Monday, 29 August 2011

Globally Detrimental Problem

A perpetual motion machine is a something that, once started, will continue to move forever without any further input; think about a swing that once you've pulled the seat back a few feet and let it go, rather than it swinging forward back and forth in ever decreasing arcs, before slowly coming to a rest back in the centre, the swing continues to swing back and forward, always swinging to the same height on each side, never loosing an inch, never coming to a stop, never needing another push to get it back up to speed.

In energy production terms, perpetual motion machines are the Holy Grail. Imagine a power plant that once you chucked in your first shovelful of coal, the big pistons started moving and never needed a second shovelful - it would basically be free energy forever after, no more coal burning, no more pollution; it would change the world.

Unfortunately for us, despite our best efforts, perpetual motion machines don't exist. Coal power stations still need more coal, oil plants still need more oil and my laptop still needs recharging.

This concept of "always more" is synonymous with how we think about our economies. Economically speaking, in order for a country's economy to be doing well, it needs to be growing; if it stops growing, well, the power plant breaks down and we have a recession. This growth is measured mainly using a single metric, Gross Domestic Product or GDP, which is the sum total of everything of monetary value that gets made or sold in a country in a given time period. At its most basic level, GDP is simply the amount of money spent in total by everyone and everything in that country over time (you, me, businesses, government, net exports etc).  There are other things that can be used to measure an economy, such as employment and investment levels, but GDP is really the primary factor.

When GDP is growing well, life in that country is generally a bit nicer - employment is up, wages are up, investment is up and so on. When GDP growth is slow you see the inverse happening - high unemployment, lower wages, investment spending cuts. Any of this sounding familiar? Guess which is happening at the moment. Our power plant requires more coal, or economically speaking, we're going to run out of steam.

Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad, globally speaking, if it were only happening to us, but as we know from the relentless torrent of financial doom and gloom in the news, this is happening pretty much everywhere. The US recently shook the financial world with the unprecedented downgrade of its financial rating from triple A as it teetered on the edge of defaulting on its $14 trillion debts, brought on in part by the insane wrangling of the Tea Party and the Eurozone continues to shudder as Greece and other struggling Euro nations have their empty accounts refilled by the more affluent likes of France and Germany, who aren't keen on a third round of ever more expensive I.O.U.s.

This global, or certainly Western, slowdown of GDP growth has been a long time in the making. Since the concept of measuring GDP was invented back in the mid-Thirties, after the massive post-World War Two boom in Western economies started to even out, economy growth rates started to slowly tail off. Over the next decades, on average, growth continued to slow, leaving growth rates between 2000 and 2007 at just 2.7%. When the 2008 financial collapse came about, economies had very little room to play with and since then we,ve seen all manner of innovative ways of trying to prop up the rapidly deflating GDP balloon.

So where does this leave us? Well, not anywhere particularly enjoyable. There seems to be two main schools of thought about how to resolve an economic slump and kickstart an economy, either scale back public spending and cut regulation and tax in the private sector to encourage business growth, as favoured by those on the right, or to raise taxes and increase spending on the public sector side, reinvesting in the economy, which is more favoured by those on the left. Both aim at a net increase in GDP over a given period.

To me though, although I certainly favour one of the above options over the other, the whole concept seems to be based on the premise that successful economies always have to be growing, that no matter what the "real" circumstances of that country are, it must always be doing more; equilibrium is death.

The idea that economic growth is a mandatory factor to success, or even normality, seems somewhat unsustainable. As mentioned above, historically speaking we've seen a general downward trend over the last 50 years or so anyway, so the fact that we now have to force our economies to squeeze out the last tenth of a percentage of growth in order to stay afloat seems not just counter intuitive but completely unrealistic.

Economic expansion, as we know, comes not without its costs; whether industrial expansion and its effect on the environment or financial expansion and its effects upon our debts, these ideas seem to smack of a 20th century ethos, of an unreal  so-called "golden era" of naivety that humanity could do whatever it wanted and consequences be damned. The generations before ours have exploited everything they could, have pushed the resources of our planet to the limit, almost to collapse. They have constructed a system so engrained with the military-industrial complex, with every aspect and every level built around a need to always do more, to always build more, to mine deeper, to consume greater, to create a bigger profit. To continue down this path without any kind of miracle cure leads only to a bleak future for those generations after ours; a planet ruined by climate change and environmental destruction, draconian states serving the interests of corporations over citizens, a disparity of wealth distribution so great that it will make the have-nots of today look like landed gentry by comparison. This is all great stuff for a dystopian sci-fi novel, but it's no way to plan our future.

Perhaps as we move into the 21st century, it is time we re-assessed the yardstick by which we measure ourselves, after all, GDP's drive for more is only a construct of our devising. To me it seems, like a lot of the mindset of the 20th century, that the thinking is we have is that because they system is set up in a certain way now, that to change it in any way seems impossible. Since its inception in the mid-30's, GDP may have been the driving force behind the way the world has run but, as we all know, the  world is a changing place; old technologies make way for newer ones, governments come and go, nations rise and fall.

Rather than base our world on the coal power plant that always requires more fuel, perhaps we should look to the perpetual motion machine as our inspiration, to the idea that once something has settled into something of an equilibrium, that it requires no further pushing to maintain speed, that perhaps the focus should be on the quality of the parts, rather than how many we can make. Maybe we should allow the more settled Western economies to reach that point of equilibrium, the seemingly inevitable point when growth simply stops and a country reaches what we could call its  "potential".

One such example of this is the tiny nation of Bhutan, which is the first nation to base its success on not GDP, but what it calls "Gross National Happiness". GNH attempts to define the success of a nation by determining the quality of life and social progress for its citizens, rather than the sum total of the country's financial worth. While you might initially think this may seem unquantifiable, GNH is actually based around many economic factors such as sustainable development and good governance; as we know from GDP, happy people tend to come from economically successful places, they have jobs, they have education, they have rights. GHN takes into account that the nation of Bhutan, with its 750,000 inhabitants, has a finite amount of resources and therefore once it has reached a moderate economic level, its focus became not that of relentless expansion but more internally focused on of well-being; that's not to say that GNH prevents growth, as increased happiness, as we said, has massive related economic impact, but that growth no longer becomes the only measure of success.

That's not to suggest that GNH is the final answer to the GDP problem, there are several other main contenders out there for measuring economics, for instance the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) measures economic factors of sustainability and welfare of the nation in a similar way to GNH but retains several of the growth-based metrics of GDP at the same time. One of the main drawbacks of both GNH and GPI is their susceptibility to political influence (to measure happiness, you must first define what happiness is) but one would perhaps naively hope that at a global level that a general definition could be found.

It's my view that over the first half of this century, the world will change a great deal. Perhaps by refocusing the way we measure our success at a global level, we can ensure that some of that change will be for the better. Perhaps the first perpetual motion machine should be not one that produces energy and powers our homes, but one that powers our thinking, that drives our achievements, one that provides a sustainable future for the generations after ours.

Hello, well done if you made it this far, much appreciated! As I've put this post together using my phone, there are no links included in the above text; I assure you there are some, I've not just made it all up! I'll put them in when I'm next near an actual computer. I hear there's this great website called Google which is full of links to useful information, so you should try that in the mean time. Until then, yours, always looking forward (uncertainly), Luke.

ps. If you wanted to retweet / share this post while you're at it, that'd be most appreciated too...

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Multiversey Star Parks

Yesterday, the BBC science news website ran a story about how the a study of the cosmic microwave background, which is basically the very faint echo of the Big Bang that reverberates around through space, has added significant weight to the theory that our universe is one of many others and exists in a kind of "multiverse".

Up until now, the multiverse theory has been just a theory, albeit one that is popular in modern physics, but as you can imagine, is pretty hard to test for - mainly because it was generally thought that in order to find out if there was anything outside our universe, we'd have to somehow be able to actually see outside it. As we already know, we can't even see across to the other side of the Universe, as light from there would not yet have had time to travel all the way to us (which, considering the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, means that that is an unbelievably large distance) and that the other side of our universe is accelerating away in the opposite direction doesn't help much either. So, not knowing where the edge of our universe is is one problem, but even if we knew that, how you get beyond there is anyone's guess and probably impossible, so there's not really much chance we're going to see what's outside and if there's other universes just hanging around out there, putting out their own universey vibe.

The general idea behind the multiverse theory is that other universes exist in their own bubbles of space and time, just like ours, and as these universes have popped in and out of existence, if they're nearby, they occasionally bump into ours. It's these collisions, and the patterns they may leave in the cosmic microwave background, that may enable us to test whether these other universes exist or not.

The current tests suggest that there may indeed be these patterns in the CMB but more data is needed before any more solid conclusions can be drawn. Next in line to run some tests is the cutting-edge Planck space telescope, which can measure the CMB in far greater detail, but results won't be available until 2013 so we're going to have to wait 'til then to find out more (well, I guess we've waited this long, so what's another 18 months...).

So far, so good. I think we're all relatively alright with the idea of other universes as a general concept, it's just extrapolating the scale up another level - our planet near other planets, our solar systems near other solar systems, our galaxy near other galaxies - why not more universes? It does tend to make you think "then what?" or "so what are those universes in?", but it seems that those might be the wrong kind of questions.

Quite reasonably, we tend to think that our universe is a big place, full of things, all bundled in there in a nice 3D kind of way. It turns out that this may be completely wrong; our universe may in fact be a hologram.

Now, unlike with multiverses, this is not quite as easy to explain so I'll skip over most of the detail and try and get the main points.

If you imagine a plain white ball and onto that ball you cleverly projected an image of a man onto it so that it looked like the man was inside the ball. Next, when you rotate the ball, the projection also makes it look like the man is rotating at the same rate so, no matter how you move the ball, it always looks like there's a man inside it, even though you know there isn't. If you did this well enough, it would be impossible to tell whether you were really looking at a man in a ball or a projection of a man in a ball. By using the projection of the man, we have essentially encoded the surface of the ball with all of the information that our eyes need to be convinced they're actually seeing a man in the ball, even though they're not.

This is a bit like how the hologram theory suggests the Universe might work, that we are the man in the ball. From our perspective, inside the ball, you'd think we wouldn't be able to tell whether we were really in the ball or just a projection on the outside - we're just the man in the ball - but it may be emerging that we've found out a way to actually test this without having to step outside the ball (or Universe, which as we said before was probably impossible).

The problem with the man in a ball analogy is that it would actually be impossible to make the projection absolutely perfect, that the surface of the ball couldn't quite contain enough information on its 2D surface to render the 3D man perfectly. For the Universe, the same should be true, that if we are a projection on the outside of the Universe, we should be able to tell if we can find any points at which the 3D universe isn't perfectly rendered.

Now, we know that Spacetime, the thing that makes up our physical universe, is grainy, a bit like pixels on a screen - while the picture looks fine and mulitcoloured mostly, if you got really close you could see the individual pixels which would all be one colour each. By undertanding the Spacetime is made up of these small pixels, we know that these must be the smallest things can get, as they're the most basic building blocks of our physical universe.

The problem is that in an experiment in Germany in 2008, a super-sensitive motion detector, looking at gravitational waves, picked up measurements that were actually smaller than it should be possible to actually detect. These measurements were a bit of a fluke, so now require their own dedicated tests to confirm, but by suggesting that there's something smaller than the building blocks of Spacetime, this adds weight to the theory that we're the projected version of the man in the ball, rather than a real one. If we're the projected version, then we're not really inside the ball at all, we're information about the man, projected onto the 2D surface on the outside.

A bit lost? Fair enough, I don't really get it either. This is head melting stuff; that we're a 2D projection of ourselves (as well as everything else) on the surface of the Universe, somewhere about 42 billion light years over there, is outstandingly high-concept stuff. For the most part, for us, it wouldn't matter either way if were "real" or a hologram, as we've seemed to get on mostly fine so far.

I'm not that convinced that hologram theory will hold up to much in the end; to me it seems that perhaps our understanding of the facts we think we know are more likely to be incorrect than the more esoteric hologram suggestion. This all heads merrily off down Stephen Hawking heavy physics string theory and M-theory routes so we're all pretty out of our depths from here on in.

In conclusion: Space is mental. The end.