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The Science of Harry Potter and Stuff (Sunday, March 21, 2004)

This has been an interesting day, no doubt. I slept in, and then had a five hour meeting with my software engineering class group, going over our part of the project — the inventory subsystem. Needless to say, having meetings that long on a Sunday afternoon is terribly unpleasant. And it looks like we get to meet again tomorrow after class. In which I have a midterm. That I am not prepared for. Oh that is going to suck.

After that, I watched the Wizards get their asses kicked. They looked pretty good, except that they were turning the ball over too much, and Miami didn't seem to want to miss a shot. Little Steve Blake was on fire! He had a new career high in points, and tied his career best with five three point shots.

After that, I got sucked into watching some more TV. Among the highlights, Adam and Jamie shooting chickens at airplanes with compressed air on Mythbusters, an hour of Jeff Foxworthy (I'd forgotten how funny he is), and then the most bizarre episode of South Park I've ever seen, featuring pseudo-Japanese animation sequences.

I also started reading "The Science of Harry Potter", a book I got for Christmas. I finished the first chapter, and it's kinda thick with a lot of physics stuff that I'm mostly familiar with. Nothing Earth shattering, unfortunately... but then, what could I possibly have been expecting? I guess I just really want to fly.

But the book did raise some interesting questions in my mind. Recently, I was conjecturing about a hypothesis I'd formed, that there is no free will, and that decision is merely an illusion. That is, the whole universe is set up in a particular way, up to a particular moment, and the event that occurs next is determined by the laws of physics. Your brain is just a very sophisticated machine, and if we can model the whole thing precisely in a computer, for example, and get all the synapses, stimulii and responses, just right, we could predict your decision. You merely have the illusion of choice.

But, while I was reading the book, I was reminded of the theory of the multiverse, where every possible outcome of a decision actually occurs, but in a separate universe, with the timeline branching continuously. This sort of theory is what would prevent a paradox like going back in time and killing your parent before you were born. You wouldn't suddenly vanish, because you haven't altered the original timeline, you've merely created a new timeline, and the trick is returning to the correct version of your starting time (one in which you exist, and one in which you don't), depending on which outcome you desire.

In any event, I was trying to come up with a rationale for the decisions that would lead to a multiverse, given that I proposed all decisions are really the result of laws of physics and have an inevitable outcome. The explanation that occured to me, is that in quantum physics, a lot of things are defined by probability. For example, if you fire an electron across a gap, there is only a certain probability that it will make the jump. If you set up the experiment precisely the same way each time, the outcome will be different, according to the probability that can be calculated. If that's the case, these probabilities could lead to different possible outcomes. Choice and free will are still illusions, but it does at least mean that at any given moment, the next moment is still undecided and that there's at least some chance, rather than mere fate deciding it.

The real question, the one for physicists to answer, is whether those probabilities are simply approximations, because we don't know enough to find the precise answers, or whether the probabilities are the actual way of things (the same way Newtonian mechanics is just an approximation that is defined precisely by Einsteinian relativity). I do not have an answer for this, but it is certainly something to think about.

—Brian (3/21/2004 11:52 PM)
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