Information, Entropy, and Reality: 'It from Bit'

"I think of my lifetime in physics as divided into three periods.  In the first period I was in the grip of the idea that Everything is Particles, I call my second period Everything is Fields.  Now I am in the grip of a new vision: that Everything is Information"  ~ John Archibald Wheeler.

"Information is indeed the material of which all the elementary particles, all atoms and therefore all things in general are made, and at the same time information is also that which is moved...Information can be transformed into movement, heat, light, and tension.  Information can be regarded as the cause of all the changes in the world."  ~Werner Heisenberg.

There is an emerging paradigm in physics, philosophy, computing, biology, and other fields of intellectual endeavor, in which "the universe works like a computer" and "the world is made of information".  The grandfather of this interpretation of reality is the theoretical physicist (collaborator of Einstein and teacher of Feynman) John Wheeler, whose slogan "It from Bit" has come to be a little meme to rally around for the group of scientists and philosophers who think there is something important to the notion that reality is, at its most basic level, best understood (at this time!) as an information process.

"To Wheeler, concrete reality emerges from a quantum fog in the answers to yes-or-no observational questions...every physical quantity, every it, derives its ultimate significance from bits...The universe and all that it contains ('it') may arise from the myriad yes-no choices of measurement (the 'bits')."  ~Tom Siegfried.

This week we are going to try to dabble a bit in these difficult waters, touching on topics such as information theory, entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, cryptography, and of course the bogey-person of quantum mechanics will rear its ugly head once more.

What is "information"?  What advantages accrue us from the perspective that all of reality is most fundamentally made of information?  What are "measurement", "uncertainty", "randomness", "order and disorder"?

This is a complex topic, but we will attempt to handle it with our typical grace and lucidity, it'll be good.  Come check it out.

I will be presenting ideas informed by a couple of general books on the physics of information written by journalists, both recommendable:

The Bit and the Pendulum by Tom Siegfried and

Decoding the Universe by Charles Seife as well as a philosophy book

The Nature of Information by Paul Young and an anthology by a mixture of different disciplinary folks

Information and the Nature of Reality edited by Paul Davies

If you want to check out some shorter treatments, here are some quick links:

Information Wiki

Information at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

VIDEO: "Is the Universe the Ultimate Computer?" Panel Discussion from 2011 World Science Festival

No homework is required, please come join us!

Remember that we no longer meet at McMenamin's!  This week we will experiment with Tom's Restaurant on 39th and Division.  Let me know if you like it there or not after the meeting...




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  • Mike W.

    Great meeting. Very interesting conversation. I thought the venue was fine, and Wednesdays would work for me (at least it would work as well or better than any other day :-)

    May 3, 2013

  • Michael G

    I enjoyed hearing more about an area that I've read very little about. It was great being around people who are clearly interested in exploring ideas...and at this session it was esp cool to hear from folks who have some expertise from their line of work.

    May 3, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    i can't make it this round, but i'm excited to meet all of you. learning is addicting.

    May 1, 2013

  • Josh

    I completely disagree with the premise of the description of the topic. New age (I call it new religion) science and philosophy and the armchair bastardization of those fields has spawned many false notions about society. Society and nature never functions like a machine or a computer. "Information" doesn't travel through or to anything either. Can't wait to be there.

    April 30, 2013

    • Todd N.

      hey Josh, So that we're more assured we understand your declaration, what is "the premise of the description of the topic" with which you "completely disagree"?

      April 30, 2013

    • Josh

      I disagree with the premise that particles and atoms have/transmit or carry "information".­ I also disagree with the premise that living things are like a computer. Ideas like this form a myriad of new age religions that are cropping up lately. The two premises I just stated that I disagree with are based on the idea that there is an explanation for everything....which is a religious quest and not a scientific one. I am against the modern religious/science of today, there is not enough science in today's science.

      April 30, 2013

  • Todd N.

    The quote in the meeting description that is attributed to physicist Werner Heisenberg is mis-attributed. The quote is properly attributed to science jounalist Tom Seigried. from page 8 of his book, "The Bit and the Pendulum: From Quantum Computing to M Theory - The New Physics of Information" New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2000, as a paraphrase of Greek philosopher Heraclitus, or a paraphrase of Werner Heisenberg's paraphrase of Heraclitus.

    1 · April 28, 2013

    • Todd N.

      The above correction needs a couple of corrections: 1.) the name of the person to whom the quote is properly attributed is Tom Siegfried; not Tom Seigried, 2.) Neither Heisenberg, nor Siegfried paraphrased anything in the sense of "paraphrase" in which it means "to restate the meaning of a text or passage using other words." Both repeated the previous author's quote except for a one-word substitution and, in doing so, radically changed the meaning of the quote in each reworking. Both are paraphrases only analogically in retaining the form, but not the meaning of the original quote.

      1 · April 30, 2013

  • Ryan S.

    Maybe the Green Dragon? Sometimes we've also used the Lucky Lab meeting room on a weeknight when it wasn't reserved.

    April 28, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Very intriguing title...

    April 26, 2013

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