Saturday, June 30, 2007

Is Encoded Information an Essential Part of the Universe?

In a previous blog entitled "All Things", I discussed how the universe is made of the four essentials:

matter — energy — space — time

-- and how, according to the laws of physics, as best we know them, none of these can exist without the others. Now I would like to extend the discussion by talking about information.

Information is made of none of these. Information can be represented, or encoded, by arrangements of matter (ink on paper, magnetic patterns in a disk, etc.) that lie motionless in space, unchanging in time. Or information can be encoded by patterns of energy (sound, radio waves, etc.) that move through space, changing in time. Matter and energy are only containers and vehicles to store and transmit information within space-time.

When you write your thoughts in your diary, the ink and paper do not make your thoughts; they simply 'record' them: that is, they hold what you have recorded. When you record an experience, the information comes from external sources, but is filtered by your perceptions. When you record a question that you wish to have answered, or record an ambition for the future, the source of the information is more internal, originating from who you are.

Scientists have discovered much about the laws of physics that mathematically describe the behavior of matter, energy, space, and time, although there are a few things they are still hoping to discover. And in modern times, scientists have discovered laws that govern the storage and transmission of information, the application of which has revolutionized our present "information age" of computers and communication devices. So it seems that we should add information to the list of essentials that the universe is made of:

matter — energy — space — time -- information

Or should we? Recall that we argued that matter, energy, space, and time belonged together because there are "inexorably, inextricably joined". We said that "energy and mass (matter) are interchangeable" and that "time and space are different sides of the same fabric" and that matter and energy were like "wrinkles or knots in the fabric of space-time". That is, the laws of physics that we observe does not allow for an empty space-time that is not filled with matter, and that does not have energy. But do these same laws of physics allow for a universe of matter, energy, space, and time that has no information?

To be clear, the information that we are discussing is encoded information, not physical information. For example, if you print this web page, you will get a piece of paper with a certain pattern of ink on it. You can measure the height, width, thickness, and weight of the paper and get physical information about the paper. Someone that does not know English can count the words and letters, and measure the height of the letters, getting more physical information. But only by reading and understanding the English can they get the encoded information that was encoded one way in the computer, then encoded another way on the paper.

We can splatter some ink on the paper, also producing a pattern of ink on it. But there will only be physical information but no encoded information.

You may have heard stories of a crime scene where a pattern of splattered blood is analyzed by a forensic scientist, who tries to determine something about the events that caused the blood to splatter. His analysis relies on the laws of physics that govern how drops travel through the air, adhere to a surface, or bounce, skid, roll, or run on the surface, or how larger drops can break into smaller ones.

In the case of the printed page, the laws of physics can only explain the general process by which the printer works, but cannot explain the particular pattern that encodes a particular message. The science of information can explain how the pattern of keystrokes on my keyboard was encoded into bit patterns entering my computer, stored there, sent to a web server computer, and ultimately sent to your computer and then to your printer. But it can't explain what happened in my head to make my fingers do what they did to the keyboard.

Now that we have clarified the difference between encoded information and physical information, we can state (and answer) our question more clearly:

Do these same laws of physics allow for a universe of matter, energy, space, and time that has no encoded information? The answer is YES!

There is no physical law that requires encoded information to exist. And what do we observe? We observe encoded information only where there is life, and there is no physical law that requires life to exist. The universe can be full of stars and inert, lifeless planets such as we have observed elsewhere, and no physical laws would be broken.

Where there is life, we observe encoded information. First, we see animals (as well as people) communicating. Birds will make one sound that means "This territory is mine! Stay out!" And another sound that means "Watch out! Danger is close." For example, chickadees have a song that sounds like "chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee!" Ornithologists have discovered that the number of dee's is an indication of the perceived danger level. Honeybees perform a dance on the honeycomb that reports to other bees the direction and distance from the hive to a source of nectar. Many animals use pheremones (specialized scents) to convey information to one another. Even plants use chemical communication.

This information is encoded, because there is a fundamental difference between the action of chasing another bird out of the claimed territory and a message that threatens this action in the future when needed. There is a fundamental difference between fleeing from danger or ducking out of sight, and warning another bird that one of those actions may be necessary.

We also observe encoded information in the communication of one part of a living body to another part of the same body. An obvious example is the communication within the nervous system.

There is also encoded information in the DNA and RNA of living things. This is stored information, which is communicated in three ways: (1) the construction of proteins, etc. -- ultimately, the body -- from the 'stored blueprints' of the DNA repository, (2) the replication of the information into new cells, and (3) the replication of the information (generally combining with another DNA source) to produce progeny.

There is an interesting parallel between the operation of data within a computer and the operation of DNA information within the 'hardware' of a living organism. But that is too much to explain here -- this is the subject of later blogs:
"The Digital Control of Life"
"The First Digitally-Controlled Designs".

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