Tag Archives: science/maths

The bizarre similarity between money and quantum physics

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found money very puzzling for various reasons. Especially when it comes to what the banks do with it. I’ve never been quite convinced that money actually exists: it’s a number that we do things with. If you pay me for something, your number goes down and my number goes up. If my number goes down to zero and my bank won’t let it keep going then I’m in big trouble, because people won’t hand things over to me in shops and so on. To do that, they want me to make their number go up.

And I’ve never really understood how “the money supply” can be increased. Coins and notes can be printed, sure, but whose are they and how do they get into circulation without somebody in effect “stealing” them? Is it actually valid to create it out of nowhere? All very strange.

The subject came up again when my friend PamBG, who once worked in finance and is now a Methodist minister, wrote a puzzled post about “quantitative easing”.

She didn’t get the answer to her question, some discussion ensued about the nature of money, the value of a company’s stocks, and the like. (The more I think about these things, the more convinced I become that money is really just a mental trick.)

As it happens, I had to study quite a lot of quantum physics at university, for my electronics degree. (This isn’t surprising, since quantum physics is the physics of the extremely small, electrons are extremely small, and electronics is based on their behaviour.) And in studying that, I had the same sense of things only just existing, or not quite existing. (I mean, an electron exists but doesn’t properly know where it is or how fast it’s going, or if it knows one it doesn’t know the other; that’s roughly what the Uncertainty Principle says.) It seemed very much like a game played with certain rules and numbers. A game which happened to predict very well what measurement you’d get if you did a particular experiment, but a game nevertheless, which simply dealt with the numbers and rules and was silent about the actual nature of the physical objects playing the game. All it said was that they obeyed the rules. (Scientifically, all that can be studied is the rules and numbers, since they can be observed; all we can say about any underlying reality is that if there is one, it’s one which fits them.)

And it also so happens that I find the ideas of quantum physics easier to “grasp” [1] than the ideas of finance, so the analogy that follows was a bit of a breakthrough for me. Here are some shortened extracts from the later part of the conversation:

Pam:

In some senses ‘money doesn’t really exist’ – which was people’s complaint when the West went off the gold standard in the 1970s. (Previously, all money printed had to have a certain value with respect to an ounce of gold.)

And markets are driven by psychology. Fear and greed. A very simple explanation: financial instruments are priced according what people will think that they will be worth in the future. So, if a particular company is expected to grow by 5% per annum over the next two years, and its assets are now £100, its stock price would be £110.25. (This is hugely simplistic for illustrative purposes.)

The problem, of course, is that you have to guess how much everything is going to grow [. . .]

Tim:

[. . .] I heard on a radio programme that the first time there was a real banking crisis after the Bank of England formed, people were very unhappy about paper money, complaining that it wasn’t actually money.

It’s interesting: atheists accuse us of basing our lives on something that doesn’t exist, namely God, but arguably modern society runs on something that doesn’t exist, namelly money! (I’m only half joking.)

ISTM you’re saying that the value of a piece of paper simply exists in the mind of the buyer and seller.

Pam:

Yes, I think it probably is. It’s a corollary of ‘something is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay for it’ [. . .]

Tim:

Bizarrely, there’s a parallel with quantum physics, too [. . .]

In quantum physics—the physics of the ultra-small—a quantity generally exists in an “indeterminate” state until it is measured. The act of measurement forces it to stop being indeterminate and have a definite value.

Similarly it seems to me that a house, say, doesn’t have a definite value until you measure the price by letting somebody pay for it.

So in a way, the financial value of something is always in the future and hovering on the brink of existence.

Hmmm…

Pam:

Tim – Not only does that seem quite correct to me with respect to money and financial markets, but you’ve just helped me to better understand that principle in quantum physics.

And maybe that’s why money is so confusing. In quantum physics, you mostly don’t know things like the position or momentum of a particle; you only know the probability of it being within a particular range. And, according to the most widely accepted interpretation, the particle doesn’t “know” either. It really doesn’t have a precise position or momentum until it’s “observed” in some way.

Similarly with money: your house doesn’t have a precise value except at the moment of sale. All it has is a particular probability of lying in a particular price range. And the same is true of the the things in which your money in the bank is invested.

And it seems to me that this might be why the economy gives us so much grief: we’re dealing with things which have at best a shadowy existence, but much of the time we treat them like the most concrete reality there is.

Thoughts?

Note

[1] I think it was either Heisenberg or Schrödinger who said that if you weren’t confused by quantum mechanics you hadn’t understood it; hence “grasp” in quotes. Back

Plutonymics

An exercise in astrolexicography

Plutoids and plutinos . . .

When the former planet Pluto was demoted to the status of “dwarf planet” fairly recently, two new words were defined by the International Astronomical Union: plutoid and plutino. If you ask me, these would be damn good words whatever they meant: they belong to that group of words which seem to exist as much because they’re fun to say as because they’re needed.

Several weeks ago one of my contacts on Twitter, @Exoplanetology, came up with the word exoplutoid, meaning a plutoid in a planetary system other than our own.

Should you wish to know, a plutino is an object which, like Pluto, orbits the Sun twice for every three orbits made by Neptune. (This is called a 2:3 resonance, and the object remains trapped in that orbit.) A plutoid, roughly speaking, is simply a dwarf planet which orbits the Sun further out than Neptune does.

I suppose an exoplutoid might be a dwarf planet in another star system, further from its star than the last convincing planet.

Nice words. Are there more?

Plutonyms in the dictionary

Let’s proceed with caution. A look at the dictionary reveals that a number of pluto- words already exist. Furthermore, not all of them are anything to do with Pluto. Plutocrats, being plutocratic in a plutocracy, get their name from the Greek word ploutos, which means wealth.

In geology, plutonic relates to rocks which have solidified from a molten state at the fiery depths associated with the god Pluto and his underworld, and a pluton is a “body of instrusive igneous rock”. Geology also uses the word plutonism in this connection.

In chemistry, the element plutonium has nothing to do with plutonism; the elements uranium, neptunium and plutonium take their names (rather nicely) from Uranus, and Neptune and Pluto, which were all planets at the time.

Plutogenous neologisms

Given the existence of all these words already, are we to conclude that Pluto has contributed all it can to the English language? I think not!

There are still plenty of Pluto-related situation requiring words. Some of the situations are more “serious” than others. But all need words, and it is my pleasure to present them to you. They are grouped by function rather than alphabetically. Use and enjoy.

plutaceous:
similar in material or structure to Pluto.
exoplutoid, exoplutino:
a body in another planetary system analogous to a plutoid or plutino in ours.
plutogenous:
originating from, or generated or caused by, Pluto and its status. For example, plutogenous fisticuffs might result from a heated discussion about its classification. See plutonym, below.
plutectomy:
removal of Pluto or a Pluto-like object, e.g. from a list of recognised planets or (as a more advanced engineering project) from a planetery system
plutogenic:
relating to the creation of Pluto-like objects, i.e. to plutogenesis.
plutonym:
a word created with reference to Pluto and its status; that is, one which enters the language as a plutogenous neologism.
plutonymics:
the study of plutonyms.
plutolexicography:
the creation of a dictionary or glossary of plutonyms
plutamnesia:
an inability to remember what Pluto is officially classified as these days.
plutamnesic:
suffering from or relating to plutamnesia.
plutamnesiac:
someone who suffers from plutamnesia.
paraplutosis:
1. condition of accidentally using the wrong plutonym, e.g. calling a plutoid a plutino or describing plutogenous situation as plutogenic. The corresponding adjective is paraplutotic.
2. erroneous identification of an object as Pluto.

Got any more? Post them here and I’ll do the plutolexicographer’s job of gathering them together, time and energy permitting. Especially if they’re good.

An excellent find

Yesterday I exchanged a few messages on Twitter about the relationship between music and language (a relationship which I also mentioned recently in my post speculating about background noise).

What should I see in the library today, while waiting for a computer to be free, but a book by Steven Mithen called The Singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind and body (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005)!

It’s substantial. And looks very interesting. I’ve taken it out of the library.

A review may follow . . .

Believing in God and in science: some beginnings

I was asked a while back to say something about my religious beliefs. It’s hard to know where to start, so I thought I’d start somewhere that’s particularly important to me and which relates to things I’ve already been blogging about…

A lot of people believe there’s a fundamental incompatibility between science and religious belief. I believe that they’re fundamentally wrong 😉

Is there a conflict?

There are scientists who reject religion. I suppose the most famous of these is Richard Dawkins, who has almost made attacking religion into a religion of his own. And there are religious people who reject science: for example those who treat the Bible utterly literally and insist that the world was created in six days as (supposedly) described in Genesis 1.

Cleearly there can be a genuine conflict. Someone who believes God does not exist, and someone who believes God created the world in six days, will never agree with each other. There is a fundamental disagreement between them. But is that the only kind of believer and the only kind of scientist? No–it’s an extreme variety of religion and only one kind of scientist. In fact there is no reason why scientific thinking has to reject God, or why religious belief has to reject the scientific understanding the earth’s history and of our origins. I think the debate typically takes place between people one of whom understands science but not religion, and the other understands religion but not science. And sometimes, I fear, there are religious people who don’t understand religion… though that might be a bit more contentious.

My starting point

In my first year at university, startled by my first encounter with biblical literalists, I made a conscious decision which I’ve followed ever since: anything which I believe as a consequence of my religion must be compatible with what I believe as a consequence of science.

There is only one reality, whether you’re looking at it through religious or scientific eyes. Science and religion both try to discover some truths about it. Truth can’t contradict itself; so if they do discover truth, it must be consistent. It’s no good to believe during the week that we eveolved by natural selection, only to believe on Sundays that we were specially created out of the blue 6,000 years ago. Science and religion must both live in the same real world. Theology and science must both adapt in response to known evidence, as we make more sense of the world we are in. Otherwise we’re disconnecting ourselves from the world and our beliefs are simply attractive ideas which have nothing to do with reality.

Do we want reality, or fantasy? I think that if we’re basing our lives on it, we should go for reality. Or at least, the closest we can get to reality.

Some misconceptions…

A number of misconceptions seem to be lurking in the background whenever science and religion come into conflict. So here are some things I don’tbelieve:

… about religion

  • Religion claims infallible truth
  • Religion is a set of beliefs
  • Scripture is an infallible, divinely dictated book containing those beliefs
  • All religious people see it that way, or should do
  • All religious people reject science and rational thinking
  • Faith is intellectual acceptance of [impossible] ideas despite evidence
  • Religious ideas are arbitrary.

… about science

  • Science claims infallible truth
  • Science works by proving things true
  • All true scientists are atheists and reject religion
  • Science is merely opinion
  • Scientists seek to control the world
  • Science starts out with a particular view of things, which it then seeks to justify in a biased way.

… about both

  • Religion and science are based on conflicting “facts” (e.g. the claim that the world was made 6,000 years ago, versus the scientific evidence that it is much older).

Sometimes some of the misconceptions are agreed on by both sides, and then the trouble starts. Copnsider a scientist and a Christian fundamentalist who both think it’s essential for a Christian to believe in six-day creation. They will argue forever over whether the world was created in six days. They’ll almost certainly never question the assumption that it’s an essential part of religion. So they’re doomed never to get anywhere…

Some definitions of my own

To answer all those misconceptions properly would turn this blog post into quite a long book chapter (last time I checked it was over 1500 words long as it is), so forgive me if I don’t do that in detail just yet. Instead, here are some attempted definitions which reflect my approach to it all:

Religion
Religion is the response of human beings to the divine.
Theology
Theology is the attempt to make sense of that response and produce a logically consistent set of ideas: about the encounter, and about what we’re encountering.
Science
Science is the attempt to make sense of the physical world by testing ideas against careful (ideally repeatable) observation.
The Bible
The Bible is a set of writings, accumulated over many centuries, providing a record of around two thousand years of religious experience and reflection on it. The experience was that of human nature encountering God and the world; the reflection is influenced by how writers at the time saw the world, and is expressed in many different genres.

It should be fairly obvious that the things on my Misconceptions List are incompatible with those ideas. I’m worried about the length of this post so I won’t go into that in detail now–maybe in another post if needed. Instead, here are

Some consequences

Religion as a response

What is a reasonable response to being loved by someone, or falling in love with them? Is it to come up with a set of rigid beliefs and theories about them, and put all your effort into intellectually accepting those theories? No–your response is “Wow!” or “I want to be with this person” or to love them back or to want to join in with their activities. Similarly with our response to God: it’s not a set of ideas, and it probably can’t even be put into words because God is so far beyond what our language can describe. But after a while we feel the need to understand what’s going on, and that’s where theology comes in, so we try to describe it anyway. The beliefs aren’t the starting point.

Similar and different

Theology and scientific theorising are in some ways very similar activities. Both try to make sense of human experience. In the case of science, this is the experience of doing certain experiments and getting certain results; in the case of religion, it’s our subjective, yet shared, experience of being conscious beings, of relating to the world, and of relating to what we perceive to be its creator. Science has a distinct advantage in its area, because it deals as much as it can with things which can be made objective and measurable and repeatable.

Yet science can’t handle God at all, for a very good reason. The only way we can experience God is subjectively, in our consciousness, within ourselves. Yet the whole idea of science is to remove everything subjective and personal as far as we can, in order to be objective and repeatable. It works by letting us stand back from what we are studying. (The physicist Schroedinger expressed this well; I’ll try to find the quote.)

I believe that good theology must behave in a similar way to good science. It must take account of the real world we live in, and the real evidence we see. Its job is to make sense of the world and our religious experience as they are, not as we say they should be. It’s not a matter of taking some pre-existing belief in, say, the infallibility of the Bible and forcing ourselves to believe all the consequences; it’s about taking what we see and experience and trying to fit it all together.

Also it seems clear to me that neither theology nor science is in a position to claim absolute knowledge of the truth. They’re each a search, hoping to get nearer to the truth as they progress. Both need humility and the willingness to change if a new piece of evidence comes in. Their “truths” are always provisional: the best we can come up with so far, but open to change and refinement.

The Bible

OK, this is the bit which you won’t like if you’re a fundamentalist…

What’s special about the Bible is not that “God wrote it”, but that it contains all those centuries of experience and reflection. Human nature is universal. God is universal. So, if the biblical writers encountered God, they encountered the same God we do. They sometimes interpreted the encounter differently from us; and sometimes had some odd ideas. For example a lot of the Old Testament assumes that God’s love for us must mean God hates our enemies and wants to wipe them out. The idea of God loving them too didn’t seem to occur to the writers. Yet even that horrible and blatantly unchristian idea came from the belief that the God they had encountered was a loving one. Just not one whose love extended to other people too… And certain aspects of the encounter are consistent through all those centuries of experience; we connect with them in our experience too.

This is all scene-setting, really. I’ve not even started on basic things like what sort of God I believe in! But I hope it helps you to see my starting point.

A plea

I know that if you’re a particular kind of atheist, or a fundamentalist Christian, you’ll disagree strongly with what I’ve written. That’s fine–but please respect what I’m doing here: I’m simply setting out my beliefs for some people who’ve asked about them, and I haven’t the energy to launch into heated debate. Gentle disagreement is OK though 🙂

Some science humour

I’ve not been able to update this blog for a while and now I’ve only got a short session in the library, so I thought I’d begin with something I can post quickly. Here are some science-related pages which I think are quite fun…

General

  • How to Write a Scientific Paper: very funny article by E Robert Schulman in The Annals of Improbable Research, 1996. Possibly explains why so many papers read the way they do… and practises all its advice on the spot. [Note: I successfully accessed this the other day, but at the time of writing it is for some reason unavailable. I hope it comes back, because it really is brilliant!)

Apples and Oranges

In arguments, it’s traditional to accuse someone of “comparing apples with oranges”, as though it were impossible. A few scientists have pointed out that it’s actually quite easy to compare apples with oranges, and even written papers on it:

  • Apples and Oranges: A Comparison: Short article by Scott A Sandford, originally published in The Annals of Improbable Research, 1995.
  • Comparing apples and oranges: a randomised prospective study: A more impressively written up paper by James E Barone in the British Medical Journal, 2000. However, the claim to have analysed results using FudgeStat software from “Hypercrunch Corporation” raises my suspicions that the research may not be entirely authentic.

Well I’m out of time already, so the rest will have to follow, along with various other things I have in the pipeline…