Here you see three planets. The blue planet is orbiting the Sun in a realistic way: it’s going around an ellipse.
The other two are moving in and out just like the blue planet, so they all stay on the same circle. But they’re moving around this circle at different rates! The green planet is moving faster than the blue one: it completes 3 orbits each time the blue planet goes around once. The red planet isn’t going around at all: it only moves in and out.
What’s going on here?
In 1687, Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica. This book is famous, but in Propositions 43–45 of Book I he did something that people didn’t talk about much—until recently. He figured out what extra force, besides gravity, would make a planet move like one of these weird other planets. It turns out an extra force obeying an inverse cube law will do the job!
Let me make this more precise. We’re only interested in ‘central forces’ here. A central force is one that only pushes a particle towards or away from some chosen point, and only depends on the particle’s distance from that point. In Newton’s theory, gravity is a central force obeying an inverse square law:
for some constant But he considered adding an extra central force obeying an inverse cube law:
He showed that if you do this, for any motion of a particle in the force of gravity you can find a motion of a particle in gravity plus this extra force, where the distance is the same, but the angle is not.
In fact Newton did more. He showed that if we start with any central force, adding an inverse cube force has this effect.
There’s a very long page about this on Wikipedia:
• Newton’s theorem of revolving orbits, Wikipedia.
I haven’t fully understood all of this, but it instantly makes me think of three other things I know about the inverse cube force law, which are probably related. So maybe you can help me figure out the relationship.
The first, and simplest, is this. Suppose we have a particle in a central force. It will move in a plane, so we can use polar coordinates to describe its position. We can describe the force away from the origin as a function Then the radial part of the particle’s motion obeys this equation:
where is the magnitude of particle’s angular momentum.
So, angular momentum acts to provide a ‘fictitious force’ pushing the particle out, which one might call the centrifugal force. And this force obeys an inverse cube force law!
Furthermore, thanks to the formula above, it’s pretty obvious that if you change but also add a precisely compensating inverse cube force, the value of will be unchanged! So, we can set things up so that the particle’s radial motion will be unchanged. But its angular motion will be different, since it has a different angular momentum. This explains Newton’s observation.
It’s often handy to write a central force in terms of a potential:
Then we can make up an extra potential responsible for the centrifugal force, and combine it with the actual potential into a so-called effective potential:
The particle’s radial motion then obeys a simple equation:
For a particle in gravity, where the force obeys an inverse square law and is proportional to the effective potential might look like this:
This is the graph of
If you’re used to particles rolling around in potentials, you can easily see that a particle with not too much energy will move back and forth, never making it to or This corresponds to an elliptical orbit. Give it more energy and the particle can escape to infinity, but it will never hit the origin. The repulsive ‘centrifugal force’ always overwhelms the attraction of gravity near the origin, at least if the angular momentum is nonzero.
On the other hand, suppose we have a particle moving in an attractive inverse cube force! Then the potential is proportional to so the effective potential is
where is negative for an attractive force. If this attractive force is big enough, namely
then this force can exceed the centrifugal force, and the particle can fall in to If we keep track of the angular coordinate we can see what’s really going on. The particle is spiraling in to its doom, hitting the origin in a finite amount of time!
This should remind you of a black hole, and indeed something similar happens there, but even more drastic:
• Schwarzschild geodesics: effective radial potential energy, Wikipedia.
For a nonrotating uncharged black hole, the effective potential has three terms. Like Newtonian gravity it has an attractive term and a repulsive term. But it also has an attractive term term! In other words, it’s as if on top of Newtonian gravity, we had another attractive force obeying an inverse fourth power law! This overwhelms the others at short distances, so if you get too close to a black hole, you spiral in to your doom.
For example, a black hole can have an effective potential like this:
But back to inverse cube force laws! I know two more things about them. A while back I discussed how a particle in an inverse square force can be reinterpreted as a harmonic oscillator:
• Planets in the fourth dimension, Azimuth.
There are many ways to think about this, and apparently the idea in some form goes all the way back to Newton! It involves a sneaky way to take a particle in a potential
and think of it as moving around in the complex plane. Then if you square its position—thought of as a complex number—and cleverly reparametrize time, you get a particle moving in a potential
This amazing trick can be generalized! A particle in a potential
can transformed to a particle in a potential
if
A good description is here:
• Rachel W. Hall and Krešimir Josić, Planetary motion and
the duality of force laws, SIAM Review 42 (2000), 115–124.
This trick transforms particles in potentials with ranging between and to potentials with ranging between and It’s like a see-saw: when is small, is big, and vice versa.
But you’ll notice this trick doesn’t actually work at the case that corresponds to the inverse cube force law. The problem is that in this case, so we can’t find with
So, the inverse cube force is special in three ways: it’s the one that you can add on to any force to get solutions with the same radial motion but different angular motion, it’s the one that naturally describes the ‘centrifugal force’, and it’s the one that doesn’t have a partner! We’ve seen how the first two ways are secretly the same. I don’t know about the third, but I’m hopeful.
Finally, here’s a fourth way in which the inverse cube law is special. This shows up most visibly in quantum mechanics… and this is what got me interested in this business in the first place.
You see, I’m writing a paper called ‘Struggles with the continuum’, which discusses problems in analysis that arise when you try to make some of our favorite theories of physics make sense. The inverse square force law poses interesting problems of this sort, which I plan to discuss. But I started wanting to compare the inverse cube force law, just so people can see things that go wrong in this case, and not take our successes with the inverse square law for granted.
Unfortunately a huge digression on the inverse cube force law would be out of place in that paper. So, I’m offloading some of that material to here.
In quantum mechanics, a particle moving in an inverse cube force law has a Hamiltonian like this:
The first term describes the kinetic energy, while the second describes the potential energy. I’m setting and to remove some clutter that doesn’t really affect the key issues.
To see how strange this Hamiltonian is, let me compare an easier case. If the Hamiltonian
is essentially self-adjoint on which is the space of compactly supported smooth functions on 3d Euclidean space minus the origin. What this means is that first of all, is defined on this domain: it maps functions in this domain to functions in . But more importantly, it means we can uniquely extend from this domain to a self-adjoint operator on some larger domain. In quantum physics, we want our Hamiltonians to be self-adjoint. So, this fact is good.
Proving this fact is fairly hard! It uses something called the Kato–Lax–Milgram–Nelson theorem together with this beautiful inequality:
for any
If you think hard, you can see this inequality is actually a fact about the quantum mechanics of the inverse cube law! It says that if the energy of a quantum particle in the potential is bounded below. And in a sense, this inequality is optimal: if , the energy is not bounded below. This is the quantum version of how a classical particle can spiral in to its doom in an attractive inverse cube law, if it doesn’t have enough angular momentum. But it’s subtly and mysteriously different.
You may wonder how this inequality is used to prove good things about potentials that are ‘less singular’ than the potential: that is, potentials with For that, you have to use some tricks that I don’t want to explain here. I also don’t want to prove this inequality, or explain why its optimal! You can find most of this in some old course notes of mine:
• John Baez, Quantum Theory and Analysis, 1989.
See especially section 15.
But it’s pretty easy to see how this inequality implies things about the expected energy of a quantum particle in the potential . So let’s do that.
In this potential, the expected energy of a state is:
Doing an integration by parts, this gives:
The inequality I showed you says precisely that when this is greater than or equal to zero. So, the expected energy is actually nonnegative in this case! And making greater than only makes the expected energy bigger.
Note that in classical mechanics, the energy of a particle in this potential ceases to be bounded below as soon as Quantum mechanics is different because of the uncertainty principle! To get a lot of negative potential energy, the particle’s wavefunction must be squished near the origin, but that gives it kinetic energy.
It turns out that the Hamiltonian for a quantum particle in an inverse cube force law has exquisitely subtle and tricky behavior. Many people have written about it, running into ‘paradoxes’ when they weren’t careful enough. Only rather recently have things been straightened out.
For starters, the Hamiltonian for this kind of particle
has different behaviors depending on Obviously the force is attractive when and repulsive when but that’s not the only thing that matters! Here’s a summary:
• In this case is essentially self-adjoint on So, it admits a unique self-adjoint extension and there’s no ambiguity about this case.
• In this case is not essentially self-adjoint on In fact, it admits more than one self-adjoint extension! This means that we need extra input from physics to choose the Hamiltonian in this case. It turns out that we need to say what happens when the particle hits the singularity at This is a long and fascinating story that I just learned yesterday.
• In this case the expected energy is bounded below for It turns out that whenever we have a Hamiltonian that is bounded below, even if there is not a unique self-adjoint extension, there exists a canonical ‘best choice’ of self-adjoint extension, called the Friedrichs extension. I explain this in my course notes.
• In this case the expected energy is not bounded below, so we don’t have the Friedrichs extension to help us choose which self-adjoint extension is ‘best’.
To go all the way down this rabbit hole, I recommend these two papers:
• Sarang Gopalakrishnan, Self-Adjointness and the Renormalization of Singular Potentials, B.A. Thesis, Amherst College.
• D. M. Gitman, I. V. Tyutin and B. L. Voronov, Self-adjoint extensions and spectral analysis in Calogero problem.
The first is good for a broad overview of problems associated to singular potentials such as the inverse cube force law; there is attention to mathematical rigor the focus is on physical insight. The second is good if you want—as I wanted—to really get to the bottom of the inverse cube force law in quantum mechanics. Both have lots of references.
Also, both point out a crucial fact I haven’t mentioned yet: in quantum mechanics the inverse cube force law is special because, naively, at least it has a kind of symmetry under rescaling! You can see this from the formula
by noting that both the Laplacian and have units of length^{-2}. So, they both transform in the same way under rescaling: if you take any smooth function , apply and then expand the result by a factor of , you get times what you get if you do those operations in the other order.
In particular, this means that if you have a smooth eigenfunction of with eigenvalue you will also have one with eigenfunction for any And if your original eigenfunction was normalizable, so will be the new one!
With some calculation you can show that when the Hamiltonian has a smooth normalizable eigenfunction with a negative eigenvalue. In fact it’s spherically symmetric, so finding it is not so terribly hard. But this instantly implies that has smooth normalizable eigenfunctions with any negative eigenvalue.
This implies various things, some terrifying. First of all, it means that is not bounded below, at least not on the space of smooth normalizable functions. A similar but more delicate scaling argument shows that it’s also not bounded below on as I claimed earlier.
This is scary but not terrifying: it simply means that when the potential is too strongly negative for the Hamiltonian to be bounded below.
The terrifying part is this: we’re getting uncountably many normalizable eigenfunctions, all with different eigenvalues, one for each choice of A self-adjoint operator on a countable-dimensional Hilbert space like can’t have uncountably many normalizable eigenvectors with different eigenvalues, since then they’d all be orthogonal to each other, and that’s too many orthogonal vectors to fit in a Hilbert space of countable dimension!
This sounds like a paradox, but it’s not. These functions are not all orthogonal, and they’re not all eigenfunctions of a self-adjoint operator. You see, the operator is not self-adjoint on the domain we’ve chosen, the space of all smooth functions in We can carefully choose a domain to get a self-adjoint operator… but it turns out there are many ways to do it.
Intriguingly, in most cases this choice breaks the naive dilation symmetry. So, we’re getting what physicists call an ‘anomaly’: a symmetry of a classical system that fails to give a symmetry of the corresponding quantum system.
Of course, if you’ve made it this far, you probably want to understand what the different choices of Hamiltonian for a particle in an inverse cube force law actually mean, physically. The idea seems to be that they say how the particle changes phase when it hits the singularity at and bounces back out.
(Why does it bounce back out? Well, if it didn’t, time evolution would not be unitary, so it would not be described by a self-adjoint Hamiltonian! We could try to describe the physics of a quantum particle that does not come back out when it hits the singularity, and I believe people have tried, but this requires a different set of mathematical tools.)
For a detailed analysis of this, it seems one should take Schrödinger’s equation and do a separation of variables into the angular part and the radial part:
For each choice of one gets a space of spherical harmonics that one can use for the angular part The interesting part is the radial part, Here it is helpful to make a change of variables
At least naively, Schrödinger’s equation for the particle in the potential then becomes
where
Beware: I keep calling all sorts of different but related Hamiltonians and this one is for the radial part of the dynamics of a quantum particle in an inverse cube force. As we’ve seen before in the classical case, the centrifugal force and the inverse cube force join forces in an ‘effective potential’
where
So, we have reduced the problem to that of a particle on the open half-line moving in the potential The Hamiltonian for this problem:
is called the Calogero Hamiltonian. Needless to say, it has fascinating and somewhat scary properties, since to make it into a bona fide self-adjoint operator, we must make some choice about what happens when the particle hits The formula above does not really specify the Hamiltonian.
This is more or less where Gitman, Tyutin and Voronov begin their analysis, after a long and pleasant review of the problem. They describe all the possible choices of self-adjoint operator that are allowed. The answer depends on the values of but very crudely, the choice says something like how the phase of your particle changes when it bounces off the singularity. Most choices break the dilation invariance of the problem. But intriguingly, some choices retain invariance under a discrete subgroup of dilations!
So, the rabbit hole of the inverse cube force law goes quite deep, and I expect I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom yet. The problem may seem pathological, verging on pointless. But the math is fascinting, and it’s a great testing-ground for ideas in quantum mechanics—very manageable compared to deeper subjects like quantum field theory, which are riddled with their own pathologies. Finally, the connection between the inverse cube force law and centrifugal force makes me think it’s not a mere curiosity.
The animation was made by ‘WillowW’ and placed on Wikicommons. It’s one of a number that appears in this Wikipedia article:
• Newton’s theorem of revolving orbits, Wikipedia.
I made the graphs using the free online Desmos graphing calculator.
Some butterflies have shiny, vividly colored wings. From different angles you see different colors. This effect is called iridescence. How does it work?
It turns out these butterfly wings are made of very fancy materials! Light bounces around inside these materials in a tricky way. Sunlight of different colors winds up reflecting off these materials in different directions.
We’re starting to understand the materials and make similar substances in the lab. They’re called photonic crystals. They have amazing properties.
Here at the Centre for Quantum Technologies we have people studying exotic materials of many kinds. Next door, there’s a lab completely devoted to studying graphene: crystal sheets of carbon in which electrons can move as if they were massless particles! Graphene has a lot of potential for building new technologies—that’s why Singapore is pumping money into researching it.
Some physicists at MIT just showed that one of the materials in butterfly wings might act like a 3d form of graphene. In graphene, electrons can only move easily in 2 directions. In this new material, electrons could move in all 3 directions, acting as if they had no mass.
The pictures here show the microscopic structure of two materials found in butterfly wings:
The picture at left actually shows a sculpture made by the mathematical artist Bathsheba Grossman. But it’s a piece of a gyroid: a surface with a very complicated shape, which repeats forever in 3 directions. It’s called a minimal surface because you can’t shrink its area by tweaking it just a little. It divides space into two regions.
The gyroid was discovered in 1970 by a mathematician, Alan Schoen. It’s a triply periodic minimal surfaces, meaning one that repeats itself in 3 different directions in space, like a crystal.
Schoen was working for NASA, and his idea was to use the gyroid for building ultra-light, super-strong structures. But that didn’t happen. Research doesn’t move in predictable directions.
In 1983, people discovered that in some mixtures of oil and water, the oil naturally forms a gyroid. The sheets of oil try to minimize their area, so it’s not surprising that they form a minimal surface. Something else makes this surface be a gyroid—I’m not sure what.
Butterfly wings are made of a hard material called chitin. Around 2008, people discovered that the chitin in some iridescent butterfly wings is made in a gyroid pattern! The spacing in this pattern is very small, about one wavelength of visible light. This makes light move through this material in a complicated way, which depends on the light’s color and the direction it’s moving.
So: butterflies have naturally evolved a photonic crystal based on a gyroid!
The universe is awesome, but it’s not magic. A mathematical pattern is beautiful if it’s a simple solution to at least one simple problem. This is why beautiful patterns naturally bring themselves into existence: they’re the simplest ways for certain things to happen. Darwinian evolution helps out: it scans through trillions of possibilities and finds solutions to problems. So, we should expect life to be packed with mathematically beautiful patterns… and it is.
The picture at right above shows a ‘double gyroid’. Here it is again:
This is actually two interlocking surfaces, shown in red and blue. You can get them by writing the gyroid as a level surface:
and taking the two nearby surfaces
for some small value of .
It turns out that while they’re still growing, some butterflies have a double gyroid pattern in their wings. This turns into a single gyroid when they grow up!
The new research at MIT studied how an electron would move through a double gyroid pattern. They calculated its dispersion relation: how the speed of the electron would depend on its energy and the direction it’s moving.
An ordinary particle moves faster if it has more energy. But a massless particle, like a photon, moves at the same speed no matter what energy it has. The MIT team showed that an electron in a double gyroid pattern moves at a speed that doesn’t depend much on its energy. So, in some ways this electron acts like a massless particle.
But it’s quite different than a photon. It’s actually more like a neutrino! You see, unlike photons, electrons and neutrinos are spin-1/2 particles. Neutrinos are almost massless. A massless spin-1/2 particle can have a built-in handedness, spinning in only one direction around its axis of motion. Such a particle is called a Weyl spinor. The MIT team showed that a electron moving through a double gyroid acts approximately like a Weyl spinor!
How does this work? Well, the key fact is that the double gyroid has a built-in handedness, or chirality. It comes in a left-handed and right-handed form. You can see the handedness quite clearly in Grossman’s sculpture of the ordinary gyroid:
Beware: nobody has actually made electrons act like Weyl spinors in the lab yet. The MIT team just found a way that should work. Someday someone will actually make it happen, probably in less than a decade. And later, someone will do amazing things with this ability. I don’t know what. Maybe the butterflies know!
For a good introduction to the physics of gyroids, see:
• James A. Dolan, Bodo D. Wilts, Silvia Vignolini, Jeremy J. Baumberg, Ullrich Steiner and Timothy D. Wilkinson, Optical properties of gyroid structured materials: from photonic crystals to metamaterials, Advanced Optical Materials 3 (2015), 12–32.
For some of the history and math of gyroids, see Alan Schoen’s webpage:
• Alan Schoen, Triply-periodic minimal surfaces.
For more on gyroids in butterfly wings, see:
• K. Michielsen and D. G. Stavenga, Gyroid cuticular structures in butterfly wing scales: biological photonic crystals.
• Vinodkumar Saranathana et al, Structure, function, and self-assembly of single network gyroid (I4_{1}32) photonic crystals in butterfly wing scales, PNAS 107 (2010), 11676–11681.
The paper by Michielsen and Stavenga is free online! They say the famous ‘blue Morpho’ butterfly shown in the picture at the top of this article does not use a gyroid; it uses a “two-dimensional photonic crystal slab consisting of arrays of rectangles formed by lamellae and microribs.” But they find gyroids in four other species: Callophrys rubi, Cyanophrys remus, Pardes sesostris and Teinopalpus imperialis. It compares tunnelling electron microscope pictures of slices of their iridescent patches with computer-generated slices of gyroids. The comparison looks pretty good to me:
For the evolution of iridescence, see:
• Melissa G. Meadows et al, Iridescence: views from many angles, J. Roy. Soc. Interface 6 (2009).
For the new research at MIT, see:
• Ling Lu, Liang Fu, John D. Joannopoulos and Marin Soljačić, Weyl points and line nodes in gapless gyroid photonic crystals.
• Ling Lu, Zhiyu Wang, Dexin Ye, Lixin Ran, Liang Fu, John D. Joannopoulos and Marin Soljačić, Experimental observation of Weyl points, Science 349 (2015), 622–624.
Again, the first is free online. There’s a lot of great math lurking inside, most of which is too mind-blowing too explain quickly. Let me just paraphrase the start of the paper, so at least experts can get the idea:
Two-dimensional (2d) electrons and photons at the energies and frequencies of Dirac points exhibit extraordinary features. As the best example, almost all the remarkable properties of graphene are tied to the massless Dirac fermions at its Fermi level. Topologically, Dirac cones are not only the critical points for 2d phase transitions but also the unique surface manifestation of a topologically gapped 3d bulk. In a similar way, it is expected that if a material could be found that exhibits a 3d linear dispersion relation, it would also display a wide range of interesting physics phenomena. The associated 3D linear point degeneracies are called “Weyl points”. In the past year, there have been a few studies of Weyl fermions in electronics. The associated Fermi-arc surface states, quantum Hall effect, novel transport properties and a realization of the Adler–Bell–Jackiw anomaly are also expected. However, no observation of Weyl points has been reported. Here, we present a theoretical discovery and detailed numerical investigation of frequency-isolated Weyl points in perturbed double-gyroid photonic crystals along with their complete phase diagrams and their topologically protected surface states.
Also a bit for the mathematicians:
Weyl points are topologically stable objects in the 3d Brillouin zone: they act as monopoles of Berry flux in momentum space, and hence are intimately related to the topological invariant known as the Chern number. The Chern number can be defined for a single bulk band or a set of bands, where the Chern numbers of the individual bands are summed, on any closed 2d surface in the 3d Brillouin zone. The difference of the Chern numbers defined on two surfaces, of all bands below the Weyl point frequencies, equals the sum of the chiralities of the Weyl points enclosed in between the two surfaces.
This is a mix of topology and physics jargon that may be hard for pure mathematicians to understand, but I’ll be glad to translate if there’s interest.
For starters, a ‘monopole of Berry flux in momentum space’ is a poetic way of talking about a twisted complex line bundle over the space of allowed energy-momenta of the electron in the double gyroid. We get a twist at every ‘Weyl point’, meaning a point where the dispersion relations look locally like those of a Weyl spinor when its energy-momentum is near zero. Near such a point, the dispersion relations are a Fourier-transformed version of the Weyl equation.
Puzzle 1: I write down two different numbers that are completely unknown to you, and hold one in my left hand and one in my right. You have absolutely no idea how I generated these two numbers. Which is larger?
You can point to one of my hands, and I will show you the number in it. Then you can decide to either select the number you have seen or switch to the number you have not seen, held in the other hand. Is there a strategy that will give you a greater than 50% chance of choosing the larger number, no matter which two numbers I write down?
At first it seems the answer is no. Whatever number you see, the other number could be larger or smaller. There’s no way to tell. So obviously you can’t get a better than 50% chance of picking the hand with the largest number—even if you’ve seen one of those numbers!
But “obviously” is not a proof. Sometimes “obvious” things are wrong!
It turns out that, amazingly, the answer to the puzzle is yes! You can find a strategy to do better than 50%. But the strategy uses randomness. So, this puzzle is a great illustration of the power of randomness.
If you want to solve it yourself, stop now or read Quanta magazine for some clues—they offered a small prize for the best answer:
• Pradeep Mutalik, Can information rise from randomness?, Quanta, 7 July 2015.
Greg Egan gave a nice solution in the comments to this magazine article, and I’ll reprint it below along with two followup puzzles. So don’t look down there unless you want a spoiler.
I should add: the most common mistake among educated readers seems to be assuming that the first player, the one who chooses the two numbers, chooses them according to some probability distribution. Don’t assume that. They are simply arbitrary numbers.
I’d seen this puzzle before—do you know who invented it? On G+, Hans Havermann wrote:
I believe the origin of this puzzle goes back to (at least) John Fox and Gerald Marnie’s 1958 betting game ‘Googol’. Martin Gardner mentioned it in his February 1960 column in Scientific American. Wikipedia mentions it under the heading ‘Secretary problem’. Gardner suggested that a variant of the game was proposed by Arthur Cayley in 1875.
Actually the game of Googol is a generalization of the puzzle that we’ve been discussing. Martin Gardner explained it thus:
Ask someone to take as many slips of paper as he pleases, and on each slip write a different positive number. The numbers may range from small fractions of 1 to a number the size of a googol (1 followed by a hundred 0s) or even larger. These slips are turned face down and shuffled over the top of a table. One at a time you turn the slips face up. The aim is to stop turning when you come to the number that you guess to be the largest of the series. You cannot go back and pick a previously turned slip. If you turn over all the slips, then of course you must pick the last one turned.
So, the puzzle I just showed you is the special case when there are just 2 slips of paper. I seem to recall that Gardner incorrectly dismissed this case as trivial!
There’s been a lot of work on Googol. Julien Berestycki writes:
I heard about this puzzle a few years ago from Sasha Gnedin. He has a very nice paper about this
• Alexander V. Gnedin, A solution to the game of Googol, Annals of Probability (1994), 1588–1595.
One of the many beautiful ideas in this paper is that it asks what is the best strategy for the guy who writes the numbers! It also cites a paper by Gnedin and Berezowskyi (of oligarchic fame).
Okay, here is Greg Egan’s solution, paraphrased a bit:
Pick some function such that:
•
•
• is strictly increasing: if then
There are lots of functions like this, for example
Next, pick one of the first player’s hands at random. If the number you are shown is compute Then generate a uniformly distributed random number between 0 and 1. If is less than or equal to guess that is the larger number, but if is greater than guess that the larger number is in the other hand.
The probability of guessing correctly can be calculated as the probability of seeing the larger number initially and then, correctly, sticking with it, plus the probability of seeing the smaller number initially and then, correctly, choosing the other hand.
Say the larger number is and the smaller one is Then the probability of guessing correctly is
This is strictly greater than since so .
So, you have a more than 50% chance of winning! But as you play the game, there’s no way to tell how much more than 50%. If the numbers on the other players hands are very large, or very small, your chance will be just slightly more than 50%.
Here are two more puzzles:
Puzzle 2: Prove that no deterministic strategy can guarantee you have a more than 50% chance of choosing the larger number.
Puzzle 3: There are perfectly specific but ‘algorithmically random’ sequences of bits, which can’t predicted well by any program. If we use these to generate a uniform algorithmically random number between 0 and 1, and use the strategy Egan describes, will our chance of choosing the larger number be more than 50%, or not?
But watch out—here come Egan’s solutions to those!
Egan writes:
Here are my answers to your two puzzles on G+.
Puzzle 2: Prove that no deterministic strategy can guarantee you have a more than 50% chance of choosing the larger number.
Answer: If we adopt a deterministic strategy, that means there is a function that tells us whether on not we stick with the number x when we see it. If we stick with it, if we swap it for the other number.
If the two numbers are and with then the probability of success will be:
This is exactly the same as the formula we obtained when we stuck with with probability but we have specialised to functions valued in
We can only guarantee a more than 50% chance of choosing the larger number if is monotonically increasing everywhere, i.e. whenever But this is impossible for a function valued in To prove this, define to be any number in such that such an must exist, otherwise would be constant on and hence not monotonically increasing. Similarly define to be any number in such that We then have but
Puzzle 3: There are perfectly specific but ‘algorithmically random’ sequences of bits, which can’t predicted well by any program. If we use these to generate a uniform algorithmically random number between 0 and 1, and use the strategy Egan describes, will our chance of choosing the larger number be more than 50%, or not?
Answer: As Philip Gibbs noted, a deterministic pseudo-random number generator is still deterministic. Using a specific sequence of algorithmically random bits
to construct a number between and means takes on the specific value:
So rather than sticking with with probability for our monotonically increasing function we end up always sticking with if and always swapping if This is just using a function as in Puzzle 2, with:
if
if
So all the same consequences as in Puzzle 2 apply, and we cannot guarantee a more than 50% chance of choosing the larger number.
Puzzle 3 emphasizes the huge gulf between ‘true randomness’, where we only have a probability distribution of numbers and the situation where we have a specific number generated by any means whatsoever.
We could generate using a pseudorandom number generator, radioactive decay of atoms, an oracle whose randomness is certified by all the Greek gods, or whatever. No matter how randomly is generated, once we have it, we know there exist choices for the first player that will guarantee our defeat!
This may seem weird at first, but if you think about simple games of luck you’ll see it’s completely ordinary. We can have a more than 50% chance of winning such a game even if for any particular play we make the other player has a move that ensures our defeat. That’s just how randomness works.
What is the most agreed-on figure for our future carbon budget?
My answer:
Asking “what is our future carbon budget?” is a bit like asking how many calories a day you can eat. There’s really no limit on how much you can eat if you don’t care how overweight and unhealthy you become. So, to set a carbon budget, you need to say how much global warming you will accept.
That said, here’s a picture of how we’re burning through our carbon budget:
It says that our civilization has burnt 60% of the carbon we’re allowed to while still having a 50-50 chance of keeping global warming below 2 °C.
This chart appears in the International Energy Agency report World Energy Outlook Special Report 2015, which is free and definitely worth reading.
The orange bars show CO_{2} emissions per year, in gigatonnes. The blue curve shows the fraction of the total carbon budget we have left to burn, based on data from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. The projection of future carbon emissions is based on the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) that governments are currently submitting to the United Nations. So, based on what governments had offered to do by June 2015, we may burn through this carbon budget in 2040.
Our civilization’s total carbon budget for staying below 2 °C was about 1 trillion tonnes. We have now burnt almost 60% of that. You can watch the amount rise as we speak:
Quoting the International Energy Agency report:
The transition away from fossil fuels is gradual in the INDC Scenario, with the share of fossil fuels in the world’s primary energy mix declining from more than 80% today to around three-quarters in 2030 […] The projected path for energy-related emissions in the INDC Scenario means that, based on IPCC estimates, the world’s remaining carbon budget consistent with a 50% chance of keeping a temperature increase of below 2 °C would be exhausted around 2040, adding a grace period of only around eight months, compared to the date at which the budget would be exhausted in the absence of INDCs (Figure 2.3). This date is already within the lifetime of many existing energy sector assets: fossil-fuelled power plants often operate for 30-40 years or more, while existing fossil-fuel resources could, if all developed, sustain production levels far beyond 2040. If energy sector investors believed that not only new investments but also existing fossil-fuel operations would be halted at that critical point, this would have a profound effect on investment even today.
Since we seem likely to go above 2 °C warming over pre-industrial levels, it would be nice to make a similar chart for a carbon budget based on 3 ° C warming. The Trillionth Tonne website projects that with current trends we’ll burn 1.5 trillion tonnes, for a warming of 3 °C in a cautious scenario, by 2056.
But: we would never burn the 1.5 trillionth tonne if emissions dropped by 1.2% per year from now on. And we’d not even burn the trillionth tonne if they dropped by 2.6% per year.
• Workshop on Mathematical Trends in Reaction Network Theory, 1-3 July 2015, Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Copenhagen. Organized by Elisenda Feliu and Carsten Wiuf.
Looking through the abstracts, here are a couple that strike me.
First of all, Gheorghe Craciun claims to have proved the biggest open conjecture in this field: the Global Attractor Conjecture!
• Gheorge Craciun, Toric differential inclusions and a proof of the global attractor conjecture.
This famous old conjecture says that for a certain class of chemical reactions, the ones coming from ‘complex balanced reaction networks’, the chemicals will approach equilibrium no matter what their initial concentrations are. Here’s what Craciun says:
Abstract. In a groundbreaking 1972 paper Fritz Horn and Roy Jackson showed that a complex balanced mass-action system must have a unique locally stable equilibrium within any compatibility class. In 1974 Horn conjectured that this equilibrium is a global attractor, i.e., all solutions in the same compatibility class must converge to this equilibrium. Later, this claim was called the Global Attractor Conjecture, and it was shown that it has remarkable implications for the dynamics of large classes of polynomial and power-law dynamical systems, even if they are not derived from mass-action kinetics. Several special cases of this conjecture have been proved during the last decade. We describe a proof of the conjecture in full generality. In particular, it will follow that all detailed balanced mass action systems and all deficiency zero mass-action systems have the global attractor property. We will also discuss some implications for biochemical mechanisms that implement noise filtering and cellular homeostasis.
Manoj Gopalkrishnan wrote a great post explaining the concept of complex balanced reaction network here on Azimuth, so if you want to understand the conjecture you could start there.
Even better, Manoj is talking here about a way to do statistical inference with chemistry! His talk is called ‘Statistical inference with a chemical soup’:
Abstract. The goal is to design an “intelligent chemical soup” that can do statistical inference. This may have niche technological applications in medicine and biological research, as well as provide fundamental insight into the workings of biochemical reaction pathways. As a first step towards our goal, we describe a scheme that exploits the remarkable mathematical similarity between log-linear models in statistics and chemical reaction networks. We present a simple scheme that encodes the information in a log-linear model as a chemical reaction network. Observed data is encoded as initial concentrations, and the equilibria of the corresponding mass-action system yield the maximum likelihood estimators. The simplicity of our scheme suggests that molecular environments, especially within cells, may be particularly well suited to performing statistical computations.
It’s based on this paper:
• Manoj Gopalkrishnan, A scheme for molecular computation of maximum likelihood estimators for log-linear models.
I’m not sure, but this idea may exploit existing analogies between the approach to equilibrium in chemistry, the approach to equilibrium in evolutionary game theory, and statistical inference. You may have read Marc Harper’s post about that stuff!
David Doty is giving a broader review of ‘Computation by (not about) chemistry’:
Abstract. The model of chemical reaction networks (CRNs) is extensively used throughout the natural sciences as a descriptive language for existing chemicals. If we instead think of CRNs as a programming language for describing artificially engineered chemicals, what sorts of computations are possible for these chemicals to achieve? The answer depends crucially on several formal choices:
1) Do we treat matter as infinitely divisible (real-valued concentrations) or atomic (integer-valued counts)?
2) How do we represent the input and output of the computation (e.g., Boolean presence or absence of species, positive numbers directly represented by counts/concentrations, positive and negative numbers represented indirectly by the difference between counts/concentrations of a pair of species)?
3) Do we assume mass-action rate laws (reaction rates proportional to reactant counts/concentrations) or do we insist the system works correctly under a broader class of rate laws?
The talk will survey several recent results and techniques. A primary goal of the talk is to convey the “programming perspective”: rather than asking “What does chemistry do?”, we want to understand “What could chemistry do?” as well as “What can chemistry provably not do?”
I’m really interested in chemical reaction networks that appear in biological systems, and there will be lots of talks about that. For example, Ovidiu Radulescu will talk about ‘Taming the complexity of biochemical networks through model reduction and tropical geometry’. Model reduction is the process of simplifying complicated models while preserving at least some of their good features. Tropical geometry is a cool version of algebraic geometry that uses the real numbers with minimization as addition and addition as multiplication. This number system underlies the principle of least action, or the principle of maximum energy. Here is Radulescu’s abstract:
Abstract. Biochemical networks are used as models of cellular physiology with diverse applications in biology and medicine. In the absence of objective criteria to detect essential features and prune secondary details, networks generated from data are too big and therefore out of the applicability of many mathematical tools for studying their dynamics and behavior under perturbations. However, under circumstances that we can generically denote by multi-scaleness, large biochemical networks can be approximated by smaller and simpler networks. Model reduction is a way to find these simpler models that can be more easily analyzed. We discuss several model reduction methods for biochemical networks with polynomial or rational rate functions and propose as their common denominator the notion of tropical equilibration, meaning finite intersection of tropical varieties in algebraic geometry. Using tropical methods, one can strongly reduce the number of variables and parameters of biochemical network. For multi-scale networks, these reductions are computed symbolically on orders of magnitude of parameters and variables, and are valid in wide domains of parameter and phase spaces.
I’m talking about the analogy between probabilities and quantum amplitudes, and how this makes chemistry analogous to particle physics. You can see two versions of my talk here, but I’ll be giving the ‘more advanced’ version, which is new:
• Probabilities versus amplitudes.
Abstract. Some ideas from quantum theory are just beginning to percolate back to classical probability theory. For example, the master equation for a chemical reaction network describes the interactions of molecules in a stochastic rather than quantum way. If we look at it from the perspective of quantum theory, this formalism turns out to involve creation and annihilation operators, coherent states and other well-known ideas—but with a few big differences.
Anyway, there are a lot more talks, but if I don’t have breakfast and walk over to the math department, I’ll miss those talks!
You can learn more about individual talks in the comments here (see below) and also in Matteo Polettini’s blog:
• Matteo Polettini, Mathematical trends in reaction network theory: part 1 and part 2, Out of Equilibrium, 1 July 2015.
Today I’m going to this workshop:
• Higher-Dimensional Rewriting and Applications, 28-29 June 2015, Warsaw, Poland.
Many of the talks will be interesting to people who are trying to use category theory as a tool for modelling networks!
For example, though they can’t actually attend, Lucius Meredith and my student Mike Stay hope to use Google Hangouts to present their work on Higher category models of the π-calculus. The π-calculus is a way of modelling networks where messages get sent here and there, e.g. the internet. Check out Mike’s blog post about this:
• Mike Stay, A 2-categorical approach to the pi calculus, The n-Category Café, 26 May 2015.
Krzysztof Bar, Aleks Kissinger and Jamie Vicary will be speaking about Globular, a proof assistant for computations in n-categories:
This talk is a progress report on Globular, an online proof assistant for semistrict higher-dimensional rewriting. We aim to produce a tool which can visualize higher-dimensional categorical diagrams, assist in their construction with a point-and-click interface, perform type checking to prevent incorrect composites, and automatically handle the interchanger data at each dimension. Hosted on the web, it will have a low barrier to use, and allow hyperlinking of formalized proofs directly from research papers. We outline the theoretical basis for the tool, and describe the challenges we have overcome in its design.
Eric Finster will be talking about another computer system for dealing with n-categories, based on the ‘opetopic’ formalism that James Dolan and I invented. And Jason Morton is working on a computer system for computation in compact closed categories! I’ve seen it, and it’s cool, but he can’t attend the workshop, so David Spivak will be speaking on his work with Jason on the theoretical foundations of this software:
We consider the linked problems of (1) finding a normal form for morphism expressions in a closed compact category and (2) the word problem, that is deciding if two morphism expressions are equal up to the axioms of a closed compact category. These are important ingredients for a practical monoidal category computer algebra system. Previous approaches to these problems include rewriting and graph-based methods. Our approach is to re-interpret a morphism expression in terms of an operad, and thereby obtain a single composition which is strictly associative and applied according to the abstract syntax tree. This yields the same final operad morphism regardless of the tree representation of the expression or order of execution, and solves the normal form problem up to automorphism.
Recently Eugenia Cheng has been popularizing category theory, touring to promote her book Cakes, Custard and Category Theory. But she’ll be giving two talks in Warsaw, I believe on distributive laws for Lawvere theories.
As for me, I’ll be promoting my dream of using category theory to understand networks in electrical engineering. I’ll be giving a talk on control theory and a talk on electrical circuits: two sides of the same coin, actually.
• John Baez, Jason Erbele and Nick Woods, Categories in control.
If you’ve seen a previous talk of mine with the same title, don’t despair—this one has new stuff! In particular, it talks about a new paper by Nick Woods and Simon Wadsley.
Abstract. Control theory is the branch of engineering that studies dynamical systems with inputs and outputs, and seeks to stabilize these using feedback. Control theory uses “signal-flow diagrams” to describe processes where real-valued functions of time are added, multiplied by scalars, differentiated and integrated, duplicated and deleted. In fact, these are string diagrams for the symmetric monoidal category of finite-dimensional vector spaces, but where the monoidal structure is direct sum rather than the usual tensor product. Jason Erbele has given a presentation for this symmetric monoidal category, which amounts to saying that it is the PROP for bicommutative bimonoids with some extra structure.
A broader class of signal-flow diagrams also includes “caps” and “cups” to model feedback. This amounts to working with a larger symmetric monoidal category where objects are still finite-dimensional vector spaces but the morphisms are linear relations. Erbele also found a presentation for this larger symmetric monoidal category. It is the PROP for a remarkable thing: roughly speaking, an object with two special commutative dagger-Frobenius structures, such that the multiplication and unit of either one and the comultiplication and counit of the other fit together to form a bimonoid.
• John Baez and Brendan Fong, Circuits, categories and rewrite rules.
Abstract. We describe a category where a morphism is an electrical circuit made of resistors, inductors and capacitors, with marked input and output terminals. In this category we compose morphisms by attaching the outputs of one circuit to the inputs of another. There is a functor called the ‘black box functor’ that takes a circuit, forgets its internal structure, and remembers only its external behavior. Two circuits have the same external behavior if and only if they impose same relation between currents and potentials at their terminals. This is a linear relation, so the black box functor goes from the category of circuits to the category of finite-dimensional vector spaces and linear relations. Constructing this functor makes use of Brendan Fong’s theory of ‘decorated cospans’—and the question of whether two ‘planar’ circuits map to the same relation has an interesting answer in terms of rewrite rules.
The answer to the last question, in the form of a single picture, is this:
(Click to enlarge.) How can you change an electrical circuit made out of resistors without changing what it does? 5 ways are shown here:
You can remove a wire with a resistor on it if one end is unattached. Again, it doesn’t do anything.
You can take two resistors in series—one after the other—and replace them with a single resistor. But this new resistor must have a resistance that’s the sum of the old two.
You can take two resistors in parallel and replace them with a single resistor. But this resistor must have a conductivity that’s the sum of the old two. (Conductivity is the reciprocal of resistance.)
Finally, the really cool part: the Y-Δ transform. You can replace a Y made of 3 resistors by a triangle of resistors But their resistances must be related by the equations shown here.
For circuits drawn on the plane, these are all the rules you need! This was proved here:
• Yves Colin de Verdière, Isidoro Gitler and Dirk Vertigan, Réseaux électriques planaires II.
It’s just the beginning of a cool story, which I haven’t completely blended with the categorical approach to circuits. Doing so clearly calls for 2-categories: those double arrows are 2-morphisms! For more, see:
• Joshua Alman, Carl Lian and Brandon Tran, Circular planar electrical networks I: The electrical poset EP_{n}.
Even the biggest European oil and gas companies are calling for a carbon tax! Their motives, of course, should be suspect. But they have realized it’s hopeless to argue about the basics. They wrote a letter to the United Nations beginning:
Dear Excellencies:
Climate change is a critical challenge for our world. As major companies from the oil & gas sector, we recognize both the importance of the climate challenge and the importance of energy to human life and well-being. We acknowledge that the current trend of greenhouse gas emissions is in excess of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is needed to limit the temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The challenge is how to meet greater energy demand with less CO2. We stand ready to play our part.
It seems there are just a few places, mostly former British colonies, where questioning the reality and importance of man-made global warming is a popular stance among politicians. Unfortunately one of these, the United States, is a big carbon emitter. Otherwise we could just ignore these holdouts.
Given all this, it’s not so surprising that Pope Francis has joined the crowd and released a document on environmental issues:
• Pope Francis, Enyclical letter Laudato Si’: on care for our common home.
Still, it is interesting to read this document, because unlike most reports we read on climate change, it addresses the cultural and spiritual dimensions of this problem.
I believe arguments should be judged by their merits, not the fact that they’re made by someone with an impressive title like
His Holiness Francis, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God.
(Note the hat-tip to Darwin there. )
But in fact Francis has some interesting things to say. And among all the reportage on this issue, it’s hard to find more than quick snippets of the actual 182-page document, which is actually quite interesting. So, let me quote a bit.
I will try to dodge the explicitly Christian bits, because I really don’t want people arguing about religion on this blog—in fact I won’t allow it. Of course discussing what the Pope says without getting into Christianity is very difficult and perhaps even absurd. But let’s try.
I will also skip the extensive section where he summarizes the science. It’s very readable, and for an audience who doesn’t want numbers and graphs it’s excellent. But I figure the audience of this blog already knows that material.
So, here are some of the passages I found most interesting.
He discusses how St. Francis of Assisi has been an example to him, and says:
Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.
[…]
If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
On the responses to ecological problems thus far:
The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations. The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable, otherwise the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice.
It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. The Aparecida Document urges that “the interests of economic groups which irrationally demolish sources of life should not prevail in dealing with natural resources”. The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.
In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.
At the same time we can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.
On the risks:
It is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims.
He writes:
Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.
Moreover, when our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships
with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity”. We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality: “Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism”.
Technoscience, when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life, from useful domestic appliances to great transportation systems, bridges, buildings and public spaces. It can also produce art and enable men and women immersed in the material world to “leap” into the world of beauty. Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper? Valuable works of art and music now make use of new technologies. So, in the beauty intended by the one who uses new technical instruments and in the contemplation of such beauty, a quantum leap occurs, resulting in a fulfilment which is uniquely human.
Yet it must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power. More precisely, they have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used. We need but think of the nuclear bombs dropped in the middle of the twentieth century, or the array of technology which Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes have employed to kill millions of people, to say nothing of the increasingly deadly arsenal of weapons available for modern warfare. In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up? It is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it.
The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.
The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”. Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.
The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. They are less concerned with certain economic theories which today scarcely anybody dares defend, than with their actual operation in the functioning of the economy. They may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds by showing no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough.
Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalized logic. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.
Yet we can once more broaden our vision. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. Or when technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering. Or indeed when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it. An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door. Will the promise last, in spite of everything, with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance?
Near the end he calls the for the development of an ‘integral ecology’. I find it fascinating that this has something in common with ‘network theory’:
Since everything is closely interrelated, and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis, I suggest that we now consider some elements of an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions.
Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop. This necessarily entails reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption. It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet—physical, chemical and biological—are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.
When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.
Due to the number and variety of factors to be taken into account when determining the environmental impact of a concrete undertaking, it is essential to give researchers their due role, to facilitate their interaction, and to ensure broad academic freedom. Ongoing research should also give us a better understanding of how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term “ecosystems”. We take these systems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness.
He concludes by discussing the need for ‘ecological education’.
Environmental education has broadened its goals. Whereas in the beginning it was mainly centred on scientific information, consciousness-raising and the prevention of environmental risks, it tends now to include a critique of the “myths” of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market). It seeks also to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God. Environmental education should facilitate making the leap towards the transcendent which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning. It needs educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care.
Even small good practices can encourage new attitudes:
Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.
We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile.
Part of the goal is to be more closely attentive to what we have, not fooled into thinking we’d always be happier with more:
It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.
Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.
yet keeping warming below 2°C seems ever more difficult:
The big international climate negotiations to be concluded in Paris in December 2015 bring these issues to the forefront in a dramatic way. Countries are already saying what they plan to do: you can read their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions online!
But it’s hard to get an overall picture of the situation. Here’s a new report that helps:
• International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook Special Report 2015: Energy and Climate Change.
Since the International Energy Agency seems intelligent to me, I’ll just quote their executive summary. If you’re too busy for even the executive summary, let me summarize the summary:
Given the actions that countries are now planning, we could have an increase of around 2.6 °C over preindustrial temperature by 2100, and more after that.
A major milestone in efforts to combat climate change is fast approaching. The importance of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) – to be held in Paris in December 2015 – rests not only in its specific achievements by way of new contributions, but also in the direction it sets. There are already some encouraging signs with a historic joint announcement by the United States and China on climate change, and climate pledges for COP21 being submitted by a diverse range of countries and in development in many others. The overall test of success for COP21 will be the conviction it conveys that governments are determined to act to the full extent necessary to achieve the goal they have already set to keep the rise in global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius (°C), relative to pre-industrial levels.
Energy will be at the core of the discussion. Energy production and use account for two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, meaning that the pledges made at COP21 must bring deep cuts in these emissions, while yet sustaining the growth of the world economy, boosting energy security around the world and bringing modern energy to the billions who lack it today. The agreement reached at COP21 must be comprehensive geographically, which means it must be equitable, reflecting both national responsibilities and prevailing circumstances. The importance of the energy component is why this World Energy Outlook Special Report presents detailed energy and climate analysis for the sector and recommends four key pillars on which COP21 can build success.
The use of low-carbon energy sources is expanding rapidly, and there are signs that growth in the global economy and energy-related emissions may be starting to decouple. The global economy grew by around 3% in 2014 but energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions stayed flat, the first time in at least 40 years that such an outcome has occurred outside economic crisis.
Renewables accounted for nearly half of all new power generation capacity in 2014, led by growth in China, the United States, Japan and Germany, with investment remaining strong (at $270 billion) and costs continuing to fall. The energy intensity of the global economy dropped by 2.3% in 2014, more than double the average rate of fall over the last decade, a result stemming from improved energy efficiency and structural changes in some economies, such as China.
Around 11% of global energy-related CO2 emissions arise in areas that operate a carbon market (where the average price is $7 per tonne of CO2), while 13% of energy-related CO2 emissions arise in markets with fossil-fuel consumption subsidies (an incentive equivalent to $115 per tonne of CO2, on average). There are some encouraging signs on both fronts, with reform in sight for the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme and countries including India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand taking the opportunity of lower oil prices to diminish fossil-fuel subsidies, cutting the incentive for wasteful consumption.
Nationally determined pledges are the foundation of COP21. Intended Nationally
Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted by countries in advance of COP21 may vary in scope but will contain, implicitly or explicitly, commitments relating to the energy sector. As of 14 May 2015, countries accounting for 34% of energy-related emissions had submitted their new pledges.
A first assessment of the impact of these INDCs and related policy statements (such as by China) on future energy trends is presented in this report in an “INDC Scenario”. This shows, for example, that the United States’ pledge to cut net greenhouse-gas emissions by 26% to 28% by 2025 (relative to 2005 levels) would deliver a major reduction in emissions while the economy grows by more than one-third over current levels. The European Union’s pledge to cut GHG emissions by at least 40% by 2030 (relative to 1990 levels) would see energy-related CO2 emissions decline at nearly twice the rate achieved since 2000, making it one of the world’s least carbon-intensive energy economies. Russia’s energy-related emissions decline slightly from 2013 to 2030 and it meets its 2030 target comfortably, while implementation of Mexico’s pledge would see its energy-related emissions increase slightly while its economy grows much more rapidly. China has yet to submit its INDC, but has stated an intention to achieve a peak in its CO2 emissions around 2030 (if not earlier), an important change in direction, given the pace at which they have grown on average since 2000.
Growth in global energy-related GHG emissions slows but there is no peak by 2030 in the INDC Scenario. The link between global economic output and energy-related GHG emissions weakens significantly, but is not broken: the economy grows by 88% from 2013 to 2030 and energy-related CO2 emissions by 8% (reaching 34.8 gigatonnes). Renewables become the leading source of electricity by 2030, as average annual investment in nonhydro renewables is 80% higher than levels seen since 2000, but inefficient coal-fired power generation capacity declines only slightly.
With INDCs submitted so far, and the planned energy policies in countries that have yet to submit, the world’s estimated remaining carbon budget consistent with a 50% chance of keeping the rise in temperature below 2 °C is consumed by around 2040—eight months later than is projected in the absence of INDCs. This underlines the need for all countries to submit ambitious INDCs for COP21 and for these INDCs to be recognised as a basis upon which to build stronger future action, including from opportunities for collaborative/co-ordinated action or those enabled by a transfer of resources (such as technology and finance). If stronger action is not forthcoming after 2030, the path in the INDC Scenario would be consistent with an an average temperature increase of around 2.6 °C by 2100 and 3.5 °C after 2200.
National pledges submitted for COP21 need to form the basis for a “virtuous circle” of rising ambition. From COP21, the energy sector needs to see a projection from political leaders at the highest level of clarity of purpose and certainty of action, creating a clear expectation of global and national low-carbon development. Four pillars can support that achievement:
1. Peak in emissions – set the conditions which will achieve an early peak in global
energy-related emissions.
2. Five-year revision – review contributions regularly, to test the scope to lift the level of ambition.
3. Lock in the vision – translate the established climate goal into a collective long-term emissions goal, with shorter-term commitments that are consistent with the long-term vision.
4. Track the transition – establish an effective process for tracking achievements in
the energy sector.
The IEA proposes a bridging strategy that could deliver a peak in global energy-related
emissions by 2020. A commitment to target such a near-term peak would send a clear message of political determination to stay below the 2 °C climate limit. The peak can be
achieved relying solely on proven technologies and policies, without changing the economic and development prospects of any region, and is presented in a “Bridge Scenario”. The technologies and policies reflected in the Bridge Scenario are essential to secure the long-term decarbonisation of the energy sector and their near-term adoption can help keep the door to the 2 °C goal open. For countries that have submitted their INDCs, the proposed strategy identifies possible areas for over-achievement. For those that have yet to make a submission, it sets out a pragmatic baseline for ambition.
The Bridge Scenario depends upon five measures:
• Increasing energy efficiency in the industry, buildings and transport sectors.
• Progressively reducing the use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants and
banning their construction.
• Increasing investment in renewable energy technologies in the power sector from
$270 billion in 2014 to $400 billion in 2030.
• Gradual phasing out of fossil-fuel subsidies to end-users by 2030.
• Reducing methane emissions in oil and gas production.
These measures have profound implications for the global energy mix, putting a brake on growth in oil and coal use within the next five years and further boosting renewables. In the Bridge Scenario, coal use peaks before 2020 and then declines while oil demand rises to 2020 and then plateaus. Total energy-related GHG emissions peak around 2020. Both the energy intensity of the global economy and the carbon intensity of power generation improve by 40% by 2030. China decouples its economic expansion from emissions growth by around 2020, much earlier than otherwise expected, mainly through improving the energy efficiency of industrial motors and the buildings sector, including through standards for appliances and lighting. In countries where emissions are already in decline today, the decoupling of economic growth and emissions is significantly accelerated; compared with recent years, the pace of this decoupling is almost 30% faster in the European Union (due to improved energy efficiency) and in the United States (where renewables contribute one-third of the achieved emissions savings in 2030). In other regions, the link between economic growth and emissions growth is weakened significantly, but the relative importance of different measures varies. India utilises energy more efficiently, helping it
to reach its energy sector targets and moderate emissions growth, while the reduction of
methane releases from oil and gas production and reforming fossil-fuel subsidies (while
providing targeted support for the poorest) are key measures in the Middle East and Africa, and a portfolio of options helps reduce emissions in Southeast Asia. While universal access to modern energy is not achieved in the Bridge Scenario, the efforts to reduce energy related emissions do go hand-in-hand with delivering access to electricity to 1.7 billion people and access to clean cookstoves to 1.6 billion people by 2030.
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This is called the Landauer limit, and it came after many decades of arguments concerning Maxwell’s demon and the relation between information and entropy.
In fact, these arguments are still not finished. For example, here’s an argument that the Landauer limit is not as solid as widely believed:
• John D. Norton, Waiting for Landauer, Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 42 (2011), 184–198.
But something like the Landauer limit almost surely holds under some conditions! And if it holds, it puts some limits on what organisms can do. That’s what David Wolpert spoke about at our workshop! You can see his slides here:
• David Wolpert — The Landauer limit and thermodynamics of biological organisms.
You can also watch a video:
Hi! Want to talk? Okay, go into that other room and watch TV, then come back when you’re done and we’ll talk about it.
But no matter: our workshop on Information and Entropy in Biological Systems was really exciting! I want to make it available to the world as much as possible. I’m running around too much to create lovingly hand-crafted summaries of each talk—and I know you’re punishing me for that, with your silence. But I’ll keep on going, just to get the material out there.
Marc Harper spoke about information in evolutionary game theory, and we have a nice video of that. I’ve been excited about his work for quite a while, because it shows that the analogy between ‘evolution’ and ‘learning’ can be made mathematically precise. I summarized some of his ideas in my information geometry series, and I’ve also gotten him to write two articles for this blog:
• Marc Harper, Relative entropy in evolutionary dynamics, Azimuth, 22 January 2014.
• Marc Harper, Stationary stability in finite populations, Azimuth, 24 March 2015.
Here are the slides and video of his talk:
• Marc Harper, Information transport and evolutionary dynamics.