Not just the same, they really are one thing.

The least-written about of the bizarre, counter-intuitive features of quantum mechanics is the treatment of indistinguishable particles.  It goes to the heart of (one way) in which quantum reality is different from the everyday reality we deduce from our senses.

To a high degree of approximation, at temperatures we’re acclimated to, the nucleus of an atom has a distinct existence that continues over days and weeks and thousands of years.  But this is not true of electrons.

One way to think about it: Electrons are constantly swapping identities with one another.  Another way: at any given point in space and time, there is a probability of an instance of electron stuff popping out of a probability sea and appearing, but there is no meaning attached to “which electron” it is. A third way: there is only one electron in all the universe, and it travels forward and backward in time*, appearing in different circumstances as though it were a different electron.

The equations of Newton predict the motion of individual particles, but not so the equation of Schrödinger; quantum mechanical equations are about a configuration—think of it as a gestalt, or an entire situation.  The Schrödinger equation tells how one gestalt might evolve into another, and each gestalt contains a field of probabilities that an electrons will appear at any given place and time.  But the Schrödinger equation says nothing about which electron it is that appears; in fact, it takes explicit account of the fact that all the “different” electrons might be swapping their identities.

Physicists are divided concerning how to think about quantum reality.  Most take the pragmatic approach and use QM to calculate the result of experiments, but don’t try to draw metaphysical inferences.  But other physicists argue passionately about what the equations are trying to tell us about reality.

For me, QM is one gateway to mysticism. What is clear is that the solid reality that logical positivists and reductionist science take for reality is not reality at all, but an illusion.  If we have intimations of connectedness and of larger blueprints that infuse meaning into isolated events, then quantum reality gives support and encouragement for taking them seriously, even for deepening and expanding our inborn beliefs.

(For those interested in thinking more along these directions, I recommend Nick Herbert’s book.)


*When it travels back in time, it appears to us as a positron, another name for an anti-electron.



Communal bacteria

Bacteria have an inaccurate public image as isolated cells twiddling about on microscope slides. The more that scientists learn about bacteria, however, the more they see that this hermitlike reputation is deeply misleading, like trying to understand human behavior without referring to cities, laws or speech. “People were treating bacteria as … solitary organisms that live by themselves,” said Gürol Süel, a biophysicist at the University of California, San Diego. “In fact, most bacteria in nature appear to reside in very dense communities.”

The preferred form of community for bacteria seems to be the biofilm. On teeth, on pipes, on rocks and in the ocean, microbes glom together by the billions and build sticky organic superstructures around themselves. In these films, bacteria can divide labor: Exterior cells may fend off threats, while interior cells produce food. And like humans, who have succeeded in large part by cooperating with each other, bacteria thrive in communities. Antibiotics that easily dispatch free-swimming cells often prove useless against the same types of cells when they’ve hunkered down in a film.

As in all communities, cohabiting bacteria need ways to exchange messages. Biologists have known for decades that bacteria can use chemical cues to coordinate their behavior. The best-known example, elucidated by Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University and others, is quorum sensing, a process by which bacteria extrude signaling molecules until a high enough concentration triggers cells to form a biofilm or initiate some other collective behavior.

But Süel and other scientists are now finding that bacteria in biofilms can also talk to one another electrically. Biofilms appear to use electrically charged particles to organize and synchronize activities across large expanses. This electrical exchange has proved so powerful that biofilms even use it to recruit new bacteria from their surroundings, and to negotiate with neighboring biofilms for their mutual well-being.

This Quanta article describes waves of ion release traveling through biofilms, as through neurons.  The mechanisms of biofilms and brains are so close that it seems likely that biofilms were the fore-runners of brains, perhaps billions of years earlier.abundant-food-biofilms

Health is a communist

We live in the most pathologically individualistic culture in human history, and of course it has health consequences. People are looking for a pill that will make them feel better and live longer when the answer could be as close as knocking on a neighbor’s door…

But of course it’s not so simple. To dance, to integrate meaningful ritual in our daily lives, to feel part of a tightly interdependent community that gives our lives meaning and that won’t let us down when we’re down…these are wonderful boons, but there are deep taboos standing in the way of anyone who pursues them. We are going to have to take risks, come together, turn our culture around.

Science Blog article

Fate, teleology, and retrocausality

The Greeks believed in destiny.  Most human cultures have a feeling that the world moves the way it does because it is tending toward how it was meant to be.  We have intuitions about what is a fitting end.

If you write in a biology journal about evolution tending toward a higher state of fitness, your paper will be redlined with an accusation of teleology.  “Don’t you know that evolution is blind to the future, and can only select from random variations on the past state?  It’s basic physics, Stupid.”

But you can write in a physics journal about retrocausality as a necessary feature of quantum mechanics, to be avoided only by accepting pictures of reality that disagree yet more wildly with our intuitions–for example, the idea that there is no objective physical reality, or that experimenters do not have free choice in designing their experiments.

In their philosophizing, neither physicists nor biologists are inclined to consider real experimental evidence for retrocausality.  Maybe in 3 billion years of evolution, cells have learned to use quantum mechanics in ways that scientists in 100 years haven’t yet discovered.

‘Spectacular’ drop in renewable energy costs leads to record global boost

For the first time last year, new solar installations were greater than any other electricity-producing technology.  With prices for solar falling and all other energy sources rising, this makes it easy to predict the future direction of world energy.

“Renewables are quite simply the cheapest way to generate energy in an ever-growing number of countries.”

From The Guardian

Renewable energy capacity around the world was boosted by a record amount in 2016 and delivered at a markedly lower cost, according to new global data – although the total financial investment in renewables actually fell. Plummeting prices for solar and wind power … led to new power deals in countries including Denmark, Egypt, India, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates all being priced well below fossil fuel or nuclear options. The new renewable energy capacity installed worldwide in 2016 was 161GW, a 10% rise on 2015 and a new record, according to REN21, a network of public and private sector groups covering 155 nations and 96% of the world’s population. New solar power provided the biggest boost – half of all new capacity – followed by wind power at a third and hydropower at 15%. Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the Paris agreement and is now convenor of Mission 2020, said: “The economic case for renewables as the backbone of our global energy system is increasingly clear and proven. Offering ever greater bang-for-buck, renewables are quite simply the cheapest way to generate energy in an ever-growing number of countries.”

Panpsychism Proved

Met with stony silence.

“There’s a new way for me to find out what you’re thinking,” said Shirley, sitting down opposite her co-worker Rick in the lab’s sunny cafeteria. She looked very excited, very pleased with herself.

“You’ve hired a private eye?” said Rick. “I promise, Shirley, we’ll get together for something one of these days. I’ve been busy, is all.” He seemed uncomfortable at being cornered by her.

“I’ve invented a new technology,” said Shirley. “The mindlink. We can directly experience each other’s thoughts. Let’s do it now.”

“Ah, but then you’d know way too much about me,” said Rick, not wanting the conversation to turn serious. “A guy like me, I’m better off as a mystery man.”

“The real mystery is why you aren’t laid off,” said Shirley tartly. “You need friends like me, Rick. And I’m dead serious about the mindlink. I do it with a special quantum jiggly-doo. There will be so many applications.”

“Like a way to find out what my boss thinks he asked me to do?”

Panpsychism proved

“Communication, yes. The mindlink will be too expensive to replace the cell phone — at least for now — but it opens up the possibility of reaching the inarticulate, the mentally ill and, yeah, your boss. Emotions in a quandary? Let the mindlink techs debug you!”

“So now I’m curious,” said Rick. “Let’s see the quantum jiggly-doo.”

Shirley held up two glassine envelopes, each holding a tiny pinch of black powder. “I have some friends over in the heavy hardware division, and they’ve been giving me microgram quantities of entangled pairs of carbon atoms. Each atom in this envelope of mindlink dust is entangled with an atom in this other one. The atom pairs’ information is coherent but locally inaccessible — until the atoms get entangled with observer systems.”

“And if you and I are the observers, that puts our minds in synch, huh?” said Rick. “Do you plan to snort your black dust off the cafeteria table or what?”

“Putting it on your tongue is fine,” said Shirley, sliding one of the envelopes across the tabletop.

“You’ve tested it before?”

“First I gave it to a couple of monkeys. Bonzo watched me hiding a banana behind a door while Queenie was gone, and then I gave the dust to Bonzo and Queenie, and Queenie knew right away where the banana was.

“I tried it with a catatonic person too. She and I swallowed mindlink dust together and I was able to single out the specific thought patterns tormenting her. I walked her through the steps in slow motion. It really helped her.”

“You were able to get medical approval for that?” said Rick, looking dubious.

“No, I just did it. I hate red tape. And now it’s time for a peer-to-peer test. With you, Rick. Each of us swallows our mindlink dust and makes notes on what we see in the other’s mind.”

“You’re sure that the dust isn’t toxic?” asked Rick, flicking the envelope with a fingernail.

“It’s only carbon, Rick. In a peculiar kind of quantum state. Come on, it’ll be fun. Our minds will be like websites for each other — we can click links and see what’s in the depths.”

“Like my drunk-driving arrest, my membership in a doomsday cult and the fact that I fall asleep sucking my thumb every night?”

“You’re hiding something behind all those jokes, aren’t you, Rick? Don’t be scared of me. I can protect you. I can bring you along on my meteoric rise to the top.”

Rick studied Shirley for a minute. “Tell you what,” he said finally. “If we’re gonna do a proper test, we shouldn’t be sitting here face to face. People can read so much from each other’s expressions.” He gestured towards the boulder-studded lawn outside the cafeteria doors. “I’ll go sit down where you can’t see me.”

“Good idea,” said Shirley. “And then pour the carbon into your hand and lick it up. It tastes like burnt toast.”

Shirley smiled, watching Rick walk across the cafeteria. He was so cute and nice. If only he’d ask her out. Well, with any luck, while they were linked, she could reach into his mind and implant an obsessive loop centring around her. That was the real reason she’d chosen Rick as her partner for this mindlink session, which was, if the truth be told, her tenth peer-to-peer test.

She dumped the black dust into her hand and licked. Her theory and her tests showed that the mindlink effect always began in the first second after ingestion — there was no need to wait for the body’s metabolism to transport the carbon to the brain. This in itself was a surprising result, indicating that a person’s mind was somehow distributed throughout the body, rather than sealed up inside the skull.

She closed her eyes and reached out for Rick. She’d enchant him and they’d become lovers. But, dammit, the mind at the other end of the link wasn’t Rick’s. No, the mind she’d linked to was inhuman: dense, taciturn, crystalline, serene, beautiful…

“Having fun yet?” It was Rick, standing across the table, not looking all that friendly.

“What…” began Shirley.

“I dumped your powder on a boulder. You’re too weird for me. I gotta go.”

Shirley walked slowly out of the patio doors to look at the friendly grey lump of granite. How nice to know that a rock had a mind. The world was cosier than she’d ever realized. She’d be OK without Rick. She had friends everywhere.

Rudy Rucker, reprinted from Nature journal (2006)