Jim Mastro

Writing, and all things in between


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The Missing Factor

Interesting things often happen to me in the transitional phase between sleep and wakefulness. In that twilight zone where I am neither fully asleep nor fully awake, it seems that the intuitive, creative side of my brain is most active. During that time, solutions to vexing problems (usually related to a writing project) come to me, seemingly out of the blue. Other thoughts also occur to me, often regarding subjects I wasn’t even aware I was thinking about.

That happened again just the other morning. But before I reveal it, a little background.

Whether or not life is inevitable, given the right circumstances, is a problem that has vexed biologists (and philosophers) for some time. Since we only have one example – Earth – it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions. That is one reason why so much effort continues to go into searching for evidence of life beyond our planet. Much of this effort is directed at Mars right now, but there is also considerable effort to identify Earth-like planets around other stars. In addition, the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project continues its decades-long search for signs of another civilization. If any hard evidence of extraterrestrial life were to be found, even simple, unicellular life, it would change the equation dramatically.

So far, however, there has been nothing firm. So scientists are forced to base their conjectures on what can be found here, on our own planet. That evidence is certainly suggestive. Bacterial and other unicellular life has been found thriving in such unlikely places as undersea thermal vents, near-boiling hot springs, within rocks in Antarctica, in perpetually dark and frigid Antarctic lakes, and even miles underground. If life can exist in those places, it seems it can exist anywhere.

Many of these places are proposed as the place where life may have originated, since many of them mirror conditions on our planet when it was very young, with its extremes of temperature and anoxic, even toxic, environments. Other scientists propose that life originated elsewhere and the Earth was seeded by bacteria hitching rides on comets and meteors. Recent evidence that some bacteria can survive prolonged exposure to the frigid airlessness of space gives credence to that view. However, that doesn’t solve the problem of how life originated. If it didn’t evolve here but was simply introduced here, it still had to evolve somewhere. Claiming that Earth was seeded just kicks the can down the road.

Nonetheless, based on the foregoing, it seems increasingly likely that life is indeed inevitable. If and when we do discover extraterrestrial life, that argument becomes much stronger. We may be forced to conclude that the physical laws that organize our universe make it impossible for life NOT to develop.

That’s where the “missing factor” mentioned in the title of this post comes in. It was this thought that suddenly occurred to me in my half-awake state: If the physical structure of our universe does indeed make life inevitable, then physicists must take that into account. No theory meant to describe our physical universe could be considered complete without factoring in its propensity to produce life. In other words, the inevitability of life might be as fundamental to the structure of our universe – and as fundamental to the equations that describe that structure – as the relationship between matter and energy or the existence of photons and neutrinos.

I encourage physicists to develop such a theory. Like any theory, for it to be valid it must make predictions that are testable. Equations could be developed that would predict under what conditions and how frequently life would form, based on the known physical structure of the universe. We will continue to search for extraterrestrial life, and sooner or later (if our civilization survives long enough), we will either discover enough of it to confirm the theory, or we will find nothing at all and the theory will be ruled invalid.

I predict the former.


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Is the Universe Conscious?

I am certainly not the first to pose this question. Philosophers and physicists have been asking it, and often answering in the affirmative, for quite some time now. In fact, here are three quotes from physicists that broach the subject:

“Physicists are being forced to admit that the universe is a “mental” construction. Pioneering physicist Sir James Jeans wrote: “The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter, we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter. Get over it, and accept the inarguable conclusion. The universe is immaterial-mental and spiritual.”  – R.C. Henry, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University

“As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.” – Max Plank

“It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality” – Eugene Wigner

Certainly in my own philosophical meanderings I have considered the possibility that the universe itself is a conscious entity. Then I saw these rather intriguing images. Three of them are representations of neural connections in the brain, and the other three are representations (derived from the latest astrophysical research) of the large scale structure of the universe. See if you can tell which is which:

neural net1

Universe2

neural net3

Universe1

neural net2

Universe4

Can’t tell? The last image is what brought this on. I saw it in National Geographic a few months ago and my jaw dropped. I had seen images of neural nets before, so when I opened the page and saw this image of the large scale structure of the universe, I could hardly believe it. Suddenly, the question took on a lot more relevance. I did a little more looking recently and found additional images.

Of course, it could just be coincidence. Perhaps all complex systems organize themselves this way. Still, it is intriguing, no? It is especially intriguing in the context of quantum entanglement (see here, here, and here). Theoretically, any part of the universe could communicate with any other part instantaneously, much like nerve impulses between neurons.

Which raises the question: could one of the concepts underlying the story in the Children of Hathor trilogy actually be true? Could the universe itself be composed of pure consciousness?

I’d like to believe it’s possible.

(In case you haven’t figured it out, the images alternate, with the first one showing the brain’s neural connections and the second the structure of the universe, and so on.)

Note: If you found this post interesting, you might also like an earlier post: A New Way to Look at Quantum Strangeness.


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A New Way to Look at Quantum Strangeness

So here I’m really going to go out on a limb. First, I want to make it clear that I am by no means a physicist. However, I do have a passing understanding of the most interesting (to me) major areas of that discipline: Relativity, Cosmology, Astrophysics, Particle Physics, and Quantum Mechanics. My understanding is not rooted in the arcane (and to me inchoate) mathematics involved, but rather in the overall concepts. It’s an understanding derived from reading numerous books on the subject, many of them written by physicists, including Stephen Hawking, George Gamow, Richard Feynman, and Michio Kaku.

You’ve probably never heard of the last one, but you should. His writing is clear and eloquent, and his ability to explain the densest, most arcane concepts is remarkable. I am currently reading his book, “Parallel Worlds,” which is concerned with the intersection of particle physics and cosmology. Physicists have understood for some time that you cannot begin to understand the unimaginably large without first understanding the unimaginably small. I have been interested in these subjects for as long as I can remember, certainly ever since high school. As an undergraduate, I took courses in astronomy and astrophysics, and had I not been a smidgeon more interested in marine biology (and had I been better at math), I might well have chosen physics as a career path.

So I am interested in the subjects for their own sake, because I am interested in all science, and because now, as a science fiction author, they give me great ideas that I can use in my stories. And I love ideas, especially big ideas. Here’s one I just came up with: Phased Uncertainty.

I’ll explain. In one of his chapters, Kaku was explaining one of the very strange things about the quantum world, in which particles can essentially be in two or more places at the same time. Electrons, for example, form an “electron cloud” around the nucleus of an atom. Their position at any given time is a matter of probability, but it is less a single point than a general area, and they can be in two places at once. But if you know the electron’s “position,” you cannot know its momentum, and vice versa. This is known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

The big question is, if sub-atomic particles behave in this way, why don’t large objects? Why can’t a virus, to give Kaku’s example, be in two places at once? Richard Feynman solved the “how” of this question, but I’m not sure he solved the “why.” I mean, why don’t macro objects like viruses or tennis balls behave like sub-atomic particles? After all, they are composed of sub-atomic particles, each one of which is in a state of uncertainty where there is a small but measurable probability that it is across the room, or on the other side of the world, or on Mars for that matter. Individual particles can be as uncertain as they want, but once they are part of a larger object they seem to all agree to “be” in one particular place.

Here’s what I think. I think sub-atomic particles that are part of a collective object are in a state of phased uncertainty. Each one of them individually still has a vast set of probabilities, where they could each be in a million different places, but as part of a collective they have “agreed” to occupy a single “phase” wherein their greatest probability of existing in one spot is the same for all of them. All of their other probabilities are much smaller, but more importantly, they are out of phase. They are all over the place. One particle might have a slight probability of existing in the next room, while the particle next to it might have a corresponding probability of existing in the scientist’s shoe. In order for the entire object to suddenly be in another spot, all particles would have to “agree” collectively on a different phase. So, for example, Kaku’s virus is in one spot because all of its particles are in phase, such that each one has the greatest probability of existence at that one spot and all their other probabilities are both much smaller and out of phase. If they could somehow collectively decide to occupy a different spot, they would all have to simultaneously change to a different phase, such that their collective probability of existence is greatest somewhere else, on the other side of the petri dish, for example. Or in someone’s lung.

I don’t think this is impossible, though it is obviously highly unlikely. But what if there were some way of forcing it? What if you could alter the collective probability of an object, changing its phased uncertainty such that it is much more likely to be in an entirely different spot? This would constitute the perfect means of teleportation, though that word would be a misnomer, because you wouldn’t actually be moving a person or object (i.e., teleporting). The object or person would just suddenly “be” in another place (across the country, perhaps) because you’ve made it such that the object or person’s highest probability of existence is “there” instead of “here.”

I’ve never seen phased uncertainty mentioned anywhere, so this might be an entirely new idea. (Right! What’s the probability of that!) Any physicists out there care to comment?

In the meantime, you will see Phased Uncertainty in one of my upcoming novels.