Sunday, February 04, 2007

Wired explores what we don't know

Is the universe actually made of information? I am taking the intro to this sub-section of Wired Magazine's wonderful section this month called "What we don't know" - check it out.

Humans have talked about atoms since the time of the ancients, and ever-smaller fundamental particles of matter followed. But no one even conceived of bits until the middle of the 20th century. The bit is a fundamental particle, too, but of different stuff altogether: information.

It is not just tiny, it is abstract - a flip-flop, a yes-or-no. Now that scientists are finally starting to understand information, they wonder whether it’s more fundamental than matter itself.

Perhaps the bit is the irreducible kernel of existence; if so, we have entered the information age in more ways than one.

Wired says the quantum pioneer John Archibald Wheeler, perhaps the last surviving collaborator of both Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, poses this conundrum in oracular monosyllables: “It from bit.”

For Wheeler, it is both an unanswered question and a working hypothesis, the idea that information gives rise, as he writes, to “every it - every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself.”

This is another way of fathoming the role of the observer, the quantum discovery that the outcome of an experiment is affected, or even determined, when it is observed. “What we call reality,” Wheeler writes coyly, “arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions.” He adds, “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this is a participatory universe.”