February 8, 2012
The Lyrical Core of Man: Bits and Bells
From Sergio Bertolucci in yesterday's CERN press release: “Our Standard Model Higgs analysis with data collected so far leaves us in a very exciting position for 2012. With the data we collect this year, we will definitely be able to confirm or rule out a Standard Model Higgs.”
A bold statement ("definitely"!)--and indicative of how strong the December ATLAS/CMS results are. Clarifying whether the Higgs exists, and whether it's the Standard Model version, are two vastly different things, but it's still a huge endorsement for the LHC (and, hopefully, for string theory). 96% of the universe remains unexplained by the Standard Model, so results that don't point past it will be disappointing but still a coup for the collider. ATLAS won't even run at full speed until 2015, so there is a lot of good particle smashing ahead.
And speaking of the 96%, all kinds of tantalizing theories have emerged to explain it. Einstein's much-maligned "cosmological constant" theory has rebounded among some physicists, hinting at reconciliation between cosmology and quantum mechanics, and supersymmetry remains the holy grail of theorists. Plus: Craig Hogan, a physicist at the University of Chicago and director of the Fermilab Particle Astrophysics Center, has proposed that space is actually composed of discrete bits of information, not a continuous field; in other words, that the universe is digital! This might sound radical, but it dovetails nicely with what recent theories have predicted about black holes and holograms (both of which rely on the existence of digital information in space to make any sense).
[An aside: NOVA is back on PBS, and it's pretty awesome (if you can stand a few terribly animated interludes). Brian Greene, science hero to the masses, is as engaging as ever and talks through some really tricky stuff.]
But back to digital space, and information theory, which Claude Shannon developed at Bell Labs in 1948. Information theory, in tandem with the transistor, another Bell invention, completely revolutionized electronics and communications and provided a conceptual space within which brilliant thinkers from all disciplines found purchase--most recently, quantum computing, the new frontier of super-fast data computation using QM phenomena like entanglement and superposition. (Check out The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner for more on the interdisciplinary wonderland that was Bell Labs. Full discolsure: my dad worked at Bell in the late '60s!)
Ontologically, conceptualizing human existence within information theory is intimidatingly abstract: how can we reconcile our perception of reality as 1s and 0s? Do photon packets carry digital information, and can we harness or control it? How does this trouble the disctinction between human and nonhuman? And my favorite question: can information theory explain our relationship to consciousness? I could think about this all day.
Death, too, is complicated when the corporeal is deemphasized. In The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault writes that, once death is understood as one of many manifestations of life, “death left its old tragic heaven and became the lyrical core of man: his invisible truth, his visible secret.” If the brain is just a highly sensitive piece of receiving technology interpreting billions and billions of bits--themselves reverberations of subatomic loops--and converting them into emotion and intellect, the "invisible truth" reveals itself: what we think of as spiritual life is transient and unaffected by the death of bodies. The lyrical core of man is an eternity of vibrating strings.