Sunday, June 11, 2006
the missing link of three universes: a review of roger penrose' the large, the small and the human mind
The Large, the Small and the Human Mind by Roger Penrose (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Canto Edition, 2000) present an interconnected story from Chapters 1 to 3 implicating how the relationship of one component to another will complete the puzzle that the new, non-computable physics is. Chapter 1 or “Space-time and Cosmology” presents the current way in which we perceive the universe, a perception that is admittedly problematic because of the discrepancies in the theories governing the study of the universe. The Big Bang theory is popularly imagined to be an explosive process working in a flat phase, but considering time-space relativity will rectify that as the universe widens, it occupies space and, therefore, a new set of physical derivatives should explain the theory. Meanwhile, Chapter 2 or “The Mysteries of Quantum Physics” elaborates the problems of quantum physics and the need for them to be addressed by quantization. Classical physics and quantum physics cannot be swapped to expound on each other, but a bridge between them begs to be uncovered in order to unlock the aforementioned mysteries. Finally, chapter 3 or “Physics of the Mind” aspires to develop linkages among mathematics, physics and the human mind. The execution of the mathematical process of thinking is, surprisingly, something the computer cannot carry out, which points to the fact that other channels of perceiving are somewhat done in non-computational ways, too. Taken together, the three subjects harbor mysteries about them that not only upsets the foundational physics we were informed to be administering their behavior, but also proposes the inevitability of a new physics to describe the workings of each. Hence, Penrose’ study of the Large (the universe), the Small (the quantum physics) and the Human Mind (psychology) related to each other to manifest an altogether different face of physics unknown until now.
Significance in Science at-large
The formidable if controversial proposition of Penrose provides one of the missing links the absence of which demonizes the step-by-step consummated understanding of physics and, in general, of science. Science is our present superstition, and inasmuch as we are informed to believe fundamentally what can be accurately measured by science only, the monumental discovery by Penrose helps scientists to take one step ahead regarding the human goal of reaching a utopian state. With the begging discrepancy of the current perception of the studied universe, acknowledging the necessity for quantization is a bridge that just fits the idea of scientific development needed to complete our way of seeing the world at-large. On the other hand, the mathematical aspect of quantum physics seeks to provide answers parallel to the ones required to uncover the aforementioned missing links in cosmological physics. That being addressed, two scientific developments involving two not entirely different disciplines will be had, appropriating the same quantization. This is time-saving as well as less complicated. While Penrose’ intention to contribute to the development of science is meritorious, his proposal’s greatest glimmer so far is inciting a few interesting but as yet unsuccessful efforts in theoretical physics. Ultimately, the scientific investment of the human mind’s indispensable computational functioning cannot be downgraded since this shows the mental complexity leading us to believe that the mind’s capacity can still be tapped to fullness—a condition that’s a prerequisite to engage scientists in an endless pursuit of the discipline’s progress, in a way beneficial to humanity. This utilization of the non-computational ability of the human consciousness may truly be the missing link as regards the kind of physics required to unveil the mysteries of the Large and the Small.
On the other hand, Penrose’ controversial findings affect the way people imagine the deterministic principle embodied in physics and science at-large. If exact mathematics of pure elegance can fall short of describing how the universe really moves after the Great Explosion, then what else can be untrue about our cosmos? The seeming denunciations of Penrose can be likened to the time of Copernicus, who “heretically” proposed a heliocentric universe versus the popular Catholic notion about a geocentric universe. Penrose may not suffer the loathing of the whole Christian world, but surely people who have become so accustomed to the classical physics explaining the movement of the universe will find his proposals suspicious, unorthodox, disturbing to their mindset. Why not, when all along these people were led to believe that this is the axiomatic of cosmology, and then they suddenly get corrected. A redressing in physics in such a way that it is able to explicate accurately the governing laws of the Large far outweighs the persistence of the turmoil Penrose’ proposals has created. It may only take some slow adjustment on the part of people regarding the new approach to understanding the ways of the cosmos. The same is true with the recent retraction by National Aeronautics and Space Administration that Pluto, that tiny celestial body swirling at the obscure edge of our Solar System, is not a planet any longer. Pluto was discovered about 80 years ago, and by then the planetary system was raised to nine bodies. In the midst of extrasolar planet discoveries in faraway galaxies, Pluto is scrapped from the Solar System. My point here is that the constant changes happening in physics as in other science disciplines somehow negatively affect the stature of science as an institution of truth. Our modern world ideologically views science as an irrefutable structure, a body of knowledge that becomes a basis for the answers to practically every question. While indeed there is always a vast room for modification even for science, the modification nonetheless negates the incontrovertible image people have about science. To offer major facelifts to the applied physics of the Large and the Small is unexpected, hence controversial. The people will either dispute Penrose’ findings or interrogate Science altogether, no matter how vital it is in understanding the world today.
All the same, considering the non-computational capacity of the human mind as against computer is basically out of the question. The failure of modernity to deliver a utopian state for the whole of humanity has rendered computers playing second fiddle with regards to thinking capability. Human mind being indispensable in doing more than computing, the scientific side of psychology has enhanced the nature of science. Penrose’ proposal that the consciousness’ might to offer non-computability as a means to surface new physics in explaining the Large and the Small universes is a welcome contribution to science which reeks with puzzles yet unsolved because of the shortcomings of even elegant mathematical accuracy. Other than leaving a gap on the incompatibility of present physics used to depict the world, it is acceptable to generate new ways of possible explanation, especially when these new ways involve the unconventional non-computational ability of the human brain.
Significance in Science and the Society
The technological dependence of the contemporary society will benefit from Penrose’ discovery inasmuch as science, being a composite entity, relates physics and chemistry and biology, et cetera, to each other—thus, these components’ developments are a boon to the society in ways great and small. However, this benefaction is not without a problem especially for the sectors of the society that need fresh adjustments regarding the new means to view how the universe and the atom behave. Since in the long run the fine-tuning will give privileges us a more stable concept of cosmology and quantum physics, the only major problem is how this new knowledge may be accessed by everyone, not only by the privileged few, i.e. the West, the capitalists. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved the deadly face of unlocking the secrets of the atom, and this was only advantageous to the First World countries who used the weapon to advance their subsequent motives of capitalizing on Japan’s nation-building. The world entering the Information Age values data in order to empower itself, but modernity is generally concentrated in the Developed countries only. This means that the Third World societies cannot fully participate in controlling Penrose’ findings or other information for that matter, since mostly First World societies control these facts and theories which they use to propel them toward advancement. The West’ sociological and economic influences on scientific concept building, Penrose’ theories included, renders it impenetrable in terms of taking hold of hegemony. At this juncture, science becomes a tool of the dominant in order to propagate the imperialism over the dominated.
Penrose’ acting on the physical world and changing how the universe should be viewed, create a parallel modification in the nature of the society. This physical reeducation will necessitate intellectual and psychological adjustments to the society receiving it, in much the same way that scientific inventions always create capitalism-associated alterations in the modes of production. Thus, Penrose’ discoveries will somewhat help replace gradually the values of people living in the Information Age. Nonetheless, the allusion to mathematics as an elegant and accurate discipline will remain unchanged, and hence unchanged in the consciousness of the society.
Significance in Science and the Philippines
While the country is still largely pre-modern and just about to partake in the drips of modernity originating from the West, the proposal made by Penrose can be helpful to the Filipino physicists who do not only want to be updated of the path to which physics is leading, but also wish the Philippines to sign up for modernity before the latter ever expires. Since this major work of Penrose tells that there are irregularities in the present state in which the universe is perceived, the country cannot afford to be belated in the increasingly modernizing world. The rest of the globe feeds on information to be empowered, so the country itself needs to be in the know.
Our human resource teems with scientific capacities that almost always get utilized by the First World , which partly explains the pre-modern structure of Philippine society. Inventions like the fluorescent lamp and the moon rover were West-appropriated given the influences the West wields over Third World countries such as ours. Rather unfairly, West-generated theories such as those being proposed by Penrose cannot be molded to fit the context in which our society exists without their imperialistic ideologies not permeating our consciousness. When the possibility comes that a Filipino physicist formulates that bridge between Einstein’s Relativity Theory, Newtonian Physics and Thermodynamics to explain cosmological physics in a different light, will he actually enjoy the privilege of contributing to the ocean of scientific knowledge, or will his likely foreign-bred education, training or practice benefit more by virtue of siphoning off his intellectual discovery in the false name of world development (false because it is more fittingly Western progress)? If ever, these proposals by Penrose will impact a not-so-potent significance to the relatively few scientists hereabouts unless the rate of modernization becomes staggering with or without the help of globalization. Only by then will the Philippines considerably use scientific information to exhaust whatever advantage they promise.
For an economically struggling country with most of its population mired in poverty, a significant component of its people joining the Diaspora and a languishing state of education, the Philippines at-large is not likely to relish such developmental research dealing with unsolved problems in physics. However, in consideration of the attempts to improve the condition of science and education in the country, these are greatly significant. For one, It is already mentioned that the natural scientific inclination of our people is not entirely dampened by the economic and professional exploitation being done against them, so there is still a possibility, no matter how slim, for one of our people to join the race in formulating the corrective physics that will support modern cosmology and quantum physics. Also, since Penrose himself believes that “consciousness is something global,” we are one with the universal rule that the functions of our mind can produce that much-awaited theoretical discovery. After all, understanding defies national and natural consciousness—Western scientists are people capable of indulging in scientific endeavors by virtue of social and economic privileges. The Filipinos, too, can do their own contribution by, say, obliterating the conflict between the principles of gravitational physics and quantum mechanics in order to solve one mystery in quantum physics.
Reading the book, I was primed with the concept that always there is something new to be learned about physics, be it microphysics or macrophysics. I have a basic idea regarding the pattern of the universe—that is, it continues to widen in accordance to the Big Bang theory. However, I found out just now that its expansion is perpetually associated to space-time relativity. Perhaps like most of the Big Bang theory-inclined people, I also imagined the universe to widen in a flat manner, missing out altogether the possibility of the curvature the universal elements follow as they hurtle along. Indeed, it enriches the imagination to make out a universe gushing not in an even phase but in a flow that carves out volumes of space proportionate to the period of expansion. Needless to say, the E=mc2 expression has a clearer meaning to me now that I can visualize the physics of the universe. I also marvel at the fact that instead of the usual physics needed to explain the cosmos as students know it, a challenge for all physics-inclined is in the offing regarding the discovery or formulation of the right combination of scientific theories to come up with the correct way of dealing with Big Bang. While I am not necessarily a physics buff, who can stop me from entertaining the possibility that with circumstances going right, the formula will descend upon my head and I will be able to put forth the missing link that remains elusive to all physicists? Ultimately, what Penrose refers to as the elegance of mathematics is truly amazing in its accuracy regarding the depiction of the physical world despite the understandable shortcomings. Yes, the Large may necessitate a fresh, derivative physics to explicate it (meaning, the present mathematics governing the behavior of the universe is just not enough), but with such elegant precision and exactness of mathematics, the formulation of new universal postulates cannot be for long, as may be gleaned from the devotion of excited physicists of ample time for novel discoveries. I can just hope that given the likely First World location of the world’s greatest scientists, even the Third World will benefit from these scientific advances so that the whole global society will be justly empowered from newly-emergent knowledge and information.
Meanwhile, my experience in learning the mysteries of quantum physics gave me the knowledge that this physics, as opposed to the classical physics explaining the universe’ behavior, is an entirely different matter altogether. The dissimilarity notwithstanding, I see that there must be a convergence between these two physics, no matter what largeness and smallness form their difference. Because the spotlight of Chapter 2 fell on yet another accurate mathematics that’s quantum mechanics, Penrose believes that the so-called quantum physics mysteries can be solved, although he himself admits that this “is clearly a matter for the future.” For one, Penrose’ proposal in addressing the unification of otherwise incompatible relativity and quantum theories is well-meaning, and if only his idea of reduction of superposition proved to be flawless and, as befits the requirements of mathematical theory development, instrumental in devising a whole new physics, then the difficulty in understanding quantum theory concepts is somehow lessened. In such a case, students like me and even physicists who lament in finding abstruseness with this specialty will profit from the minimized complication of the physics of the Small. Then again, quantum physics to me is not so divorced from the concept of magic: I got to believe that it works despite its strangeness from my world.
The intricacy of the Small is less apparent in the last chapter dealing with the behavior of human consciousness. For a self-confessed non-mathematician like me, mathematics immediately invokes the ideas of computation, calculations, formulas and calculus. Getting reassurance from the book that mathematics can be introduced via a non-computational understanding somehow reduces the figurative nosebleed to relatively uninitiated students like me. Having known that a portion of mathematics emerges neither from computational exposition nor from computational algorithms, I have a renewed understanding that my consciousness and those of other humans can be explained even beyond computational processes. I also understood that this non-computational process helps explain the absence of a theory that connects the physics of large objects like planets and human beings, and of the molecular and atomic objects. I see the effort of Penrose in using our consciousness to expound what mathematical computation lacks in addressing the theoretical problems of the Large and the Small. Moreover, I learned that indeed, non-computation governs my knowledge of the existence of natural numbers—one, two, three, ad infinitum. I have known all along that they have inherent concrete meanings instead of symbolic ones, that there are a number of countable objects. While I can do this human activity, computers cannot decipher the symbolic meaning of such numbers despite its capacity to perform calculations using our numerical system. Penrose asserts how human understanding of number 12 corresponding to, say, a dozen eggs goes beyond the computational strategy to learning. When I assign the symbol “12” in a rack containing said eggs, I am aware that the designated number corresponds to the understood number eggs contained in the rack. Since I am conscious of counting the eggs in the rack, I can remember their number and understand that if one egg is missing, someone must have taken it. No computation is involved in my undergoing this process of the consciousness.
In general, my experience of reading The Large, the Small and the Human Mind is meaningful in that the field of physics continues to take shape as the society modernizes. It is a telling truth that the physical developments have direct and indirect repercussions to me and the society, and have a command in what future the holistic discipline of science is heading.