Category Archives: Articles and Essays

This category archives my articles and essays published in peer reviewed journals or semi-academic magazines. These publications span a wide range from physics to spirituality, touching on neuroscience and philosophy. You will find articles that appeared in the International Journal of Modern Physics, IEEE Tran. Neural Systems and Rehab. Engineering, The Philosopher (the journal of the Philosophical Society of England), Omega – Indian Journal of Science and Religion, Galilean Electrodynamics and so on.

Bhagavad Gita

Among the religious texts of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita is the most revered one. Literally presented as the word of God, the Bhagavad Gita enjoys a stature similar to the Bible or the Koran. Like all scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita also can be read, not merely as an act of devotion, but as a philosophical discourse as well. It presents a philosophical stance in understanding the world, which forms (for those from India) the basic and fundamental assumptions in dealing with life, and the unknowable reality around them. In fact, it is more than just assumptions and hypotheses; it is the basis of commonsense handed down from generation to generation. It is the foundations of intellect, which form the instinctive and emotional understanding of reality that is assimilated before logic and cannot be touched or analyzed with rationality. They are the mythos that trump logos every time.

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Luddite Thoughts

For all its pretentiousness, French cuisine is pretty amazing. Sure, I’m no degustation connoisseur, but the French really know how to eat well. It is little wonder that the finest restaurants in the world are mostly French. The most pivotal aspect of a French dish usually is its delicate sauce, along with choice cuts, and, of course, inspired presentation (AKA huge plates and minuscule servings). The chefs, those artists in their tall white hats, show off their talent primarily in the subtleties of the sauce, for which knowledgeable patrons happily hand over large sums of money in those establishments, half of which are called “Cafe de Paris” or have the word “petit” in their names.

Seriously, sauce is king (to use Bollywood lingo) in French cuisine, so I found it shocking when I saw this on BBC that more and more French chefs were resorting to factory-manufactured sauces. Even the slices of boiled eggs garnishing their overpriced salads come in a cylindrical form wrapped in plastic. How could this be? How could they use mass-produced garbage and pretend to be serving up the finest gastronomical experiences?

Sure, we can see corporate and personal greed driving the policies to cut corners and use the cheapest of ingredients. But there is a small technology success story here. A few years ago, I read in the newspaper that they found fake chicken eggs in some Chinese supermarkets. They were “fresh” eggs, with shells, yolks, whites and everything. You could even make omelets with them. Imagine that — a real chicken egg probably costs only a few cents to produce. But someone could set up a manufacturing process that could churn out fake eggs cheaper than that. You have to admire the ingenuity involved — unless, of course, you have to eat those eggs.

The trouble with our times is that this unpalatable ingenuity is all pervasive. It is the norm, not the exception. We see it in tainted paints on toys, harmful garbage processed into fast food (or even fine-dining, apparently), poison in baby food, imaginative fine-print on financial papers and “EULAs”, substandard components and shoddy workmanship in critical machinery — on every facet of our modern life. Given such a backdrop, how do we know that the “organic” produce, though we pay four times as much for it, is any different from the normal produce? To put it all down to the faceless corporate greed, as most of us tend to do, is a bit simplistic. Going one step further to see our own collective greed in the corporate behavior (as I proudly did a couple of times) is also perhaps trivial. What are corporates these days, if not collections of people like you and me?

There is something deeper and more troubling in all this. I have some disjointed thoughts, and will try to write it up in an ongoing series. I suspect these thoughts of mine are going to sound similar to the luddite ones un-popularized by the infamous Unabomber. His idea was that our normal animalistic instincts of the hunter-gatherer kind are being stifled by the modern societies we have developed into. And, in his view, this unwelcome transformation and the consequent tension and stress can be countered only by an anarchical destruction of the propagators of our so-called development — namely, universities and other technology generators. Hence the bombing of innocent professors and such.

Clearly, I don’t agree with this luddite ideology, for if I did, I would have to first bomb myself! I’m nursing a far less destructive line of thought. Our technological advances and their unintended backlashes, with ever-increasing frequency and amplitude, remind me of something that fascinated my geeky mind — the phase transition between structured (laminar) and chaotic (turbulent) states in physical systems (when flow rates cross a certain threshold, for instance). Are we approaching such a threshold of phase transition in our social systems and societal structures? In my moody luddite moments, I feel certain that we are.

The Unreal Universe

We know that our universe is a bit unreal. The stars we see in the night sky, for instance, are not really there. They may have moved or even died by the time we get to see them. It takes light time to travel from the distant stars and galaxies to reach us. We know of this delay. The sun that we see now is already eight minutes old by the time we see it, which is not a big deal. If we want to know what is going on at the sun right now, all we have to do is to wait for eight minutes. Nonetheless, we do have to “correct” for the delay in our perception due to the finite speed of light before we can trust what we see.

Now, this effect raises an interesting question — what is the “real” thing that we see? If seeing is believing, the stuff that we see should be the real thing. Then again, we know of the light travel time effect. So we should correct what we see before believing it. What then does “seeing” mean? When we say we see something, what do we really mean?

Seeing involves light, obviously. It is the finite (albeit very high) speed of light influences and distorts the way we see things, like the delay in seeing objects like stars. What is surprising (and seldom highlighted) is that when it comes to seeing moving objects, we cannot back-calculate the same way we take out the delay in seeing the sun. If we see a celestial body moving at an improbably high speed, we cannot figure out how fast and in what direction it is “really” moving without making further assumptions. One way of handling this difficulty is to ascribe the distortions in our perception to the fundamental properties of the arena of physics — space and time. Another course of action is to accept the disconnection between our perception and the underlying “reality” and deal with it in some way.

This disconnect between what we see and what is out there is not unknown to many philosophical schools of thought. Phenomenalism, for instance, holds the view that space and time are not objective realities. They are merely the medium of our perception. All the phenomena that happen in space and time are merely bundles of our perception. In other words, space and time are cognitive constructs arising from perception. Thus, all the physical properties that we ascribe to space and time can only apply to the phenomenal reality (the reality as we sense it). The noumenal reality (which holds the physical causes of our perception), by contrast, remains beyond our cognitive reach.

One, almost accidental, difficulty in redefining the effects of the finite speed of light as the properties of space and time is that any effect that we do understand gets instantly relegated to the realm of optical illusions. For instance, the eight-minute delay in seeing the sun, because we can readily understand it and disassociate it from our perception using simple arithmetic, is considered a mere optical illusion. However, the distortions in our perception of fast moving objects, although originating from the same source are considered a property of space and time because they are more complex. At some point, we have to come to terms with the fact that when it comes to seeing the universe, there is no such thing as an optical illusion, which is probably what Goethe pointed out when he said, “Optical illusion is optical truth.”

More about The Unreal UniverseThe distinction (or lack thereof) between optical illusion and truth is one of the oldest debates in philosophy. After all, it is about the distinction between knowledge and reality. Knowledge is considered our view about something that, in reality, is “actually the case.” In other words, knowledge is a reflection, or a mental image of something external. In this picture, the external reality goes through a process of becoming our knowledge, which includes perception, cognitive activities, and the exercise of pure reason. This is the picture that physics has come to accept. While acknowledging that our perception may be imperfect, physics assumes that we can get closer and closer to the external reality through increasingly finer experimentation, and, more importantly, through better theorization. The Special and General Theories of Relativity are examples of brilliant applications of this view of reality where simple physical principles are relentlessly pursued using the formidable machine of pure reason to their logically inevitable conclusions.

But there is another, competing view of knowledge and reality that has been around for a long time. This is the view that regards perceived reality as an internal cognitive representation of our sensory inputs. In this view, knowledge and perceived reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate. What is external is not the reality as we perceive it, but an unknowable entity giving rise to the physical causes behind sensory inputs. In this school of thought, we build our reality in two, often overlapping, steps. The first step consists of the process of sensing, and the second one is that of cognitive and logical reasoning. We can apply this view of reality and knowledge to science, but in order do so, we have to guess the nature of the absolute reality, unknowable as it is.

The ramifications of these two different philosophical stances described above are tremendous. Since modern physics has embraced a non-phenomenalistic view of space and time, it finds itself at odds with that branch of philosophy. This chasm between philosophy and physics has grown to such a degree that the Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, wondered (in his book “Dreams of a Final Theory”) why the contribution from philosophy to physics have been so surprisingly small. It also prompts philosophers to make statements like, “Whether ‘noumenal reality causes phenomenal reality’ or whether ‘noumenal reality is independent of our sensing it’ or whether ‘we sense noumenal reality,’ the problem remains that the concept of noumenal reality is a totally redundant concept for the analysis of science.”

From the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, everything we see, sense, feel and think is the result of the neuronal interconnections in our brain and the tiny electrical signals in them. This view must be right. What else is there? All our thoughts and worries, knowledge and beliefs, ego and reality, life and death — everything is merely neuronal firings in the one and half kilograms of gooey, grey material that we call our brain. There is nothing else. Nothing!

In fact, this view of reality in neuroscience is an exact echo of phenomenalism, which considers everything a bundle of perception or mental constructs. Space and time are also cognitive constructs in our brain, like everything else. They are mental pictures our brains concoct out of the sensory inputs that our senses receive. Generated from our sensory perception and fabricated by our cognitive process, the space-time continuum is the arena of physics. Of all our senses, sight is by far the dominant one. The sensory input to sight is light. In a space created by the brain out of the light falling on our retinas (or on the photo sensors of the Hubble telescope), is it a surprise that nothing can travel faster than light?

This philosophical stance is the basis of my book, The Unreal Universe, which explores the common threads binding physics and philosophy. Such philosophical musings usually get a bad rap from us physicists. To physicists, philosophy is an entirely different field, another silo of knowledge, which holds no relevance to their endeavors. We need to change this belief and appreciate the overlap among different knowledge silos. It is in this overlap that we can expect to find great breakthroughs in human thought.

The twist to this story of light and reality is that we seem to have known all this for a long time. Classical philosophical schools seem to have thought along lines very similar to Einstein’s reasonings. The role of light in creating our reality or universe is at the heart of Western religious thinking. A universe devoid of light is not simply a world where you have switched off the lights. It is indeed a universe devoid of itself, a universe that doesn’t exist. It is in this context that we have to understand the wisdom behind the statement that “the earth was without form, and void” until God caused light to be, by saying “Let there be light.”

The Quran also says, “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth,” which is mirrored in one of the ancient Hindu writings: “Lead me from darkness to light, lead me from the unreal to the real.” The role of light in taking us from the unreal void (the nothingness) to a reality was indeed understood for a long, long time. Is it possible that the ancient saints and prophets knew things that we are only now beginning to uncover with all our supposed advances in knowledge?

I know I may be rushing in where angels fear to tread, for reinterpreting the scriptures is a dangerous game. Such alien interpretations are seldom welcome in the theological circles. But I seek refuge in the fact that I am looking for concurrence in the metaphysical views of spiritual philosophies, without diminishing their mystical and theological value.

The parallels between the noumenal-phenomenal distinction in phenomenalism and the Brahman-Maya distinction in Advaita are hard to ignore. This time-tested wisdom on the nature of reality from the repertoire of spirituality is now being reinvented in modern neuroscience, which treats reality as a cognitive representation created by the brain. The brain uses the sensory inputs, memory, consciousness, and even language as ingredients in concocting our sense of reality. This view of reality, however, is something physics is yet to come to terms with. But to the extent that its arena (space and time) is a part of reality, physics is not immune to philosophy.

As we push the boundaries of our knowledge further and further, we are beginning to discover hitherto unsuspected and often surprising interconnections between different branches of human efforts. In the final analysis, how can the diverse domains of our knowledge be independent of each other when all our knowledge resides in our brain? Knowledge is a cognitive representation of our experiences. But then, so is reality; it is a cognitive representation of our sensory inputs. It is a fallacy to think that knowledge is our internal representation of an external reality, and therefore distinct from it. Knowledge and reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate.

Recognizing and making use of the interconnections among the different domains of human endeavor may be the catalyst for the next breakthrough in our collective wisdom that we have been waiting for.

Food Prices and Terrible Choices

Economists have too many hands. On the one hand, they may declare something good. On the other hand, they may say, “well, not so much.” Some of them may have even a third or fourth hand. My ex-boss, an economist himself, once remarked that he wished he could chop off some of these hands.

In the last couple of weeks, I plunged right into an ocean of economist hands as I sat down to do a minor research into this troubling phenomenon of skyrocketing food prices.

The first “hand” pointed out that the demand for food (and commodities in general) has surged due to the increase in the population and changing consumption patterns in the emerging giants of Asia. The well-known demand and supply paradigm explains the price surge, it would seem. Is it as simple as that?

On the other hand, more and more food crops are being diverted into bio-fuel production. Is the bio-fuel demand the root cause? Bio-fuels are attractive because of the astronomical crude oil prices, which drive up the prices of everything. Is the recent OPEC windfall driving the price hikes? What about the food subsidies in wealthy nations that skew the market in their favour?

Yet another economics hand puts the blame squarely on the supply side. It points an unwavering finger at the poor weather in food producing countries, and the panic measures imposed on the supply chain, such as export bans and smaller scale hoarding, that drive up the prices.

I’m no economist, and I would like just one hand, one opinion, that I can count on. In my untrained view, I suspect that the speculation in commodities market may be driving the prices up. I felt vindicated in my suspicions when I read a recent US senate testimony where a well-known hedge fund manager, Michael Masters, shed light on the financial labyrinth of futures transactions and legal loopholes through which enormous profits were generated in commodity speculation.

The real reasons behind the food crisis are likely to be a combination of all these factors. But the crisis itself is a silent tsunami sweeping the world, as the UN World Food Program puts it.

Increase in the food prices, though unpleasant, is not such a big deal for a large number of Singaporeans. With our first world income, most of us spend about 20% of our salary on food. If it becomes 30% as a result of a 50% increase in the prices, we certainly won’t like it, but we won’t suffer that much. We may have to cut down on the taxi rides, or fine-dining, but it is not the end of our world.

If we are in the top 10% of the households, we may not even notice the increase. The impact of the high food prices on our lifestyle will be minimal — say, a four-star holiday instead of a five-star one.

It is a different story near the bottom. If we earn less than $1000 a month, and we are forced to spend $750 instead of $500 on food, it may mean a choice between an MRT ride and legging it. At that level, the increase in food prices does hurt us as our grim choices become limited.

But there are people in this world who face a much harsher reality as the prices shoot up with no end in sight. Their choices are often as terrible as Sophie’s choice. Which child goes to sleep hungry tonight? Medicine for the sick one or food for the rest?

We are all powerless against the juggernaut of market forces creating the food crisis. Although we cannot realistically change the course of this silent tsunami, let’s at least try not to exacerbate the situation through waste. Buy only what you will use, and use only what you need to. Even if we cannot help those who will invariably go hungry, let’s not insult them by throwing away what they will die yearning for. Hunger is a terrible thing. If you don’t believe me, try fasting for a day. Well, try it even if you do — for it may help someone somewhere.

Light Travel Time Effects and Cosmological Features

This unpublished article is a sequel to my earlier paper (also posted here as “Are Radio Sources and Gamma Ray Bursts Luminal Booms?“). This blog version contains the abstract, introduction and conclusions. The full version of the article is available as a PDF file.

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Abstract

Light travel time effects (LTT) are an optical manifestation of the finite speed of light. They can also be considered perceptual constraints to the cognitive picture of space and time. Based on this interpretation of LTT effects, we recently presented a new hypothetical model for the temporal and spatial variation of the spectrum of Gamma Ray Bursts (GRB) and radio sources. In this article, we take the analysis further and show that LTT effects can provide a good framework to describe such cosmological features as the redshift observation of an expanding universe, and the cosmic microwave background radiation. The unification of these seemingly distinct phenomena at vastly different length and time scales, along with its conceptual simplicity, can be regarded as indicators of the curious usefulness of this framework, if not its validity.

Introduction

The finite speed of light plays an important part in how we perceive distance and speed. This fact should hardly come as a surprise because we do know that things are not as we see them. The sun that we see, for instance, is already eight minutes old by the time we see it. This delay is trivial; if we want to know what is going on at the sun now, all we have to do is to wait for eight minutes. We, nonetheless, have to “correct” for this distortion in our perception due to the finite speed of light before we can trust what we see.

What is surprising (and seldom highlighted) is that when it comes to sensing motion, we cannot back-calculate the same way we take out the delay in seeing the sun. If we see a celestial body moving at an improbably high speed, we cannot figure out how fast and in what direction it is “really” moving without making further assumptions. One way of handling this difficulty is to ascribe the distortions in our perception of motion to the fundamental properties of the arena of physics — space and time. Another course of action is to accept the disconnection between our perception and the underlying “reality” and deal with it in some way.

Exploring the second option, we assume an underlying reality that gives rise to our perceived picture. We further model this underlying reality as obeying classical mechanics, and work out our perceived picture through the apparatus of perception. In other words, we do not attribute the manifestations of the finite speed of light to the properties of the underlying reality. Instead, we work out our perceived picture that this model predicts and verify whether the properties we do observe can originate from this perceptual constraint.

Space, the objects in it, and their motion are, by and large, the product of optical perception. One tends to take it for granted that perception arises from reality as one perceives it. In this article, we take the position that what we perceive is an incomplete or distorted picture of an underlying reality. Further, we are trying out classical mechanics for the the underlying reality (for which we use terms like absolute, noumenal or physical reality) that does cause our perception to see if it fits with our perceived picture (which we may refer to as sensed or phenomenal reality).

Note that we are not implying that the manifestations of perception are mere delusions. They are not; they are indeed part of our sensed reality because reality is an end result of perception. This insight may be behind Goethe’s famous statement, “Optical illusion is optical truth.”

We applied this line of thinking to a physics problem recently. We looked at the spectral evolution of a GRB and found it to be remarkably similar to that in a sonic boom. Using this fact, we presented a model for GRB as our perception of a “luminal” boom, with the understanding that it is our perceived picture of reality that obeys Lorentz invariance and our model for the underlying reality (causing the perceived picture) may violate relativistic physics. The striking agreement between the model and the observed features, however, extended beyond GRBs to symmetric radio sources, which can also be regarded as perceptual effects of hypothetical luminal booms.

In this article, we look at other implications of the model. We start with the similarities between the light travel time (LTT) effects and the coordinate transformation in Special Relativity (SR). These similarities are hardly surprising because SR is derived partly based on LTT effects. We then propose an interpretation of SR as a formalization of LTT effects and study a few observed cosmological phenomena in the light of this interpretation.

Similarities between Light Travel Time Effects and SR

Special relativity seeks a linear coordinate transformation between coordinate systems in motion with respect to each other. We can trace the origin of linearity to a hidden assumption on the nature of space and time built into SR, as stated by Einstein: “In the first place it is clear that the equations must be linear on account of the properties of homogeneity which we attribute to space and time.” Because of this assumption of linearity, the original derivation of the transformation equations ignores the asymmetry between approaching and receding objects. Both approaching and receding objects can be described by two coordinate systems that are always receding from each other. For instance, if a system K is moving with respect to another system k along the positive X axis of k, then an object at rest in K at a positive x is receding while another object at a negative x is approaching an observer at the origin of k.

The coordinate transformation in Einstein’s original paper is derived, in part, a manifestation of the light travel time (LTT) effects and the consequence of imposing the constancy of light speed in all inertial frames. This is most obvious in the first thought experiment, where observers moving with a rod find their clocks not synchronized due to the difference in light travel times along the length of the rod. However, in the current interpretation of SR, the coordinate transformation is considered a basic property of space and time.

One difficulty that arises from this interpretation of SR is that the definition of the relative velocity between the two inertial frames becomes ambiguous. If it is the velocity of the moving frame as measured by the observer, then the observed superluminal motion in radio jets starting from the core region becomes a violation of SR. If it is a velocity that we have to deduce by considering LT effects, then we have to employ the extra ad-hoc assumption that superluminality is forbidden. These difficulties suggest that it may be better to disentangle the light travel time effects from the rest of SR.

In this section, we will consider space and time as a part of the cognitive model created by the brain, and argue that special relativity applies to the cognitive model. The absolute reality (of which the SR-like space-time is our perception) does not have to obey the restrictions of SR. In particular, objects are not restricted to subluminal speeds, but they may appear to us as though they are restricted to subluminal speeds in our perception of space and time. If we disentangle LTT effects from the rest of SR, we can understand a wide array of phenomena, as we shall see in this article.

Unlike SR, considerations based on LTT effects result in intrinsically different set of transformation laws for objects approaching an observer and those receding from him. More generally, the transformation depends on the angle between the velocity of the object and the observer’s line of sight. Since the transformation equations based on LTT effects treat approaching and receding objects asymmetrically, they provide a natural solution to the twin paradox, for instance.

Conclusions

Because space and time are a part of a reality created out of light inputs to our eyes, some of their properties are manifestations of LTT effects, especially on our perception of motion. The absolute, physical reality presumably generating the light inputs does not have to obey the properties we ascribe to our perceived space and time.

We showed that LTT effects are qualitatively identical to those of SR, noting that SR only considers frames of reference receding from each other. This similarity is not surprising because the coordinate transformation in SR is derived based partly on LTT effects, and partly on the assumption that light travels at the same speed with respect to all inertial frames. In treating it as a manifestation of LTT, we did not address the primary motivation of SR, which is a covariant formulation of Maxwell’s equations. It may be possible to disentangle the covariance of electrodynamics from the coordinate transformation, although it is not attempted in this article.

Unlike SR, LTT effects are asymmetric. This asymmetry provides a resolution to the twin paradox and an interpretation of the assumed causality violations associated with superluminality. Furthermore, the perception of superluminality is modulated by LTT effects, and explains gamma ray bursts and symmetric jets. As we showed in the article, perception of superluminal motion also holds an explanation for cosmological phenomena like the expansion of the universe and cosmic microwave background radiation. LTT effects should be considered as a fundamental constraint in our perception, and consequently in physics, rather than as a convenient explanation for isolated phenomena.

Given that our perception is filtered through LTT effects, we have to deconvolute them from our perceived reality in order to understand the nature of the absolute, physical reality. This deconvolution, however, results in multiple solutions. Thus, the absolute, physical reality is beyond our grasp, and any assumed properties of the absolute reality can only be validated through how well the resultant perceived reality agrees with our observations. In this article, we assumed that the underlying reality obeys our intuitively obvious classical mechanics and asked the question how such a reality would be perceived when filtered through light travel time effects. We demonstrated that this particular treatment could explain certain astrophysical and cosmological phenomena that we observe.

The coordinate transformation in SR can be viewed as a redefinition of space and time (or, more generally, reality) in order to accommodate the distortions in our perception of motion due to light travel time effects. One may be tempted to argue that SR applies to the “real” space and time, not our perception. This line of argument begs the question, what is real? Reality is only a cognitive model created in our brain starting from our sensory inputs, visual inputs being the most significant. Space itself is a part of this cognitive model. The properties of space are a mapping of the constraints of our perception.

The choice of accepting our perception as a true image of reality and redefining space and time as described in special relativity indeed amounts to a philosophical choice. The alternative presented in the article is inspired by the view in modern neuroscience that reality is a cognitive model in the brain based on our sensory inputs. Adopting this alternative reduces us to guessing the nature of the absolute reality and comparing its predicted projection to our real perception. It may simplify and elucidate some theories in physics and explain some puzzling phenomena in our universe. However, this option is yet another philosophical stance against the unknowable absolute reality.

Are Radio Sources and Gamma Ray Bursts Luminal Booms?

This article was published in the International Journal of Modern Physics D (IJMP–D) in 2007. It soon became the Top Accessed Article of the journal by Jan 2008.

Although it might seem like a hard core physics article, it is in fact an application of the philosophical insight permeating this blog and my book.

This blog version contains the abstract, introduction and conclusions. The full version of the article is available as a PDF file.

Journal Reference: IJMP-D Vol. 16, No. 6 (2007) pp. 983–1000.

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Abstract

The softening of the GRB afterglow bears remarkable similarities to the frequency evolution in a sonic boom. At the front end of the sonic boom cone, the frequency is infinite, much like a Gamma Ray Burst (GRB). Inside the cone, the frequency rapidly decreases to infrasonic ranges and the sound source appears at two places at the same time, mimicking the double-lobed radio sources. Although a “luminal” boom violates the Lorentz invariance and is therefore forbidden, it is tempting to work out the details and compare them with existing data. This temptation is further enhanced by the observed superluminality in the celestial objects associated with radio sources and some GRBs. In this article, we calculate the temporal and spatial variation of observed frequencies from a hypothetical luminal boom and show remarkable similarity between our calculations and current observations.

Introduction

A sonic boom is created when an object emitting sound passes through the medium faster than the speed of sound in that medium. As the object traverses the medium, the sound it emits creates a conical wavefront, as shown in Figure 1. The sound frequency at this wavefront is infinite because of the Doppler shift. The frequency behind the conical wavefront drops dramatically and soon reaches the infrasonic range. This frequency evolution is remarkably similar to afterglow evolution of a gamma ray burst (GRB).

Sonic Boom
Figure 1:. The frequency evolution of sound waves as a result of the Doppler effect in supersonic motion. The supersonic object S is moving along the arrow. The sound waves are “inverted” due to the motion, so that the waves emitted at two different points in the trajectory merge and reach the observer (at O) at the same time. When the wavefront hits the observer, the frequency is infinity. After that, the frequency rapidly decreases.

Gamma Ray Bursts are very brief, but intense flashes of \gamma rays in the sky, lasting from a few milliseconds to several minutes, and are currently believed to emanate from cataclysmic stellar collapses. The short flashes (the prompt emissions) are followed by an afterglow of progressively softer energies. Thus, the initial \gamma rays are promptly replaced by X-rays, light and even radio frequency waves. This softening of the spectrum has been known for quite some time, and was first described using a hypernova (fireball) model. In this model, a relativistically expanding fireball produces the \gamma emission, and the spectrum softens as the fireball cools down. The model calculates the energy released in the \gamma region as 10^ {53}10^ {54} ergs in a few seconds. This energy output is similar to about 1000 times the total energy released by the sun over its entire lifetime.

More recently, an inverse decay of the peak energy with varying time constant has been used to empirically fit the observed time evolution of the peak energy using a collapsar model. According to this model, GRBs are produced when the energy of highly relativistic flows in stellar collapses are dissipated, with the resulting radiation jets angled properly with respect to our line of sight. The collapsar model estimates a lower energy output because the energy release is not isotropic, but concentrated along the jets. However, the rate of the collapsar events has to be corrected for the fraction of the solid angle within which the radiation jets can appear as GRBs. GRBs are observed roughly at the rate of once a day. Thus, the expected rate of the cataclysmic events powering the GRBs is of the order of 10^410^6 per day. Because of this inverse relationship between the rate and the estimated energy output, the total energy released per observed GRB remains the same.

If we think of a GRB as an effect similar to the sonic boom in supersonic motion, the assumed cataclysmic energy requirement becomes superfluous. Another feature of our perception of supersonic object is that we hear the sound source at two different location as the same time, as illustrated in Figure 2. This curious effect takes place because the sound waves emitted at two different points in the trajectory of the supersonic object reach the observer at the same instant in time. The end result of this effect is the perception of a symmetrically receding pair of sound sources, which, in the luminal world, is a good description of symmetric radio sources (Double Radio source Associated with Galactic Nucleus or DRAGN).

superluminality
Figure 2:. The object is flying from to A through and B at a constant supersonic speed. Imagine that the object emits sound during its travel. The sound emitted at the point (which is near the point of closest approach B) reaches the observer at O before the sound emitted earlier at . The instant when the sound at an earlier point reaches the observer, the sound emitted at a much later point A also reaches O. So, the sound emitted at A and reaches the observer at the same time, giving the impression that the object is at these two points at the same time. In other words, the observer hears two objects moving away from rather than one real object.

Radio Sources are typically symmetric and seem associated with galactic cores, currently considered manifestations of space-time singularities or neutron stars. Different classes of such objects associated with Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) were found in the last fifty years. Figure 3 shows the radio galaxy Cygnus A, an example of such a radio source and one of the brightest radio objects. Many of its features are common to most extragalactic radio sources: the symmetric double lobes, an indication of a core, an appearance of jets feeding the lobes and the hotspots. Some researchers have reported more detailed kinematical features, such as the proper motion of the hotspots in the lobes.

Symmetric radio sources (galactic or extragalactic) and GRBs may appear to be completely distinct phenomena. However, their cores show a similar time evolution in the peak energy, but with vastly different time constants. The spectra of GRBs rapidly evolve from \gamma region to an optical or even RF afterglow, similar to the spectral evolution of the hotspots of a radio source as they move from the core to the lobes. Other similarities have begun to attract attention in the recent years.

This article explores the similarities between a hypothetical “luminal” boom and these two astrophysical phenomena, although such a luminal boom is forbidden by the Lorentz invariance. Treating GRB as a manifestation of a hypothetical luminal boom results in a model that unifies these two phenomena and makes detailed predictions of their kinematics.

CygA
Figure 3:.The radio jet and lobes in the hyperluminous radio galaxy Cygnus A. The hotspots in the two lobes, the core region and the jets are clearly visible. (Reproduced from an image courtesy of NRAO/AUI.)

Conclusions

In this article, we looked at the spatio-temporal evolution of a supersonic object (both in its position and the sound frequency we hear). We showed that it closely resembles GRBs and DRAGNs if we were to extend the calculations to light, although a luminal boom would necessitate superluminal motion and is therefore forbidden.

This difficulty notwithstanding, we presented a unified model for Gamma Ray Bursts and jet like radio sources based on bulk superluminal motion. We showed that a single superluminal object flying across our field of vision would appear to us as the symmetric separation of two objects from a fixed core. Using this fact as the model for symmetric jets and GRBs, we explained their kinematic features quantitatively. In particular, we showed that the angle of separation of the hotspots was parabolic in time, and the redshifts of the two hotspots were almost identical to each other. Even the fact that the spectra of the hotspots are in the radio frequency region is explained by assuming hyperluminal motion and the consequent redshift of the black body radiation of a typical star. The time evolution of the black body radiation of a superluminal object is completely consistent with the softening of the spectra observed in GRBs and radio sources. In addition, our model explains why there is significant blue shift at the core regions of radio sources, why radio sources seem to be associated with optical galaxies and why GRBs appear at random points with no advance indication of their impending appearance.

Although it does not address the energetics issues (the origin of superluminality), our model presents an intriguing option based on how we would perceive hypothetical superluminal motion. We presented a set of predictions and compared them to existing data from DRAGNs and GRBs. The features such as the blueness of the core, symmetry of the lobes, the transient \gamma and X-Ray bursts, the measured evolution of the spectra along the jet all find natural and simple explanations in this model as perceptual effects. Encouraged by this initial success, we may accept our model based on luminal boom as a working model for these astrophysical phenomena.

It has to be emphasized that perceptual effects can masquerade as apparent violations of traditional physics. An example of such an effect is the apparent superluminal motion, which was explained and anticipated within the context of the special theory of relativity even before it was actually observed. Although the observation of superluminal motion was the starting point behind the work presented in this article, it is by no means an indication of the validity of our model. The similarity between a sonic boom and a hypothetical luminal boom in spatio-temporal and spectral evolution is presented here as a curious, albeit probably unsound, foundation for our model.

One can, however, argue that the special theory of relativity (SR) does not deal with superluminality and, therefore, superluminal motion and luminal booms are not inconsistent with SR. As evidenced by the opening statements of Einstein’s original paper, the primary motivation for SR is a covariant formulation of Maxwell’s equations, which requires a coordinate transformation derived based partly on light travel time (LTT) effects, and partly on the assumption that light travels at the same speed with respect to all inertial frames. Despite this dependence on LTT, the LTT effects are currently assumed to apply on a space-time that obeys SR. SR is a redefinition of space and time (or, more generally, reality) in order to accommodate its two basic postulates. It may be that there is a deeper structure to space-time, of which SR is only our perception, filtered through the LTT effects. By treating them as an optical illusion to be applied on a space-time that obeys SR, we may be double counting them. We may avoid the double counting by disentangling the covariance of Maxwell’s equations from the coordinate transformations part of SR. Treating the LTT effects separately (without attributing their consequences to the basic nature of space and time), we can accommodate superluminality and obtain elegant explanations of the astrophysical phenomena described in this article. Our unified explanation for GRBs and symmetric radio sources, therefore, has implications as far reaching as our basic understanding of the nature of space and time.


Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Constraints of Perception and Cognition in Relativistic Physics

This post is an abridged online version of my article that appears in Galilean Electrodynamics in November, 2008. [Ref: Galilean Electrodynamics, Vol. 19, No. 6, Nov/Dec 2008, pp: 103–117] ()

Cognitive neuroscience treats space and time as our brain’s representation of our sensory inputs. In this view, our perceptual reality is only a distant and convenient mapping of the physical processes causing the sensory inputs. Sound is a mapping of auditory inputs, and space is a representation of visual inputs. Any limitation in the chain of sensing has a specific manifestation on the cognitive representation that is our reality. One physical limitation of our visual sensing is the finite speed of light, which manifests itself as a basic property of our space-time. In this article, we look at the consequences of the limited speed of our perception, namely the speed of light, and show that they are remarkably similar to the coordinate transformation in special relativity. From this observation, and inspired by the notion that space is merely a cognitive model created out of light signal inputs, we examine the implications of treating special relativity theory as a formalism for describing the perceptual effects due to the finite speed of light. Using this framework, we show that we can unify and explain a wide array of seemingly unrelated astrophysical and cosmological phenomena. Once we identify the manifestations of the limitations in our perception and cognitive representation, we can understand the consequent constraints on our space and time, leading to a new understanding of astrophysics and cosmology.

Key words: cognitive neuroscience; reality; special relativity; light travel time effect; gamma rays bursts; cosmic microwave background radiation.

1. Introduction

Our reality is a mental picture that our brain creates, starting from our sensory inputs [1]. Although this cognitive map is often assumed to be a faithful image of the physical causes behind the sensing process, the causes themselves are entirely different from the perceptual experience of sensing. The difference between the cognitive representation and their physical causes is not immediately obvious when we consider our primary sense of sight. But, we can appreciate the difference by looking at the olfactory and auditory senses because we can use our cognitive model based on sight in order to understand the workings of the ‘lesser’ senses. Odors, which may appear to be a property of the air we breathe, are in fact our brain’s representation of the chemical signatures that our noses sense. Similarly, sound is not an intrinsic property of a vibrating body, but our brain’s mechanism to represent the pressure waves in the air that our ears sense. Table I shows the chain from the physical causes of the sensory input to the final reality as the brain creates it. Although the physical causes can be identified for the olfactory and auditory chains, they are not easily discerned for visual process. Since sight is the most powerful sense we possess, we are obliged to accept our brain’s representation of visual inputs as the fundamental reality.

While our visual reality provides an excellent framework for physical sciences, it is important to realize that the reality itself is a model with potential physical or physiological limitations and distortions. The tight integration between the physiology of perception and its representation in the brain was proven recently in a clever experiment using the tactile funneling illusion [2]. This illusion results in a single tactile sensation at the focal point at the center of a stimulus pattern even though no stimulation is applied at that site. In the experiment, the brain activation region corresponded to the focal point where the sensation was perceived, rather than the points where the stimuli were applied, proving that the brain registered perceptions, not the physical causes of the perceived reality. In other words, for the brain, there is no difference between applying the pattern of the stimuli and applying only one stimulus at the center of the pattern. The brain maps the sensory inputs to regions that correspond to their perception, rather than the regions that physiologically correspond to the sensory stimuli.

Sense modality: Physical cause: Sensed signal: Brain’s model:
Olfactory Chemicals Chemical reactions Smells
Auditory Vibrations Pressure waves Sounds
Visual Unknown Light Space, time
reality

Table I: The brain’s representation of different sensory inputs. Odors are a representation of chemical compositions and concentration our nose senses. Sounds are a mapping of the air pressure waves produced by a vibrating object. In sight, we do not know the physical reality, our representation is space, and possibly time.

The neurological localization of different aspects of reality has been established in neuroscience by lesion studies. The perception of motion (and the consequent basis of our sense of time), for instance, is so localized that a tiny lesion can erase it completely. Cases of patients with such specific loss of a part of reality [1] illustrate the fact that our experience of reality, every aspect of it, is indeed a creation of the brain. Space and time are aspects of the cognitive representation in our brain.

Space is a perceptual experience much like sound. Comparisons between the auditory and visual modes of sensing can be useful in understanding the limitations of their representations in the brain. One limitation is the input ranges of the sensory organs. Ears are sensitive in the frequency range 20Hz-20kHz, and eyes are limited to the visible spectrum. Another limitation, which may exist in specific individuals, is an inadequate representation of the inputs. Such a limitation can lead to tone-deafness and color-blindness, for instance. The speed of the sense modality also introduces an effect, such as the time lag between seeing an event and hearing the corresponding sound. For visual perception, a consequence of the finite speed of light is called a Light Travel Time (LTT) effect. LLT offers one possible interpretation for the observed superluminal motion in certain celestial objects [3,4]: when an object approaches the observer at a shallow angle, it may appear to move much faster than reality [5] due to LTT.

Other consequences of the LTT effects in our perception are remarkably similar to the coordinate transformation of the special relativity theory (SRT). These consequences include an apparent contraction of a receding object along its direction of motion and a time dilation effect. Furthermore, a receding object can never appear to be going faster than the speed of light, even if its real speed is superluminal. While SRT does not explicitly forbid it, superluminality is understood to lead to time travel and the consequent violations of causality. An apparent violation of causality is one of the consequences of LTT, when the superluminal object is approaching the observer. All these LTT effects are remarkably similar to effects predicted by SRT, and are currently taken as ‘confirmation’ that space-time obeys SRT. But instead, space-time may have a deeper structure that, when filtered through LTT effects, results in our perception that space-time obeys SRT.

Once we accept the neuroscience view of reality as a representation of our sensory inputs, we can understand why the speed of light figures so prominently in our physical theories. The theories of physics are a description of reality. Reality is created out of the readings from our senses, especially our eyes. They work at the speed of light. Thus the sanctity accorded to the speed of light is a feature only of our reality, not the absolute, ultimate reality that our senses are striving to perceive. When it comes to physics that describes phenomena well beyond our sensory ranges, we really have to take into account the role that our perception and cognition play in seeing them. The Universe as we see it is only a cognitive model created out of the photons falling on our retina or on the photo-sensors of the Hubble telescope. Because of the finite speed of the information carrier (namely photons), our perception is distorted in such a way as to give us the impression that space and time obey SRT. They do, but space and time are not the absolute reality. “Space and time are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live,” as Einstein himself put it. Treating our perceived reality as our brain’s representation of our visual inputs (filtered through the LTT effect), we will see that all the strange effects of the coordinate transformation in SRT can be understood as the manifestations of the finite speed of our senses in our space and time.

Furthermore, we will show that this line of thinking leads to natural explanations for two classes of astrophysical phenomena:

Gamma Ray Bursts, which are very brief, but intense flashes of \gamma rays, currently believed to emanate from cataclysmic stellar collapses, and Radio Sources, which are typically symmetric and seem associated with galactic cores, currently considered manifestations of space-time singularities or neutron stars. These two astrophysical phenomena appear distinct and unrelated, but they can be unified and explained using LTT effects. This article presents such a unified quantitative model. It will also show that the cognitive limitations to reality due to LTT effects can provide qualitative explanations for such cosmological features as the apparent expansion of the Universe and the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR). Both these phenomena can be understood as related to our perception of superluminal objects. It is the unification of these seemingly distinct phenomena at vastly different length and time scales, along with its conceptual simplicity, that we hold as the indicators of validity of this framework.

2. Similarities between LTT Effects & SRT

The coordinate transformation derived in Einstein’s original paper [6] is, in part, a manifestation of the LTT effects and the consequence of imposing the constancy of light speed in all inertial frames. This is most obvious in the first thought experiment, where observers moving with a rod find their clocks not synchronized due to the difference in LTT’s along the length of the rod. However, in the current interpretation of SRT, the coordinate transformation is considered a basic property of space and time. One difficulty that arises from this formulation is that the definition of the relative velocity between the two inertial frames becomes ambiguous. If it is the velocity of the moving frame as measured by the observer, then the observed superluminal motion in radio jets starting from the core region becomes a violation of SRT. If it is a velocity that we have to deduce by considering LTT effects, then we have to employ the extra ad-hoc assumption that superluminality is forbidden. These difficulties suggest that it may be better to disentangle the LTT effects from the rest of SRT. Although not attempted in this paper, the primary motivation for SRT, namely the covariance of Maxwell’s equations, may be accomplished even without attributing LTT effects to the properties of space and time.

In this Section, we will consider space and time as a part of the cognitive model created by the brain, and illustrate that SRT applies to the cognitive model. The absolute reality (of which the SRT-like space-time is our perception) does not have to obey the restrictions of SRT. In particular, objects are not restricted to subluminal speeds, even though they may appear to us as if they are restricted to subluminal speeds in our perception of space and time. If we disentangle LTT effects from the rest of SRT, we can understand a wide array of phenomena, as shown in this article.

SRT seeks a linear coordinate transformation between coordinate systems in motion with respect to each other. We can trace the origin of linearity to a hidden assumption on the nature of space and time built into SRT, as stated by Einstein [6]: “In the first place it is clear that the equations must be linear on account of the properties of homogeneity which we attribute to space and time.” Because of this assumption of linearity, the original derivation of the transformation equations ignores the asymmetry between approaching and receding objects and concentrates on receding objects. Both approaching and receding objects can be described by two coordinate systems that are always receding from each other. For instance, if a system K is moving with respect to another system k along the positive X axis of k, then an object at rest in K at a positive x is approaching an observer at the origin of k. Unlike SRT, considerations based on LTT effects result in intrinsically different set of transformation laws for objects approaching an observer and those receding from him. More generally, the transformation depends on the angle between the velocity of the object and the observer’s line of sight. Since the transformation equations based on LTT effects treat approaching and receding objects asymmetrically, they provide a natural solution to the twin paradox, for instance.

2.1 First Order Perceptual Effects

For approaching and receding objects, the relativistic effects are second order in speed \beta, and speed typically appears as \sqrt{1-\beta^2}. The LTT effects, on the other hand, are first order in speed. The first order effects have been studied in the last fifty years in terms of the appearance of a relativistically moving extended body [7-15]. It has also been suggested that the relativistic Doppler effect can be considered the geometric mean [16] of more basic calculations. The current belief is that the first order effects are an optical illusion to be taken out of our perception of reality. Once these effects are taken out or ‘deconvolved’ from the observations, the ‘real’ space and time are assumed to obey SRT. Note that this assumption is impossible to verify because the deconvolution is an ill-posed problem – there are multiple solutions to the absolute reality that all result in the same perceptual picture. Not all the solutions obey SRT.

The notion that it is the absolute reality that obeys SRT ushers in a deeper philosophical problem. This notion is tantamount to insisting that space and time are in fact ‘intuitions’ beyond sensory perception rather than a cognitive picture created by our brain out of the sensory inputs it receives. A formal critique of the Kantian intuitions of space and time is beyond the scope of this article. Here, we take the position that it is our observed or perceived reality that obeys SRT and explore where it leads us. In other words, we assume that SRT is nothing but a formalization of the perceptual effects. These effects are not first order in speed when the object is not directly approaching (or receding from) the observer, as we will see later. We will show in this article that a treatment of SRT as a perceptual effect will give us natural solution for astrophysical phenomena like gamma ray bursts and symmetric radio jets.

2.2 Perception of Speed

We first look at how the perception of motion is modulated by LTT effects. As remarked earlier, the transformation equations of SRT treat only objects receding from the observer. For this reason, we first consider a receding object, flying away from the observer at a speed \beta of the object depends on the real speed b (as shown in Appendix A.1):


\beta_O ,=, \frac{\beta}{1,+,\beta}            (1)
\lim_{\beta\to\infty} \beta_O ,=, 1           (2)

Thus, due to LTT effects, an infinite real velocity gets mapped to an apparent velocity \beta_O=1. In other words, no object can appear to travel faster than the speed of light, entirely consistent with SRT.

Physically, this apparent speed limit amounts to a mapping of c to \infty. This mapping is most obvious in its consequences. For instance, it takes an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object to an apparent speed \beta_O=1 because, in reality, we are accelerating it to an infinite speed. This infinite energy requirement can also be viewed as the relativistic mass changing with speed, reaching \infty at \beta_O=1. Einstein explained this mapping as: “For velocities greater than that of light our deliberations become meaningless; we shall, however, find in what follows, that the velocity of light in our theory plays the part, physically, of an infinitely great velocity.” Thus, for objects receding from the observer, the effects of LTT are almost identical to the consequences of SRT, in terms of the perception of speed.

2.3 Time Dilation
Time Dilation
Figure 1
Figure 1:. Comparison between light travel time (LTT) effects and the predictions of the special theory of relativity (SR). The X-axis is the apparent speed and the Y-axis shows the relative time dilation or length contraction.

LTT effects influence the way time at the moving object is perceived. Imagine an object receding from the observer at a constant rate. As it moves away, the successive photons emitted by the object take longer and longer to reach the observer because they are emitted at farther and farther away. This travel time delay gives the observer the illusion that time is flowing slower for the moving object. It can be easily shown (see Appendix A.2) that the time interval observed \Delta t_O is related to the real time interval \Delta t as:


  \frac{\Delta t_O}{\Delta t} ,=, \frac{1}{1-\beta_O}          (3)

for an object receding from the observer (\theta=\pi). This observed time dilation is plotted in Fig. 1, where it is compared to the time dilation predicted in SR. Note that the time dilation due to LTT has a bigger magnitude than the one predicted in SR. However, the variation is similar, with both time dilations tending to \infty as the observed speed tends to c.

2.4 Length Contraction

The length of an object in motion also appears different due to LTT effects. It can be shown (see Appendix A.3) that observed length d_O as:


\frac{d_O}{d} ,=, {1-\beta_O}           (4)

for an object receding from the observer with an apparent speed of \beta_O. This equation also is plotted in Fig. 1. Note again that the LTT effects are stronger than the ones predicted in SRT.

Fig. 1 illustrates that both time dilation and Lorentz contraction can be thought of as LTT effects. While the actual magnitudes of LTT effects are larger than what SRT predicts, their qualitative dependence on speed is almost identical. This similarity is not surprising because the coordinate transformation in SRT is partly based on LTT effects. If LTT effects are to be applied, as an optical illusion, on top of the consequences of SRT as currently believed, then the total observed length contraction and time dilation will be significantly more than the SRT predictions.

2.5 Doppler Shift
The rest of the article (the sections up to Conclusions) has been abridged and can be read in the PDF version.
()

5 Conclusions

In this article, we started with an insight from cognitive neuroscience about the nature of reality. Reality is a convenient representation that our brain creates out of our sensory inputs. This representation, though convenient, is an incredibly distant experiential mapping of the actual physical causes that make up the inputs to our senses. Furthermore, limitations in the chain of sensing and perception map to measurable and predictable manifestations to the reality we perceive. One such fundamental constraint to our perceived reality is the speed of light, and the corresponding manifestations, LTT effects. Because space and time are a part of a reality created out of light inputs to our eyes, some of their properties are manifestations of LTT effects, especially on our perception of motion. The absolute, physical reality generating the light inputs does not obey the properties we ascribe to our perceived space and time. We showed that LTT effects are qualitatively identical to those of SRT, noting that SRT only considers frames of reference receding from each other. This similarity is not surprising because the coordinate transformation in SRT is derived based partly on LTT effects, and partly on the assumption that light travels at the same speed with respect to all inertial frames. In treating it as a manifestation of LTT, we did not address the primary motivation of SRT, which is a covariant formulation of Maxwell’s equations, as evidenced by the opening statements of Einstein’s original paper [6]. It may be possible to disentangle the covariance of electrodynamics from the coordinate transformation, although it is not attempted in this article.

Unlike SRT, LTT effects are asymmetric. This asymmetry provides a resolution to the twin paradox and an interpretation of the assumed causality violations associated with superluminality. Furthermore, the perception of superluminality is modulated by LTT effects, and explains g ray bursts and symmetric jets. As we showed in the article, perception of superluminal motion also holds an explanation for cosmological phenomena like the expansion of the Universe and cosmic microwave background radiation. LTT effects should be considered as a fundamental constraint in our perception, and consequently in physics, rather than as a convenient explanation for isolated phenomena. Given that our perception is filtered through LTT effects, we have to deconvolute them from our perceived reality in order to understand the nature of the absolute, physical reality. This deconvolution, however, results in multiple solutions. Thus, the absolute, physical reality is beyond our grasp, and any assumed properties of the absolute reality can only be validated through how well the resultant perceived reality agrees with our observations. In this article, we assumed that the absolute reality obeys our intuitively obvious classical mechanics and asked the question how such a reality would be perceived when filtered through LTT effects. We demonstrated that this particular treatment could explain certain astrophysical and cosmological phenomena that we observe. The distinction between the different notions of velocity, including the proper velocity and the Einsteinian velocity, was the subject matter of a recent issue of this journal [33].

The coordinate transformation in SRT should be viewed as a redefinition of space and time (or, more generally, reality) in order to accommodate the distortions in our perception of motion due to LTT effects. The absolute reality behind our perception is not subject to restrictions of SRT. One may be tempted to argue that SRT applies to the ‘real’ space and time, not our perception. This line of argument begs the question, what is real? Reality is nothing but a cognitive model created in our brain starting from our sensory inputs, visual inputs being the most significant. Space itself is a part of this cognitive model. The properties of space are a mapping of the constraints of our perception. We have no access to a reality beyond our perception. The choice of accepting our perception as a true image of reality and redefining space and time as described in SRT indeed amounts to a philosophical choice. The alternative presented in the article is prompted by the view in modern neuroscience that reality is a cognitive model in the brain based on our sensory inputs. Adopting this alternative reduces us to guessing the nature of the absolute reality and comparing its predicted projection to our real perception. It may simplify and elucidate some theories in physics and explain some puzzling phenomena in our Universe. However, this option is yet another philosophical stance against the unknowable absolute reality.

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The Unreal Universe — Seeing Light in Science and Spirituality

We know that our universe is a bit unreal. The stars we see in the night sky, for instance, are not really there. They may have moved or even died by the time we get to see them. This delay is due to the time it takes for light from the distant stars and galaxies to reach us. We know of this delay.

The same delay in seeing has a lesser known manifestation in the way we perceive moving objects. It distorts our perception such that something coming towards us would look as though it is coming in faster. Strange as it may sound, this effect has been observed in astrophysical studies. Some of the heavenly bodies do look as though they are moving several times the speed of light, while their “real” speed is probably a lot lower.

Now, this effect raises an interesting question–what is the “real” speed? If seeing is believing, the speed we see should be the real speed. Then again, we know of the light travel time effect. So we should correct the speed we see before believing it. What then does “seeing” mean? When we say we see something, what do we really mean?

Light in Physics

Seeing involves light, obviously. The finite speed of light influences and distorts the way we see things. This fact should hardly come as a surprise because we do know that things are not as we see them. The sun that we see is already eight minutes old by the time we see it. This delay is not a big deal; if we want to know what is going on at the sun now, all we have to do is to wait for eight minutes. We, nonetheless, have to “correct” for the distortions in our perception due to the finite speed of light before we can trust what we see.

What is surprising (and seldom highlighted) is that when it comes to sensing motion, we cannot back-calculate the same way we take out the delay in seeing the sun. If we see a celestial body moving at an improbably high speed, we cannot figure out how fast and in what direction it is “really” moving without making further assumptions. One way of handling this difficulty is to ascribe the distortions in our perception to the fundamental properties of the arena of physics — space and time. Another course of action is to accept the disconnection between our perception and the underlying “reality” and deal with it in some way.

Einstein chose the first route. In his groundbreaking paper over a hundred years ago, he introduced the special theory of relativity, in which he attributed the manifestations of the finite speed of light to the fundamental properties of space and time. One core idea in special relativity (SR) is that the notion of simultaneity needs to be redefined because it takes some time for light from an event at a distant place to reach us, and we become aware of the event. The concept of “Now” doesn’t make much sense, as we saw, when we speak of an event happening in the sun, for instance. Simultaneity is relative.

Einstein defined simultaneity using the instants in time we detect the event. Detection, as he defined it, involves a round-trip travel of light similar to Radar detection. We send out light, and look at the reflection. If the reflected light from two events reaches us at the same instant, they are simultaneous.
Another way of defining simultaneity is using sensing — we can call two events simultaneous if the light from them reaches us at the same instant. In other words, we can use the light generated by the objects under observation rather than sending light to them and looking at the reflection.

This difference may sound like a hair-splitting technicality, but it does make an enormous difference in the predictions we can make. Einstein’s choice results in a mathematical picture that has many desirable properties, thereby making further development elegant.

The other possibility has an advantage when it comes to describing objects in motion because it corresponds better with how we measure them. We don’t use Radar to see the stars in motion; we merely sense the light (or other radiation) coming from them. But this choice of using a sensory paradigm, rather than Radar-like detection, to describe the universe results in a slightly uglier mathematical picture.

The mathematical difference spawns different philosophical stances, which in turn percolate to the understanding of our physical picture of reality. As an illustration, let us look at an example from astrophysics. Suppose we observe (through a radio telescope, for instance) two objects in the sky, roughly of the same shape and properties. The only thing we know for sure is that the radio waves from two different points in the sky reach the radio telescope at the same instant in time. We can guess that the waves started their journey quite a while ago.

For symmetric objects, if we assume (as we routinely do) that the waves started the journey roughly at the same instant in time, we end up with a picture of two “real” symmetric lobes more or less the way see them.

But there is different possibility that the waves originated from the same object (which is in motion) at two different instants in time, reaching the telescope at the same instant. This possibility explains some spectral and temporal properties of such symmetric radio sources, which is what I mathematically described in a recent physics article. Now, which of these two pictures should we take as real? Two symmetric objects as we see them or one object moving in such a way as to give us that impression? Does it really matter which one is “real”? Does “real” mean anything in this context?

The philosophical stance in implied in special relativity answers this question unequivocally. There is an unambiguous physical reality from which we get the two symmetric radio sources, although it takes a bit of mathematical work to get to it. The mathematics rules out the possibility of a single object moving in such a fashion as to mimic two objects. Essentially, what we see is what is out there.

On the other hand, if we define simultaneity using concurrent arrival of light, we will be forced to admit the exact opposite. What we see is pretty far from what is out there. We will confess that we cannot unambiguously decouple the distortions due to the constraints in perception (the finite speed of light being the constraint of interest here) from what we see. There are multiple physical realities that can result in the same perceptual picture. The only philosophical stance that makes sense is the one that disconnects the sensed reality and the causes behind what is being sensed.

This disconnect is not uncommon in philosophical schools of thought. Phenomenalism, for instance, holds the view that space and time are not objective realities. They are merely the medium of our perception. All the phenomena that happen in space and time are merely bundles of our perception. In other words, space and time are cognitive constructs arising from perception. Thus, all the physical properties that we ascribe to space and time can only apply to the phenomenal reality (the reality as we sense it). The noumenal reality (which holds the physical causes of our perception), by contrast, remains beyond our cognitive reach.

The ramifications of the two different philosophical stances described above are tremendous. Since modern physics seems to embrace a non-phenomenalistic view of space and time, it finds itself at odds with that branch of philosophy. This chasm between philosophy and physics has grown to such a degree that the Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, wondered (in his book “Dreams of a Final Theory”) why the contribution from philosophy to physics have been so surprisingly small. It also prompts philosophers to make statements like, “Whether ‘noumenal reality causes phenomenal reality’ or whether ‘noumenal reality is independent of our sensing it’ or whether ‘we sense noumenal reality,’ the problem remains that the concept of noumenal reality is a totally redundant concept for the analysis of science.”

One, almost accidental, difficulty in redefining the effects of the finite speed of light as the properties of space and time is that any effect that we do understand gets instantly relegated to the realm of optical illusions. For instance, the eight-minute delay in seeing the sun, because we readily understand it and disassociate from our perception using simple arithmetic, is considered a mere optical illusion. However, the distortions in our perception of fast moving objects, although originating from the same source are considered a property of space and time because they are more complex.

We have to come to terms with the fact that when it comes to seeing the universe, there is no such thing as an optical illusion, which is probably what Goethe pointed out when he said, “Optical illusion is optical truth.”

The distinction (or lack thereof) between optical illusion and truth is one of the oldest debates in philosophy. After all, it is about the distinction between knowledge and reality. Knowledge is considered our view about something that, in reality, is “actually the case.” In other words, knowledge is a reflection, or a mental image of something external, as shown in the figure below.
Commonsense view of reality
In this picture, the black arrow represents the process of creating knowledge, which includes perception, cognitive activities, and the exercise of pure reason. This is the picture that physics has come to accept.
Alternate view of reality
While acknowledging that our perception may be imperfect, physics assumes that we can get closer and closer to the external reality through increasingly finer experimentation, and, more importantly, through better theorization. The Special and General Theories of Relativity are examples of brilliant applications of this view of reality where simple physical principles are relentlessly pursued using formidable machine of pure reason to their logically inevitable conclusions.

But there is another, alternative view of knowledge and reality that has been around for a long time. This is the view that regards perceived reality as an internal cognitive representation of our sensory inputs, as illustrated below.

In this view, knowledge and perceived reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate. What is external is not the reality as we perceive it, but an unknowable entity giving rise to the physical causes behind sensory inputs. In the illustration, the first arrow represents the process of sensing, and the second arrow represents the cognitive and logical reasoning steps. In order to apply this view of reality and knowledge, we have to guess the nature of the absolute reality, unknowable as it is. One possible candidate for the absolute reality is Newtonian mechanics, which gives a reasonable prediction for our perceived reality.

To summarize, when we try to handle the distortions due to perception, we have two options, or two possible philosophical stances. One is to accept the distortions as part of our space and time, as SR does. The other option is to assume that there is a “higher” reality distinct from our sensed reality, whose properties we can only conjecture. In other words, one option is to live with the distortion, while the other is to propose educated guesses for the higher reality. Neither of these options is particularly attractive. But the guessing path is similar to the view accepted in phenomenalism. It also leads naturally to how reality is viewed in cognitive neuroscience, which studies the biological mechanisms behind cognition.

In my view, the two options are not inherently distinct. The philosophical stance of SR can be thought of as coming from a deep understanding that space is merely a phenomenal construct. If the sense modality introduces distortions in the phenomenal picture, we may argue that one sensible way of handling it is to redefine the properties of the phenomenal reality.

Role of Light in Our Reality

From the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, everything we see, sense, feel and think is the result of the neuronal interconnections in our brain and the tiny electrical signals in them. This view must be right. What else is there? All our thoughts and worries, knowledge and beliefs, ego and reality, life and death — everything is merely neuronal firings in the one and half kilograms of gooey, grey material that we call our brain. There is nothing else. Nothing!

In fact, this view of reality in neuroscience is an exact echo of phenomenalism, which considers everything a bundle of perception or mental constructs. Space and time are also cognitive constructs in our brain, like everything else. They are mental pictures our brains concoct out of the sensory inputs that our senses receive. Generated from our sensory perception and fabricated by our cognitive process, the space-time continuum is the arena of physics. Of all our senses, sight is by far the dominant one. The sensory input to sight is light. In a space created by the brain out of the light falling on our retinas (or on the photo sensors of the Hubble telescope), is it a surprise that nothing can travel faster than light?

This philosophical stance is the basis of my book, The Unreal Universe, which explores the common threads binding physics and philosophy. Such philosophical musings usually get a bad rap from us physicists. To physicists, philosophy is an entirely different field, another silo of knowledge. We need to change this belief and appreciate the overlap among different knowledge silos. It is in this overlap that we can expect to find breakthroughs in human thought.

This philosophical grand-standing may sound presumptuous and the veiled self-admonition of physicists understandably unwelcome; but I am holding a trump card. Based on this philosophical stance, I have come up with a radically new model for two astrophysical phenomena, and published it in an article titled, “Are Radio Sources and Gamma Ray Bursts Luminal Booms?” in the well-known International Journal of Modern Physics D in June 2007. This article, which soon became one of the top accessed articles of the journal by Jan 2008, is a direct application of the view that the finite speed of light distorts the way we perceive motion. Because of these distortions, the way we see things is a far cry from the way they are.

We may be tempted to think that we can escape such perceptual constraints by using technological extensions to our senses such as radio telescopes, electron microscopes or spectroscopic speed measurements. After all, these instruments do not have “perception” per se and should be immune to the human weaknesses we suffer from. But these soulless instruments also measure our universe using information carriers limited to the speed of light. We, therefore, cannot escape the basic constraints of our perception even when we use modern instruments. In other words, the Hubble telescope may see a billion light years farther than our naked eyes, but what it sees is still a billion years older than what our eyes see.

Our reality, whether technologically enhanced or built upon direct sensory inputs, is the end result of our perceptual process. To the extent that our long range perception is based on light (and is therefore limited to its speed), we get only a distorted picture of the universe.

Light in Philosophy and Spirituality

The twist to this story of light and reality is that we seem to have known all this for a long time. Classical philosophical schools seem to have thought along lines very similar to Einstein’s thought experiment.

Once we appreciate the special place accorded to light in modern science, we have to ask ourselves how different our universe would have been in the absence of light. Of course, light is only a label we attach to a sensory experience. Therefore, to be more accurate, we have to ask a different question: if we did not have any senses that responded to what we call light, would that affect the form of the universe?

The immediate answer from any normal (that is, non-philosophical) person is that it is obvious. If everybody is blind, everybody is blind. But the existence of the universe is independent of whether we can see it or not. Is it though? What does it mean to say the universe exists if we cannot sense it? Ah… the age-old conundrum of the falling tree in a deserted forest. Remember, the universe is a cognitive construct or a mental representation of the light input to our eyes. It is not “out there,” but in the neurons of our brain, as everything else is. In the absence of light in our eyes, there is no input to be represented, ergo no universe.

If we had sensed the universe using modalities that operated at other speeds (echolocation, for instance), it is those speeds that would have figured in the fundamental properties of space and time. This is the inescapable conclusion from phenomenalism.

The role of light in creating our reality or universe is at the heart of Western religious thinking. A universe devoid of light is not simply a world where you have switched off the lights. It is indeed a universe devoid of itself, a universe that doesn’t exist. It is in this context that we have to understand the wisdom behind the statement that “the earth was without form, and void” until God caused light to be, by saying “Let there be light.”

The Quran also says, “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth,” which is mirrored in one of the ancient Hindu writings: “Lead me from darkness to light, lead me from the unreal to the real.” The role of light in taking us from the unreal void (the nothingness) to a reality was indeed understood for a long, long time. Is it possible that the ancient saints and prophets knew things that we are only now beginning to uncover with all our supposed advances in knowledge?

I know I may be rushing in where angels fear to tread, for reinterpreting the scriptures is a dangerous game. Such foreign interpretations are seldom welcome in the theological circles. But I seek refuge in the fact that I am looking for concurrence in the metaphysical views of spiritual philosophies, without diminishing their mystical or theological value.

The parallels between the noumenal-phenomenal distinction in phenomenalism and the Brahman-Maya distinction in Advaita are hard to ignore. This time-tested wisdom on the nature of reality from the repertoire of spirituality is now reinvented in modern neuroscience, which treats reality as a cognitive representation created by the brain. The brain uses the sensory inputs, memory, consciousness, and even language as ingredients in concocting our sense of reality. This view of reality, however, is something physics is yet to come to terms with. But to the extent that its arena (space and time) is a part of reality, physics is not immune to philosophy.

As we push the boundaries of our knowledge further and further, we are beginning to discover hitherto unsuspected and often surprising interconnections between different branches of human efforts. In the final analysis, how can the diverse domains of our knowledge be independent of each other when all our knowledge resides in our brain? Knowledge is a cognitive representation of our experiences. But then, so is reality; it is a cognitive representation of our sensory inputs. It is a fallacy to think that knowledge is our internal representation of an external reality, and therefore distinct from it. Knowledge and reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate.

Recognizing and making use of the interconnections among the different domains of human endeavour may be the catalyst for the next breakthrough in our collective wisdom that we have been waiting for.

Sony World Band Radio

I recently bought a Sony World Band Radio receiver. It is a beautiful machine with some twenty frequency bands and all kinds of locks and tricks to latch on to distant radio stations. I bought it for my father, who is fond of listening to his radio late into the night.

Two days after I bought the radio, my father suffered a severe heart failure. A congestive heart failure (CHF) is not to be confused with a heart attack. The symptoms of a CHF are deceptively similar to an asthma attack, which can be doubly treacherous if the patient already has respiratory troubles because the early care may get directed to the lungs while the troubled heart may be ignored. So I thought I would discuss the symptoms here in the hope that it will help those with aging family members who may otherwise misidentify a potential CHF. Much more information is available on the Internet; try Googling “congestive heart failure.”

For asthma patients, a danger sign of a heart failure is persistent breathing difficulty despite inhalation medication. Watch out for breathing trouble that increases when they lie down, and subsides when they sit up. They may have consequent sleeplessness. If they show the symptoms of water retention (swelling in lower limps or neck, unexpected sudden weight gain etc.), and if they have other risk factors (hypertension, irregular heart beat), please do not wait, rush to the hospital.

The prognosis for CHF is not good. It is a chronic condition, progressive and terminal. In other words, it is not something we catch like the flu and get better soon. Depending on the stage the patient is, we have to worry about the quality of life, palliative care or even end of life care. Once a heart has started failing, it is difficult to reverse the progression of the onslaught. There are no easy solutions, no silver bullets. What we can concentrate on, really, is the quality of their life. And the grace and dignity with which they leave it. For most of them, it is their last act. Let’s make it a good one.

By my father’s bedside now, listening to the Sony, with all these sad thoughts in my head, I remember my first taste of real winter in the fall of 1987 in Syracuse. I was listening to the weatherman of the local radio station (was it WSYR?). While lamenting the temperatures going south, he observed, rather philosophically, “C’mon, we all know there’s only one way the temperatures can go.” Yes, we know that there is only one way things can go from here. But we still mourn the passing of a summer full of sunshine and blue skies.

The Sony radio plays on, impervious to these doleful musings, with young happy voices dishing out songs and jokes for the benefit of a new generation of yuppie commuters full of gusto and eagerness to conquer a world. Little do they know — it was all conquered many times over during the summers of yester years with the same gusto and passion. The old vanguards step aside willingly and make room for the children of new summers.

The new generation has different tastes. They hum to different iTunes on their iPods. This beautiful radio receiver, with most of it seventeen odd short wave bands now silent, is probably the last of its kind. The music and jokes of the next generation have changed. Their hair-do and styles have changed. But the new campaigners charge in with the same dreams of glory as the ones before them. Theirs is the same gusto. Same passion.

Perhaps nothing and nobody really passes on. We all leave behind a little bit of ourselves, tiny echoes of our conquests, memories in those dear to us, and miniscule additions to the mythos that will live on. Like teardrops in the rain.