Hello all. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on this blog. My life has been in flux of late, as I’ve been moving to Princeton, NJ, changing jobs, and having a baby all at the same time. Now that things are starting to settle, it should be a lot easier for me to find time to write.
With that in mind, here’s my take on a recent article that people forwarded to me a while back during my break–the result from Silas Beane at the university of Bonn that claims to have something to say on the subject of the simulated universe. The arxiv blog, as usual, as a good write up.
The gist of the research is this: if the universe is running in a simulation on a cubic lattice, in much the way that current quantum chromodynamics simulations are calculated, then there should be experimentally observable consequences. Beane and his team identify two: the anisotropic distribution of cosmic rays (different amounts of rays in different directions), and a cut-off in the energy of cosmic ray particles. This article generated some excitement because the cut-off matches a phenomenon that’s already been observed.
A great moment for digital physics, right? I’m not convinced. I have a few concerns about this work. For starters, as I have discussed on this blog, there are a huge number of ways of building discrete universe models, of which a 3D lattice is only one. That simulation style has significant limitations, which, while not insurmountable, certainly make it a tough fit for a huge number of observed physical effects, such as relativity and spatial expansion.
Furthermore, in order to make their predictions, Beane and his associates simulated at a tiny scale. This is convenient because you only have to consider a single reference frame, and can treat space as a static backdrop for events. In other words, it’s pretty clear that the main problems with regular lattice simulations are things that their research didn’t touch.
I would find it astonishing, therefore, if we discovered the predicted cosmic ray anisotropy. And this brings me on to my second major concern. People, upon finding no irregularity in the cosmic ray distribution, are then likely to think, “gosh, well the universe was isotropic after all, I guess we’re not in a simulation.”
Except, let’s recall, experiments have already seen the expected energetic cut-off. In other words, the cosmic ray observations we see are perfectly consistent with a universe that’s discrete, but also isotropic. In other words, irregular, like a network. This, perhaps, shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Then, there is my third concern, and this reflects the interpretation imposed on this result. Namely, that a universe that turns out to run on an algorithm must somehow be a simulation running on a computer elsewhere. This, as I’ve also mentioned in previous posts, is just plain wrong.
Algorithms, like equations, are tools we use to build models. One does not have primacy over the other. One is not more natural than the other. A universe that turns out to be algorithmic no more requires a computer to run on than a universe based on differential equations needs a system of valves. The one main difference between algorithms and equations is that you can describe a vastly larger set of systems with algorithms. Equations are nice because, once you’ve figured them out, you can do lots of nifty reasoning. However, the number of possible systems that are amenable to this treatment is vanishingly small, compared to the systems that are not.
Most physicists want the universe to turn out to be completely describable with equations, because it would make life a lot easier for everyone. It’s a nice thing to hope for. It’s just that given the set of options available, it’s not terribly likely.