June 5, 2012

A Quantum of Consciousness

If New York is any indicator, science has officially captured the layman's imagination. In the past couple of months, I've been to probably a dozen lectures or readings about the Higgs boson, quantum mechanics, or neuroscience, and all of them have been sold out. Rooms just completely packed with people hanging on every word from Brian Greene's mouth (his keynote at the World Science Festival last weekend was stellar), or enraptured by Matt Strassler's suggestion that music theory can inform quantum physics (it can). I showed up to a talk by the physicist David Hogg that had at least a hundred people who were turned away--including me, who foolishly assumed that I could show up ten minutes prior and still get a seat. The "hard" sciences are experiencing a cultural renaissance, partly thanks to these men (and women) who are willing to engage the public, and perhaps more importantly, to do it online: for anyone with the interest and the time, the Internet hosts a spectrum of informative and engaging non- or semi-technical resources that can be trusted. My facebook feed is cluttered with news about neutrinos and links to simulcasted events from Europe. Influential and prolific bloggers like Sean Carroll and Marcelo Gleiser not only write about their own research and fields, but actively refute other stuff they read that is inaccurate or misleading, an invaluable resource for a humanist with no physics background. Neil deGrasse Tyson blogs about Manhattanhenge and tonight's Venus transit with no agenda but to inspire non-scientists to see the world with the wonder and enthusiasm it deserves.

It's a good time to love science, is what I'm saying.

Take, for example, my favorite of the recent lectures: Paul Davies, Thorsten Ritz, and Seth Lloyd on quantum biology. Three physicists whose work has recently shifted toward this totally new field, new enough that it may only provisionally exist, though they were pretty excited about it. (And hilarious, too; I laughed all through Hockenberry's moderation.) It's a new spin on a unifying theory: quantum mechanics can explain life? Apparently, yes: quantum mechanical actions like entanglement and tunneling may elucidate some semi-understood concepts like bird migration patterns and photosynthesis. Davies said he couldn't be sure if the little evidence that has emerged so far reveals isolated instances where QM plays a role or--more tantalizing--whether these instances are "peaks of a quantum mechanical structure," if life's very distinctiveness is in essence quantum mechanical. This concept needs some unpacking, but I'm not sure I can think of anything more exciting. I'm already formulating half-baked extensions of this theory, especially as it includes consciousness (the last frontier for quantum mechanics, I suspect): what if a quantum of consciousness--a conscino, let's say--means the difference between living and nonliving? Further still, if all matter exists because of quantum mechanics (which is pretty well accepted), this may suggest that our entrenched definitions of "living" and "nonliving" need to be reworked, since anything has the potential to be endowed with quantum conscience. Much like how pre-Copernican scholars believed the earth was the center of the galaxy, maybe the paradigm shift we'll see in our lifetimes will completely re-orient how we locate our minds amid all that surrounds us. It's not a new theory--for aeons, shamans and other "outliers" have incorporated ideas of connectivity and immateriality--but if proposed by the esoteric circles that dictate our operating truths, its profundity will be redefined. And I'll be at my laptop, live-blogging it, because our web of computers is already evidence of the evolving definition of "thinking."

For fun:  Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics by Paul Davies
Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos by Seth Lloyd

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