Has Stephen Wolfram become the Monitor on the new Logopolis?
A Tale of Block Transfer Computation
Anyone of a certain age will remember the final Fourth Doctor story ‘Logopolis’ first broadcast by the BBC in 1981. It told the story of the Doctor visiting a society of mathematicians on the planet Logopolis who, amongst other things, used their powerful verbal calculations to fend off the impending heat death of the universe.
The calculations of the Logopolitans were led by the Monitor and were performed using a process referred to as Block Transfer Computation which could directly affect spacetime.
Through this process any event could be created — whether it be the creation of a physical object, a life-form of some kind, or the actual manipulation of time itself.
In the serial the Logopolitans were utilising this process of manipulation to hold off the impending heat death of the universe.
As Block Transfer Computation could produce changes in spacetime and very likely the nature of the device performing the computation, it could not be performed by machine and could only be performed by organic life forms who were, by their nature, able to tolerate such possible changes. On Logopolis the calculations were performed by isolated mathematicians computing and communicating via a series of chants.
I thought at the time that this was an absolutely extraordinary idea and the author, Christopher H. Bidmead, a genius for coming up with such a concept. Indeed, this helped to nurture in me a lifelong interest (and study) of both mathematics and physics.
What You See Is What You Get
For anyone reasonably versed in physics the concept of a calculation process affecting reality may ring a bell with relation to the Observer Effect.
The Observer Effect is a theory that the “observation of a phenomenon inevitable changes that phenomenon”. The example given in the referenced article mentions the measurement of tyre pressure using a mechanical sensor (which inevitably releases some of the air, hence changing the pressure). But, what I really want to draw attention to is the Double-Slit Experiment.
I don’t want to go into too much detail here, as there is a wealth of information available, but suffice it to say that the way in which the experiment is measured directly affects the results obtained — even though the experiment itself remains unchanged. The mere fact of an observer making an observation changes the way the experiment plays out and, one could say, affects the resultant reality of the final situation.
Is it much of a stretch to say that the actions of the observer affect spacetime in that the making of a measurement influences future events? It seems a direct and accurate interpretation.
The experiment was referred to by famous American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman in the following way:
“A phenomenon which is impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics.”
- Richard Feynman
(Quantum Mechanics, which is directly responsible for the results observed in the Double-Slit Experiment, is a fundamental theory of physics and describes the physics properties of the universe down at the scale of atoms and I refer to reader to the many, and detailed, explanations thereof.)
What I’m illustrating here is that the actions of an observer directly influence reality in the same way that choosing to go left or right at a junction influence one’s own future and relation in and to spacetime.
An Underlying Structure of Computation
In April 2020 Stephen Wolfram made an announcement in his writings entitled “Finally We May Have a Path to the Fundamental Theory of Physics…
and It’s Beautiful” about the new Wolfram Physics Project.
Briefly Wolfram, originally an accomplished physicist in his own right, has long been involved in a study of Cellular Automata and the ways in which a simple algorithm, or series of substitutions to be more precise, could go on to produce unexpectedly complex behaviour. I refer the interested reader to Stephen Wolfram’s excellent work “A New Kind of Science” for a deeper description and its interesting applications.
Aside: Fortunately Wolfram also went on to produce a software product, Mathematica, and a high level language,the Wolfram Language , that can be used to explore these and many other phenomena. I cannot do either of them justice in a single paragraph so I urge the interested reader to explore the given links for more information.
In the announcement of the Wolfram Physics Project Wolfram posits that the underlying nature of reality is essentially a substitution system on a vast scale.
From the origin of the universe right up to the current moment reality is itself performing a vast number of underlying calculations, at the smallest level, that manifest themselves as the reality the universe is generating — and we experience.
Every spacetime event, ever, was a result of the underly continuing computation of a number of substitution rules being played out. From the experimental computations performed so far several important parallels can be drawn with the reality that we both observe and experience today — most notably the behaviour of Black Holes, Inflationary Cosmology, and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.
There is a wealth of technical information available and I refer the interested reader to both the technical introduction and the steadily increasing, and very accessible, recorded livestreams for further details.
Programs in the Computing Universe
Many times in science fiction have we seen alarmingly prescient predictions of what have subsequently come to pass. Whether it be the talking computers, hyposprays, communicators, or high density data storage devices of Star Trek, the flatscreen TVs of the Jetsons, or live video calling and in-seat entertainment options from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But, these have been products, tangible items that have since been developed and subsequently brought to manufacturing and are now routinely available.
Perhaps back in 1981 we got an inadvertent glimpse of the possible underlying nature of reality — a vast array of parallel computations being carried out across all spacetime.
And, perhaps, a way via computation to alter the very nature of reality itself.
Research on the physics project continues apace and we eagerly await the reaction of the general physics world to Wolfram’s discoveries and related ideas as well as further insights.
If, as research progresses, it is possible to understand and detail the processes described further and they are found to be at least related to if not the actual basis for reality as we know it — could there be a time when we can alter reality through mere computation itself much as what happened on Logopolis?
What an exciting idea.