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Continuing A Great Man’s Quest

December 17, 2011

Just the other day I posted a video where researchers in machine vision took a digital film of them roaming about a college campus and extracted a 3D model of the entire campus from the film images alone.  Depth information can be extracted based on the rate of how the colored pixels change relative to one another.  Pixels “further” in the distance change slower than those up close, and using computational algorithms you can use this basic idea to extract “space” from the images falling on the camera’s “eye”.

I’m a quest you see.  A quest I’ve been on for years.

“Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.”

– Albert Einstein

This is all part of a larger quest which came long before I became interested in physics.  You see, I started off reading the works of philosophers such as Hegel, Kant, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and others.  I wanted to understand what “I” consisted of.   I later realized Einstein was on this same quest, and in a way, I want to pick up where he left off, focusing on how the subjective sense of space and time are created by our brains, and help physicists figure out how to combine relativity theory with quantum physics.

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

-Albert Einstein

I’ve spent the past few weeks studying quantum mechanics.  I keep reflecting on things like Schrodinger’s equation, and try to think of how to find a distinction between myself and the objective world.  Somehow I’ve always hoped to better understand objective reality through physics, but I can’t get over some major philosophical hurdles.  Einstein seemed to struggle with the same problem.  In this letter to his friend Max Born, he was trying to find a way to hold onto a concept of objective reality as separate from a particular observer.  After all, physics gets its name from physical.

I just want to explain what I mean when I say that we should try to hold on to physical reality.  We are … all aware of the situation regarding what will turn out to be the basic foundational concepts in physics: the point-mass or the particle is surely not among them; the field, in the Faraday-Maxwell sense, might be, but not with certainty. But that which we conceive as existing (“real”) should somehow be localized in time and space. That is, the real in one part of space, A, should (in theory) somehow “exist” independently of that which is thought of as real in another part of space, B. If a physical system stretches over A and B, then what is present in B should somehow have an existence independent of what is present in A. What is actually present in B should thus not depend the type of measurement carried out in the part of space A; it should also be independent of whether or not a measurement is made in A.

If one adheres to this program, then one can hardly view the quantum-theoretical description as a complete representation of the physically real. If one attempts, nevertheless, so to view it, then one must assume that the physically real in B undergoes a sudden change because of a measurement in A. My physical instincts bristle at that suggestion.

However, if one renounces the assumption that what is present in different parts of space has an independent, real existence, then I don’t see at all what physics is supposed to be describing. For what is thought to be a “system” is after all, just conventional, and I do not see how one is supposed to divide up the world objectively so that one can make statements about parts.

– Albert Einstein, in a personal letter to Max Born

The only way I can think to proceed is to fully understand quantum physics and relativity theory (which is coming along nicely these days for me), and then figure out the algorithms the brain is using to separate objects one from another, create a sense of existing within space, our sense of self, and how our sense of time comes to be.   It’s not an easy path, but it’s the only one I find fulfilling.  I’ve never wanted to write boring business software, or attend school, or work a job.  Unfortunately I’m forced to do these things.  But I always have Joseph Campbell’s quote in the back of my mind.

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls”

– Joseph Campbell

Let’s see where this road leads.

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