Welcome to the second and final (what a journey it has been) part of a paraphrased email chat with accelerator physicist Pat Karns, who I spoke to as research for my new comic sci fi adventure, Scharlette Doesn’t Matter and Goes Time Travelling.
You can see Pat above, chasing down prions.
1. Random, much?
SAM: Is there anything truly random in the universe?
PAT: I see we’re diving right in.
SAM: Suns blowing up, molecules interacting, a leaf in the breeze, that kind of thing. Do truly random things occur in nature, which you could never predict the outcome of, even if you had as much information as you wanted? Or, given enough information, would the behaviour of a seemingly random event be absolutely predictable, to the point of prophecy?
PAT: Scientifically, if you know enough about a system, there is no such thing as truly random. That being said, systems that one views for the first time appear to be random. A very cool and incredibly mesmerizing example is a double rod pendulum. Cool, that is, unless it’s part of your homework.
SAM: You did homework on that?
PAT: Yes, but the dog ate it, and never wagged his tail the same way again.
PAT: Anyway, the double rod pendulum is an example of a chaotic system, which for our purposes is close enough to random. If you were to pick up the end of the pendulum, raise it to the same point and let it go 10 times, you’ll likely get 10 different evolutions of its motion. That seems pretty random, right?
PAT: Well, not really.
SAM: I see.
PAT: No matter how good you think you are in letting it go from the same spot, and in the same way, there will be small differences. You might let it go one micron higher than the last time. You might give it the tiniest of pushes when you let go. The hinge connecting the two pieces might be just the least bit tighter or looser than last time.
SAM: You might be holding it, ready to let go, and then you get that feeling you’re about to sneeze, and it makes you tense up.
SAM: You’re like, ‘so am I going to sneeze or not?’
PAT: Sure, everyone hates that.
SAM: Or what if you had a bit of fluff stuck to your finger?
PAT: Yes, these are all examples. Each of them will change the way the pendulum motion evolves after you let it go. A chaotic system is extremely dependent upon initial conditions. Any small difference can affect how it moves later on. It would give an appearance of randomness without actually being random.
PAT: Next, I’ll tell you about how quarks and bosons and other subatomic particles move about.
SAM: Wait, you wrote quite a chunk about that and it’s difficult to paraphrase.
PAT: Well …
SAM: Let’s just say, it seems to science that there is nothing random in nature. Right? So then I have to wonder about free will.
PAT: You have to wonder about free will?
2. Is Free Will Real?
SAM: Perhaps this is more philosophical than scientific, but – if there is nothing random in the universe, then free will is an illusion. Because our own internal physical processes will determine exactly how we’ll behave towards to external stimulus that is also not random. This is getting a bit deep I realise, and I don’t think you’re going to come back telling me the answer is ’42’ or anything like that, but the question is pertinent to Scharlette.
PAT: You’re right that this question is part philosophy and part science. Lucky for you I took a class once (15 years ago … gulp) in philosophy, so I’m an expert in that as well … haha!
SAM: Ha, that’s like me and Latin. I still know how to say ‘the dog is in the street’, but it doesn’t come up much.
PAT: Philosophically, the answer comes down to whether you are ruled more by belief or understanding. In other words, is it more important for you to believe something or to know something?
SAM: I don’t believe I know the answer.
PAT: Well, if you base your judgements on belief, then sure, plenty of random stuff occurs. And while randomness isn’t a prerequisite of free will, some people do put them together. Free will is only dependent upon the assumption that, whatever actions and consequences lead you to a decision, the choice you make is still your choice. Whether these preceding actions are random doesn’t matter. You still have the choice. By the way, I’m not personally ruled by belief, so this is all conjecture for me.
SAM: You are more of a, er … a knower? A, um … a knowing-type-person?
PAT: If your judgements are based on knowing everything you can about something, you would lean towards things never being random.
SAM: Pardon, please go on.
PAT: If you know how a thing got to a certain point, and how it responded to similar points along the way, you can know what it will do next. This doesn’t preclude free will though. Just because you know how a person is going to react to a certain situation does not make their reaction predetermined. Personally, I believe in free will, because I don’t know anything that makes me believe otherwise. Yes, someone who knows everything about me can predict what I am going to do and, unless they interfere, I will go along making choices as I do. Since I don’t think anyone knows that much about me, however, I am safe in my belief of what I know.
SAM: I see. Or do I?
PAT: I’m not sure.
3. Parallel Parallel Universe Universe Theory Theory
SAM: Let’s reframe these questions against a crazy new backdrop, you ready?
SAM: Parallel universe theory.
SAM: From what I understand, parallel universe theory says that infinite variations of reality play out in an infinite number of universes. Variation requires a constant as a starting point, by its very nature, otherwise it won’t be variation at all, simply something different. So let’s say every one of these infinite universes begins with the exact same set of starting conditions. There is no ‘fluff on the finger’, as it were.
PAT: No sneeze-or-not-to-sneeze.
SAM: Right. So, if there was no randomness, every single one of those infinite universes would play out the same way. There would, in fact, be ‘no point to even having’ parallel universes. However, if parallel universes shared matching starting conditions, yet somehow wound up different from each other, is that proof of randomness?
PAT: If everything started as one and different universes branched out from different choices or events, that outcome leans towards free will and randomness.
SAM: Like in a neighbouring universe, maybe I prefer turnip tea to peppermint? Or my name is Renquist?
PAT: Difference in parallel universes doesn’t rule out determinism, though. What if all those branches are also meant to occur the way they do?
PAT: My real problem with parallel universe theory has to do with energy. The universe started with a certain amount of energy. If a new universe is spawned at each point where different outcomes are possible, that will require a vast amount of energy each time. Where does it come from? Then again, maybe this explains why women’s feet are always cold. Parallel universes are drawing off the heat to exist? Wow, if I can get the math right on that, I might be able to win an Ig Nobel Prize …
SAM: This has gone to an unexpected place.
PAT: Still, even women’s foot warmth can’t last forever. If that’s the case we should stop doing things and deciding things, before we decide ourselves out of energy. Next time you decide between peppermint or black tea, you could be marching us closer to running out of energy. You and your blasted tea choices …
SAM: I’m sorry, I’m trying to cut back.
PAT: Listen, we scientists like to think we can understand anything, so we try to explain away randomness. Like I said in previous
emails moments of natural conversation, if you know enough about a system, it won’t be random to you. We just don’t know enough about a lot of this to be able to say we understand all of it yet. Don’t worry, we’ll keep trying (as long as we keep getting funded). For now, randomness appears to run rampant throughout the universe.
SAM: That is wonderful to hear.
END OF #2 and also THE END OF PAT (well, chatting with him, anyway).
Scharlette Doesn’t Matter and Goes Time Travelling is out now.
Or if you want more Chat with Pat, why not try the penultimate edition, Chat with Pat #1: The Heat Death of the Universe?