Lab Notebook

Damnit the numbers don’t add up.

Here I sit and toil. The sun has long set, I look down at the scribbles in the open lab book which are illuminated by the green, white, yellow characters of my dark themed code editor.

I can see Dan now, he’s taken my notebook and is tsktsk-ing. You need to record everything, not just the numbers. What am I, a court stenographer or a physicist? Two out of five, Dan says.

Staring at the lab book I try to run through what I remember of the experiment. The hardware I inherited from a prior grad student. That suck up Didier. He’d gotten, not just a named postdoc appointment, but also a plum faculty position guaranteed after his postdoc completed. Lord, the way he’d always taken credit for what we’d done in the lab. I guess that’s what you get when you suck up to Professor Van.

Had I not understood the measurement pulses generated by Didier’s electronic stack? Well maybe I should go over for the tenth time the notes Didier left behind.

I spend the next hour reading unintelligible techno jargon. I used to think that science papers were hard to read because I was dumb. Then I realized they were hard to read because half the field had barely functioning language skills.

It didn’t seem to be my understanding of the measurement device that was the problem.

Make it simple. Dan’s ghost finds its way into my head. What are you actually trying to do here? You’ve meandered off into focusing on the details, take a step back and find the easiest place where your results are obviously inconsistent. Three out of five, Dan says.

Ok then what was the crux of my problem? What was the simplest way I could explain what was wrong? Well at the end of the day it just seems that the probabilities don’t add up. Not in the metaphorical sense, no the literal sum of the probabilities was not one.

The dark night continues, it will be a humiliating group meeting tomorrow. Professor Van’s scowl. Your probabilities don’t even add up to one.

Maybe a little cat nap to see if my subconscious can help.

I dream I’m on a yacht. No, that’s not correct, it’s not just a yacht, it’s a mega yacht. My lab book is open on a table and I’m scribbling in it, while the boat sales through a narrow fjord with spectacular snow to sea peaks. Why am I so obsessed with this lab book that I’m missing out on the scenery? It’s definitely me though, totally reasonable to have me fabulously wealthy and still piddling around in a lab book.

I wake up with a little spittle on the book where I have rested my head. What is wrong? What universe is this that makes even the most basic stuff fail: my probabilities don’t add up to one.

What will be even worse than Professor Van’s scowl will be that I will have to show my work in front of Gelfman.

There are two types of theoretical physicists. The first are those who can solve hard problems that others cannot solve. Just do the integral over the hyperbolic domain, they say, and it’s easy to see the poles are on the line x equals 2. These physicists are famous for argument by steam rolling your pathetic attempt at math.

Then there are the theorists who don’t solve problems but invent them. And among this set there is an even smaller set who don’t just invent problems to be solved, but create them so that they are born already solved. Gelfman was such a physicist. She’d been the one to notice that one could connect the Langlands classifications with an obscure approach to quantum gravity and when one did that renormalization was just, well, just obvious.

Gelfman was a visitor of Professor Van, or at least that was what she had been for twenty years. She was allowed to wander intellectually where she liked, but the one condition Van had given her was that she had to attend the group meeting.

Mostly she’d just sit quietly. She didn’t ever appear to be listening, nor did she appear to actually be thinking about something else. But every few months, in the middle of the presentation at the meeting, we’d hear a polite “excuse me” and look back to see Gelfman with her hand raised.

What followed was always profound and sometimes transformative. It was always “have you considered that what you are saying implies X” where X was something not at all obviously connected to what the speaker was speaking about. One time a result about codes somehow was related to how angles obeyed some modified laws and this “obviously” led to quantum gravity.

What would Gelfman say when my probabilities didn’t even add up to one. Definitely no “excuse me” was in my destiny.

The sun is is now up, I make my way to the physics center. I’ve got a few more hours to debug, but my mind is jelly. So I grab a coffee and a seat with a view up towards the mountains. Maybe this weekend I’ll take a hike, contemplate whether this grad school thing is right for me.

Everyone shuffles in for the group meeting. There is food, but I can’t eat, and for the first time I notice the speed and efficiency with which the grad students devour the food. Slightly repulsive when you’re not one of those doing the scarfing.

This is a mix media talk, I start with a few slides, go to the chalkboard to do derivations, and then return to slides for the data analysis.

The moment of truth. “But these probabilities, well, they don’t add up to one.”

“Excuse me,” I hear. What? Yes, Gelfman has her hand politely raised. She’s even smiling (Prof Van is all scowl of course).

“Have you considered that maybe the probabilities don’t add up to one and that you should start a hedge fund?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Well maybe your experiment has shown that the world does not have to always follow the axioms of probability. So you’ve shown how to get the physical word into a state where this manifests itself experimentally”

“If you use this experiment along side the real world, everyone else, who is assuming that probabilities do work, well their models will be broken.”

The mega yacht, I will say, is quite nice. But yes, I do find myself still working through experiments in my lab book. Like all good things, the arbitrage only lasted until word spread. And now I get to lead a world class set of scientists in the new field of experimental probability. We’re confused, but well fed, and it’s a wonderful life.


Tea time at the Santa Fe Institute was held in the kitchen and I don’t remember the tea.

I do remember the stories Cormac would tell. He’d be happy for me to share mine.

We nibble on the cheese and chat. I’m with Cormac and a visitor. It comes up that I work in quantum computing. The visitor has a background in physics.

Oh entanglement the visitor says the results are correlated what is so mysterious about that? The visitor continues in this way completely missing the point of Bell inequalities convinced there is nothing strange there beyond a common cause producing correlations. There is a lot of confidence and volume and minutes of physicsplaining until eventually I peep up.

Well actually the entire point is that entanglement isn’t just correlation from a common local cause. Brief discussion of Bell inequalities.

Later, Cormac sees me in the common area. Dave you are very patient. How could you just sit there and listen to that guy go on and on about quantum entanglement when he had no idea about the meaning of Bell inequalities.

He was a remarkable writer, but also he deeply loved science and the quest to understand our world around us. And damn straight he understood why quantum entanglement is interesting.

Junk DNA

Is anything truly random, or is there always structure and cause? These were his thoughts as he stared at the diagram he had assembled on his computer.

The diagram showed the various chemical pathways that had been discovered surrounding “junk” DNA. Junk DNA is made up of the bits of DNA that are non-functional. This means that they don’t code for proteins, but it also means they aren’t non-coding genes for tRNA or ribosomal RNA. Defining what exactly functional means had always been a subject of heated debate, he had voiced his own strong opinions on this subject, but there was no doubt that some portion of one’s DNA was seemingly decoupled from use by biology. And full of randomness.

The diagram he had assembled was the result of many careers of biochemistry graduate students. Each edge in his graph was a Ph.D., and each edge was filled with hopes, dreams, and tiny bits of the delusion that their edge would lead to fame and fortune. Or at least a coveted tenure track professorship. That their work, their edge, would be a functional part of the biochemical cannon.

It was only recently that enough graduate student fuel had been burned to show a nearly complete picture of the mechanisms surrounding junk DNA. Yes, this DNA was non-functional, in that it didn’t have a part to play in life, but each time DNA was copied junk DNA was there. At the beginning and at the end. So there was mechanism in going from before to after. He strained his eyes at the diagram, trying to comprehend.

Random is hard, but complex is not. Take a number. There are many things you can do to it. Multiply it by another number, add a number to it. Square the number or take the remainder of a number divided by some other number. If the formula you come up with for changing a number to another number is complex, it may be very hard to figure out how to get back your input number out from the output of your formula. Of course some functions make this impossible, they have the same outputs that come from multiple inputs. But even when the formula is guaranteed to have a unique input for every output, it could be hard to find this input. You might be mistaken for thinking that the output was random, how on earth could it be related to your input?

A similar sort of idea was found in fingerprints. Humans are giant complex beasts, but there is a small part of your body, the skin folds on your finger tips, which are unique to you (or at least two people having the same fingerprint is rare.) There is some mechanism that goes from you as a fertilized egg to you and your fingerprint. But looking at just your fingerprint we cannot rebuild the fertilized egg, and we cannot rebuild you. Fingerprints are seemingly random, but they were created via a mechanism, and reverse engineering this is seemingly impossible.

But he thought, this concept of a fingerprint was a lie. Of course fingerprints aren’t just genetic. They also depend on the environment that you developed in. So this formula for going from fertilized cell to you involves not just you, but every bit of the world you interacted with as you grew from w to organism.

In the days of social media excess, back when the riots inspired by vast waves of fossilized thought decoupled people from reality and led to the overthrow of governments, one particular band of crazy ideas had arisen called digital money. He recalled how these systems burned vast sums of energy but also how they used fingerprints.

Money is keeping track of what you spend and receive, you need some way to keep track of these pluses and minuses. Mistaking trust as a problem, the long dead citizens of this era worked to see if they could reproduce trust via mathematical and game theoretic guarantees. To do this they created a list of the pluses and minuses of their money, but to keep it from being mutated, they made each part of this ledger include a fingerprint of the last part of the ledger. This meant that the whole chain of transactions could be verified: statting with the most recent entry you could read the fingerprint of that entry and verify that it was the fingerprint for the previous entry.

And so, as he sat there, looking at the diagram of junk DNA, it occurred to him this Junk, this stuff of non-functional form was really a cryptographic hash, i.e a fingerprint. Your stands of Junk DNA were a fingerprint of your parents DNA. By looking at your junk DNA, and the DNA of your parents, one could run a short computer program to verify that those were indeed your parents.

He sat there, stunned, upon reaching this conclusion. How on earth. Or more directly how on evolution, he wondered. And then there was another flash of insight, and he remembered mice and dolphins and whales and petunias, and he wondered, who, exactly is using us as a digital currency?

Like An Arrow

That internal state where the world disappears, and it feels like every conceivable part of your consciousness is working towards a singular goal. Entering into this state was often accompanied by the feeling that time was flying, it was not unusual for hours to pass without notice in this state. Flow they called it, and because people in this state were incredibly productive, late stage capitalism became obsessed with achieving it.

At first the flow industry was just blog posts, fakesci books, and business school seminars. But as the pharma revolution kicked in, a series of breakthroughs led to Flowz, a family of drugs that could induce flow. When population growth stopped, and then began to retract, the economy could continue to grow, first with the uptake of Flowz use, and then with the series of drug improvements to induce higher states of flow.

And this is how the aliens found us. It turns out, that feeling of time flying was real. The local time induced by flow did indeed cause time to run slower. When the wave of distortion caused by a hyper optimized society of Flowz users finally propagated to the nearest interstellar civilization, the aliens detected the effect. It is easy to understand see why they invaded.

Sideways in time

When you shine a flashlight at a wall, you aren’t surprised when the light beam gets absorbed by the wall, and the light does not emerge from the other side.

This obvious statement only needed a small extrapolation for the first tachyon scientists to become successful.

For the slow moving world, that of the bradyons, and the light speed moving world, that of the luxons, you can see your past light cone and predict whether there is going to be a wall in front of the flashlight or not. Sure there is a chance a fast moving braydon wall may get in front of your flashlight beam just after you turn it on, but you could see that coming. Similarly we know the luxons world, that of photons, cannot themselves make walls, so we might not know you are about to get zapped by a light beam outside your past light cone, but that isn’t a wall, an obstruction to bradyons or luxons.

And thus it was for the tachyons, to send them, you simply needed to make sure there isn’t a wall in the way. I say simply because it turns out that when you look in every spacelike direction here on Earth, there are quite a few other tachyonic structures. And so it was that for many years tachyonic scientists spent their time sending tachyon beams into tachyonic walls. It was only with the construction of tachyonic machines, the plow, the saw, the spade, that one could make sure that the tachyons you were sending were not just slamming into a tachyonic wall.

And so now we are gathered here to embark on a next step, beyond building simple tachyonic machines, with our new endeavor to build a tachyonic computer. What new use will we dream up for computers that compute sideways in time?

Rock, paper, lines of force

It wasn’t until the machines that they noticed it was like Faraday had said.

As always, what we want is to have our cake and eat it to. We want that when we push a rock, the rock moves. The rock, pour soul, faces no choice, it’s just gotta move. Because we pushed it. But we also want that we can choose not to push that pour soul, the rock. And that choice, our choice, we don’t want it to have been chosen for us. We’re not rocks, damn it, and by golly it’s a wonderful problem because it doesn’t look so easy.

This problem, the problem of free will (which our pour rock does not have) has consumed philosophers (both natural and unnatural), preachers, and college kids smoking weed in their dorm room probably since the dawn of our consciousness. I will not dare to tread on such hallowed ground as the reasoning from conclusions to assumptions that these scholars had developed.

What happened was we got stuck.

No one could figure out how to make the computers exhibit free will. They’re run an experiment, say with a computer hooked to a robot arm and a rock, and see if they could get the computer to choose to push or not push our rock (who is now quite irritated at being the target of all this fuss.) But when we would look to try to understand what the computer had chosen, there was always a history that seems to show the causes for each of the actions that led the computer to its decision.

We’re not sure who it was who decided to press his head up against the laptop during the experiment. Maybe one of those free will explorers after too much weed.

But when they did, when they placed their head in close proximity to the chip running the computation, suddenly the computer began to make choices that could not be explained by the logs.

It turns out that free will, like electricity and magnetism, is a field. Every point in space is endowed with a value of this field. And our brains are big sources of the lines of free will force (which, of course some folks like to just call “the force”).

Which might explain why you see all these folks these days with their heads up against rocks asking them to “please move”.


Where do they go?

I ask them.

They tell me it is another universe. They describe how in that other universe the rules are different. How sometimes they don’t even know the rules but have to find them. They spend hours learning these rules and applying them.

They dissociate. It’s not unusual for them to spend hours fully engrossed. Wave your hand in front of their face and they might eventually see you. They describe time as just disappearing, and the next thing they know it is past midnight.

These days they can take it with them. Wherever they go it’s with them. You’ll see them lost in their world. At a ballgame, on the subway, whenever there is a spare moment they could be there.

There is debate, is it healthy? Is it okay that they spend so much time in these other worlds? Can they tell the difference from the real world?

Yep, these mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists doing theory research are a real worry. Won’t someone think of the children?


A favorite quote from van Gogh, “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Humility when faced by the realization of vastness that is the universe. A noble insight.

But read further, it was a letter to his brother, “but the sight of the stars makes me dream, in the same simple way as I dream about the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots in the sky be any less accessible to us than the black dots on the map of France?” So a star explorer, that van Gogh. Looking up and thinking of travel to the stars. To boldly go.

But this is 1888, how do you get to the stars? A decade later a Russian schoolteacher would propose rockets for space travel, but this is 1888, getting there seemed impossible. “If we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, then we take death to go to a star. What is certainly true in this reasoning is that while we are alive we cannot go to a star, any more than, once dead, we could catch a train.”

Take death to the stars. It’s always a journey, that death, always elsewhere. Internal journey, Resurrection, is reserved for the gods, or put off to the end of time. Or hoped for by the last electrical signals of brains in liquid nitrogen vats. But death, death takes you to the stars.

“It seems possible to me that cholera, gravel, phthisis, and cancer could be the means of celestial transportation, just as steam-boats, omnibuses, and railways serve that function on earth. To die peacefully of old age would be to go there on foot.” A vast galactic network of aliens star jumping around the universe. And we slow souls, trying not to get the phthisis, stuck here on Earth.

“Is the whole of life visible to us, or do we in fact know only the one hemisphere before we die?” Dear Vincent, I wish I knew.

Trigonometric identity

Probably it was the book “Astronomy Made Simple”. It was a plot of radial velocity of stars versus distance from the galactic center. And it was flat. At far distances the velocity curve flattened out. And this was not as it should be, the astronomers said.

One idea was this meant that there was more matter than one would guess from just counting visible stars at a far distance from the galactic center. But why couldn’t it be a different law of gravity?

When you go on r/physics these days, you see lots of questions like this. But this was back in the days of information underload. A kid, in his upstairs bedroom, on the floor could sit and wonder how one would have to modify Newtons one over distance squared law to get this curve.

Certainly I knew of Newton’s gravitational force, but I’m not sure why I wanted to do a numerical simulation. Probably this came from reading the back pages of Scientific American’s “Computer Recreations” column. But certainly there was no Runge and no Kutta. There wasn’t even trigonometry.

So what do you do when you want to make a simulation of two stars in orbit around each other but you don’t know how to resolve vectors or trig.

You would guess. Instead of sine being opposite over hypotenuse, you might think that maybe it is something like opposite over opposite plus adjacent?

The orbits were not elliptical.

Halcyon days. May you strive to be Aeolus and give others the space to safe from storms. That’s how you start down the path towards learning trig.

It from noisy bit

You should really write something.

I mean why?

Well, it would keep your writing skills sharp.

I remember back to a large humanities professor’s office. Books, no sign of the shelfs. Probably there was Melville on the desk.

“Your thesis. You actually write quite clearly now.”

Wondering how bad I had started from. I guess that’s why I added the literature major. And now how this story must be told through the dullness of atrophied skills.

Maybe start with something you are thinking about?

As if my ideas make any sense, even to me.


I’m thinking lots about encoding.

Quantum error correction?

No, not really. More existential. Deep down there is a churning broiling sea of noise and stochastic evolution. None of those lower bits last long, their transient, barely deserving the moniker of bit.

And yet I, me, this someday stable collection of memories, computations, behaviors, something that looks like the cold hardness of digital, of one state, seems to emerge.

It can be quite disorienting.

See you wrote something.

Well it was a try.