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Laws of Nature workshop: what can we tell from the program?

  1. May 16, 2010 #1


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    This month at PI there will be a 3 day workshop on the Laws of Nature. As outsiders, what can we learn?
    http://www.perimeterinstitute.ca/en/Events/Laws_of_Nature/Laws_of_Nature%3A_Their_Nature_and_Knowability/ [Broken]

    Smolin and Unger have a book in the works about this (time and the laws of nature) and they will be giving one of the 11 invited presentations.

    Here is the list of participants. I'll highlight a few names that I think are likely to be familiar to people participating in Beyond forum:

    Niayesh Afshordi, Perimeter Institute
    Anthony Aguirre, University of California, Santa Cruz
    Julian Barbour, College Farm
    Ariel Caticha, University of Albany (SUNY)
    Paul Davies, Arizona State University

    Doreen Fraser, University of Waterloo
    Marcelo Gleiser, Dartmouth College
    Philip Goyal, Perimeter Institute
    Lucien Hardy, Perimeter Institute
    Sabine Hossenfelder, Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics

    Jenann Ismael, University of Sydney
    Kevin Kelly, Carnegie Mellon
    Kevin Knuth, University of Albany (SUNY)
    Janna Levin, Columbia University
    Huw Price, University of Sydney
    John Roberts, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
    Lee Smolin, Perimeter Institute
    Chris Smeenk, University of Western Ontario
    Rob Spekkens, Perimeter Institute
    Roberto Unger, Harvard University
    Xiao-Gang Wen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology & Perimeter Institute
    Mark Wilson, University of Pittsburgh

    Here are the titles of the 11 scheduled presentations:

    http://www.perimeterinstitute.ca/en/Events/Laws_of_Nature/Schedule/ [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
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  3. May 16, 2010 #2


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    The days are Thursday-Saturday, 20-22 May.
    Each of the 11 main presentations is given 80 minutes (which includes time for discussion).

    Some sample titles:

    On Thursday, Smolin and Unger talk on Laws and time in cosmology

    On Friday,
    Kevin Knuth on The role of order in natural law
    Ariel Caticha on Law without law: entropic dynamics
    Kevin Kelly on How does simplicity help science find true laws?

    On Saturday,
    Niayesh Afshordi on Cosmological constant problem: rethinking quantum and gravity
    Julian Barbour on The case for geometry
    Steve Weinstein leads discussion on The limits of mathematical description.

    The Weinstein discussion session is not one of the 11 presentations. I guess limits of math description is really what the whole workshop is about, basically. So any and all participants could have ideas about that which they want to put on the table.
    Last edited: May 16, 2010
  4. May 16, 2010 #3


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    Marcelo Gleiser is very famous around here. He usually appears to talk about about science in general in the biggest TV networks of my country. He also wrote several books too. But he always insisted on string theory.

    So, I am kind of surprised that he forfeited strings, hmm...
  5. May 16, 2010 #4


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    Thanks again Marcus for bringing attention to interesting things.

    Sounds like a really good workshop. I hope that they will put them up as videos afterwards like they sometimes do, I'd be very interested to heard the updated opinions on some of those people and hopefully those that have somewhat contradicting opinons will comment each others talk in a way that can be constructive. I'm happy to see smolin there, I was worried that he abandoned his evolving law idea as there's still no book and no new talks/papers on the topic.

    Looking forward to this.

  6. May 21, 2010 #5
    Any of those talks online ? I would love to hear what Unger has to say..
  7. May 21, 2010 #6
    They are indeed.


    EDIT: You might want to add this to the original post for interested readers.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  8. May 21, 2010 #7


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    Thanks for posting this link. I can't edit it into the original post (only moderators can edit after the first 24 hours) but your giving it is just as good.

    I watched the Smolin/Unger presentation recently. Was impressed by Unger's delivery and appreciated the clarity of ideas.

    It seemed to me that those two have got their act together, leading up to the appearance of their book. I guess that the book will appear within the next 6 months, because they clearly ready for launch. Their publisher needs to get the book out to distributers and get someone to schedule speaking tours for those guys to give talks at various university campuses etc. The timing would be good now, before the "Multiverse" fad wilts of its own accord and evaporates or someone like Roger Penrose takes revenge on it. Revolutions always do better when they appear as restorations of righteousness. E.g. The 19th Century Meiji Restoration in Japan.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  9. May 21, 2010 #8
    I'm surprised more people don't know about PIRSA. It's a great resource and virtually all talks at PI are on there.

    Will the book be at at a more technical level? Or is it more directed towards popular science? I'll definitely be checking out their talk now.

    Also, I know Rob Spekkens is writing a book on interpretations of quantum mechanics that I hope is published soon.
  10. May 21, 2010 #9


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    It's hard to tell who doesn't know about PIRSA. i think everybody I talk to here does, since we have been posting PIRSA links here fairly regularly. But probably a lot of folks don't and it's good to put more spotlight on it.

    In the QG bibliography thread I have gotten accustomed to posting pirsa links right along with arxiv preprint links. I agree with you. They are both great services!

    You could tell us more about your particular interests. Do you come at the Laws workshop more from a philosophy of science (PoS) direction? My interest is more Quantum Gravity, Cosmology, hopes of a unified understanding of spacetime geometry and matter. I see PoS as being helpful because analysis of basic concepts is sometimes required before progress can be made. Both Smolin and Rovelli approached QG with some PoS sophistication. They did not just "shut up and calculate" or pursue a mirage of pretty mathematics. Earlier greats like Einstein and the originators of quantum mechanics were also philosophically engaged. So it seems to help sometimes.
    Last edited: May 21, 2010
  11. May 21, 2010 #10
    Re: Gravity/gaugefield/Higgs unification bid by Lisi-Smolin-Speziale

    Right off the bat, let me state I'm at the University of Waterloo and have spent a bunch of time at PI so I know quite a bit about PIRSA and use it all the time.

    As for what angle, I've taken philosophy of science (with Doreen Fraser I might add) and have dabbled into interpretations of quantum mechanics. Check out the course by Emerson and Laflamme which is up on PIRSA. That course has influenced me quite a bit. In fact, I most identify with the viewpoints of Chris Fuchs. I do believe that a solid understanding of the fundamentals of our theories to really understand what is going on. Being able to simply postulate some Lagrangian is all well and good, but I don't think it is always the right path.

    As for my interests, I'm still an undergraduate, but I am doing gravitational research right now and am enjoying it quite a lot. As for where I'll end up, who knows. I think it is very important to keep an open mind and being exposed to the vast ways of doing science has been helpful.
  12. May 21, 2010 #11


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    Thanks. Must be great to be at Waterloo. About gravitational research, I know somewhat about the QG research going on at Perimeter. But I don't know what other lines of gravity research are being pursued at Waterloo. Or what kind of research an undergraduate can get into, there.
  13. May 22, 2010 #12
    Indeed it is. I've been very lucky to have an in at PI. It's a great place to work and the people who come through are amazing. It's opened a lot of doors. Same with the IQC. Having both so close to campus is excellent. Especially since I want to do theoretical work, I can interact with the best and brightest. As for gravity research, it's mostly just a simple "do this calculation" type thing, i.e. here is some metric we want to try, go grind through the calculation and see the result. Simple work, but it's somewhere to start. In fact, one of my supervisors is at this conference. For sake of privacy (not that's it hard to work out) I won't mention who.

    So as not to derail this topic I watched Smolin/Unger presentation. I was able to follow some of it, but not all. I have very little knowledge of the subject area and many of the problems they bring up I either can't see as problems or am unclear as to why they bring them up. Obviously they are going to publish a book on the subject, but do you know of any literature available to check out?
  14. May 22, 2010 #13


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    Smolin has several talks on Pirsa about the substance of the book. 2007-2008.

    He also has an article in the monthly magazine of the NY Academy of Sciences called something like "One Universe is Enough!"

    I absolve you from checking this stuff :biggrin: because IMHO an undergraduate had better focus on learning and mastering UNCONTROVERSIAL stuff. I would feel funny if I steered you into a storm of controversy.

    But I do suspect it will be a valuable and important book. Smolin will want it to be popular because paradoxically that will cause it to have more impact on the minds of fellow physicists. They tend not to think about anything conceptually out of the box hard unless it has been reviewed in the Times of London, the Wall Street Journal, and the Sunday NYT. They are too busy to read philosophical crit unless they feel the boat rocking. So it will be written as a popular wide audience book even though the main targets are the senior physics colleagues. That may sound perverse and convolute but it's what I think.

    I think the title of the book will be something like TIME AND THE MEANING OF PHYSICAL LAW.

    It will analyze the concept of physical law and show that our naive existing idea of law does not apply to cosmology (it only can apply to isolated subsystems---not to a onetime history containing the observer). It will show that time is essential to understanding the natural history of the universe. Time is real. And it will show that the laws of physics can (and perhaps even must) change with time.

    It will attempt to demolish the "anthropic principle" type of multiverse fantasy, and it will show at least one example of how what we once thought was an immutable law is actually evolving with time. It may show an example of how certain observed regularities in nature could have arisen by a process of natural selection. This is merely to illustrate the possibility that laws can evolve---something to look into.

    Some scientists engage in battles which help decide the future direction of research. It is an essential part of how science works. I'm looking forward to seeing the book (though can only guess as to title, contents, and date of publication.)
    Last edited: May 22, 2010
  15. May 23, 2010 #14


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    I just got around to to watch this talk!

    I'm happy to see that Smolin is still thinking about this, and it was also the first time I've seen Unger. He is an interesting character and his personality seems to be quite different than Smolin's :) Very interesting to see and hear him speak.

    Since I've seen the other talks and are already quite tuned in on their main message, for me the most interesting part of the talk was that it revealed a couple of points where Smolin and Unger don't quite agree.

    1) It's on the issue to what extent there exists in some sense a priviliged moment of the present, such as a kind "global time" or not. Unger didn't seem to think that these implies such a thing, and I'm personally more with Unger on that point. I think Smolins seems to have a different view here.

    What Unger means with "reality of time" is not quite the same thing as thining there is a preferred time or global time. That makes good sense to me, but I have a feeling Smolin has some other idea there which I don't understand how he sees that as consistent with Ungers points.

    2) Similary they seemed to a differ a bit is wether the past is more real than the future.

    I think it was a good talk, but they did not provide much more progress on how to make this into a new framework than the past talk from Smolin. It seems the main point is still to convey the idea that the old newtonian framework has limitations.

    The last talk from smolin on evolving laws, I only listened to the mp3 and didn't see the video, but I detect one voice in the audience, from a lady that this time made an analogy with chess games, and the same voice(?) made a point in the old talk about theories and laws are like tools for interacting with the open subsystem that smolin couldn't elaborate but he said the thought unger might. Was this the same lady like I think? and did they really interpret her question right this time?

    I'm not sure who she is, I had a feeling she was a philsopher rather than physicists but I'm interested to know if someone knows who she is, and wether she happens to have some own papers on this.

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  16. May 23, 2010 #15


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    They sort of presenting philsophical arguments, based on observations about scientific development, also analogies to biology and social theory, that part of the framework that dominates in physics, called the newtonian paradigm, may not be as viable as we think.

    But as Smoling also pointed out, this "strategy" implicit in the newtonian scheme, is certainly worth a try! but this is what more or less everyone has been doing up until know, and still this issue with unification of forces as well as qm and gr is still open. There are several problems of current attempts, that originate (in their view) from this "flawed schema". This is the idea of multiverses some people engage into as a way to solve problems, also landscape problems, "initial value problems" etc.

    I think before one can appreciate their ideas, one has to somehow see the difficulties of the current scheme, and their idea is that MAYBE alot of the problems are due to that the scheme is wrong.

    I've read all Smolins books and listed to only some of this talks. Maybe only one talk isn't enough. But another one is this one: http://pirsa.org/08100049/

    It's the "old" talk I referred to in my previous post.

  17. May 23, 2010 #16


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    That's a good one to cite. I'll copy the abstract here for easy reference:
    On the reality of time and the evolution of laws
    Lee Smolin
    "There are a number of arguments in the philosophical, physical and cosmological literatures for the thesis that time is not fundamental to the description of nature. According to this view, time should be only an approximate notion which emerges from a more fundamental, timeless description only in certain limiting approximations. My first task is to review these arguments and explain why they fail. I will then examine the opposite view, which is that time and change are fundamental and, indeed, are perhaps the only aspects of reality that are not emergent from a more fundamental, microscopic description. The argument involves several aspects of contemporary physics and cosmology including 1) the problem of the landscape of string theory, 2) cosmological inflation and the problem of initial conditions, 3) the interpretation of the “wavefunction of the universe,” and the problem of what is an observable in classical and quantum general relativity. It also involves issues in the foundations of mathematics and the issue of the proper understanding of the role of mathematics in physics. The view that time is real and not emergent is, I will argue, supported by considerations arising from all these issues It leads finally to a need for a notion of law in cosmology which replaces the freedom to choose initial conditions with a notion of laws evolving in time. The arguments presented here have been developed in collaboration with Roberto Mangabeira Unger."

    I can't identify the voice you heard asking questions in both this and the recent Smolin/Unger talk. If later I think of a woman philosopher of science who it might be, I'll suggest a name.

    How about Janna Levin? She was very active during Marcelo Gleiser's talk. She and Lee Smolin had a backandforth lengthy exchange of comment on what Marcelo was saying re "what can we know of the world?" She is quick and agile, with a reedy highpitch voice, and does not get boring. Could she be the participant you were thinking of?
    Last edited: May 23, 2010
  18. May 23, 2010 #17


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    If anyone else wants to be sherlock, I just checked the time stamps and the female in the audience is

    1) on the video at 01:17:46 on the latest video.
    2) on 49:55 on the mp3 of the the the old "evolution of time" talk

    Maybe it's two different persons, but my ear and the type of question suggested it is was possibly the same person?

  19. May 23, 2010 #18
    The first talk (i.e. the latest talk) it looks like Jenann Ismael.
  20. May 23, 2010 #19


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    Thanks! I checked her website http://homepage.mac.com/centre.for.time/ismael/ [Broken]

    I skimmed some of her papers and it seems to be more pure philosphy, rather than just using sound philosophical arguments as a guide to reconstruct a new mathematical framwork.

    (Compare to E.T JAynes work for reconstructing the axioms of probability in his book "Probability theory - the logic of science"; that is still a "philosophical book" in my view, but not PURE philsophy, it's still physics and mathematics).

    I wonder how much mathematics that are in Roberto Unger's work. After all, any quantiative prediction, must incorporate computations somehow. I'd be quite interested to see what mathematical formalism that would follow from Ungers pretty clear verbal reasoning.

    I think we need to combine the skills of beeing able to perform a sound analysis of the situation with the skill of beeing translate that into some kind of mathematical models; even if it's not of the eternal rigid type that they object to.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  21. May 24, 2010 #20


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    I'm not sure which arhives to look for this work? I guess what I hope to find is a mathematical model for social interactions including decision theory of the individuals or something like that?

    I found he has some websites

    (1) http://www.robertounger.com/
    - I'm not sure if it's my connection or a temporary problem but almost all links on that page are broken? I get nothing out of it.

    (2) http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/unger/
    - but that pages loads empty for me? maybe it's a sevier problem?

    (3) http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/directory/index.html?id=75
    - there are some references to books and such but I find no online material for skimming.

    Does anyone know what a "social theorist" do? :confused: Do they work out mathematical models for group dynamics for computer simulations of groups, societies, economical systems etc? What archives would one find that?

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