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The Two Maxwell's of Light / You Can't Take It With You

Reflecting on the power of wisdom over material possessions, I explore the mysteries of science such as non-locality and the particle/wave duality of light particles first established by James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday in the 1800s. Max Planck's discovery of the planck-unit further perplexed us, and I express my hope to better explain this to my child in the future.

Exploring the Mysteries of Science: Wisdom Over Material Possessions

By Michael Levin

Sunday, September 18, 2022

You can’t take it with you. And leaving it all to your children interferes with their journey. You and they are different beings and you should focus on your journey and help them while you’re here and your experiences overlap. When you’re gone what you should have left them is your learned wisdom. Maybe they can take that with them—because it’s information, both internal and possibly eternal. No bank account or real estate holding can compare.

When you ask yourself “what’s important?” in the most reductionist way possible, it seems to me you’re asking what’s more important, the arrangement of the atoms or the atoms themselves? Is it matter that really matters, like material possessions and the particular running instances of life-infused machines and creatures, or all the information that it would take to re-instantiate exactly such machines and creatures?

The bits representing wealth in your bank account are nonsense, as is the gold hidden in your mattress. When you die, none of that’s going with you. Matter most definitely stays behind, bets reallocated, recycled and re-experienced by… by… well, that’s the other thing. I’m not going all the way to souls with this, but certainly the arrangement of the atoms… that particular sequencing that allowed an interconnectedness and distinct subjective experience in this material world… that is something. Call this animate information what you will, but THAT is what’s important. important.

If you can take it with you, this is where the magic happens. Such information that’s somehow behind the material existence may exist elsewhere. These things elude science… for now. But just like Tony Stark talking to Thor, I’m pretty confident that such mysteries will be understood and moved from the realm of magic into that of science some day. Big Dogs will throw the alphabet soup of particle names in the Standard Model at you to try to convince you everything is known. Throw back… hmm, what is it? What still eludes science?

I’d start with non-locality of course. Spooky action at a distance. Entanglement and cohesion. Faster-than-light travel of information. Yeah, that’s a pretty good start. Even Einstein was driven mad over this. Big Dogs trying to brush off the unknown have to answer the non-locality question first. Are separate particles at a distance truly connected in some physical sense? If so how? If not, then how do they effect each other? This is our second big clue that existence isn’t what it seems.

Our first big clue was two-slits, or the double-slit experiment performed by Thomas Young in 1802 that established the particle/wave duality of light particles. Over time it was established with other particles getting progressively bigger, through electrons, atoms, large molecules (specifically soccer ball like carbon 60 buckyballs) to the point where it’s pretty clear that all matter has particle/wave duality and we’re all made from rippling fields and not distinct particles at all. There is perhaps less to explain here than with non-locality, but still every high falutin word off of the Standard Model you can quote is just snobbish erudition in the face of the fact we’re all just rippling fields in a way that occasionally looks like distinct particles, but truly is still just still not understood.

There’s two Maxes of light. The first was physicist James Clerk Maxwell who worked with the visionary experimentalist and distinctly non-physicist Michael Faraday in the 1800s to put together field-theory by which we understand electromagnetism and light with equations as relevant right up to this day as they were back then. Besides Sir Isaac Newton (from the 1600 and 1700 hundreds), this was the biggest thing going in science. Now the science of thermodynamics didn’t start until maybe 100 years after Maxwell, but he was quoted as saying: “The idea of dissipation of energy depends on the extent of our knowledge” which gets at another things still eluding science: where does the information go when things burn? Is it totally gone? Some might insist we know, but we don’t. Unlike gravity which will imminently be incorporated into the Standard Model as the evidence for Quantum Loop Gravity or something like it falls into place, Information Theory still eludes. It’s very related to the second rule of thermodynamics which states Natural processes tend to go only one way, toward less usable energy and more disorder. Once things are done, they can’t be undone. Information goes away in a non-reversible way. Explain that, Big Dog.

Oh yeah, the second Max of Light. Max Planck came quite a bit later (the 1800s and 1900s) and with him you basically combine the Michael Faraday experimentalist and the James Clerk Maxwell physicist and mathematician into one person. Like how Michael Faraday “saw” the invisible lines of magnetic force that compelled him to investigate (and eventually team up with Maxwell to do the math), Plank “saw” that something mysterious must be at play to explain the strange “quantized way” very dark objects (you might call them black bodies) cooled down once heated up. Imagine metal heated white-hot, then it cools down to a glowing orange and finally back to its normal color. It’s still radiating heat, however. And so on down to say absolute-zero if the metal were perfectly black and in an environment with no ambient energy. In its own way this was as mysterious and confounding as two-slits and magnetic fields. But unlike Faraday, Planck did his own math… over and over, combining it with the work of others to avoid the Infrared and Ultraviolet Catastrophes (ever wonder why the visual light spectrum evolved the way it did?).

In the end, Max Planck discovered (although he didn’t know it) that the smooth wavy continuum of Max-Light #1 (James Clerk Maxwell) was actually divvied up into chunky little bits. Ultimately, he thought it was a trick of numbers and not indicative of the nature of the real world, but what he discovered was that when a quantum field ripples into our space/time, at some scale (we call it 1 planck-unit), it’s either all-in or all-out. It’s where the math for an infinitesimally small black hole stops working and would cease to exist / collapse in on itself. Uh yeah so anyway the unexplainable thing here is the quantum nature of our universe. We don’t really know what these quantum fields are, where they come from, or most every other thing about them that exist outside the very framework within which we and our brains to think about them exist. They’re (or “it” if it ends up being just one) is outside the system.

I could write on forever, but this is just clearing my head of thoughts for the day, and not a formal article as such. If you found it, good for you. That there were two ground-breaking Maxwell’s of Light always confused me. I got it straight mostly for myself and perhaps one day for my kid when they stop having the somewhere-learned and self-imposed “I’m not a math person” an allergic reaction when I mention such things. I have to frame it better.