While we were hiding at home from a deadly virus and grieving for our damaged country and way of life, something wonderful happened. It took just 115 years from the publication of Einstein’s 1905 proof that atoms existed for us to get to the discovery of a computer-based technique from which the equations of Einstein emerged. We’ll be talking through some physics here, but the majority of the content can and indeed should be found in Wolfram’s original paper, here. I’m going to confess this up front: I believe Wolfram is onto something unique and significant here, with his Wolfram Physics Project.
As a philosopher, I enjoy a tremendous amount of leeway and am able to bounce from neuroscience to philosophy and anthropology of language and then on to quantum chemistry and biophysics without most people really even batting an eye. I just kind of get to be weird. I’ve written everything from books and articles to patents and whitepapers, and I’ve done everything from peer-reviewed research to reviewing my peers’ work to yes, I’m being serious, buying a pig farm and overseeing an attempt to develop a drug. Life is wild, sometimes.
But, and I mean this sincerely, few things inspire as much astonishment in me as the Wolfram paper I read the other night. Friends argue that Wolfram hasn’t done anything that revolutionary, and I absolutely cede them that point — and so does he. The truly exciting component of the machine Dr. Wolfram has built isn’t that it has already solved the universe. No, that will undoubtedly take much more time. Instead, what excites me, at least, is that this scientist who has spent decades building computer programs capable of doing all the advanced mathematics needed to partake in theoretical physics has finally made all of his work available open source to the public.
When I was younger, I used to tune and race cars. What does that have to do with theoretical physics, you ask? Hang on, you’ll see.
We used to take apart the air intake systems and modify the exhaust systems. Some of us took it steps and steps further — OBDII ports enabled us to buy computer programs that allowed us to “hack in” to the CPU and reprogram things such as volumetric efficiency tables.
My last build on my 2000 Trans Am involved a host of rather astonishing characteristics, including the removal of the Mass Airflow Sensor, which enabled me to run the car in Speed Density Mode. Now, Mass Airflow Sensors are still a core component of gasoline engines, but Direct Injection and adjustable exhaust systems are direct descendants of the tuner universe brought into production vehicles during the current golden age of gasoline engines.
So the big, significant development I see happening here is the same sort of thing — a lot of people will be able to play with Dr. Wolfram’s tools. Some will do things that end up not working out, like my choice to play with Speed Density Mode. But others… other innovations that the community comes up with will be significant. The creative power of a large group of open minds which have little or no formal training is substantial.
Beyond this, which I admit is not a fundamental discovery in the realm of physics in and of itself, there seem to be a handful of very promising concepts coming out of Dr. Wolfram’s work which I’ll try to explain in the next couple of sections.
Innovation 1: Explaining Temporal Variance In A Way That Makes Sense
Matter and energy could both be emergent properties of space. When I first read through this paper, I became enraptured with the impression I was getting here. I read around these subjects quite a bit during my science days, when I was trying to figure out how colloids worked and why.
It turned out, there was still a substantial amount of unsolved territory there, and that was a problem for me because I wasn’t a physicist. I just wanted to find the answers and apply them to something else — I was neither qualified nor particularly willing or able to go out and figure these things out myself, despite having access to kickass technology like a ZetaSizer Nano. So I left the company and started knocking out my prerequisites for medical school. But I haven’t lost my affection for the brilliancies of Richard Feynman or David Deutsch or Scott Aaronson or Carlo Rovelli, who may be the best communicator in physics today.
Imagine my surprise, as a layperson, when for the first time I discovered the strange concepts of Loop Quantum Gravity in Rovelli’s books. I’ve tried and tried to wrap my head around the ideas that everything could be comprised of strings, or that there are 11 or more dimensions in reality. None of this effort yielded much success.
Still, Rovelli’s discussion of local time brought me back to a concept I’d first encountered when I was working on my first major book, Formal Dialectics, and reading a lot about a mathematician and logician who was friends with Einstein named Kurt Gödel. Time didn’t have to be universal, Rovelli said, echoing Gödel and Einstein.
Wolfram’s work seems to agree — and what’s more, it builds the concept into something a bit more sensible somehow. If I told you that, on Alpha Centauri’s surface, time moved x amount faster or slower, you probably wouldn’t care that much. But if I was to explain that time moved differently for you, depending upon the speed you were traveling at, and could show you a picture that explained the frame-of-reference issue this caused… it might connect more effectively.
This is, for me at least, one of the most interesting conclusions we’ve reached about our physical universe. And to be sure, the most exciting thing about it is that we now understand it well enough to communicate about it simply. For Wolfram, there are many paths time can take and many different histories which can be given to explain events. And thus, shockingly simply, the old question about the dual slit experiment — is light a particle, or a wave? — is resolved before our very eyes.
Or at least it could be. Think about it. If we assume that light is a wave, an oscillating property of space, then it makes perfect sense that speeds faster than light are impossible. It also makes perfect sense to conclude that, from the standpoint of a person sitting on the surface of the earth, forty years could go by as a person traveling significantly near the speed of light somewhere else experiences only a year or two.
What Wolfram’s models make possible is to hypothesize that both chains of events with their different temporal fluctuation rates could still be part of the same general system of universal time — “…in effect, to an observer embedded in the system, there is still just a single thread of time.” And hence the resolution to the particle/wave duality question, which is really a question about which description we prefer, we are near something like a resolution.
Innovation 2: Causal Invariance
Wolfram has developed a system which uses causal graphing to map out the interactions of rules as they are applied more and more. And he’s noticed that, for some rules, things can get incredibly complex before yielding the same result as it yields in each other iteration. What this means, essentially, is that there are some rules which can be applied in different orders to achieve the same result. Imagine if you saw a math problem on a test back in school and it didn’t matter what order the steps were done in. No more PEMDAS!
Seriously, though, the time problem relates deeply to the causal invariance issue in that time is free, under causal invariance, to speed up or slow down as necessary. Time travel is still probably impossible, because what we really mean when we say time travel is travel against the grain of causality — think about it, if you want to move back in time you’re wishing to cause an event to occur which will undo some portion of the universe’s events, not simply transport yourself somewhere to meet your grandfather when he was your age and see what he was like. No, the only way to manipulate the causal arrow of time is to speed it up or slow it down — it will always move the same direction, we think.
To me, the most significant advancement represented by Wolfram’s writings has to do with the ease with which we can discuss these things now. Causal invariance as a demonstrable property of emergent systems is one thing; showing a graph which, with a simple change in perspective, explains the events in terms anyone can understand, is substantial. The field stays the same, but the path you walk is slightly different.
Due to causal invariance, the end result is the same — whether your time changed, or whether you took a zillion different paths to reach the goal you were walking toward all along without knowing it, as the photon in the dual slit experiment does.
The Goal: More Minds, Faster Progress, More Effective Communication
I actually volunteered to help present the Dual Slit Experiment as a simulation during South By Southwest back in 2018 with the Institute for Quantum Computing and the University of Waterloo. The simulation let you fire one photon or multiple photons through one slit or multiple slits, registering simulated hits against a simulated detector in the back. When people asked how it worked, I explained that the two slits caused the light waves passing through the two slits to interfere with one another. This interference was what produced the various bands of light and darkness that showed up on the screen, as the photon seemed to take every available path to the detector it was being shone at.
Most people just sort of nodded and walked away at that point, enchanted but rather mystified. The collapse of the system into the apparent particle form upon the addition of a detector to determine which slit a given photon traveled through, weirdly, seems to be explained by the causal invariance principle Wolfram has contributed here. When one makes the system more complex, one reduces the number of viable paths for the photon to take, and thus the photon takes a more predictable route. To detect the photon, we have to interact with it one way or another, and this interaction is a source of complexity which is then added to the system.
If this isn’t as simple to you as it seems to me, don’t worry. I’m sure I could have done a better job explaining it if I understood it better myself. I’m just trying to give a gloss on a few impressions of what’s significant here so that people can learn about this exciting new project and perhaps make a decision to go ahead and get involved with it.
There’ll be plenty of time to catch up, and, if Wolfram’s project is successful, a ton of great analogies will help us become more familiar with these concepts in the future. The goal of this short paper isn’t to make everyone an expert physicist, but to explain why the machinery that just appeared may be able to put a larger number of human beings into direct contact with the core problems of physics than ever before.
The curvature of space, the properties of black holes, and the ability of humanity to begin to become able to understand the strange universe within which we find ourselves all hinge upon our ability to communicate about it and to simulate our ideas to play around with it, so to speak.
This piece was originally published in 2020, on Medium.com.