Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The State Machine

Dorky engineer joke of the day (from a cartoon on a co-worker's office door):
  • Person: Make me a sandwich.
  • Other Person: What? Make it yourself.
  • Person: sudo Make me a sandwich.
  • Other Person: Okay.
One more thing I wanted to call out from the post on String Theory a couple of weeks ago was another upshot of the existence of Planck's Constant: the existence of a smallest measurable unit of time. This means if you are, say, tracking the path of a photon (which I myself was doing just the other day), the best you'll ever be able to do is take a series of "snapshots" of the movement of that photon (to say nothing of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which implies that you won't be able to get an accurate position without upsetting the velocity). I previously argued that for quantities theoretically smaller than those derived from Planck's constant, there is no reality--at least not as we understand it. If I were to look at the snapshots, I could try to infer to motion that was taking place "in between" each snapshot--I could see the particle in one place in one picture and in another place in the next. But the Heisenberg Principle implies that I'd never be able to know for sure, and the 20th century interpretation of this is that there simply isn't an answer. The particle may as well have teleported from one place to the next.

(L., who has not followed a single thing I have written so far, has just keyed in to the word "teleported." She is very interested in somebody inventing teleportation).

So does this mean that we're actually living in a universe constructed like an early-80's version of Flight Simulator? Are we experiencing a reality in which a few instants of processor time are taken to render each frame, with each frame only slightly different from the last? Is it only the (seemingly trivial!) fact that these instants go by about a billion-trillion-trillion times too quickly for us to detect that makes us believe that we're experiencing reality as a continuous stream of events rather than a series of pictures?

To further abuse the computer metaphor, the universe seems an awful lot like it has a maximum processor speed--it has an absolute upper limit (the speed of light) at which information can be delivered, and it seems to have an absolute lower limit on its resolution. I don't know if this is a particularly good metaphor, though, or if it is, what it might signify.

Next: Nobody understood the Flight Simulator reference, did they?


dan said...

I didn't understand the flight simulator reference, sorry. However, just recently it was reported that a breakthrough was made in teleportation: "October 23 - Physicists in Denmark successfully teleported quantum information over the distance of a half meter. The teleportation involved the movement of information through a light beam onto a collection of atoms.

While previous experiments in quantum teleportation were limited to using either light or matter, this experiment achieved teleportation using both, marking an advance in the field of quantum information processing toward the goal of transmitting and processing information in a way never before possible. In the future, this method of transmitting information may allow for absolutely secure communications because the information could not be intercepted while it is being sent."

I don't know what that means, either, but I hope it leads to the end of being stuck in traffic as we know it!

Sam said...

Dude: I totally understood the Flight Simulator reference, but it's even better than that - I GOT the dorky engineer joke. Oh no, wait, that's not better, because that means I'm *that* dorky even though I can't do anything. Oh well.

Rebecca said...

Completely on board with the flight simulator reference. Having an early adopter engineer father who wanted to learn to fly helped with that one, I will also say.

And I think it's right. It's much as Richard Powers describes in the comments I wrote on his Plowing the Dark: you can tell simulation from reality because reality has all of that smooth scrolling. The key: they aren't really all that different, it's just processor power.

So. Y'all beaming over for dinner tonight or what?

Transient Gadfly said...

bitch, i totally followed all of paragraph one. we've met. i lost you though on paragraph two because i have no idea what flight simulator is, and i was going to follow the link, but it says "microsoft" in the URL, and since you know how i feel about microsoft, you'll just have to explain it to me later. as to dan's helpful little article there, are physicists really trying to teleport INFORMATION? we don't need that. that's why we have email. we need to teleport people. and soon. do the physicists not love anyone who lives far away? do they have no commutes? are they such huge dorks that they never leave their houses or had interpersonal relations so they don't realize what we really need teleportation to do? because, as you kids have so aptly proven, you are all big dorks. and you need teleportation. come on!

Transient Gadfly said...

Flight Simulator in the 80's had, for the time, rather elaborately rendered 3-d graphics of terrain and such, but the processing power of, say, the Apple IIc that it ran on was such that it couldn't support proper animation. So it would render a screen (of your plane flying over terrain somewhere), and then a couple of seconds would go by, and then it would redraw the entire screen with your plane having moved. So maybe you decided to do a barrel roll in those two seconds and yanked the joystick to the left--in the last screen you were flying, and now suddenly your plane is tilted 90 degrees and you didn't ever get to see what happened in between.

Anyway, to paraphrase Rebecca: all reality is virtual.

dan said...

Maybe those holed-up, dorky engineers know something that we don't: that people are information.