Tag Archives: Physics

Essays, Journal Articles, Discussion Forum Posts…

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.

Ghost of Gravity

It has been a while since my last post. I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance again just now, and came to the part where Pirsig compares scientific beliefs and superstitions. I thought I would paraphrase it and share it with my readers. But it is perhaps best to borrow his own words: “The laws of physics and of logic — the number system — the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real. For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity. So when did this law start? Has it always existed? What I’m driving at is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed. Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere…this law of gravity still existed? If that law of gravity existed, I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still ‘common sense’ to believe that it existed.

“Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense. And what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”

[This quote is from an online version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.]

Only a Matter of Time

Although we speak of space and time in the same breath, they are quite different in many ways. Space is something we perceive all around us. We see it (rather, objects in it), we can move our hand through it, and we know that if our knee tries to occupy the same space as, say, the coffee table, it is going to hurt. In other words, we have sensory correlates to our notion of space, starting from our most precious sense of sight.

Time, on the other hand, has no direct sensory backing. And for this reason, it becomes quite difficult to get a grip over it. What is time? We sense it indirectly through change and motion. But it would be silly to define time using the concepts of change and motion, because they already include the notion of time. The definition would be cyclic.

Assuming, for now, that no definition is necessary, let’s try another perhaps more tractable issue. Where does this strong sense of time come from? I once postulated that it comes from our knowledge of our demise — that questionable gift that we all possess. All the time durations that we are aware of are measured against the yardstick of our lifespan, perhaps not always consciously. I now wonder if this postulate is firm enough, and further ruminations on this issue have convinced me that I am quite ignorant of these things and need more knowledge. Ah.. only if I had more time. 🙂

In any case, even this more restricted question of the origin of time doesn’t seem to be that tractable, after all. Physics has another deep problem with time. It has to do with the directionality. It cannot easily explain why time has a direction — an arrow, as it were. This arrow does not present itself in the fundamental laws governing physical interactions. All the laws in physics are time reversible. The laws of gravity, electromagnetism or quantum mechanics are all invariant with respect to a time reversal. That is to say, they look the same with time going forward or backward. So they give no clue as to why we experience the arrow of time.

Yet, we know that time, as we experience it, is directional. We can remember the past, but not the future. What we do now can affect the future, but not the past. If we play a video tape backwards, the sequence of events (like broken pieces of glass coming together to for a vase) will look funny to us. However, if we taped the motion of the planets in a solar system, or the electron cloud in an atom, and played it backward to a physicist, he would not find anything funny in the sequences because the physical laws are reversible.

Physics considers the arrow of time an emergent property of statistical collections. To illustrate this thermodynamic explanation of time, let’s consider an empty container where we place some dry ice. After some time, we expect to see a uniform distribution of carbon dioxide gas in the container. Once spread out, we do not expect the gas in the container to coagulate into solid dry ice, no matter how long we wait. The video of CO2 spreading uniformly in the container is a natural one. Played backward, the sequence of the CO2 gas in the container congealing to solid dry ice in a corner would not look natural to us because it violates our sense of the arrow of time.

The apparent uniformity of CO2 in the container is due to the statistically significant quantity of dry ice we placed there. If we manage to put a small quantity, say five molecules of CO2, we can fully expect to see the congregation of the molecules in one location once in a while. Thus, the arrow of time manifests itself as a statistical or thermodynamic property. Although the directionality of time seems to emerge from reversible physical laws, its absence in the fundamental laws does look less than satisfactory philosophically.

Half a Bucket of Water

We all see and feel space, but what is it really? Space is one of those fundamental things that a philosopher may consider an “intuition.” When philosophers look at anything, they get a bit technical. Is space relational, as in, defined in terms of relations between objects? A relational entity is like your family — you have your parents, siblings, spouse, kids etc. forming what you consider your family. But your family itself is not a physical entity, but only a collection of relationships. Is space also something like that? Or is it more like a physical container where objects reside and do their thing?

You may consider the distinction between the two just another one of those philosophical hairsplittings, but it really is not. What space is, and even what kind of entity space is, has enormous implications in physics. For instance, if it is relational in nature, then in the absence of matter, there is no space. Much like in the absence of any family members, you have no family. On the other hand, if it is a container-like entity, the space exists even if you take away all matter, waiting for some matter to appear.

So what, you ask? Well, let’s take half a bucket of water and spin it around. Once the water within catches on, its surface will form a parabolic shape — you know, centrifugal force, gravity, surface tension and all that. Now, stop the bucket, and spin the whole universe around it instead. I know, it is more difficult. But imagine you are doing it. Will the water surface be parabolic? I think it will be, because there is not much difference between the bucket turning or the whole universe spinning around it.

Now, let’s imagine that we empty the universe. There is nothing but this half-full bucket. Now it spins around. What happens to the water surface? If space is relational, in the absence of the universe, there is no space outside the bucket and there is no way to know that it is spinning. Water surface should be flat. (In fact, it should be spherical, but ignore that for a second.) And if space is container-like, the spinning bucket should result in a parabolic surface.

Of course, we have no way of knowing which way it is going to be because we have no way of emptying the universe and spinning a bucket. But that doesn’t prevent us from guessing the nature of space and building theories based on it. Newton’s space is container-like, while at their heart, Einstein’s theories have a relational notion of space.

So, you see, philosophy does matter.

Modeling the Models

Mathematical finance is built on a couple of assumptions. The most fundamental of them is the one on market efficiency. It states that the market prices every asset fairly, and the prices contain all the information available in the market. In other words, you cannot glean any more information by doing any research or technical analysis, or indeed any modeling. If this assumption doesn’t pan out, then the quant edifice we build on top of it will crumble. Some may even say that it did crumble in 2008.

We know that this assumption is not quite right. If it was, there wouldn’t be any transient arbitrage opportunities. But even at a more fundamental level, the assumption has shaky justification. The reason that the market is efficient is that the practitioners take advantage of every little arbitrage opportunity. In other words, the markets are efficient because they are not so efficient at some transient level.

Mark Joshi, in his well-respected book, “The Concepts and Practice of Mathematical Finance,” points out that Warren Buffet made a bundle of money by refusing to accept the assumption of market efficiency. In fact, the weak form of market efficiency comes about because there are thousands of Buffet wannabes who keep their eyes glued to the ticker tapes, waiting for that elusive mispricing to show up.

Given that the quant careers, and literally trillions of dollars, are built on the strength of this assumption, we have to ask this fundamental question. Is it wise to trust this assumption? Are there limits to it?

Let’s take an analogy from physics. I have this glass of water on my desk now. Still water, in the absence of any turbulence, has a flat surface. We all know why – gravity and surface tension and all that. But we also know that the molecules in water are in random motion, in accordance with the same Brownian process that we readily adopted in our quant world. One possible random configuration is that half the molecules move, say, to the left, and the other half to the right (so that the net momentum is zero).

If that happens, the glass on my desk will break and it will make a terrible mess. But we haven’t heard of such spontaneous messes (from someone other than our kids, that is.)

The question then is, can we accept the assumption on the predictability of the surface of water although we know that the underlying motion is irregular and random? (I am trying to make a rather contrived analogy to the assumption on market efficiency despite the transient irregularities.) The answer is a definite yes. Of course, we take the flatness of liquid surfaces for granted in everything from the useless lift-pumps and siphons of our grade school physics books all the way to dams and hydro-electric projects.

So what am I quibbling about? Why do I harp on the possibility of uncertain foundations? I have two reasons. One is the question of scale. In our example of surface flatness vs. random motion, we looked at a very large collection, where, through the central limit theorem and statistical mechanics, we expect nothing but regular behavior. If I was studying, for instance, how an individual virus propagates through the blood stream, I shouldn’t make any assumptions on the regularity in the behavior of water molecules. This matter of scale applies to quantitative finance as well. Are we operating at the right scale to ignore the shakiness of the market efficiency assumption?

The second reason for mistrusting the pricing models is a far more insidious one. Let me see if I can present it rather dramatically using my example of the tumbler of water. Suppose we make a model for the flatness of the water surface, and the tiny ripples on it as perturbations or something. Then we proceed to use this model to extract tiny amounts of energy from the ripples.

The fact that we are using the model impacts the flatness or the nature of the ripples, affecting the underlying assumptions of the model. Now, imagine that a large number of people are using the same model to extract as much energy as they can from this glass of water. My hunch is that it will create large scale oscillations, perhaps generating configurations that do indeed break the glass and make a mess. Discounting the fact that this hunch has its root more in the financial mess that spontaneously materialized rather than any solid physics argument, we can still see that large fluctuations do indeed seem to increase the energy that can be extracted. Similarly, large fluctuations (and the black swans) may indeed be a side effect of modeling.

Change the Facts

There is beauty in truth, and truth in beauty. Where does this link between truth and beauty come from? Of course, beauty is subjective, and truth is objective — or so we are told. It may be that we have evolved in accordance with the beautiful Darwinian principles to see perfection in absolute truth.

The beauty and perfection I’m thinking about are of a different kind — those of ideas and concepts. At times, you may get an idea so perfect and beautiful that you know it has to be true. This conviction of truth arising from beauty may be what made Einstein declare:

But this conviction about the veracity of a theory based on its perfection is hardly enough. Einstein’s genius really is in his philosophical tenacity, his willingness to push the idea beyond what is considered logical.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say you are in a cruising airplane. If you close the windows and somehow block out the engine noise, it will be impossible for you to tell whether you are moving or not. This inability, when translated to physics jargon, becomes a principle stating, “Physical laws are independent of the state of motion of the experimental system.”

The physical laws Einstein chose to look at were Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, which had the speed of light appearing in them. For them to be independent of (or covariant with, to be more precise) motion, Einstein postulated that the speed of light had to be a constant regardless of whether you were going toward it or away from it.

Now, I don’t know if you find that postulate particularly beautiful. But Einstein did, and decided to push it through all its illogical consequences. For it to be true, space has to contract and time had to dilate, and nothing could go faster than light. Einstein said, well, so be it. That is the philosophical conviction and tenacity that I wanted to talk about — the kind that gave us Special Relativity about a one hundred years ago.

Want to get to General Relativity from here? Simple, just find another beautiful truth. Here is one… If you have gone to Magic Mountain, you would know that you are weightless during a free fall (best tried on an empty stomach). Free fall is acceleration at 9.8 m/s/s (or 32 ft/s/s), and it nullifies gravity. So gravity is the same as acceleration — voila, another beautiful principle.

World line of airplanesIn order to make use of this principle, Einstein perhaps thought of it in pictures. What does acceleration mean? It is how fast the speed of something is changing. And what is speed? Think of something moving in a straight line — our cruising airplane, for instance, and call the line of flight the X-axis. We can visualize its speed by thinking of a time T-axis at right angles with the X-axis so that at time = 0, the airplane is at x = 0. At time t, it is at a point x = v.t, if it is moving with a speed v. So a line in the X-T plane (called the world line) represents the motion of the airplane. A faster airplane would have a shallower world line. An accelerating airplane, therefore, will have a curved world line, running from the slow world line to the fast one.

So acceleration is curvature in space-time. And so is gravity, being nothing but acceleration. (I can see my physicist friends cringe a bit, but it is essentially true — just that you straighten the world-line calling it a geodesic and attribute the curvature to space-time instead.)

The exact nature of the curvature and how to compute it, though beautiful in their own right, are mere details, as Einstein himself would have put it. After all, he wanted to know God’s thoughts, not the details.

The Unreal Universe – Reviewed

The Straits Times

pback-cover (17K)The national newspaper of Singapore, the Straits Times, lauds the readable and conversation style used in The Unreal Universe and recommends it to anybody who wants to learn about life, the universe and everything.

Wendy Lochner

Calling The Unreal Universe a good read, Wendy says, “It’s well written, very clear to follow for the nonspecialist.”

Bobbie Christmas

Describing The Unreal Universe as “such an insightful and intelligent book,” Bobbie says, “A book for thinking laymen, this readable, thought-provoking work offers a new perspective on our definition of reality.”

M. S. Chandramouli

M. S. Chandramouli graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras in 1966 and subsequently did his MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. After an executive career in India and Europe covering some 28 years he founded Surya International in Belgium through which he now offers business development and industrial marketing services.

Here is what he says about The Unreal Universe:

“The book has a very pleasing layout, with the right size of font and line spacing and correct content density. Great effort for a self-published book!”

“The impact of the book is kaleidoscopic. The patterns in one reader’s mind (mine, that is) shifted and re-arranged themselves with a ‘rustling noise’ more than once.””The author’s writing style is remarkably equidistant from the turgid prose of Indians writing on philosophy or religion and the we-know-it-all style of Western authors on the philosophy of science.”

“There is a sort of cosmic, background ‘Eureka!’ that seems to suffuse the entire book. Its central thesis about the difference between perceived reality and absolute reality is an idea waiting to bloom in a million minds.”

“The test on the ‘Emotionality of Faith,’ Page 171, was remarkably prescient; it worked for me!”

“I am not sure that the first part, which is essentially descriptive and philosophical, sits comfortably with the second part with its tightly-argued physics; if and when the author is on his way to winning the argument, he may want to look at three different categories of readers – the lay but intelligent ones who need a degree of ‘translation,’ the non-physicist specialist, and the physicist philosophers. Market segmentation is the key to success.”

“I think this book needs to be read widely. I am making a small attempt at plugging it by copying this to my close friends.”

Steven Bryant

Steven is a Vice President of Consulting Services for Primitive Logic, a premier Regional Systems Integrator located in San Francisco, California. He is the author of The Relativity Challenge.

“Manoj views science as just one element in the picture of life. Science does not define life. But life colors how we understand science. He challenges all readers to rethink their believe systems, to question what they thought was real, to ask “why”? He asks us to take off our “rose colored glasses” and unlock new ways of experiencing and understanding life. This thought provoking work should be required reading to anyone embarking on a new scientific journey.”

“Manoj’s treatment of time is very thought provoking. While each of our other senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch – are multi-dimensional, time appears to be single dimensional. Understanding the interplay of time with our other senses is a very interesting puzzle. It also opens to door to the existence possibilities of other phenomena beyond our know sensory range.”

“Manoj’s conveys a deep understanding of the interaction of our physics, human belief systems, perceptions, experiences, and even our languages, on how we approach scientific discovery. His work will challenge you to rethink what you think you know is true.”

“Manoj offers a unique perspective on science, perception, and reality. The realization that science does not lead to perception, but perception leads to science, is key to understanding that all scientific “facts” are open for re-exploration. This book is extremely thought provoking and challenges each reader the question their own beliefs.”

“Manoj approaches physics from a holistic perspective. Physics does not occur in isolation, but is defined in terms of our experiences – both scientific and spiritual. As you explore his book you’ll challenge your own beliefs and expand your horizons.”

Blogs and Found Online

From the Blog Through The Looking Glass

“This book is considerably different from other books in its approach to philosophy and physics. It contains numerous practical examples on the profound implications of our philosophical viewpoint on physics, specifically astrophysics and particle physics. Each demonstration comes with a mathematical appendix, which includes a more rigorous derivation and further explanation. The book even reins in diverse branches of philosophy (e.g. thinking from both the East and the West, and both the classical period and modern contemporary philosophy). And it is gratifying to know that all the mathematics and physics used in the book are very understandable, and thankfully not graduate level. That helps to make it much easier to appreciate the book.”

From the Hub Pages

Calling itself “An Honest Review of The Unreal Universe,” this review looks like the one used in the Straits Times.

I got a few reviews from my readers through email and online forums. I have compiled them as anonymous reviews in the next page of this post.

Click on the link below to visit the second page.

The Big Bang Theory – Part II

After reading a paper by Ashtekar on quantum gravity and thinking about it, I realized what my trouble with the Big Bang theory was. It is more on the fundamental assumptions than the details. I thought I would summarize my thoughts here, more for my own benefit than anybody else’s.

Classical theories (including SR and QM) treat space as continuous nothingness; hence the term space-time continuum. In this view, objects exist in continuous space and interact with each other in continuous time.

Although this notion of space time continuum is intuitively appealing, it is, at best, incomplete. Consider, for instance, a spinning body in empty space. It is expected to experience centrifugal force. Now imagine that the body is stationary and the whole space is rotating around it. Will it experience any centrifugal force?

It is hard to see why there would be any centrifugal force if space is empty nothingness.

GR introduced a paradigm shift by encoding gravity into space-time thereby making it dynamic in nature, rather than empty nothingness. Thus, mass gets enmeshed in space (and time), space becomes synonymous with the universe, and the spinning body question becomes easy to answer. Yes, it will experience centrifugal force if it is the universe that is rotating around it because it is equivalent to the body spinning. And, no, it won’t, if it is in just empty space. But “empty space” doesn’t exist. In the absence of mass, there is no space-time geometry.

So, naturally, before the Big Bang (if there was one), there couldn’t be any space, nor indeed could there be any “before.” Note, however, that the Ashtekar paper doesn’t clearly state why there had to be a big bang. The closest it gets is that the necessity of BB arises from the encoding of gravity in space-time in GR. Despite this encoding of gravity and thereby rendering space-time dynamic, GR still treats space-time as a smooth continuum — a flaw, according to Ashtekar, that QG will rectify.

Now, if we accept that the universe started out with a big bang (and from a small region), we have to account for quantum effects. Space-time has to be quantized and the only right way to do it would be through quantum gravity. Through QG, we expect to avoid the Big Bang singularity of GR, the same way QM solved the unbounded ground state energy problem in the hydrogen atom.

What I described above is what I understand to be the physical arguments behind modern cosmology. The rest is a mathematical edifice built on top of this physical (or indeed philosophical) foundation. If you have no strong views on the philosophical foundation (or if your views are consistent with it), you can accept BB with no difficulty. Unfortunately, I do have differing views.

My views revolve around the following questions.

These posts may sound like useless philosophical musings, but I do have some concrete (and in my opinion, important) results, listed below.

There is much more work to be done on this front. But for the next couple of years, with my new book contract and pressures from my quant career, I will not have enough time to study GR and cosmology with the seriousness they deserve. I hope to get back to them once the current phase of spreading myself too thin passes.

Chaos and Uncertainty

The last couple of months in finance industry can be summarized in two words — chaos and uncertainty. The aptness of this laconic description is all too evident. The sub-prime crisis where everybody lost, the dizzying commodity price movements, the pink slip syndrome, the spectacular bank busts and the gargantuan bail-outs all vouch for it.

The financial meltdown is such a rich topic with reasons and ramifications so overarching that all self-respecting columnists will be remiss to let it slide. After all, a columnist who keeps his opinions to himself is a columnist only in his imagination. I too will share my views on causes and effects of this turmoil that is sure to affect our lives more directly than anybody else’s, but perhaps in a future column.

The chaos and uncertainty I want to talk about are of different kind — the physics kind. The terms chaos and uncertainty have a different and specific meanings in physics. How those meanings apply to the world of finance is what this column is about.

Symmetries and Patterns

Physicists are a strange bunch. They seek and find symmetries and patterns where none exists. I remember once when our brilliant professor, Lee Smolin, described to us how the Earth could be considered a living organism. Using insightful arguments and precisely modulated articulation, Lee made a compelling case that the Earth, in fact, satisfied all the conditions of being an organism. The point in Lee’s view was not so much whether or the Earth was literally alive, but that thinking of it as an organism was a viable intellectual pattern. Once we represent the Earth in that model, we can use the patterns pertaining to organism to draw further predictions or conclusions.

Expanding on this pattern, I recently published a column presenting the global warming as a bout of fever caused by a virus (us humans) on this host organism. Don’t we plunder the raw material of our planet with the same abandon with which a virus usurps the genetic material of its host? In addition to fever, typical viral symptoms include sores and blisters as well. Looking at the cities and other eye sores that have replaced pristine forests and other natural landscapes, it is not hard to imagine that we are indeed inflicting fetid atrocities to our host Earth. Can’t we think of our city sewers and the polluted air as the stinking, oozing ulcers on its body?

While these analogies may sound farfetched, we have imported equally distant ideas from physics to mathematical finance. Why would stock prices behave anything like a random walk, unless we want to take Bush’s words (that “Wall Street got drunk”) literally? But seriously, Brownian motion has been a wildly successful model that we borrowed from physics. Again, once we accept that the pattern is similar between molecules getting bumped around and the equity price movements, the formidable mathematical machinery and physical intuitions available in one phenomenon can be brought to bear on the other.

Looking at the chaotic financial landscape now, I wonder if physics has other insights to offer so that we can duck and dodge as needed in the future. Of the many principles from physics, chaos seems such a natural concept to apply to the current situation. Are there lessons to be learned from chaos and nonlinear dynamics that we can make use of? May be it is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that holds new insights.

Perhaps I chose these concepts as a linguistic or emotional response to the baffling problems confronting us now, but let’s look at them any way. It is not like the powers that be have anything better to offer, is it?

Chaos Everywhere

In physics, chaos is generally described as our inability to predict the outcome of experiments with arbitrarily close initial conditions. For instance, try balancing your pencil on its tip. Clearly, you won’t be able to, and the pencil will land on your desktop. Now, note this line along which it falls, and repeat the experiment. Regardless of how closely you match the initial conditions (of how you hold and balance the pencil), the outcome (the line along which it falls) is pretty much random. Although this randomness may look natural to us — after all, we have been trying to balance pencils on their tips ever since we were four, if my son’s endeavours are anything to go by — it is indeed strange that we cannot bring the initial conditions close enough to be confident of the outcome.

Even stranger is the fact that similar randomness shows up in systems that are not quite as physical as pencils or experiments. Take, for instance, the socio-economic phenomenon of globalization, which I can describe as follows, admittedly with an incredible amount of over-simplification. Long time ago, we used to barter agricultural and dairy products with our neighbours — say, a few eggs for a litre (or was it pint?) of milk. Our self-interest ensured a certain level of honesty. We didn’t want to get beaten up for adding white paint to milk, for instance. These days, thanks to globalization, people don’t see their customers. A company buys milk from a farmer, adds god knows what, makes powder and other assorted chemicals in automated factories and ships them to New Zealand and Peru. The absence of a human face in the supply chain and in the flow of money results in increasingly unscrupulous behaviour.

Increasing chaos can be seen in the form of violently fluctuating concentrations of wealth and fortunes, increasing amplitudes and frequency of boom and bust cycles, exponential explosion in technological innovation and adaptation cycles, and the accelerated pace of paradigm shifts across all aspects of our lives.

It is one thing to say that things are getting chaotic, quite another matter to exploit that insight and do anything useful with it. I won’t pretend that I can predict the future even if (rather, especially if) I could. However, let me show you a possible approach using chaos.

One of the classic examples of chaos is the transition from a regular, laminar flow of a fluid to a chaotic, turbulent flow. For instance, when you open a faucet slowly, if you do it carefully, you can have a pretty nice continuous column of water, thicker near the top and stretched thinner near the bottom. The stretching force is gravity, and the cohesive forces are surface tension and inter-molecular forces. As you open the faucet still further, ripples begin to appear on the surface of the column which, at higher rates of flow, rip apart the column into complete chaos.

In a laminar flow, macroscopic forces tend to smooth out microscopic irregularities. Like gravity and surface tension in our faucet example, we have analogues of macroscopic forces in finance. The stretching force is probably greed, and the cohesive ones are efficient markets.

There is a rich mathematical framework available to describe chaos. Using this framework, I suspect one can predict the incidence and intensity of financial turmoils, though not their nature and causes. However, I am not sure such a prediction is useful. Imagine if I wrote two years ago that in 2008, there would be a financial crisis resulting in about one trillion dollar of losses. Even if people believed me, would it have helped?

Usefulness is one thing, but physicists and mathematicians derive pleasure also from useless titbits of knowledge. What is interesting about the faucet-flow example is this: if you follow the progress two water molecules starting off their careers pretty close to each other, in the laminar case, you will find that they end up pretty much next to each other. But once the flow turns turbulent, there is not telling where the molecules will end up. Similarly, in finance, suppose two banks start off roughly from the same position — say Bear Stearns and Lehman. Under normal, laminar conditions, their stock prices would track similar patterns. But during a financial turbulence, they end up in totally different recycle bins of history, as we have seen.

If whole financial institutions are tossed around into uncertain paths during chaotic times, imagine where two roughly similar employees might end up. In other words, don’t feel bad if you get a pink slip. There are forces well beyond your control at play here.

Uncertainty Principle in Quantitative Finance

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is perhaps the second most popular theme from physics that has captured the public imagination. (The first one, of course, is Einstein’s E = mc2.) It says something seemingly straightforward — you can measure two complementary properties of a system only to a certain precision. For instance, if you try to figure out where an electron is (measure its position, that is) more and more precisely, its speed becomes progressively more uncertain (or, the momentum measurement becomes imprecise).

Quantitative finance has a natural counterpart to the uncertainty principle — risks and rewards. When you try to minimize the risks, the rewards themselves go down. If you hedge out all risks, you get only risk-free returns. Since risk is the same as the uncertainty in rewards, the risk-reward relation is not quite the same as the uncertainty principle (which, as described in the box, deals with complementary variables), but it is close enough to draw some parallels.

To link the quantum uncertainty principle to quantitative finance, let’s look at its interpretation as observation altering results. Does modelling affect how much money we can make out of a product? This is a trick question. The answer might look obvious at first glance. Of course, if we can understand and model a product perfectly, we can price it right and expect to reap healthy rewards. So, sure, modelling affects the risk-reward equation.

But, a model is only as good as its assumptions. And the most basic assumption in any model is that the market is efficient and liquid. The validity of this assumption (or lack thereof) is precisely what precipitated the current financial crisis. If our modelling effort actually changes the underlying assumptions (usually in terms of liquidity or market efficiency), we have to pay close attention to the quant equivalent of the uncertainty principle.

Look at it this way — a pyramid scheme is a perfectly valid money making model, but based on one unfortunate assumption on the infinite number of idiots at the bottom of the pyramid. (Coming to think of it, the underlying assumption in the sub-prime crisis, though more sophisticated, may not have been that different.) Similar pyramid assumptions can be seen in social security schemes, as well. We know that pyramid assumptions are incorrect. But at what point do they become incorrect enough for us to change the model?

There is an even more insidious assumption in using models — that we are the only ones who use them. In order to make a killing in a market, we always have to know a bit more than the rest of them. Once everybody starts using the same model, I think the returns will plummet to risk-free levels. Why else do you think we keep inventing more and more complex exotics?

Summing up…

The current financial crisis has been blamed on many things. One favourite theory has been that it was brought about by the greed in Wall Street — the so-called privatization of profits and socialization of losses. Incentive schemes skewed in such a way as to encourage risk taking and limit risk management must take at least part of the blame. A more tempered view regards the turmoil as a result of a risk management failure or a regulatory failure.

This column presents my personal view that the turmoil is the inevitable consequence of the interplay between opposing forces in financial markets — risk and rewards, speculation and regulation, risk taking and risk management and so on. To the extent that the risk appetite of a financial institute is implemented through a conflict between such opposing forces, these crises cannot be avoided. Worse, the intensity and frequency of similar meltdowns are going to increase as the volume of transactions increases. This is the inescapable conclusion from non-linear dynamics. After all, such turbulence has always existed in the real economy in the form cyclical booms and busts. In free market economies, selfishness and the inherent conflicts between selfish interests provide the stretching and cohesive forces, setting the stage for chaotic turbulence.

Physics has always been a source of talent and ideas for quantitative finance, much like mathematics provides a rich toolkit to physics. In his book, Dreams of a Final Theory, Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg marvels at the uncanny ability of mathematics to anticipate physics needs. Similarly, quants may marvel at the ability of physics to come up with phenomena and principles that can be directly applied to our field. To me, it looks like the repertoire of physics holds a few more gems that we can employ and exploit.

Box: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

Where does this famous principle come from? It is considered a question beyond the realms of physics. Before we can ask the question, we have to examine what the principle really says. Here are a few possible interpretations:

  • Position and momentum of a particle are intrinsically interconnected. As we measure the momentum more accurately, the particle kind of “spreads out,” as George Gamow’s character, Mr. Tompkins, puts it. In other words, it is just one of those things; the way the world works.
  • When we measure the position, we disturb the momentum. Our measurement probes are “too fat,” as it were. As we increase the position accuracy (by shining light of shorter wavelengths, for instance), we disturb the momentum more and more (because shorter wavelength light has higher energy/momentum).
  • Closely related to this interpretation is a view that the uncertainty principle is a perceptual limit.
  • We can also think of the uncertainly principle as a cognitive limit if we consider that a future theory might surpass such limits.

The first view is currently popular and is related to the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Let’s ignore it for it is not too open to discussions.

The second interpretation is generally understood as an experimental difficulty. But if the notion of the experimental setup is expanded to include the inevitable human observer, we arrive at the third view of perceptual limitation. In this view, it is actually possible to “derive” the uncertainty principle, based on how human perception works.

Let’s assume that we are using a beam of light of wavelength lambda to observe the particle. The precision in the position we can hope to achieve is of the order of lambda. In other words, Delta x approx lambda. In quantum mechanics, the momentum of each photon in the light beam is inversely proportional to the wavelength. At least one photon is reflected by the particle so that we can see it. So, by the classical conservation law, the momentum of the particle has to change by at least this amount(approx constant/lambda) from what it was before the measurement. Thus, through perceptual arguments, we get something similar to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle

Delta x.Delta p approx constant

We can make this argument more rigorous, and get an estimate of the value of the constant. The resolution of a microscope is given by the empirical formula 0.61lambda/NA, where NA is the numerical aperture, which has a maximum value of one. Thus, the best spatial resolution is 0.61lambda. Each photon in the light beam has a momentum 2pihbar/lambda, which is the uncertainty in the particle momentum. So we get Delta x.Delta p approx 4hbar, approximately an order of magnitude bigger than the quantum mechanical limit.

Through more rigorous statistical arguments, related to the spatial resolution and the expected momentum transferred, it may possible to derive the Heisenberg uncertainty principle through this line of reasoning.

If we consider the philosophical view that our reality is a cognitive model of our perceptual stimuli (which is the only view that makes sense to me), my fourth interpretation of the uncertainty principle being a cognitive limitation also holds a bit of water.

About the Author

The author is a scientist from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), who currently works as a senior quantitative professional at Standard Chartered in Singapore. More information about the author can be found at his blog: http//www.Thulasidas.com. The views expressed in this column are only his personal views, which have not been influenced by considerations of the firm’s business or client relationships.

What is Space?

This sounds like a strange question. We all know what space is, it is all around us. When we open our eyes, we see it. If seeing is believing, then the question “What is space?” indeed is a strange one.

To be fair, we don’t actually see space. We see only objects which we assume are in space. Rather, we define space as whatever it is that holds or contains the objects. It is the arena where objects do their thing, the backdrop of our experience. In other words, experience presupposes space and time, and provides the basis for the worldview behind the currently popular interpretations of scientific theories.

Although not obvious, this definition (or assumption or understanding) of space comes with a philosophical baggage — that of realism. The realist’s view is predominant in the current understanding of Einstien’s theories as well. But Einstein himself may not have embraced realism blindly. Why else would he say:

In order to break away from the grip of realism, we have to approach the question tangentially. One way to do it is by studying the neuroscience and cognitive basis of sight, which after all provides the strongest evidence to the realness of space. Space, by and large, is the experience associated with sight. Another way is to examine experiential correlates of other senses: What is sound?

When we hear something, what we hear is, naturally, sound. We experience a tone, an intensity and a time variation that tell us a lot about who is talking, what is breaking and so on. But even after stripping off all the extra richness added to the experience by our brain, the most basic experience is still a “sound.” We all know what it is, but we cannot explain it in terms more basic than that.

Now let’s look at the sensory signal responsible for hearing. As we know, these are pressure waves in the air that are created by a vibrating body making compressions and depressions in the air around it. Much like the ripples in a pond, these pressure waves propagate in almost all directions. They are picked up by our ears. By a clever mechanism, the ears perform a spectral analysis and send electric signals, which roughly correspond to the frequency spectrum of the waves, to our brain. Note that, so far, we have a vibrating body, bunching and spreading of air molecules, and an electric signal that contains information about the pattern of the air molecules. We do not have sound yet.

The experience of sound is the magic our brain performs. It translates the electrical signal encoding the air pressure wave patterns to a representation of tonality and richness of sound. Sound is not the intrinsic property of a vibrating body or a falling tree, it is the way our brain chooses to represent the vibrations or, more precisely, the electrical signal encoding the spectrum of the pressure waves.

Doesn’t it make sense to call sound an internal cognitive representation of our auditory sensory inputs? If you agree, then reality itself is our internal representation of our sensory inputs. This notion is actually much more profound that it first appears. If sound is representation, so is smell. So is space.

Figure: Illustration of the process of brain’s representation of sensory inputs. Odors are a representation of the chemical compositions and concentration levels our nose senses. Sounds are a mapping of the air pressure waves produced by a vibrating object. In sight, our representation is space, and possibly time. However, we do not know what it is the representation of.

We can examine it and fully understand sound because of one remarkable fact — we have a more powerful sense, namely our sight. Sight enables us to understand the sensory signals of hearing and compare them to our sensory experience. In effect, sight enables us to make a model describing what sound is.

Why is it that we do not know the physical cause behind space? After all, we know of the causes behind the experiences of smell, sound, etc. The reason for our inability to see beyond the visual reality is in the hierarchy of senses, best illustrated using an example. Let’s consider a small explosion, like a firecracker going off. When we experience this explosion, we will see the flash, hear the report, smell the burning chemicals and feel the heat, if we are close enough.

The qualia of these experiences are attributed to the same physical event — the explosion, the physics of which is well understood. Now, let’s see if we can fool the senses into having the same experiences, in the absence of a real explosion. The heat and the smell are fairly easy to reproduce. The experience of the sound can also be created using, for instance, a high-end home theater system. How do we recreate the experience of the sight of the explosion? A home theater experience is a poor reproduction of the real thing.

In principle at least, we can think of futuristic scenarios such as the holideck in Star Trek, where the experience of the sight can be recreated. But at the point where sight is also recreated, is there a difference between the real experience of the explosion and the holideck simulation? The blurring of the sense of reality when the sight experience is simulated indicates that sight is our most powerful sense, and we have no access to causes beyond our visual reality.

Visual perception is the basis of our sense of reality. All other senses provide corroborating or complementing perceptions to the visual reality.

[This post has borrowed quite a bit from my book.]