frank wilczek’s universe – light fantastic

Munro

Photo by Bruce Munro

by Frank Wilczek

Why is it so hard to accept, intuitively, that life and mind can emerge from matter? A big part of the answer, I think, is that we have little or no immediate experience of how physical systems represent information. Computers, we know, store and manipulate information in enormous patterns of 0s and 1s. But those patterns are based on arrangements of electrons, microscopically small and deeply hidden from the user interface.

Our brains store and manipulate information in patterns of electrical activation. Most neurobiologists accept that those patterns are the physical embodiment of mind—but they are encased in our skulls, buried in gelatinous brain tissue. We can’t scrutinize them or feel them directly.

One evening last month I had an extraordinary experience at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, where I viewed an installation called “Fields of Light” by Bruce Munro. The giant artwork used thousands of small spheres of light, strewed over several acres on the desert hills. I wandered among them. Their soft light pulsated, asynchronously, every few seconds, and modulated more slowly through a range of colors. As soon as some pattern became recognizable, a new, slightly different one began to replace it. The pace of that dynamic, comparable to the rhythm of heartbeats or of breathing, gave it an organic feel.

Metaphors connecting light to thought abound. We speak of “flashes of insight” and “bright ideas,” and cartoonists depict these as thought-balloon lightbulbs, emanations from the clever person’s head. Visual representations of communications networks or brains also often use flashes of light to indicate activity.

That night, for me, all those analogies and metaphors came together. In the ever-changing landscape of possibilities, I felt I’d gotten an inkling of what thought looks like. I had the uncanny sense that I was walking through my own mind, or at least a good model of it. I’ll never again think about brains, or myself, in quite the same way.

A great living physicist, Philip Anderson, famously asserted, “More is different.” When large numbers of units act together, fundamentally new structures and phenomena emerge. In one hierarchy, atoms combine to make semiconductor crystals, transistors and computing machines; along another trajectory, they combine to make biomolecules, nerve cells and brains. In these examples, it leaps out: Lots more is very different.

Mr. Munro’s light show embodied, in tangible form, the abstract mathematical concept of a “combinatorial explosion.” Let’s say one light can be either on or off. Then a system of two lights can be in four states: on-on, on-off, off-on, off-off. And a system of merely 30 lights, each of which might be on or off, supports over a billion possible states. When we have thousands of lights, each of which can exhibit a range of colors and brightness, and add the element of time, the explosion of potential far outstrips Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions.” It gives concrete, visceral meaning to the “lots” in “lots more.”

“Fields of Light” was intended as a work of art, not a scientific model. But its psychological power suggests the potential of a new form of visualization—visualization on a grand scale, involving dynamic, immersive environments, as a tool for teaching and understanding.

Using magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, fluorescent proteins and other technologies, neurobiologists have gathered a lot of objective information about flows of thought and emotion. There’s an opportunity here: Wouldn’t it be marvelous to bring all that information together and scale it up to produce an accurate, dynamic model of mind that is an enthralling, mind-expanding experience too?

In the famous Stargate sequence toward the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” astronaut Dave Bowman, approaching Jupiter, finds a strange monolith. When he touches its surface, he activates it. The monolith engulfs him in a swirling vortex of multicolored light, and his mind is altered. Dave Bowman’s expanded consciousness prepares him for further revelations, and at last a glorious rebirth. Maybe those monolith builders were on to something.

  • * * * * *

Dr. Wilczek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book is “A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design.”

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal

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