Tag Archives: physics

Book Review ~ The Universe of the Mind

The Future the Mind, by Michio Kaku $21.40

the-future-of-the-mind-sidebarI personally could not wait for this book to be released. First of all, Michio Kaku, as a theoretical physicist, is one of my super heroes. Second, the whole subject of mind and consciousness and whatever it is that is going on up there fascinates me.

The book was all I expected and much more. Kaku walks through the physics and the neurology of what we know about the brain, how it works, what makes things go wrong, and what makes things work better than the general population. The book is a thorough layman’s guide to where we are in the study of the brain and all the things it does, or doesn’t, do. And then there is the Appendix!

What about free will? If our actions can be traced to some function or non-function within our mind, then how do we know we really have free will? Is everything really guided by predisposition? In his appendix, Kaku addresses how the new scientific discoveries explore both sides of the issue. Are people really helpless in their choices and the best we can do is rehabilitate or confine them? Is punishment a non-starter?

According to an experiment performed by Dr. Benjamin Libet in 1985, it’s possible that free will is, at the very least, not what we expect. Using EEG scan, Dr. Libet was able to determine that the brain actually makes the decision to do something prior to the conscious choice to do it. In other words, we do not act on a conscious decision, we follow along with what the brain has already decided.

What does stir the process is what we know of quantum mechanics. When the probability of something being there or not becomes a factor, then our lives are not necessarily predestined, or predetermined. There is an element of change and probability in the picture that makes us individual and less predictable.

One of my favorite cuts from Dr. Kaku was in a Through the Wormhole episode on consciousness. He discusses the same concept in the appendix of this book. It begins with Schrodinger’s Wave Function, which won him the Nobel Prize. The math indicated that an electron could be a particle or a wave. But if it is a wave, what was it waving? Sorting this out is how Werner Heisenberg arrived at his uncertainty principle. However, Schrodinger was having none of it; the universe did not operate on probabilities. Schrodinger, wishing he had never come up with his wave function, created a thought experiment involving a cat.

Place a cat in a sealed box, with a container of poison gas. In the box, there is a lump of uranium. The uranium atom is unstable and emits particles that can be detected by a Geiger counter. The counter triggers a hammer, which falls and breaks the glass, releases the gas, which can kill the cat.

According to quantum mechanics, we do not know whether or not the uranium has decayed and started a sequence that will kill the poor kitty. We don’t know until we open the box and observe (take a measure) the state of the cat. This is why we say that until that moment of observation, the cat is neither dead nor alive because a possibility exists for both – until the moment of measurement. Only then does the probability wave collapse into one wave – the observed state. Food for many years of theoretical debate. There were three schools of thought developed in answer to this paradox.

My preferred path was developed in 1967 by Eugene Wigner. He arrived at the conclusion that only a conscious person can make the observation that collapses that wave. However, if the observer and the cat are in the same universe, then who is to say that the observer is dead or alive? Therefore there must be another conscious observer – ad infinitum. Eventually you arrive at some form of “cosmic consciousness,” better known in some circles as God. Or, maybe a living, conscious universe, creating, measuring, keeping kitties healthy.

Wigner’s conclusion was that it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum theory in any consistent way without reference to some form of consciousness. Someone, great or small, had to be the observer for the wave to collapse in some form of existence. This does not mean that consciousness controls reality – it only means that the act of observing (measuring) reduces the probability wave into a single wave of reality.

Some people feel that the study of the mind is somehow sacrilege. I beg to differ. Time and time again in ancient sacred works, including the bible of the Christian world, we are told to observe. To look within the wonders of the universe to see the beginnings of our answers. To seek our truths. The more we know, the more we wonder.

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Hello? Is there anybody really there? ~ The Question of Consciousness

Admittedly for a person with only elemental understandings of the workings of physics, using science to peer into the realm of the mind can be a risky business.  But, it’s irresistible.  Some of the biggest names in physics have approached the question and they have come up with some truly interesting ideas.  A few of the resources I used to explore this subject include Through the Wormhole (narrated by Morgan Freeman), Dr. Michio Kaku, the “Global Consciousness Project,” and a little research on Dr. Erwin Schrodinger’s cat and Henri-Louis Bergson.  Yep, all of them.  And this probably won’t be my last bit of wandering into this field.  I also have to admit some research into the materialist’s point of view.  Most markedly I would refer the reader to I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter and The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer.  It’s always nice to have a bit of balance.

There was a time when I could sit with my husband and discuss the philosophical application of various developments in physics.  Sometimes things would get a bit wild and he would gently bring me back to some more conservative point of view.  Not because he didn’t think I was “on to something,” but because he felt that the research didn’t support the thought – yet.  Over the past several months we have spent time watching the series mentioned above and some of these old questions came to the fore.  The inspiration for this post was the segment on the sixth sense.  (No teeth grinding from my more materialist friends).

cat

photo by Dian Brandmeyer
Courtesy WANA Commons

In the cut that impressed me the most, Dr. Michio Kaku walks the viewer through Schrodinger’s thought experiment.  Starting with the understanding that in particle physics any particle can be anywhere or everywhere (based on probabilities) until someone looks at it (measures).  The thought experiment with the intrepid kitty in a box is an experiment that puts the cat in a situation where certain events may, or may not, kill the cat.  Until we open the box, we cannot know if the cat is dead or alive and, therefore, it is both.  This is the answer derived from the sum of the probabilities.

Kaku goes on to say that Henri-Louis Bergson took the experiment a bit further and decided that part of the act of measuring, of “looking” is an act of consciousness.  The cat lives (or dies) because a conscience individual looked in the box and made that measurement.  Then he goes to the next step.  The cat and the observer are in the same universe.  So, who is to say that the observer is dead or alive?  Another observer.  Layer upon layer of observers measuring the universe into reality results in a universal consciousness looking back down the chain of observers to the scientist who looks in the box and sees — that the cat is alive.  Confused yet?

NASA image

NASA image

Another part of the same program discussed the Global Conciseness Project.  This, too, fascinated me both because of the reach (global) and the length of time the scientists have collected information.  This project uses random number generators which are located in population centers around the globe.  What the scientists look for is anomalies in the stream of random numbers.  Understanding that no matter how hard we try, no generator is completely random, the system builds in tolerance levels to seek only a certain level of unusual behavior.  The most dramatic result in their records?  September 11, 2001.  Not only did the random generators deviate with the widest margins recorded to date, the change started before the actual event.  Their site is linked above.

There are, however, different points of view that look at the relationship between mind and brain as purely physical.  This would be a “materialist” interpretation.  I mentioned a few references in the opening that are written by men who are perfectly comfortable in a world where our “minds” are nothing more than a construct of the biology and neurology of  our brains.  That whatever it is that is “I” develops from birth by using a feedback loop between our brains and the outside world.  In this case materialism means that there is nothing beyond the physical.  I found much of interest in these books.  I learned a bit about how pattern recognition and symbol making can result in the higher cognitive functions we think of as particularly human.  But I couldn’t quite make that last leap and say “I Are Nothing but the Atoms of Which I Am Made.”

Personally, I find much wonder and awe in the universe in which we live.  I never cease to be amazed at the wonders discovered by science, mathematics, biology, medicine and philosophy.  And I know that there are people who will tell me that all that “wonder” is possible with nothing more than the firing neurons in my head.  However, I cannot look at the stars without yearning; I cannot let go of the feeling that there is “something more.”

What about you?  Without throwing darts from either side of the equation, what do you think about consciousness?  Is it possible that there is some part of our brains that does comprehend the world on levels we have yet to explore?

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Book Review ~ The World of Seen, But Not Seen

QED:  The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Dr. Richard Feynman.  Available for less than $10.00

A little late this week, but we’re still here!  This week I thought I would review a little book that I have treasured for years, QED.  You might notice, if you spend much time in my little corner of the world, that I love to explore various fields of scientific study.  This is due in part because our universe is so amazing and in part because I feel that what we learn from the natural world tells us many fundamental things about ourselves.   My husband is a physicist.  When I first met him a whole new world of thought was opened up to me.  QED was the first place he sent me to begin my journey into the conceptual study of Quantum Electrodynamics.

The author of this little book, the late Richard Feynman, was a Nobel Prize laureate in physics in 1965.  He was a member of the team that developed the atom bomb and served on the panel that investigated the space shuttle Challenger disaster.  Although one of the world’s most brilliant physicists, he was also a well loved professor at Caltech.  Neil Bohr would seek him out often because of his unassuming nature and ability to play devil’s advocate with any scientific mind of the time.  His immersion in the topics of mathematics and physics gave him the clarity in his teaching that could speak to the uninitiated.  This book is an edited version of his presentation for the Alix G. Mautner Memorial Lecture series given at UCLA.

So, what is so terribly amazing about this particular book?  Well, with little or no mathematics and diagrams that walk you through each and every step, Feynman takes you into the world of quantum mechanics where nothing happens as we expect.  Time travels whatever way it chooses, particles can be here and there at the same time, or nowhere at all.  As a teacher, Feynman does not talk down to his audience, nor develop not-quite-right metaphors to lead the blind into the semi-gray darkness.  The presentation is straightforward and just as applicable to the adventuresome layperson as it is to a physics major.   A delightful way to get introduced to some of the aspects of the strange and wonderful universe we call home.

So, tell me, what kinds of things do you like to explore?  What burning questions do you have that seem like rumors and not real science?  Do you have a favorite series, book or teacher?  Let me know!  Always happy to incorporate things from my audience.

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Spooky “action at a distance”

Photo provided by Melissa Bowersocks through WANA Commons.

As my knowledge of the world of blogging expands I have found other ways to communicate with my readers and to expand the types of knowledge I can bring to their attention.  I have rearranged a few things on this site to better utilize the category function and to free up “page space” for more static information.  Some of you have noticed the addition of information helpful to writers and authors.  Now we will add another subject line, science.

I am not a scientist.  I am an avid reader of science.  My husband introduced me to the principles of quantum mechanics and physics some years ago and, in the process, the philosophy of science.  Our interaction between his science (and philosophy) and my philosophy shaped the growth of many of my earlier writings.  So, it only makes sense to use this forum to introduce those ideas that most fascinate me and that tickle my philosophical bone.  As my books reach publication, you will, perhaps, recognize some of these thought patterns in the text.

So lets look at some of the concepts that help us understand just what kind of universe is it that we live in.  We will begin with “entanglement,” Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.”

Wikipedia describes this term thus:  “action at a distance is the idea of direct interaction of two objects that are separated in space with no intermediating agent or mechanism. […]  More generally “action at a distance” describes the break between human intuition, where objects have to touch to interact, and physical theory. The exploration and resolution of this problematic phenomenon led to significant developments in physics, from the concept of a field, to descriptions of quantum entanglement…”

Originally it was thought that entanglement only lasted a brief instant.  In other words, shortly after two pared particles/systems were separated, what happened to one seemed to impact the other.  Evidently, when we measured some defining portion of a state (defined simplistically as position and momenta) of one particle/system,  then that portion of the definition of state would be reflected in the distant particle/system.  The example used in the below referenced article is that if one person tosses a coin the outcome is purely random.  Entanglement is when the results are duplicated exactly by a second person tossing a coin.  Later physicists determined that the phenomenon occurred no matter how far apart the particles or the systems were;  the activity of one impacted the activity of the other.  Now, through the work of a very young physicist, the mathematics are developing that the systems do not even have to be identical to impact each other.  This ability to communicate without any overt interaction is at the root of quantum computing.  It is also the foundation for a hoped-for encryption process that cannot be cracked for use in banking transactions.  It is really amazing stuff.  An article recently published by Wired, “Teen Solves Quantum Entanglement Problem” at least attempts to explain the process to us mere mortals.

Of course what interests me is what this theory could mean on a philosophical level.  Do we really know the impact of our actions on the universe?  Do we understand how the activities in some far distant reach of our home may impact things around us, in us?  The further we probe into the mysteries of our universe and our minds, the more interesting the fabric of our existence becomes.

Brian Greene, author of many books on physics and a narrator of a NOVA program on string theory was interviewed by NPR.  When asked about the philosophical side of the things he was working on it was clear that he was non-committal on his religious position.  He wasn’t pro or con, he just didn’t think about it.  He did, however mention that his brother was a Hindu.  Often, Brian would discuss the new and interesting things he was finding in his field with his brother.  The response?  These things were spoken of millennium ago in the Sanskrit texts.  So, “is it something we’ve left behind?”

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