“If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”
Last December, I shared a great article published by Scientific American, dealing with the concept of information realism. According to physicist Max Tegmark, the universe is “a set of abstract entities with relations between them,” which “can be described in a baggage-independent way.”
In other words, matter doesn’t really exist, it arises from information processing. Then, what we see as human beings could be nothing more than the result of complex interactions between small bits also known as elementary particles.
In my opinion, one of the most important breakthroughs in science in the past 50 years has been the discovery of self-organized criticality (SOC) by physicists Per Bak, Chao Tang and Kurt Wiesenfeld. SOC is a property that characterizes a wide variety of complex phenomena such as seismic activity, solar flares, floods, sandpiles, biology, epidemics and even human activity.
What struck Bak is the fact that all those phenomena exhibit the same organizational patterns. And the most spectacular aspect of SOC is the existence of scale-free brutal changes called avalanches.
With SOC, Bak introduced a new and powerful intellectual framework for so-called soft sciences. As he explained: “Sciences have traditionally been grouped into two categories: hard sciences, in which repeatable events can be predicted from a mathematical formalism expressing the laws of nature, and soft sciences, in which, because of their inherent variability, only a narrative account of distinguishable events post mortem is possible.”
More interestingly, SOC has forced us to rethink the concept of energy. In physical terms, there is no doubt that an earthquake (i.e. an avalanche) is a form of dissipation of energy. But since other phenomena, that would likely be described as “non-physical”, exhibit the same behavioral pattern, then could we think of a new and more general definition of energy?
Before moving forward, let’s illustrate this idea with a very concrete example: financial markets. I recently wrote a paper explaining that if we use implied volatility as a measure of avalanche intensity, then financial risk-aversion is statistically similar to earthquakes.
When economic uncertainty rises, interactions between investors decrease, meaning that they have less visibility on the price other participants are willing to pay for an asset, leading to higher volatility. Assuming SOC, this human phenomenon could be treated as dissipation of energy. So, what is energy exactly?
Physics has often been viewed as the “king of sciences”. Because intuition naturally derives from what we see, what we smell and what we hear, then major breakthroughs have been accomplished in that discipline. Thus, the first definition of the concept of energy came from physics: the quantitative property that must be transferred to an object in order to perform work on, or to heat, the object.
But as already mentioned before, things are more complex than what we see. Matter does not really exist and seems to be the result of an interaction game between particles. Since energy physically derives from those elementary interactions, then we could try to define it more generally as information on the state of those interactions. Thus, the energy concept could be extended to other non-physical interactions.
Said differently, we could think of biological life as energy resulting from a perpetual and complex interaction game between atoms, cells, individuals, species, etc. Talking about the human brain, we could conjecture that what we commonly call “mind” is actually a form of energy, the result of complex interactions between neurons.
This would clearly be a revolutionary hypothesis. So, let me mention the concept of swarm intelligence that perfectly fits with this idea.
One of the most fearful predators on earth lives in Africa. Dorylus – also known as “army ant” – is probably one of the most incredible animal species. The swam is formed by millions of ants searching for food and/or protecting the queen and larvas. Despite ferocious mandibles, each individual ant is a weak blind animal. However, thanks to an extraordinary decentralized communication system between ants, the swarm behaves like an intelligent living body and becomes a killing machine that could dismember big animals like humans in a few minutes.
Somehow, swarm intelligence could also explain why basic organisms like protists, that are neither animals nor plants, display intelligence.
If you have read ‘A Brief of History of Time’ by Stephen Hawking, then you are familiar with the concept of “theory of everything”, that physicists have been exploring for decades. A theory that could unify general relativity with quantum mechanics.
Even if I am not an expert in either fields, I have the intuition that a multi-disciplinary approach is necessary to master the complexity of nature, from the universe organization to species evolution. And this is what brilliant scientists like Bak or Tegmark have been telling us.
From a philosophical perspective, redefining critical concepts like energy or intelligence could be as meaningful as Galileo’s discoveries.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn February 12, 2020.