emergence
Howard Barnum

Essay Abstract
Concrete progress has been made on Wheeler's project of understanding the concomitant emergence of the material world and the world of information and experience, as a quantum process, by investigating information principles that can be used to characterize quantum theory from among other possible theories.

Author Bio
Howard Barnum got his Ph.D. in physics at University of New Mexico with Carlton Caves. He was a postdoc with Herb Bernstein at Hampshire, and Richard Jozsa at Bristol. He was Director's Postdoctoral Fellow and then Technical Staff Member at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has been visiting research at Perimeter Institute, Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Stellenbosch, and is Adjunct Professor of Physics and Astronomy at University of New Mexico.

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It From Qubit
Giacomo D'Ariano

Essay Abstract
In this essay I will embark on the venture of changing the realist reader's mind about the informational viewpoint for physics: "It from Bit". I will try to convince him of the amazing theoretical power of such paradigm. Contrary to the common belief, the whole history of physics is indeed a winding road making the notion of "physical object" - the "It" - fade away. Such primary concept, on which the structure of contemporary theoretical physics is still grounded, is no longer logically tenable. The thesis I advocate here is that the "It" is emergent from pure information, an information of special kind: quantum. The paradigm then becomes: "It from Qubit". Quantum fields, particles, space-time and relativity simply emerge from countably infinitely many quantum systems in interaction. Don't think that, however, I can cheat by suitably programming a "simulation" of what we see. On the contrary: the quantum software is constrained by very strict rules of topological nature, which minimize the algorithmic complexity. These are locality, unitarity, homogeneity, and isotropy of the processing, with minimal quantum dimension. What is amazing is that from just such simple rules, and without using relativity, we obtain the Dirac field dynamics as emergent.

Author Bio
I am professor at the University of Pavia, where I teach "Quantum Mechanics" and "Foundations of Quantum Theory", and enjoy research with a marvelous group of young collaborators.

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Now Broadcasting in Planck Definition
Craig Hogan

Essay Abstract
If reality has finite information content, space has finite fidelity. The quantum wave function that encodes spatial relationships may be limited to information that can be transmitted in a "Planck broadcast'', with a bandwidth given by the inverse of the Planck time, about 2 times 10-to-the-43 bits per second. Such a quantum system can resemble classical space-time on large scales, but locality emerges only gradually and imperfectly. Massive bodies are never perfectly at rest, but very slightly and slowly fluctuate in transverse position, with a spectrum of variation given by the Planck time. This distinctive new kind of noise associated with quantum geometry would not have been noticed up to now, but may be detectable in a new kind of experiment.

Author Bio
Craig Hogan is Director of the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics, where he is also a member of the scientific staff and the Theoretical Astrophysics Group. He is also a professor at the University of Chicago, where he is on the faculty of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Enrico Fermi Institute, and the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society.

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Information-Based Physics and the Influence Network
Kevin Knuth

Essay Abstract
This essay considers a simple model of observers that are influenced by the world around them. Consistent quantification of information about such influences results in a great deal of familiar physics. The end result is a new perspective on relativistic quantum mechanics, which includes both a way of conceiving of spacetime as well as particle "properties" that may be amenable to a unification of quantum mechanics and gravity. Rather than thinking about the universe as a computer, perhaps it is more accurate to think about it as a network of influences where the laws of physics derive from both consistent descriptions and optimal information-based inferences made by embedded observers.

Author Bio
Kevin Knuth is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Physics and Informatics at the University at Albany. He is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Entropy, and is the co-founder and President of a robotics company, Autonomous Exploration Inc. He has more than 15 years of experience in applying Bayesian and maximum entropy methods to the design of machine learning algorithms for data analysis applied to the physical sciences. His current research interests include the foundations of physics, autonomous robotics, and searching for extrasolar planets.

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Reality, No Matter How You Slice It
Ken Wharton

Essay Abstract
In order to reject the notion that information is always about something, the "It from Bit'' idea relies on the nonexistence of a realistic framework that might underly quantum theory. This essay develops the case that there is a plausible underlying reality: one actual spacetime-based history, although with behavior that appears strange when analyzed dynamically (one time-slice at a time). By using a simple model with no dynamical laws, it becomes evident that this behavior is actually quite natural when analyzed "all-at-once'' (as in classical statistical mechanics). The "It from Bit" argument against a spacetime-based reality must then somehow defend the importance of dynamical laws, even as it denies a reality on which such fundamental laws could operate.

Author Bio
Ken Wharton is a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at San Jose State University. His field is quantum foundations, with particular interest in approaches that incorporate the same time-symmetry as the phenomena they purport to explain.

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Fourth Prizes

Spacetime Weave - Bit as the Connection Between Its or the Informational Content of Spacetime
Torsten Asselmeyer-Maluga

Essay Abstract
In this essay I will discuss the relation between information and spacetime. First I demonstrate that because of diffeomorphism invariance a smooth spacetime contains only a discrete amount of information. Then I directly identify the spacetime as carrier of the Bit, and derive the matter (as It) from the spacetime to get a direct identification of Bit and It. But the picture is stationary up to now. Adding the dynamics is identical to introducing a time coordinate. Next I show that there are two ways to introduce time, the global time leading to quantum objects or the local time leading to a branched structure for the future (tree of the Casson handle). This model would have a tremendous impact on the measurement process. I discuss a model for the measurement of a quantum object with an explicit state reduction (collapse of the wave function) caused by gravitational interaction. Finally I discuss some applications of the model to explain inflation and the Higgs potential.

Author Bio
I'm a post-doc worker at the German Aerospace Center. I received my PhD at Humboldt university. My research interests are wide-spreaded from evolutionary algorithms and quantum computing to quantum gravity. Since more than 15 years I try to uncover the role of exotic smoothness in general relativity and quantum gravity.

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An Insight Into Information, Entanglement and Time
Paul Borrill

Essay Abstract
We combine elements of Boltzmann's statistical account of thermodynamic processes in the second law, Shannon's theory of communication, and a background-free conceptualization of time, where the arrival and departure of information carried by photons defines an ordering of events which are perpetually evolving and reversible (therefore perpetually reordering) inside isolated entangled systems. This becomes progressively irreversible as decoherence ebbs and flows with the environment. Our argument brings a new information-theoretic quality to the nature of an interaction. We use this concept in the context of a perpetual symmetric exchange of information between atoms by a photon, where the direction is (at the microscopic level) predictable, yet observation remains non-deterministic because we cannot know (in an individual measurement) how many times a reversal takes place without disturbing the system. The absurd idea is that reality is timeless inside entangled systems, i.e., it continually evolves and cycles through its recurrence, defined by the available number of states. This symmetry can however be broken at the macroscopic level by an observer preparing the system for measurement, triggering causality to select a direction for information and energy to flow. We introduce subtime (ts) as a reversible information interchange within an entangled system and re-examine the conclusion dismissed by Einstein, Podolsky & Rosen (EPR). We accept the principles of relativity and the constancy of the speed of light c (in ts), but question our ability to measure c with experiments that presume a classical (Tc) smooth, monotonic and irreversible background in time. We offer an alternative view in the spirit of Boltzmann indistinguishability: in addition to the indiscernability of individual particles with identical properties we recognize that states previously visited within a quantum system are indistinguishable from reversing subtime to that prior state.

Author Bio
Paul Borrill is President & Founder of REPLICUS Research and a Technical/Scientific Consultant to government and major enterprises on the foundations of storage, networking and security Infrastructures. Paul has been intrigued most of his adult career by the nature of computation, information and time; from their scientific foundations to their practical applications in engineering large scale disaster resilient IT infrastructures. Paul holds a B.Sc with Honors in Physics from the University of Manchester, a Ph.D. in Physics from University College London and is a graduate of the Stanford Executive Program.

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Contextuality: Wheeler's Universal Regulating Principle
Ian Durham

Essay Abstract
In this essay I develop quantum contextuality as a potential candidate for Wheeler's universal regulating principle, arguing - contrary to Wheeler - that this ultimately implies that "bit" comes from "it".

Author Bio
Ian Durham is Associate Professor of Physics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is a member of FQXi, enjoys fly fishing, playing blues and rock harmonica, and spending time with his family on the coast of Maine where he lives.

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Without Cause
Mark Feeley

Essay Abstract
Physicists increasingly accept that information is more fundamental than material things, but if material things are not fundamental, then neither are material causes: we will live in a world without cause. We thus examine the steps and missteps by which information came to be seen as more fundamental, examine the flaws and risks of a purely informational view, and consider a possible approach to restoring a belief in material things and material causes.

Author Bio
I received a Bachelors degree in Engineering Physics (UBC), then worked for 2 years in physics as a research associate. I subsequently changed directions to work for over 30 years an electrical engineer. In 1999, I co-founded a venture telecom company, which was sold in 2005. After a period working on other start-up ventures, I decided in 2009 to return to the independent study of physics.

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Is Spacetime Countable?
Sean Gryb

Essay Abstract
Is there a number for every bit of spacetime, or is spacetime smooth like the real line? The ultimate fate of a quantum theory of gravity might depend on it. The troublesome infinities of quantum gravity can be cured by assuming that spacetime comes in countable, discrete pieces which one could simulate on a computer. But, perhaps there is another way? In this essay, we propose a picture where scale is meaningless so that there can be no minimum length and, hence, no fundamental discreteness. In this picture, Einstein's Special Relativity, suitably modified to accommodate an expanding Universe, can be reinterpreted as a theory where only the instantaneous shapes of configurations count.

Author Bio
Sean Gryb worked on his PhD at the Perimeter Institute and is now splitting his time during a postdoc between Utrecht and Radboud Universities in the Netherlands. He is working on developing Shape Dynamics and is generally interested in the foundations and experimental tests of quantum gravity.

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It From Bit From It From Bit... Nature and Nonlinear Logic
William McHarris

Essay Abstract
For the last decade I have been demonstrating that many of the so-called paradoxes generated by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics have less puzzling analogs in nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory. This raises questions about the possibilities of nonlinearities in the foundations of quantum theory. Since many scientists do not think intuitively in nonlinear logic, I take this opportunity to dwell on several peculiarities of nonlinear dynamics and chaos: nonlinear logic and the possible connection of infinite nonlinear regression with free will. Superficially, nonlinear dynamics can be just as counterintuitive as quantum theory; yet, its seeming paradoxes are more amenable to logical analysis. As a result, using nonlinear dynamics to resolve quantum paradoxes winds up being simpler than many of the current interpretations being formulated to replace the orthodox interpretation. Chaos theory could be a candidate for bridging the gap between the determinism so dear to Einstein and the statistical interpretation of the Copenhagen School - for deterministic chaos is indeed deterministic. However, intrinsic physical limitations on precision in measuring initial conditions necessitates analyzing it statistically. Einstein and Bohr both could have been correct in their debates.

Author Bio
Bill McHarris is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Physics/Astronomy at Michigan State University. He received his B.A. in chemistry from Oberlin College and his Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in the turbulent 1960's. He came to MSU directly from graduate school as Assistant Professor, becoming full Professor at age 32. For most of his career he worked as Senior Scientist at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory in nuclear physics/chemistry, but for the last decade has been trying to reconcile chaos theory with quantum mechanics. He is also a published composer and organist.

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It From Qubit: How to Draw Quantum Contextuality
Michel Planat

Essay Abstract
Wheeler's observer-participancy and the related it from bit credo refer to quantum non-locality and contextuality. The mystery of these concepts slightly starts unveiling if one encodes the (in)compatibilities between qubit observables in the relevant finite geometries. The main objective of this treatise is to outline another conceptual step forward by employing Grothendieck's dessins d'enfants to reveal the topological and (non)algebraic machinery underlying the measurement acts and their information content.

Author Bio
Michel Planat is a senior scientist at FEMTO-ST/CNRS, Besançon, France. His present main interest is in fundamental problems of quantum information and their relationship to mathematics. He wrote about 110 refereed papers or book chapters.

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These From Bits
Yutaka Shikano

Essay Abstract
Is it possible to understand any physical properties once its Hamiltonian or its Lagrangian is known? This understanding process seems not to be useless to find unknown physical phenomena. Therefore, the operational approach is very powerful to overcome this conflict. We tried to reformulate some physical theories from an operational viewpoint following in Brillouin's footsteps,. However, as information theory is not currently applicable to situations where there are only a small number of samples, we could only consider macroscopic physical theories: equilibrium thermodynamics and equilibrium statistical mechanics. The optimal information-theoretical process corresponds to the equilibrium macroscopic system, and its essence is a sufficiently large number of samples.

Author Bio
Yutaka Shikano is the research associate professor at Institute for Molecular Science, and visiting assistant Professor at Chapman University. He got the Ph. D from Tokyo Institute of Technology in 2011. He worked in Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the visiting student and the JSPS postdoctoral fellow at Tokyo Institute of Technology. His current research interest is quantum foundations, dynamical systems, and photo physics.

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Self-Similarity, Conservation of Entropy/Bits and the Black Hole Information Puzzle
Douglas Singleton, Elias Vagenas, & Tao Zhu

Essay Abstract
John Wheeler coined the phrase "it from bit" or "bit from it" in the 1950s. However, much of the interest in the connection between information, i.e. "bits", and physical objects, i.e. "its", stems from the discovery that black holes have characteristics of thermodynamic systems having entropies and temperatures. This insight led to the information loss problem: what happens to the "bits" when the black hole has evaporated away due to the energy loss from Hawking radiation? In this essay we speculate on a conservative answer to this question using the assumption of self-similarity of quantum correction to the gravitational action and the requirement that the quantum corrected entropy be well behaved in the limit when the black hole mass goes to zero.

Author Bios
Douglas Singleton is a professor at California State University Fresno and currently on a leave at ITB in Bandung, Indonesia. Elias Vagenas is a professor at Research Center for Astronomy and Applied Mathematics, Academy of Athens. In Sept. 2013, he moved to Kuwait University as Associate Professor and joined the Theoretical Physics Group in the Department of Physics. Tao Zhu is a post-doc at Baylor University, and holds a position at the Institute for Advanced Physics & Mathematics, Zhejiang University of Technology, Hangzhou. All three work in the area of gravitational physics, high energy/particle physics and the interface between the two.

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The Tao of It and Bit
Cristinel Stoica

Essay Abstract
The main mystery of quantum mechanics is contained in Wheeler's delayed choice experiment, which shows that the past is determined by our choice of what quantum property to observe. This gives the observer a participatory role in deciding the past history of the universe. Wheeler extended this participatory role to the emergence of the physical laws (law without law). Since what we know about the universe comes in yes/no answers to our interrogations, this led him to the idea of it from bit (which includes the participatory role of the observer as a key component). The yes/no answers to our observations (bit) should always be compatible with the existence of at least a possible reality _ a global solution (it) of the Schrodinger equation. I argue that there is in fact an interplay between it and bit. The requirement of global consistency leads to apparently acausal and nonlocal behavior, explaining the weirdness of quantum phenomena. As an interpretation of Wheeler's it from bit and law without law, I discuss the possibility that the universe is mathematical, and that there is a "mother of all possible worlds" - named the Zero Axiom.

Author Bio
Cristi Stoica is a PhD student, specialized in differential geometry and mathematical physics. A draft of his PhD thesis, which is about singularities in general relativity, can be downloaded at http://arxiv.org/abs/1301.2231

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Special Commendation Prizes

Is Bit It?
Jennifer Nielsen

Essay Abstract
In his famous "It from Bit" essay, John Wheeler contends that the stuff of the physical universe ("it") arises from information ("bits" - encoded yes or no answers). Wheeler's question and assumptions are re-examined from a post-Aspect experiment perspective. Information is examined and discussed in terms of classical information and "quanglement" (nonlocal state sharing). An argument is made that the universe may arise from (or together with) quanglement but not via classical yes/no information coding.

Author Bio
Jennifer Nielsen is a PhD student in physics at the University of Kansas. She has a broad base of research experience including work in galaxy evolution, quantum optics and protein crystallization. She enjoys applied probability (poker), art, and amusing herself wondering (with obvious futility) what it would be like to ride around on an electron.

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Bit: From Breaking Symmetry of It
Xiong Wang

Essay Abstract
It from bit or bit from it? These two point of views can not clearly judged only until we truly understand what is information, what's the essential physical definition of information. What is information? What is its relation to "Reality"? To understand all these, we can gain a lot from the history of energy. Energy is also a very subtle concept and we have spend hundreds or thousands of years to understand its physic origin. Finally, we understand that energy is kind of symmetry, is a consequence of the fact that the laws of physics do not change over time. We argue that the essential of information is also related to symmetry, actually its antithesis symmetry breaking. While symmetry is kind of redundancy which means loss of information, breaking of symmetry gives rise to information. In conclusion, Bit is from Breaking symmetry of it.

Author Bio
Wang Xiong has obtained his B.Sc. majoring in math from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China. Currently, he is a research student at City University Hong Kong at the Centre for Chaos and Complex Networks. From undergraduate time, he continues an independent solitary quest for a unified foundation for mathematics and physics.

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