Friday, July 10, 2020

A Gallinipper at the Window – Flash Fiction

A Gallinipper at the Window
by Christian Horst

        In the heat of a muggy summer day, a gallinipper beats itself against a window. Its meager attempts patter hopelessly against the barrier, with no awareness but instinct, and no drive but compulsion. Were it by some dark miracle to succeed, it would find not a stagnant pool wherein it might lay its eggs to fester, but only a brief sweet taste before a quick death, oblivious to the agony it would cause. Yet of this it would have no comprehension, for all it knows is the twitches of its nerves and the compulsive reactions to its nescient sensations.
        What cosmic force could design such obscenity? Only the Blind Goddess Evolution, whose spasmic gesticulations wreak chaos across the world, from which chances to tumble  indiscriminately both ecstasies and abominations. With one flop of her hand upon the earth, species die. And with a kick, thousands of tons of dirt pile into a mountain, and a lucky survivor gazes about in bewilderment at its new place on top of the world. Events like these continue for decades and epochs and eons until, in a forgettable moment, a gallinipper chances upon the compulsion to beat itself against a window.

Friday, July 3, 2020

The Money Cycle – Diagnosing the Inequality Problem, and Proposing a Solution

A year ago, I visited some friends near Rogers, Arkansas. Home to the headquarters of several major corporations, including Wal-Mart and Tyson, it was extremely beautiful. Green, vibrant, and full of people, and with gorgeous free parks and museums. I had a wonderful time there. But after I left, I couldn’t help but think, This is where my money goes when I shop at Wal-Mart in Milwaukee.

The Source of Inequality

We think of money as an equilibrium. Earnings come in, spending goes out. But looking at it from this narrow, individual perspective misses the big picture. The money we earn has to come from somewhere. When we zoom out, we see large-scale processes at work, leading to large-scale trends.

Over the past fifty years, the GDP per capita of the United States has been increasing relatively steadily, but the median income, adjusted for inflation, has remained about the same. The wealthy have benefited tremendously, while the rest of us have only benefited by proxy, with improvements in technology and lowering costs. This trend must have a cause, and that cause is the rates at which the various modes of cash flow between consumers and businesses, shown in a first-order approximation in the diagram below.

This diagram shows the major highways of money flow between the poles of the economy, the consumers and the big businesses. There are intermediate steps, such as small businesses, non-profit organizations, and business contractors, but they only change the rates of flow, not the big picture.

If you work at a for-profit company, your wage comes from your employer. But the employer has to get the money from somewhere. That money comes from those who buy the company’s products, consumers and other companies. A for-profit company’s goal is to make more money than it spends, so it is going to pay its workers less money than the workers make the company.

If you are self-employed, your money comes either from consumers or companies. But again, for-profit companies will only pay you if they believe your product or services will earn them more than they spend. I often hope I can make some money on Patreon with this blog, or with my new YouTube channel, but then I remember that any money I earn will come from its entertainment value to other consumers, who are for the most part, like me, struggling to get by. It feels like asking others to go hungry so that I may be fed.

There are currents, swirls, and eddies in the flow of money through the economy, but on the largest scale it is unbalanced, flowing from the consumers to the companies. What companies give back in wages and expenditures is necessarily less than they earn in profit, which is inevitably going to result in the long run in company owners getting richer, and consumers and workers getting poorer.

The Economic Engine

The motivations of consumers and companies are different. Consumers spend money to keep themselves fed, clothed, and entertained. Companies invest money with the intention of earning more money from it, as often from the consumers as from other companies. Just look at the number of ads we are bombarded with as consumers. On TV, websites, magazines,  the side of the road, junk mail and spam. There are ads everywhere, manipulating consumers into buying their products.

Because of this, a capitalist economy is like an engine. An engine runs as fuel is fed into the combustion chamber, releases its energy, and its waste leaves via the exhaust. So too, as consumers put money into the market and company owners take it out, the economy runs. The difference is that once money has been used, it can be used again, still as full of economic potential as it was before.

One of the main claims of the virtuousness of capitalism is that consumers have the power over which companies succeed by voting with their money. This only works if the consumers have money to vote with.

The fuel of a capitalist economy is money in the hands of consumers.

How can we replenish the consumer side of the economy? Wages aren’t enough, because the reason companies pay wages is as an investment in order to extract more money than they put in. Philanthropy isn’t enough, because the more a company gives away, the less advantage it has in the arena of the market. The way to replenish the gas tank of the economy, then, must lie in government redistribution.

The government cannot just print money and give it to the consumers. Or it could, but that would destroy the economy with inflation. To avoid inflation, the government must take out from the economy an amount comparable to what it puts in, through loans and taxes. Loans must be repaid, so it’s really just taxes.

Americans are notoriously allergic to taxes, and not entirely without reason. There are two major problems with taxes: when the money goes to unjust places, such as politicians’ pockets or agendas or broken programs, and when the taxes are uneven in such a way as to artificially and unfairly choose winners and losers in the market. In order for taxes to work, these problems must be accounted for.

One of the simplest solutions would be to implement a flat value-added tax (VAT), which is put directly into a universal basic income (UBI).

Sustainable Capitalism

A value-added tax is a tax taken from every transaction that contributes to the GDP. “Flat” means the percentage is the same, no matter who is doing the buying or what they are buying. This would have the advantage of not interfering with the market competition. No company would gain or lose economic status relative to other companies, which means this tax would not negatively affect the top of the economy at all. The government would not be taking wealth from the wealthy, just rescaling the value of money to keep it stable rather than inflating.

Wealth is not in the number of dollars someone has. It is in their property and purchasing power. The scaling of money via a flat VAT does not affect one’s wealth, as long as that scaling is even across the whole economy. Generous company owners could breathe in good conscience, as they would finally be able to give money without losing their competitive standing.

A universal basic income is exactly what it sounds like. Every adult citizen receives a fixed rate of money from the government, no strings attached. That money is theirs to spend as they see fit, be it for necessity, investment, charity, entertainment, luxury, or vice. To many, this would be a tremendous relief, as they no longer have to live paycheck to paycheck in fear of going hungry or losing their homes, but suddenly become valued members of the economy.

In this renewable economy, money flows through the markets from the consumers to the companies. The government taxes the profits, and returns the money to the consumers, so that the cycle can continue. Because money continues to flow, the total wealth as measured in property and standards of living increases. The rich get richer, but so do the poor and everyone in between as rising GDP causes the guaranteed income to increase. And for the first time in fifty years, the GDP per capita will actually reflect the prosperity of the average citizen.

The VAT-UBI combination does not extract wealth from anyone, or pick winners and losers. All it does is rescale the value of the dollar so that the UBI does not cause inflation. It would also restore optimism and faith among the small folk that the economic and political institutions care about them, leading to wiser spending and an increase in employment as people start to believe in the fairness and prosperity of this new version of capitalism once again.

Adjustments and Other Solutions

Of course, real life isn’t simple. The economy is one of the most complex systems known. Therefore, a program as simple as a flat VAT and UBI is not likely to be anywhere near the best solution. So how are some ways we could improve it?

First, a flat tax takes an equal percentage from the bottom of the economy as it does from the top. Small amounts of money have more human value to those who are most in need of it, so we might want to consider a graduated VAT. The greater the wealth of the agents involved, the higher the VAT for that transaction. We could choose not to tax wages or philanthropy, as those are already transferring wealth from the top to the bottom. We would have to watch out for loopholes in these, of course.

On the redistribution side, it might seem unnecessary to have a universal basic income, since it would go to everyone equally, from the poorest to the richest. We could instead elect for a negative income tax (NIT)—which has a terrible name, because it’s a grant, not a tax. An NIT would give a supplementary income to those whose income is small.

We would want to be careful with an NIT not to make a welfare trap, where a person can lose money by getting a higher-paying job. To avoid this, the NIT could be a percent difference between one’s income and the cutoff. For instance, if the cutoff was $40,000 per year and the percent difference was 1/2, a person who earned nothing would receive $20,000, one who earned $20,000 would receive $10,000, one who earned $40,000 would receive nothing, and anyone making over $40,000 would pay income tax. This would ensure everyone had enough to get by, and be cheaper to implement than a UBI of $20,000 for everyone.

The downsides to an NIT are that it involves more bureaucracy than a UBI, and that people who make barely more than the cutoff might feel cheated, feeling like the government values those who are lazy more than it values them.

Objections and Responses

  • “Won’t this cause the prices of necessities like food and housing to rise, defeating the purpose?”
Maybe a little. But think about what it would mean if they rose so high it defeated the purpose. It would mean that, under capitalism, it is necessary for a number of people to go hungry and homeless in order for prices to be low enough that some can afford them. If that were the case, capitalism would be broken beyond salvage, and we would have no choice but to tear it down and replace it. I don’t believe that’s true, but either way, a basic income program is worth trying.

  • “Won’t this make people not want to work?”
On the contrary. People don’t want to work in the economy we have now, because of the problem of growing inequality. When GDP is going up, but workers are still living paycheck to paycheck, they start to think, “What’s going on? I’m doing all this work, and the economy is leaving me behind.” That is demotivating. On the other hand, if an increase in GDP leads to an increase in income for all, it restores faith in the economic institutions, and make people optimistic and eager to contribute. Instead of making people not want to work, it will motivate people to work better.

  • “Won’t this dramatically increase the national debt?”
It would cost several times the current federal government budget, but could make up for that with the VAT. Depending on how successful it is, we might actually be able to use the VAT to decrease the yearly deficit.

  • “Isn’t this socialism?”
No. Socialism is a radical restructuring of the ownership of the means of production and distribution, either to the workers or to the government. A basic income program only redistributes money; it does not affect the rules of ownership.

  • “You sound like Marx.”
Okay McCarthy.


Faith in capitalism is eroding away. There are many reasons for this, and one of the biggest is the growing economic inequality, where wealth is skyrocketing at the top, while far too many people struggle to keep up with the basic necessities. This can be ameliorated by a guaranteed basic income, paid for by a value-added tax, which if implemented fairly does not affect the competitive standing of the players in the market.

This doesn’t solve all the problems of capitalism. It doesn’t solve pollution and waste. It doesn’t solve global warming. It doesn’t solve plutocratic government corruption. It doesn’t solve overseas exploitation. But it is one step to address one of the major problems. And all these people who find new financial room to breath can contribute to other solutions with the mental energy that used to be taken up by the stress of making it to the next month.

I don’t usually ask this, but if you think the perspective in this post is valuable, then please share it, especially if you know any politicians or kindhearted rich people who might be sympathetic. And if you happen to be one of those kindhearted rich people, a donation to Paypal or Patreon (links in the sidebar) would mean the world to me.

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Lazy Person's Guide to Productivity

There are two types of lazy people: those who care, and those who don’t. Those who care feel bad about being lazy, and wish they could be more productive. Today, I am going to tell you 12 ways you can get things done and feel better about yourself if you identify as a lazy person.

1. Decide your time matters. Don’t let “I can’t do this because I’m a lazy person” be an excuse. We are influenced by how we believe society sees us, and tend to act consistently with that perception. Decide that your time belongs to you, and no expectation of society is going to steal it from you.

2. Cut out things that you feel don’t enrich your life, and leave in things that do. Do this even for things you think others would disagree with. Does playing thousands of hours of Mario hacks make you feel fulfilled? Then do it! Trim out that Netflix show you lost interest in years ago but keep watching out of a sense of loyalty.

3. Don’t let “it’s too much work to set up” be an excuse. If you don’t feel like doing all the work, do the first step, and then decide whether you want to do the second. You just might find yourself completing the task a few hours later.

4. Tell yourself, “I don’t have to finish my procrastination before I do this.” If you think of something you need or want to do, but there are twenty minutes left in the YouTube video you’re watching, it’s okay to click “watch later” and exit. Your browser will remember your place, so you can come back to right where you left off. And who knows? Maybe you’ll even lose interest and decide finishing the video is not worth your time.

5. It’s okay if you didn’t do it last time. The past is the past, and that decision has already been made. This decision, however, has not, and you have a new opportunity to be productive, if you so desire.

6. Plan to procrastinate. You’re lazy, right? You know you are going to procrastinate. So embrace it, and plan to spend some amount of time procrastinating! That way, when you inevitably get distracted, it’s not a loss, because you planned on it from the beginning. Who knows? In a turn of reverse psychology, you might even find yourself procrastinating your scheduled procrastination by doing productive things!

7. Immerse yourself in a productive community. Why force yourself to summon extra energy, when you can mooch off the energy leaked by those around you? Hang out with productive friends. Move to a place where people and cars are constantly passing by. Do your work at a coffee shop. Even playing upbeat music can help.

I am NOT talking about finding people to keep you accountable! That would just cause you to form a habit of not living up to expectations. Accountability partners might be useful to some, but for those who identify as lazy, the failures will inevitably lead to a cycle of negative reinforcement.

8. Think of ways to cut corners without sacrificing quality. A good job needs to be done completely, and it needs to be done well. It does NOT need to be done right. If there is an easier way to get good results, and it doesn’t involve making other people do your work for you, do it. Cinder blocks and duct tape are perfectly valid tools as long as they aren’t seen in the camera view.

My studio where I film videos for my YouTube channel. The tripod was half as tall as I thought it would be, so instead of going through all the hassle of returning it and buying a more expensive one, I made do.

9. Allow yourself to focus on the tasks that are most important to you, and let everything else be put off for another day. Feeling like we have too much to do can be paralyzing. We are lazy, so when faced with a mountain, we would rather just not climb it, especially when we know there will be more mountains on the other side. But just a foothill shouldn’t be too much trouble. Just one or two tasks today. Everything else can wait.

10. Multitask. One of the most annoying things about doing work is that it takes up time that could be spent doing fun things. So do multiple things at once. If one of your tasks take time, like making coffee or running a simulation, start that one first, and do other stuff while it is going on. Alternatively, if you are doing two different things that require the same supplies, like markers or tape, then doing them at the same time means you don’t have to put the materials away and get them out again later.

11. Form habits and routines. If you automatically do stretches or music practice right after you get up in the morning, you don’t have to use precious willpower on it. As of today, I am on a 457-day streak in Japanese practice on duolingo, having barreled through last year’s National Novel Writing Month and trips to visit family for the holidays. I did this by forcing myself to get it done every day, and now it’s just normal for me to do the exercises every morning.

12. If you have mastered all the steps up to this one, there is only one thing left: realize that you are no longer lazy, you’re efficient! Congratulations!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Realism, Anti-Realism, and Irrealism

Does the universe exist? Is math real? Which Star Wars timeline is the true Star Wars? These questions fall under the philosophical field of ontology, the contemplation of what exists and how. In this post, we will look at what I consider to be the three main ontological categories that concepts can fall into: Realism, Anti-Realism, and Irrealism.


We have talked extensively about Realism on this blog, so today let’s take a look at the basics of the theory in its most abstract form. Anything that is real has a property called existence, which means it has way-that-it-is, independent of perception, knowledge, and belief. Real things are not contained by boundaries of reductionism and holism, which means it is equally valid to consider all of Reality at once, or to divide it into an infinite number of infinitesimal pieces.

Reality can be relative, but it is consistent. This means things can “look” different from different “perspectives,” but they “look” the same from the same “perspective” at any one moment in time. I use quotes here, because it doesn’t actually require anyone to be there to observe it.

A thing that is real exists, and it is consistent with itself and in its relation to all other parts of Reality.


This will come as no surprise to anyone, but not all things are real. However, it turns out that some unreal things are very useful for describing reality, in particular conceptual frameworks that are non-contradictory within themselves. A mental construct that does not exist, but is self-consistent is called anti-real.

The prime example of something anti-real is math. People argue sometimes whether math is real or not, but I think they would be delighted to find out that there is another ontological category it fits into. Math does not exist in objective reality, but it behaves like something real; it is consistent with itself.

Math is a lot more than numbers. It also includes vectors, functions, groups, sets, and all kinds of things. What ties all of math together is its process: we begin by defining a number of axioms, and determine as much as we can that follows logically from those axioms. This, by definition, is consistent. If there is ever a contradiction in a mathematical construct, the offending object is deemed invalid, or the axioms need to be reevaluated. There is no number in the real numbers that is both smaller than one and larger than two.

Logic is anti-real. Some would say scientific paradigms are anti-real, though it would be more accurate to say science uses anti-real models to describe real things.

A thing that is anti-real does not exist, but it is consistent with itself and in its relation to all other things within its conceptual framework.


Things that exist and are consistent are real. Things that are consistent but do not exist are anti-real. And we have one more realm to examine: that which is irreal neither exists nor is consistent.

Essentially, Irrealism is a tool of interpretations and descriptions. It says that, if two or more descriptions have gaps, but they account for each other’s gaps, then even if the descriptions contradict each other, they form a valid composite description when taken together.

If you’re like me, you find Irrealism highly confusing. The best way I know of to get a feel for it is by looking at a bunch of examples.

The most intuitive example of Irrealism I can think of is fiction. When you and I read a book, the version of the story in your imagination is very different from the one in my imagination. These two versions contradict each other in many ways. Yet they still count as valid interpretations of the same story. Thus, fiction is irreal.

A clear view of a story’s irreality can be found in retconning, when a book or a movie later in a series contradicts something that happened early in the series. Arguably, the events of a first book ripple into the fourth book, so when the fourth book declares that something that happened in the first book is wrong, we have a scenario that requires both that the first book is right and that the first book is wrong. In the worst case scenarios, both sides of the contradiction must be true in order for the fourth book to make sense! Thus, the established canon of the fourth book is irreal.

It has been quite hard for me to think of examples of irrealism that the average person will understand. After ret-conning, all I could come up with involve frontier physics and philosophy, so that’s what the rest of this section will be about. So, warning, heady topics ahead.

Irrealism was originally proposed as a theory to reconcile the two major metaphysical theories, Physicalism and Phenomenalism. Physicalism says that the true reality is physical reality, and Phenomenalism says that the true reality is that which is experienced by conscious observers.

The difference between physicalism and phenomenalism can be illustrated by the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” According to Physicalism, it does. The sound wave is there in the air whether or not anyone is there to hear it. But according to Phenomenalism, if no one hears it, there is no sound, because things only exist if they are experienced.

Phenomenalism has trouble explaining why things are consistent between times when they are being observed. Physicalism explains that, but has trouble explaining consciousness. Metaphysical Irrealism says that’s okay. Despite the fact that they contradict one another, they cover each other’s gaps, and therefore the composite Physicalism+Phenomenalism is a valid representation of the truth, and there is no single non-contradictory theory that accounts for all of reality.

What about quantum physics? Most claims about reality citing quantum physics are bogus, but there is one sense in which Irrealism might be applicable. There are two major interpretations of quantum physics: the Copenhagen interpretation and the Many-Worlds interpretation. Copenhagen explains probabilities, but not the collapse of the wave function. Many-Worlds explains the collapse of the wave function, but not probabilities. A quantum irrealist would say that even though they contradict one another, all questions are explained between them, so the truest representation of quantum physics is the composite Copenhagen+Many-Worlds.

And one more physics example. General Relativity explains how things behave in extremely high gravity, and Quantum Mechanics explains how things behave at the very small scales. However, they do not play nice together. If we try thought experiments with both extremely high gravity and very small scales, we get contradictions between the theories. A physical irrealist would say, if we never have to deal with things in the quantum gravity regime, then it’s perfectly reasonable to say the composite theory GR+QM is the truest description there is.

Why It Matters

You may have your own opinion on where Realism, Anti-Realism, and Irrealism apply. But you may also be wondering, “what does it matter?” The common answer to this is that, if we understand how things really are, we can use that knowledge to more effectively achieve the outcomes we want. As evidence, we can point to technology; knowing how the world works lets us take materials and put them together to make tools that work for our purposes.

But that’s not an argument for metaphysics, it’s an argument for pragmatism. The point of pragmatism is to focus on what is useful, not what is true. And according to a research team led by the psychologist Donald Hoffman, usefulness and truth are rarely the same thing.

The results of a study of evolutionary simulations, summarized in a Ted Talk.

Personally, I am motivated to search for true descriptions because I have a passion and a talent for it, and doing so fills me with energy and excitement. However, I have no illusion that this makes me superior in any way to people who don’t have the interest or skills to contemplate metaphysical theories. It just happens to be one of the ways I pursue fulfillment, and other people have their own paths to fulfillment.

However, there is one domain where Realism is both true and deeply important: suffering. Suffering is something experienced directly by conscious beings, and it is most definitely real. When people and animals suffer, turning our gaze away does not make the suffering stop being real. It is an objective fact that subjective suffering exists where it exists. Thus, it is extremely important to recognize the suffering of others as real, and to do what we can to alleviate that suffering and help each other on the path toward relief, meaning, and fulfillment.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Faster-Than-Light: Antigravity and Exotic Matter

It is almost universally believed among experts that traveling faster-than-light (FTL) is impossible. But if it weren’t, how would we do it?

Relativity and the Speed of Light

The speed of light is special. The reason it is special has nothing to do with light; it is the fixed feature of the universe against which we measure space and time. Our human brains naturally think of space and time as absolute. It makes sense to us to believe that if two things happen at the same place but different times, or two things happen at the same time but different places, then that’s the way it is no matter how you look at them.

But space and time are not absolute, they are relative. Space is easier to comprehend. Suppose you are standing by a train track. As I pass by in a train car, you snap your fingers twice. To you, in the reference frame of the surface of the Earth, the two snaps happen at the same place. But to me, in the reference frame of the train car, the snaps happen at different places.

In the station's frame the snaps happen at the same place, but in the train's frame the snaps happen in different places.

There is no objective reference frame by which to determine whether something is stationary or moving. Everything is stationary from its own viewpoint.

What about time? The relativity of time is harder to wrap our heads around, because it only appears when observers are moving significantly close to the speed of light relative to each other.

Let’s go back to the train example. You hold your arms out to their full length, and snap both your hands at once as I pass by. In my reference frame, however, you snap the fingers of the hand that points forward along the track first, and the hand that points backward second.

We aren’t talking about the difference in how long it takes for sound and light to get to our eyes and ears. The discrepancy is still there after we account for that. In your reference frame, you snap the fingers of both of your hands at once, but in my reference frame, you snap them at different times.

In the station's frame the snaps happen at the same time, but in the train's frame the snaps happen at different times. This is not because of light lag; it is found to be true after we account for light lag.

It is a fact baked into the fabric of the universe that there is no objective “here,” and there is no objective “now.” The speed of light is the absolute which ties together all perspectives of space and time. It does not matter where you are, nor what speed or acceleration you are going, the speed of light is the same for you as it is for everyone else.

Chasing Light Beams

Suppose you turn a flashlight on and off, sending a pulse of light out into space, and then chase after it. You accelerate and accelerate and accelerate, but no matter how fast you go, that light pulse is still retreating away from you at the speed of light. You can never catch it.

What is your trip like in the reference frame of Earth? It is an objective fact that you never catch the flashlight’s pulse. Therefore, in the reference frame of Earth, you speed up and speed up, but the closer you get to the speed of light, the less you speed up. No matter how much you accelerate, you never reach light speed.

This is the trajectory of an object with constant proper acceleration under Special Relativity. The shape is a hyperbola, and it never becomes parallel with the light beam it chases. The dashed line is the asymptote, shown as a visual aid.

However, you can, in fact, travel across the universe. In Earth’s reference frame, you are experiencing time dilation. Time is running slower on your ship than it is on Earth. In your reference frame, the universe is undergoing space contraction. The distance to the stars in front of you is shrinking—not just that you’re getting closer, but there is less total space for you to go through. The distance from Earth to your destination is shorter in the ship’s reference frame than it is in Earth’s reference frame.

In a sense, this can almost feel like traveling faster than light, even though light always races ahead of you. But because of the way the time dilation and space contraction work out, it still takes years to travel light-years according to your departure and destination reference frames. We don’t just want to visit Alpha Centauri, we want to get back in time for work the next week. How do we do that?

Both science fiction writers and scientists have pondered this conundrum. I myself wrote my undergraduate thesis on the topic. There are three families of FTL methods: space warping, wormholes, and hyperspace. Space warping involves shortening the distance between the beginning and end of the journey. A wormhole is a shortcut between points in space. And hyperspace is a hypothetical more-than-three-dimensional space, in which our 3D universe is just a slice. All of these deserve their own discussions, so today we will focus on an essential ingredient for making and using these things, exotic matter.*

Negative Energy and Imaginary Mass

Exotic matter sounds exciting. What is it? If we put the space-time curvature for a warp drive or a traversable wormhole into the Einstein field equations, we find we need to generate antigravity. In order to get antigravity, we need negative energy. You might think negative energy means negative mass, because E = mc2, but that equation is just a special case of the real equation,

As you can see, the mass in this equation is squared, so in order to end up with a negative energy, the mass must be complex. I don’t mean difficult to explain, we’re talking imaginary numbers, the square roots of negative numbers. Yeah, now you know why it’s called exotic matter.

Dark Energy

All right, so how do we make exotic matter? Do we have any clues to suggest it exists? Yes, in fact. Just a hint, but it’s more than nothing (or should I say, less than nothing?). The universe is expanding, and not only that, it is speeding up. Under attractive gravity, it should be slowing down. But because it is speeding up, we know there is a repulsive antigravity, some kind of “dark energy,” pushing everything apart.

We don’t know what this dark energy is. It is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in physics. It could turn out to be completely useless. Or, it may be that it can be used to create exotic matter, or harnessed directly as negative energy.

Zero-Point Energy

There is one phenomenon people often point to as negative energy in the lab: the Casimir effect. So let’s talk about it, and see if it really is the magic ticket that will get us to the stars.

To begin, a little background knowledge. What we think of as empty space is not, strictly speaking, nothing. It has a number of quantum fields overlapping one another. For a deeper discussion of quantum fields, check out part 1 of our quantum physics series.

As it turns out, even when there are no particles, the quantum fields aren’t at 0 energy. An energy of absolute 0 leads to a contradiction in the math. Thus, the fields always have a buzz of vibrations far smaller than any particle. This is zero-point energy, also known as quantum foam.

The quantum foam is influenced by objects. If, for instance, there are two metal plates with empty space between them, these plates act as boundary conditions for the zero-point waves in the quantum fields. It’s like the harmonics of a guitar string, except instead of a string, it’s empty space. In empty space without the plates, there are no limits on the frequencies allowed in the quantum foam, but between the plates, only the harmonics are allowed.

If that was confusing, here is the bottom line: between the plates, the energy of the empty space is less than the energy of the empty space surrounding them. This is the Casimir effect.

The argument goes, if there is less energy between the plates than in normal empty space, that’s negative energy, so it should be usable for space warping and stuff like that. Here’s the problem, though. When it comes to gravity, it’s not the relative energy that matters, it’s the absolute energy. The zero-point energy in the Casimir effect may be less than the normal zero-point energy, but it is still more than absolute zero. Thus, although the Casimir effect looks like it creates negative energy, it is really still positive energy, and cannot be used for FTL technology.

As it turns out, getting negative energy is really, really hard. When it comes to FTL travel, we’re pretty much dead in the water. Of course, we don’t have any proof that exotic matter can’t exist, so there’s the possibility it’s hiding out somewhere in what’s left of the unknown. Maybe dark energy can provide a thread to follow, but that’s a big maybe. As things stand, it looks pretty certain that we’ll be stuck taking the slow route. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t use our imagination, and you can bet we will return to the topic of FTL in the future.

*We currently have no reason to believe hyperspace exists, nor any idea how to use it if it does. Exotic matter may be necessary, or may not be of any use at all.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Quantum Physics 2: Multi-Particle Waves

Quantum Physics:
Fields, Waves, and Particles
Multi-Particle Waves

Welcome to the second part in our series about quantum physics! If you haven’t read the first part yet, I highly recommend it, as we will build upon the concepts we learned there. This discussion also takes a non-reductionist view, so you may want to take some time to digest last week’s discussion of object metaphysics before reading this one.

Image found here. Cropped.

To recap, last time we discussed how the universe contains a number of overlapping quantum fields, each one of which is present throughout all space. These fields contain quantities like momentum, energy, and electric charge, which travel around the fields in waves. The fields can trade this information through interactions, and the probability of interaction is correlated with the amplitude of the wave. And finally, there is a smallest possible amount a wave in a quantum field can interact by, and this amount must interact all at once and all in the same place. That “smallest amount of interaction” is what we call a particle.

In this post, when we say “particle,” it is understood that we are talking about collections of information within a wave, not little balls bouncing around.

Quantum Superposition

When the waves of two particles overlap, they add together in superposition. When in superposition, two particles are not two separate waves that happen to be in the same place; they are one wave with two particles’ worth of information.

For example, let’s look at the simplest kind of particle, photons. They are simple because they do not interact with other photons. Imagine two photons on a collision course. Before the intersection, they are flying along as normal. After they have crossed paths, they continue to fly along as if nothing happened.

Remember, photons are waves in the electromagnetic field, and there is only one electromagnetic field. At the moment of intersection, when the two photons are in the same place, their wave amplitudes add together to form a superposition wave that contains the information of the two photons, but is not itself a photon. This information causes the wave to split once again as if they had never joined in the first place.

A superposition wave. The final wave contains the information of the first two, yet it is still a single wave. Image found here. Cropped for better framing.

The key concept here is that when two or more particles are in a superposition wave, they aren’t really two particles, they are one wave with two particles’ worth of information. This is where the reductionist view causes problems, and it is the key point of today’s entire discussion. So if you don’t feel like you understand it well, I would strongly recommend lingering on this section, and perhaps rereading last week’s sections on reductionism, holism, and associative equivalence, until you do.

Bosons and Fermions

There is no limit to the number of photons that can superimpose in the same place, but there is for electrons. Electrons cannot superimpose over one another in the same total state. I do not mean that they repel each other due to their negative electric charges. It’s deeper than that.

In the lingo, a particle’s “state” is the total of its information about its properties: its position, momentum, energy, etc. Two electrons can have the same values in some of these, for instance, position and energy, but there must be at least one property that is different between the two. If you try to plug into the Schrodinger equation a superposition wave that contains two electrons with all of the same properties, in the exact same state, you end up with a contradiction, like 0 = 1. This is called the Pauli exclusion principle because electrons exclude other electrons from being in the same state.

Electrons and photons illustrate two categories all particles fall into. Bosons can exist in the same state in the same place. Fermions cannot. Photons are a type of boson, and electrons are a type of fermion. If this is confusing, don’t worry, it will make more sense after we have looked at some examples.


Image found on Wikipedia.

We all know lasers, beams of single-color light packed so tightly that the bright spot where it lands is about the same diameter as the aperture it emerges from. A laser is a very strong coherent electromagnetic wave traveling in the same direction. This can be thought of as a vast number of photons all packed into the same place, superimposing on one another, and giving the wave a very high amplitude.

The higher intensity of the laser, the higher the number of photons superimposing into the wave. Can you guess what the limit is for how many photons can be packed into a single laser beam? Because photons are bosons, they never crowd each other out. Thus, we can keep increasing the power until the concentration of the light is so high that its energy creates a black hole! Don’t worry, though, that would take over a billion times more power than the entire world puts out in a year, all concentrated into one laser beam. That’s a lot of superposition.


Each element on the periodic table has a smallest unit, an atom. Atoms are formed when electrons bind to positively charged nuclei. The possible states an electron can have within an atom are quantized; there are only certain specific states allowed, anything else gives a contradiction when put into the Schrodinger equation. If this is confusing to you, I recommend reviewing the pixel analogy from Quantum Physics part 1.

Because electrons are fermions, all electrons in an atom must be in different states. The three things contributing to an electron’s state in an atom are energy, angular momentum, and spin. If you have taken chemistry classes, you have probably heard of the electron states by another name: orbitals. The states with 0 angular momentum are called s orbitals, the states with the smallest non-0 angular momentum are called p orbitals, and then come the d orbitals and the f orbitals. Most of the time, the electrons are in the lowest available energy states.

This image shows the wave modes in the electron field. In real atoms, these get added together in a superposition wave containing all the electrons’ worth of information.

Each orbital letter type has specific energy levels allowed to it. The lowest possible energy for an electron in an atom is the 1s orbital, and the second is the 2s orbital. Then come the three 2p orbitals. There are no 1p orbitals, because trying to put them into the math gives us contradictions. There are one of each s orbital, three of each p orbital, five of each d orbital, and seven of each f orbital. And because electrons have two possible spins, there can be two electrons in each orbital.

Electron Spin

We mentioned something mysterious in the previous section: electron spin. What is it? It’s not angular momentum, as that is a different property. Spin is the property which determines how a particle interacts with magnetic fields. The term is confusing, because nothing is actually spinning; the electron is a spread-out wave with no central point for an axis. It is called spin for historical reasons.

In this section, we will talk about magnetic fields as if they are separate objects from one another, because that makes spin much simpler to explain. Keep in mind, however, that it is more true to say there is one magnetic field with different strengths throughout the universe, and that it is a part of the electromagnetic field.

When an electron interacts with a magnetic field, there are two possible outcomes: the electron’s own magnetic field could be aligned with the external magnetic field, or it could be aligned opposite. These are called “spin up” and “spin down.” Other alignments are impossible, because they give mathematical contradictions.

If you pick an axis, you might think an electron has a set spin, up or down, along that axis. However, it does not. Remember how we talked about electron waves, and the probability of interaction being proportional to the wave’s amplitude? The same thing is true for its spin. If the electron has not yet interacted, then it has an amplitude for spin up and an amplitude for spin down. Just like the electron does not have a single definite position before it interacts, it also does not have a definite spin.

Non-Spatial Probability Amplitudes

Let’s not let what I just said slip by. In an electron wave, there is a position component and a spin component. The position has an amplitude, and the spin also has an amplitude. If the electron interacts in such away that its spin is not involved, the position component of its wave collapses, but the spin component does not. This means an electron can move around and interact with other objects, but keep its spin in a non-determined state.

If I am not mistaken, the wave function of a particle has components for all properties that have more than one value, whether it feels intuitive to conceptualize them as waves or not. Polarization of light is the other well-known example. In a particle interaction, only the components of the wave function for the properties involved in the interaction collapse. The rest remain in superposition.

This means that if something interacts with an electron by its electric field, and not by its magnetic field, its wave will collapse to the position of the interaction, but its spin will still be undetermined.

Quantum Entanglement

Now that we have looked at superposition and the fact that each of a quantum wave’s qualities has its own probability amplitude, we are primed for one of the coolest and most famous aspects of quantum physics: entanglement.

Suppose two electrons are in a helium atom. What we have is a single wave with two electrons’-worth of information. Two units of interaction ability, and two opposite spins. Now we remove the wave from the atom and separate it into two, each with one unit of interaction ability; we can comfortably say that electron A is over there and electron B is over here.

However, if we choose our interactions with the electrons such that their spins are not involved, then the spins are still in superposition. As far as the spin is concerned, the two electrons are still part of the same wave. The only spin information this wave has is that there are two spins, and they are opposite. Which electron has which spin has not been determined, and their probability functions have not collapsed!

This phenomenon, when the position components of a multi-particle wave have separated, but the components of one or more of their other properties has not, is quantum entanglement.

What does this mean? What effects does entanglement have on human experiences? When we measure—cause an interaction with—the entangled property of one of the particles, we know what the other one will be when we measure it too. If we measure the spin of electron A, then we know before measuring the spin of electron B that it will be the opposite.

Most people wonder how the measurement of one electron can affect the properties of another electron instantaneously, ignoring the speed of light. Even Einstein was uncomfortable with it, calling it “spooky action at a distance.” But here’s the catch: the measurement of an entangled property does not affect the other particle. There is no causation between quantum entangled properties, only correlation. If we view entanglement in terms of superposition waves, we find it is not spooky, and it is not action at a distance.

We humans feel that if two things are guaranteed to correlate, then there must be some common cause. Either information is being transferred instantaneously from one particle to the other, or there is some kind of unmeasurable information that determined the outcome when the two particles were together. However, this is nothing more than a human assumption. There is a reason why the spins correlate, but not a cause. The reason entangled properties correlate is because if they didn’t, there would be a contradiction in the math. That is sufficient to make it true. Causation is found almost everywhere within reality, but non-contradiction is absolute.

If you aren’t sold on the connection between math and reality, check out the four-point argument I make at the end of last year’s post on the subject.

A common question people ask is whether quantum entanglement can be used for faster-than-light communication. There has been a lot of discussion about this in the literature, but the bottom line is that no, it cannot. We discussed one of the most compelling reasons to me in a previous post about the relationship between faster-than-light travel and time travel, the paradox that there is no objective way to determine whether the message would go from A to B or B to A.

So there you have it. Between this post and the one that came before, quantum physics explained in 4,500 words. If you understand it, then congratulations! You understand the basics of quantum physics as well as the experts, and perhaps even better than some. You also have a little insight into how the world of our experience emerges from it. If you have questions, feel free to ask them in the comments. There are still things we have not talked about, such as quantum computers, which are interesting enough to get their own discussion. Also, if you take what is said in these two posts at face value, it is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation. There is an alternative view called the Many-Worlds interpretation, which I go back and forth on, as you can see in my argument for it and subsequent argument against it.

So yeah. Quantum physics explained from scratch so that non-experts can understand it. Take that, Feynman!

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Subjectivity of Objects

Objects are everywhere. Houses, trees, windows, computers, people. Our language revolves around objects. We conceptualize the world in terms of objects. And today, I’m going to go full-on philosopher, and ask, “What are objects?”

Platonic Forms

In Ancient Greece, Plato described objects in terms of the theory of Forms. It was said that, for every type of object—house, door, cat, human—there is a perfect version of it, its Form. The Forms were said to exist non-physically and timelessly. Thus, reality was thought to be made of objects attempting to mimic their corresponding perfect Forms.

The theory of Forms may be useful in some contexts, but it doesn’t do well at describing physical reality. In the relatively static ancient world, it made sense, but in modern times with historically rapid technological and scientific progress, not as much. Has there always been a Form of a spaceship? A cell phone? The internet? What about the way some languages have words for objects that others don’t? It seems much more likely that Forms only exist as concepts within our minds, not in external objective reality.

Reductionism and Holism

In the era of science, another theory has arisen: reductionism. We observed that things are made out of parts, and those parts are made out of smaller parts, and the chain continues quite awhile. Finding the fundamental building blocks of the universe became a goal of modern physics, and some came to the belief that these building blocks are the true reality, and everything emergent from them is just our perception, less real or not real at all. This view is called reductionism.

Counter to reductionism, there is holism, the view that any system that functions as a whole and has properties that are different from the properties of its parts is a real object. Some stronger versions of holism even claim that certain higher-level emergent objects are more real than the parts they are made of.

Reductionism and holism are both perspectives and metaphysical theories. As perspectives, whether they are valid or not depends on the context. Today, we are examining them as metaphysical theories.

Associative Equivalence

Which is true, reductionism or holism? Are higher-level objects real, or are only the smallest, most reducible parts they are made from? To explore this question, let’s take a detour into math. Consider the following expressions:

1 + 2
2 + 1
(1 + 1) + 1
1 + (1 + 1)
1/2 + 2 + 1/2

What is the difference in the ideas each of these expressions represent? The answer: nothing! They all represent the number three, divided into arbitrary pieces.

Let’s take this analogy to physical reality. If we cut a sandwich into four pieces, does it become four sandwiches? If we put four full-sized sandwiches together at the corners, do we get one big sandwich? The answer is not a question of metaphysics, it is a question of semantics. It only depends on how we decide to define the words.

Just like how the number of numbers we divide a math expression into does not change what it represents, neither does reductionism describe a different reality than holism. Holism is merely putting the parentheses in different places (and, as we will see in next week’s quantum physics discussion, reductionism ends up doing that too). As metaphysical theories, neither reductionism nor holism measure up. They are both equally valid descriptions of the same reality!

Thus, we come to a profound realization: the universe is not inherently made out of objects; objects are human constructions. The universe is one thing, and it is infinitely many things. There is no difference. It’s all up to how we look at it.

For me, to see a door as a door, and as wood, and as wood cells, and as organic molecules, and as atoms, and as subatomic particles, and as interacting quantum fields, and to know that all of these are equally true, and none is more or less true than any other, is awe-inspiringly profound. To see myself as one person, and as two halves of a brain, and as a trillion cells, and as a part of the universe where the boundary between me and everything else is just a mental construction; that is nothing short of spiritual.

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