Fate

One of the reasons I got interested in physics was because I have always been interested in the “question of free will.” Physicists don’t like to talk about free will much, especially since learning what quantum theory has to say about free will seems to put you smack dab in the middle of the measurement problem in quantum theory. In many ways, what I’m most interested in is not the question of free will, which I find too often to be an overly anthropocentric enterprise, but more the question of the determinism / indeterminism of physics. But the “free will question” has played a major role in shaping why I choose to do physics.

As so the question becomes: why was I interested in free will? Most of it is surely due to my older sister Cathy. You see Cathy is a little person. No one knows exactly what syndrome she has, but it causes her to be lopsided (one arm and leg shorter than the other), she has very poor vision and hearing, and has some mental difficulties. This makes it all sound really bad: which it is definitely not because Cathy is an amazing light in our family. She works at the local library in Yreka, loves to listen to her John Denver tapes, she loves to watch Jeopardy, and is, in general, a very happy person who brightens the lives of her many many friends.

But if you grow up with a sister like Cathy you can not avoid thinking about why you ended up the way you are and why she ended up the way she is? Was it fate and totally out of the hands of human choice? Science, and physics in particular, is the path one is reduced to in order to possibly find any answer to such a question. While we can argue forever whether reductionism to fundamental physics is central to answering this question, there can be no doubt that understanding the role of determinism and indeterminism in physics will have a profound impact on our view of this question.

On the other hand, Richard Feynman said: “Do not ask yourself… ‘how can it be like that?’ because you will lead yourself down a blind alley in which no one has ever escaped.” I don’t think Feynman was talking about science here: scientists spend much of their time answering how it can be like that. I think Feynman was talking about asking for reasons which somehow satisfy us as humans: answers that will give us short sentences explaining why. There are simple important questions which might have simple concise explanations, but finding these explanations seems impossibly difficult. And this is how I find myself coming full circle. Because this point of view, that there are simple questions for which there aren’t answers which can be found in a short time (and once we find them, we’ll know we’ve answered the question) is basically the complexity class NP. Which is computer science. The field, besides physics, which I most deeply admire.

So fate not only made me a physicist, but it also made me a computer scientist.

And the only question left remaining is whether or not it was destiny that I was born at a time when I could participate in the unfolding of the field of quantum computing, which merges physics and computer science like never before?

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2 Responses to Fate

  1. Scott Aaronson says:

    Yes. Yes. YES!

    (I mean in general, not as an answer to whether quantum computing is your destiny.)

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  2. Charles2 says:

    Doesn’t the question of destiny (pardon my non-physicist approach) run into the problem of asking a quantum question of a non-quantum scale event? Rather than asking about how things get to be how they are on a human scale in terms of physics, I prefer to take a Stephen J. Gould approach and appeal to the intrinsically non-linear, contingent nature of societal interactions.

    However, it seems human nature to ask such questions and to appeal to something outside ourselves and outside our personal events for what happens to us. So if nothing else, asking the question reminds you – and all of us – that you are human.

    Nice post.

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