Bits

Catherine Caufield

  • Three Scientists and their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information by Robert Wright
    Times, 324 pp, $18.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 8129 1328 0
  • Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris
    Bodley Head, 495 pp, £14.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 370 31332 1
  • Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John by Isaac Newton
    Modus Vivendi, 323 pp, £800.00
  • What do you care what other people think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman
    Unwin Hyman, 255 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 04 440341 0

Are you ready for digital physics? Physics that says that the universe is a huge computer? For those of us who never quite mastered the old physics, the idea of tackling a new version may not be terribly tempting. But Ed Fredkin, the controversial scientist whose brain-child it is, insists that digital physics is simpler than the ordinary kind. In fact, its simplicity, its elegance is one of the main reasons why Fredkin believes in it. And Fredkin does believe. Like Edward Wilson and Kenneth Boulding, the two other scientist-visionaries whose lives and theories are examined in Robert Wright’s Three Scientists and their Gods, Fredkin has devoted himself to finding a theory that explains it all, that brings everything together, from DNA to slime cells, ant colonies, telephone systems, supermarket chains, television and religion.

As his hero, Richard Feynman, might have said, Ed Fredkin is a very interesting guy. He is, among other things, a self-made millionaire without a college degree who became a full professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before he was 35. Fredkin’s father, Manuel, was so competitive with his own children that he could not accept it when his eldest son began taking the same shoe size as him. His constant taunt, Ed remembers, was: ‘I have more brains in my little toe than you will ever have in your head.’ Ed was a strange, solitary, ambitious boy who fitted in nowhere and nursed an aggrieved sense of unrecognised superiority. Discussing his schooldays, he emphasises his unpopularity, the fact that he was always the last person picked to be on a team. Fredkin wasn’t the only outcast, but he insists that he was the most outcast. ‘I was in this big left-out group. But I was in the pole position. I was really left out.’

Fredkin’s theory of digital physics says that the fundamental particles that make up our world – atoms, electrons, quarks – can be further reduced to bits, just like those that carry information in computers. Like the flashcards that American college football fans and Communist schoolchildren on parade use to generate pictures of their heroes, each bit carries a very limited amount of information: it is ‘on’ or ‘off.’ But many such binary bits (or flash-cards) in the right pattern can transmit very complicated messages (or images). Fredkin doesn’t believe that the universe is composed of electrons and photons, atoms and quarks. ‘What I believe is that there’s an information process and the bits, when they’re in certain configurations, behave like the thing we call the electron, or the hydrogen atom, or whatever.’

It is axiomatic among most scientists that if two theories describe and predict reality equally well, the simple one is the better. Neatness counts in science, as do elegance and simplicity. And in some ways digital physics is simpler and easier to understand than its more conventional rival. To describe the complex behaviour of sub-atomic particles, physicists use the complex mathematical language of differential equations. Digital physics uses something called a recursive algorithm, which anyone can understand. An algorithm is a set of instructions, such as ‘multiply a number by four and add three.’ A recursive algorithm is an algorithm that feeds on itself. If, for example, the number two were fed into the previous algorithm, the result, 11, would be fed back into the same algorithm. That result, 47, would also be fed in. And so on. Even a very simple recursive algorithm – such as instructions that any bit with three ‘off’ neighbours must turn ‘on’, and any with three ‘on’ neighbours must turn ‘off’ – can produce a complex, changing and hard-to-predict pattern.

Fredkin’s theory is still on the outskirts of respectable science though it is increasingly popular to describe physical systems – atoms and so on – as information-processing systems. The controversial part of Fredkin’s theory is not the concept that the universe processes information as a computer does, but his insistence that the universe is a computer, still processing a program that was installed at the beginning of time. Fredkin’s insistence on this point springs from his feisty refusal to follow generations of physicists since Newton who, he says, have described the rules of nature, but ignored the big question: why does nature follow these rules? To Fredkin, it is ‘a form of mysticism’ to believe that ‘things just happen because they happen.’ Positing God as the ‘Great Programmer’ at least addresses the question head-on.

Though Edward Wilson’s field is evolutionary biology, he too looks at how information shapes us. In Wilson’s case, the information is genetic, and he believes that our genetic make-up largely determines the shape of our culture. Wilson started out by studying ants, wondering why in ant societies some individuals sacrifice themselves to ensure the survival of the queen. What, in other words, is the evolutionary advantage of altruism? The answer, it turns out, is that self-sacrifice may be worthwhile if it enables near-relatives (who carry some of the same genes) to survive. The influence of kin-selection, Wilson decided, doesn’t end with insect or even primate societies. It, and the genetic imperative it represents, also shapes human cultures and societies.

Wilson’s theory that our genes play a prominent role in shaping our culture was hinted at in his Pulitzer Prizewinning book, Sociobiology, published in 1975. That book caused a furore when some of Wilson’s colleagues warned that sociobiology could be used to justify a range of unacceptable behaviour, from racial prejudice to blaming poverty on its victims rather than on an unfair economic system. Wilson, whose political views are basically liberal and egalitarian, insists that this is not the intent or logical conclusion of sociobiology. But he put an even more radical view forward in the 1981 book Genes, Minds and Culture, in which he and his co-author Charles Lumsden tried to trace the influence of genes on human thought and culture as well as on basic human behaviour. Genes, Minds and Culture does not shrink from making bold assertions. It contains, for example, a series of elaborate mathematical equations purporting to describe the genetic logic of women’s fashions. Wilson acknowledges that his genes-and-culture theory needs testing and fleshing-out. But, he says, it is up to others, the ‘bookkeepers’, to test the theory with real-life data. He is a synthesiser and a systems-builder, a job which requires faith. ‘You have to believe as you go on that in fact there is some major organising principle that remains to be discovered. You have to believe that indeed it exists and that no matter how imperfect a foundation may be from one year to the next, or what setbacks occur, how many seemingly intractable methodological problems originate, that this will prove to be correct.’

Fredkin and Wilson have faith in their theories, but Kenneth Boulding has faith in the more conventional sense. Born in Liverpool before the First World War to devout working-class parents whose greatest hope was that their son would become a Methodist missionary, Boulding became instead an economist, a pacifist and a Quaker. His studies of the economics of labour unions led him into sociology and political science. By the late Forties Boulding had become interested in the unification of the social sciences. Finding that ‘once you start integrating anything, there’s no place to stop,’ Boulding embarked on an effort to bring together scientists from many disciplines in a search for general principles that apply to different levels of biological and social organisation, from sub-atomic particles to the United Nations.

Boulding’s approach to unification differs from the reductionism of Wilson, which seems to say that the laws of biology can be distilled to those of chemistry, which can be further reduced to those of physics. Boulding’s is a more ‘holistic’ approach. He believes that some phenomena are more fruitfully studied as a whole rather than as a set of chemical or physical components, and that studies of complex organisms, from ants to human families to multinational corporations, can shed light on fundamental problems in physics or chemistry.

Boulding’s current interest is the way in which human society is increasing in complexity. In the progression of social organisation from autonomous individuals to small bands to nations and now to supranational groupings such as the United Nations, the European Economic Community and multinational corporations, what is the next step? Teilhard de Chardin predicted the development of a global brain, a collective consciousness. Boulding doesn’t go quite that far. He agrees that there is a rise in common experience, made possible by the technical developments of the information age, from satellites to videos to computers and fax machines. But this shared experience, based on television shows and trading, will be insufficient to sustain a sense of community without an increase in brotherly feeling. Boulding believes that such an increase may be what evolution has in store for us.

Like many others, Boulding believes that there is a natural, if not inevitable, tendency for organisations to evolve from the simple to the complex. In the evolution of human cultures he sees a gradual shift in the balance between the three great systems that he says control human society. These are the ‘threat system’, which is embodied in bankers, shoppers and traders, and the ‘integrative system’, which is embodied in families, love, duty, altruism and charity. Aspects of the threat system – the simplest and most basic system – such as slavery and human sacrifice, are disappearing, and aspects of the more complex exchange system, such as cross-cultural trading of goods and information, are on the upsurge. Boulding calls this trend a ‘gentling’ of our culture. But exchange is not a sufficient social glue, so Boulding believes, or hopes, that eventually the integrative system will ‘kick in’, taking over more and more of the functions of the threat and exchange systems in keeping a global society together. Boulding suggests that problems like the ozone hole, the greenhouse effect, acid rain and the threat of nuclear war may contribute to this sense of global brotherhood, by giving rise not only to a willingness to co-operate in solving these problems, but also to a realisation that we share one planet and one fate.

Although Fredkin, Wilson and Boulding and their beliefs are the framework for the book, Wright does not simply describe three distinct concepts of the world. He searches for links between the three, and for the light they shed on one another and on the Big Questions – like what is the meaning of life and why do we want to believe in God? And he finds them: there is no shortage of links in this book. One intriguing theme is the connection between information, uncertainty, disorder, complexity, the second law of thermodynamics and political liberty. Wright writes well and clearly about difficult subjects. He makes what could be a dry technical story into a thought-provoking drama, though his eagerness to be human can go too far.

Timothy Ferris’s new book, Coming of Age in the Milky Way, charts mankind’s attempts to understand the origin and scope of the universe. The ancients thought that the sky hung low overhead, that the stars were just out of reach. To Heraclitus the Sun was no bigger than a soldier’s shield. Ferris traces the development of our understanding of the universe from that vision to the present, when we know that the observable universe has a radius of more than ten billion light-years. A light-year is about 5.878 trillion miles long. This book is full of incomprehensible numbers.

It is also full of fascinating sketches of scientists and thinkers, famous and obscure, who sought to explain the universe. Aristarchus of Samos, for example, posited a heliocentric universe two hundred years before the birth of Christ, but no one paid much attention to him. Seventeen hundred years passed before Copernicus rediscovered the cruel fact that the Earth was not at the centre of the solar system, but there were some realities that even he could not accept. Copernicus’s model of the universe was almost as unworkable as Ptolemy’s had been because he could not bear to part with the notion that the planets orbit in perfect, beautiful circles. It was left to Johann Kepler (‘neurotic, self-loathing, arrogant and vociferous’, according to Ferris) to set out the laws that describe the elliptical motion of the planets. For all his unattractiveness and misery, Kepler had faith in the universe as a thing of beauty and grace. If it looks confusing and complicated to us, he reasoned, it is only because we have not yet learned how to understand it, how to appreciate the celestial harmony.

Galileo, though he was far more attractive and accomplished, comes off worse in this book than Kepler. He was, says Ferris, an egotist, a liar and ‘a devoted careerist with a genius for public relations’. Though he claimed to have invented the telescope, he merely copied it from its Dutch inventor. Galileo spurned Kepler, who treated him with great respect, prompting Einstein to remark: ‘It has always hurt me to think that Galileo did not acknowledge the work of Kepler ... That, alas, is vanity. You find it in so many scientists.’ Ferris is not the first to portray Galileo as having needlessly aroused the wrath of the Catholic Church, which had previously tried to look the other way when scientific discoveries contradicted Church doctrine. ‘Just when Galileo might have done the most to help bring physics to a Copernican maturity, he instead diverted his efforts to a quixotic campaign aimed at converting the Roman Catholic Church to the Copernican cosmology.’

Newton in contrast invented a new branch of mathematics, the calculus, while still an undergraduate, but refused to publish it for fear that the publicity would interfere with his work. It would perhaps increase my acquaintance,’ he wrote, ‘the thing which I chiefly study to decline.’ A rabid anti-Papist, (his Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John are reissued in a splendid facsimile edition), he was made Warden of the Mint and enthusiastically sent many counterfeiters to their death, served in Parliament without ever speaking a word, suffered a mental breakdown and died a virgin. ‘As a man he was a failure,’ Aldous Huxley said of him, ‘as a monster he was superb.’

Ferris writes well (he describes the reaction to Origin of Species as ‘so florid, compared to Darwin’s quiet reasonableness, that it flowed around the Origin like water around a rock’), and his exposition of how our understanding of space and time developed is a fairly easy read up through the 19th century. After that his account gets a bit breathless and hard to follow. Part of the problem is that new discoveries and revolutionary concepts have come thick and fast in the 20th century; and the second half of the book seems aimed at someone more cosmologically-inclined than the general reader.

Though the openness of matter and the hyperdimensional universe still elude me, along with most of the other mind-boggling new concepts Ferris touches on, I managed to grasp a few amazing contemporary truths, such as the fact that we now have a picture of the universe as it was less than a billionth of a second after the beginning of time. One function of particle accelerators is to re-create the high-energy environment that existed after the big bang. The proposed multi-billion dollar super-conducting super-collider would give us a glimpse of the world at less than a thousand-billioneth of a second. Will we ever be able to travel far enough back to answer the question: ‘What caused creation?’

One thing that comes across is the conviction of many scientists that if we ever do unlock that final door, we will find a principle of great beauty, simplicity, and symmetry. ‘You must have felt this too,’ Heisenberg said to Einstein, ‘the almost frightening simplicity and wholeness of the relationship which nature suddenly spreads out before us.’ In 1985 the physicist John Archibald Wheeler put it this way: ‘To my mind there must be, at the bottom of it all, not an equation, but an utterly simple idea. And to me that idea, when we finally discover it, will be so compelling, so inevitable, that we will say to one another: “Oh, how beautiful. How could it have been otherwise?” ’

Richard Feynman, who died of cancer last year, is mentioned in both these books as a contender for the title of smartest man in the world. He was unpretentious, enthusiastic, and always looking for an adventure, even – or especially – if it meant stepping out of his role as Famous Expert. The first book of Feynman tales, collected by his bongo-drumming partner, Ralph Leighton, was a delight. In this short posthumous collection, Feynman tells of his experiences on the Rogers Commission, charged with investigating the Challenger disaster. At the very end of his life, he was exhibiting a disdain for pretension, an interest in the way things work, and a devilishness that are inspiring. It’s enough to make you like scientists.