Meaningfulness versus Informativeness

The Decoding Reality book is a classic contemporary analysis of the foundations of physics and the implications for the human world. The scientists don’t see that physics and science are the infrastructure on which the human “quest for meaning” takes place. Ortega (Ortega y Gasset, died in 1955) tells us that a person is “a point of view directed at the universe.” This level of meaning cannot be reduced to bits or qubits or electrons since man is a “linguistic creature” who invents fictional stories to explain “things” that are not things.

The following dialog between Paul Davies (the outstanding science writer) and Vlatko Vedral (the distinguished physicist) gropes along on these issues: the difference between science as one kind of story and the human interpretation of life and self expressed in “tales” and parables, fictions and beliefs:

Davies: “When humans communicate, a certain quantity of information passes between them. But that information differs from the bits (or qubits) physicists normally consider, inasmuch as it possesses meaning. We may be able to quantify the information exchanged, but meaning is a qualitative property—a value—and therefore hard, maybe impossible, to capture mathematically. Nevertheless the concept of meaning obviously has, well… meaning. Will we ever have a credible physical theory of ‘meaningful information,’ or is ‘meaning’ simply outside the scope of physical science?”

Vedral: “This is a really difficult one. The success of Shannon’s formulation of ‘information’ lies precisely in the fact that he stripped it of all “meaning” and reduced it only to the notion of probability. Once we are able to estimate the probability for something to occur, we can immediately talk about its information content. But this sole dependence on probability could also be thought of as the main limitation of Shannon’s information theory (as you imply in your question). One could, for instance, argue that the DNA has the same information content inside as well as outside of a biological cell. However, it is really only when it has access to the cell’s machinery that it starts to serve its main biological purpose (i.e., it starts to make sense). Expressing this in your own words, the DNA has a meaning only within the context of a biological cell. The meaning of meaning is therefore obviously important. Though there has been some work on the theory of meaning, I have not really seen anything convincing yet. Intuitively we need some kind of a ‘relative information’ concept, information that is not only dependent on the probability, but also on its context, but I am afraid that we still do not have this.”

For a physicist, all the world is information. The universe and its workings are the ebb and flow of information. We are all transient patterns of information, passing on the recipe for our basic forms to future generations using a four-letter digital code called DNA.

See Decoding Reality.

In this engaging and mind-stretching account, Vlatko Vedral considers some of the deepest questions about the universe and considers the implications of interpreting it in terms of information. He explains the nature of information, the idea of entropy, and the roots of this thinking in thermodynamics. He describes the bizarre effects of quantum behavior—effects such as “entanglement,” which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” and explores cutting edge work on the harnessing quantum effects in hyper-fast quantum computers, and how recent evidence suggests that the weirdness of the quantum world, once thought limited to the tiniest scales, may reach into the macro world.

Vedral finishes by considering the answer to the ultimate question: Where did all of the information in the universe come from? The answers he considers are exhilarating, drawing upon the work of distinguished physicist John Wheeler. The ideas challenge our concept of the nature of particles, of time, of determinism, and of reality itself.

Science is an “ontic” quest. Human life is an “ontological” quest. They are a “twisted pair” where each strand must be seen clearly and not confused. The content of your telephone conversation with your friend, say. is not reducible to the workings of a phone or the subtle electrical engineering and physics involved. A musical symphony is not just “an acoustical blast.”

The “meaning of meaning” is evocative and not logically expressible. There’s a “spooky action at a distance” between these levels of meaning versus information but they are different “realms” or “domains.”

Education and the “Knowability” Problem

There was a wonderful PBS Nature episode in 2006 called “The Queen of Trees” [full video, YouTube] which went into details about the survival strategy and rhythms and interactions with the environment of one tree in Africa and all the complexities this involves:

This Nature episode explores the evolution of a fig tree in Africa and its only pollinator, the fig wasp. This film takes us through a journey of intertwining relationships. It shows how the fig (queen) tree is life sustaining for an entire range of species, from plants, to insects, to other animals and even mammals. These other species are in turn life-sustaining to the fig tree itself. It could not survive without the interaction of all these different creatures and the various functions they perform. This is one of the single greatest documented (on video) examples of the wonders of our natural world; the intricacies involved for survival and ensuring the perpetual existence of species.

It shows us how fragile the balance is between survival and extinction.

One can begin to see that the tree/animal/bacteria/season/roots/climate interaction is highly complex and not quite fully understood to this day.

The fact that one tree yields new information every time we probe into it gives you a “meta” (i.e., meta-intelligent) clue that final theories of the cosmos and fully unified theories of physics will be elusive at best and unreachable at worst. If one can hardly pin down the workings of a single tree, does it sound plausible that “everything that is” from the electron to galaxy clusters to multiverses will be captured by an equation? The objective answer has to be: not particularly.

Think of the quest of the great unifiers like the great philosopherphysicist Hermann Weyl (died in 1955, like Einstein):

Since the 19th century, some physicists, notably Albert Einstein, have attempted to develop a single theoretical framework that can account for all the fundamental forces of nature–a unified field theory. Classical unified field theories are attempts to create a unified field theory based on classical physics. In particular, unification of gravitation and electromagnetism was actively pursued by several physicists and mathematicians in the years between the two World Wars. This work spurred the purely mathematical development of differential geometry.

Hermann Klaus Hugo Weyl (9 November, 1885 – 8 December, 1955) was a German mathematician, theoretical physicist and philosopher. Although much of his working life was spent in Zürich, Switzerland and then Princeton, New Jersey, he is associated with the University of Göttingen tradition of mathematics, represented by David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski.

His research has had major significance for theoretical physics as well as purely mathematical disciplines including number theory. He was one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and an important member of the Institute for Advanced Study during its early years.

Weyl published technical and some general works on space, time, matter, philosophy, logic, symmetry and the history of mathematics. He was one of the first to conceive of combining general relativity with the laws of electromagnetism. While no mathematician of his generation aspired to the “universalism” of Henri Poincaré or Hilbert, Weyl came as close as anyone.

Weyl is quoted as saying:

“I am bold enough to believe that the whole of physical phenomena may be derived from one single universal world-law of the greatest mathematical simplicity.”

(The Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, page 46)

This reminds one of Stephen Hawking’s credo that he repeated often and without wavering, that the rational human mind would soon understand “the mind of God.”

This WeylHawkingEinstein program of “knowing the mind of God” via a world-equation seems both extremely charming and beautiful, as a human quest, but potentially mono-maniacal à la Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. The reason that only Ishmael survives the sinking of the ship, the Pequod, is that he has become non-monomaniacal and accepts the variegatedness of the world and thus achieves a more moderate view of human existence and its limits. “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter in the novel gives you Melville’s sense (from 1851) of the unknowability of some final world-reality or world-theory or world-equation.

Essay 89: Physics AI Predicts That Earth Goes Around the Sun

from Nature Briefing:

Hello Nature readers,

Today we learn that a computer Copernicus has rediscovered that Earth orbits the Sun, ponder the size of the proton and see a scientific glassblower at work.

Physicists have designed artificial intelligence that thinks like the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus by realizing the Sun must be at the center of the Solar System. (NASA/JPL/SPL)

AI ‘Discovers’ That Earth Orbits the Sun [PDF]

A neural network that teaches itself the laws of physics could help to solve some of physics’ deepest questions. But first it has to start with the basics, just like the rest of us. The algorithm has worked out that it should place the Sun at the centre of the Solar System, based on how movements of the Sun and Mars appear from Earth.

The machine-learning system differs from others because it’s not a black that spits out a result based on reasoning that’s almost impossible to unpick. Instead, researchers designed a kind of ‘lobotomizedneural network that is split into two halves and joined by just a handful of connections. That forces the learning half to simplify its findings before handing them over to the half that makes and tests new predictions.

Next FDA Chief Will Face Ongoing Challenges

U.S. President Donald Trump has nominated radiation oncologist Stephen Hahn to lead the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If the Senate confirms Hahn, who is the chief medical executive of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, he’ll be leading the agency at the centre of a national debate over e-cigarettes, prompted by a mysterious vaping-related illness [archived PDF] that has made more than 2,000 people sick. A former FDA chief says Hahn’s biggest challenge will be navigating a regulatory agency under the Trump administration, which has pledged to roll back regulations.

Do We Know How Big a Proton Is?

A long-awaited experimental result has found the proton to be about 5% smaller than the previously accepted value. The finding seems to spell the end of the ‘proton radius puzzle’: the measurements disagreed if you probed the proton with ordinary hydrogen, or with exotic hydrogen built out of muons instead of electrons. But solving the mystery will be bittersweet: some scientists had hoped the difference might have indicated exciting new physics behind how electrons and muons behave.

Contingency Plans for Research After Brexit

The United Kingdom should boost funding for basic research and create an equivalent of the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) if it doesn’t remain part of the European Union’s flagship Horizon Europe research-funding program [archived PDF]. That’s the conclusion of an independent review of how UK science could adapt and collaborate internationally after Brexit — now scheduled for January 31, 2020.

Nature’s 150th anniversary

A Century and a Half of Research and Discovery

This week is a special one for all of us at Nature: it’s 150 years since our first issue, published in November 1869. We’ve been working for well over a year on the delights of our anniversary issue, which you can explore in full online.

10 Extraordinary Nature Papers

A series of in-depth articles from specialists in the relevant fields assesses the importance and lasting impact of 10 key papers from Nature’s archive. Among them, the structure of DNA, the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, our first meeting with Australopithecus and this year’s Nobel-winning work detecting an exoplanet around a Sun-like star.

A Network of Science

The multidisciplinary scope of Nature is revealed by an analysis of more than 88,000 papers Nature has published since 1900, and their co-citations in other articles. Take a journey through a 3D network of Nature’s archive in an interactive graphic. Or, let us fly you through it in this spectacular 5-minute video.

Then dig deeper into what scientists learnt from analyzing tens of millions of scientific articles for this project.

150 Years of Nature, in Graphics

An analysis of the Nature archive reveals the rise of multi-author papers, the boom in biochemistry and cell biology, and the ebb and flow of physical chemistry since the journal’s first issue in 1869. The evolution in science is mirrored in the top keywords used in titles and abstracts: they were ‘aurora’, ‘Sun’, ‘meteor’, ‘water’ and ‘Earth’ in the 1870s, and ‘cell’, ‘quantum’, ‘DNA’, ‘protein’ and ‘receptor’ in the 2010s.

Evidence in Pursuit of Truth

A century and a half has seen momentous changes in science, and Nature has changed along with it in many ways, says an Editorial in the anniversary edition. But in other respects, Nature now is just the same as it was at the start: it will continue in its mission to stand up for research, serve the global research community and communicate the results of science around the world.

Features & Opinion

Nature covers: from paste-up to Photoshop

Nature creative director Kelly Krause takes you on a tour of the archive to enjoy some of the journal’s most iconic covers, each of which speaks to how science itself has evolved. Plus, she touches on those that didn’t quite hit the mark, such as an occasion of “Photoshop malfeasance” that led to Dolly the sheep sporting the wrong leg.

Podcast: Nature bigwigs spill the tea

In this anniversary edition of BackchatNature editor-in-chief Magdalena Skipper, chief magazine editor Helen Pearson and editorial vice president Ritu Dhand take a look back at how the journal has evolved over 150 years, and discuss the part that Nature can play in today’s society. The panel also pick a few of their favorite research papers that Nature has published, and think about where science might be headed in the next 150 years.

Where I Work

Scientific glassblower Terri Adams uses fire and heavy machinery to hand-craft delicate scientific glass apparatus. “My workbench hosts an array of tools for working with glass, many of which were custom-made for specific jobs,” says Adams. “Each tool reminds me of what I first used it for and makes me consider how I might use it again.” (Leonora Saunders for Nature)

Quote of the Day

“At the very least … we should probably consider no longer naming *new* species after awful humans.”

Scientists should stop naming animals after terrible people — and consider renaming the ones that already are, argues marine conservation biologist and science writer David Shiffman. (Scientific American)

Yesterday was Marie Skłodowska Curie’s birthday, and for the occasion, digital colorist Marina Amaral breathed new life into a photo of Curie in her laboratory

(If you have recommended people before and you want them to count, please ask them to email me with your details and I will make it happen!) Your feedback, as always, is very welcome at

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing