Tag Archives: state of matter

Physicists claim information is the fifth state of matter. By 2245, half of Earth’s mass could be converted to digital bits

Credit: Pixabay.

All the matter that surrounds us exists either as a solid, liquid, gas, or plasma. But as our lives become increasingly digitized, more and more physical matter, such as oil, silicon, and carbon, is required to sustain our insatiable need for more computing power and information processing.

Giving current trends of 50% annual growth in the number of digital bits produced, Melvin Vopson, a physicist at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, forecasted that the number of bits would equal the number of atoms on Earth in approximately 150 years. By 2245, half of Earth’s mass would be converted to digital information mass, according to a study published today in AIP Advances.

It’s just a matter of time before digital bits outnumber all the atoms on Earth, a future in which the world is converted into a planetary-sized supercomputer — and all of this leads to an enticing theory: that information is no different from ordinary matter. In fact, Vopson says, the information should be considered the fifth state of matter (or sixth if you count Bose-Einstein condensates).

“How can information, a mathematical concept, be physical? To my surprise, this principle, which makes sense theoretically, has now been demonstrated experimentally,” Vopson told me in an email.

In the new study, Vopson draws parallels between Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which among other things states that mass and energy are equivalent, Rolf Launder’s application of the laws of thermodynamics to information theory, which equivalates information to energy, and, finally, Claude Shannon’s information theory that led to the invention of the first digital bit.

“Since both special relativity and Landauer’s principle have been proven correct, it is highly probable that the new principle will also be proven correct, although currently it is just a theory,” Vopson said.

According to Vopson, physicists have always expanded their awareness of what makes up the universe. As scientists refined their sensing instruments and theories, they learned that the universe isn’t just made of baryonic matter (particles), but also radiation, dark matter and energy, and space-time. Information, although seemingly more abstract, could naturally join them because it is such an integral part of “both non-organic matter and life”.

“Although information manifests itself in many formats including analogue information, biological DNA encoded information and digital information, the most fundamental form is the binary digital bit because it can successfully represent or duplicate all existing forms of information. This is also valid for quantum processing/quantum information / q-bits, as the final output of a quantum computer is still in the binary digital format,” Vopson told ZME Science.

“These ideas are best articulated by Wheeler’s suggestion that, quote, ‘…the universe emanates from the information inherent within it…’ or, ‘It from bit’,” he added.

“Since there are incredibly large numbers of elementary particles making up the universe, then the visible universe would also contain a huge amount of digital bits associated with the information content within these particles.”

“Landauer’s principle demonstrated that information is physical. The mass- energy-information equivalence principle extrapolated this and demonstrated that information has in fact mass. Since there is a lot of information associated with the baryonic mass in the universe, then it must be a huge amount of mass that corresponds to that information.
This is the basis of postulating that the information is the 5th element, or the 5th form of matter,” the physicist explained.

Dark matter and information, are they the same?

But how could something as intangible as information have mass? The new paper argues that such a thing is indeed possible and could manifest itself through gravitational interactions. In fact, the elusive dark matter that every theoretical physicist who’s worth his salt is now searching for may just be information.

“For over 60 years we have been trying unsuccessfully to detect, isolate or understand what is the mysterious dark matter in the universe. Its presence is widely accepted in order to explain the dynamics and stability of cluster of galaxies and the galaxy rotation curves. Unfortunately, all efforts to isolate or detect dark matter have failed so far. In fact, it is well accepted that the matter distribution in the universe is 5% ordinary baryonic matter, 27% dark matter and 68% dark energy. This is equivalent to saying that about 5% of the visible universe is known and 95% of it we don’t have a clue what it is made of, i.e. dark matter and dark energy. If mass-energy-information equivalence principle is correct and information has indeed mass, a digital informational universe would contain a lot of it, and perhaps the missing dark matter could be just information,” Vopson said.

The rate at which the number of bits equals Earth’s mass for various information generation growth scenarios. Credit: Melvin Vopson.

The implications of the mass-energy-information equivalence principle are important considering the rate at which humanity has been generating digital information. According to IBM Research, 90% of all the data generated by humans thus far has been created in the last ten years alone.

In fact, the authors of the new study employed conservative growth rates for information generation and storage. In reality, the rate of information generation is greater and may even accelerate in the future, as the current COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated.

As long as civilization doesn’t collapse at the hand of climate change or thermonuclear war, the ever-expanding digital domain seems to be steering the world towards a future where our existence is intrinsically linked to computers. A century from now, the line between physical reality and virtual reality might be so blurred, you may not be able to tell the difference.

“Today we moved the banks on Internet and we use digital cash, we store everything on digital storage platforms and the new industries are the digital data storage servers and the high tech corporations. I see a slow transitioning to a world, just as depicted in many SciFi movies, where our basic VR helmet kit becomes more like a simulated cyberspace, perhaps driven by gaming industry at the beginning, then entering the education market, tourism, sex industry, health care, etc…eventually these cyberspaces joining together into a cyber reality where people can meet up and undertake activities, go to work in a simulated cyber office building, etc, until the real world is indistinguishable to the simulated world,” Vopsan said.

“If this is simultaneously happening with the evolution of AI, and the humans’ ability to achieve transcendence into machines (I believe there is even a movement called transhumanism, i.e. people that believe in merging biological life with the computers), then it is not too hard to see how the whole landscape will change to a digitally simulated world. In fact, a growing number of serious academics believe we already live in a simulated universe. Prof. Nick Bostrom from Oxford University first proposed this, known as the simulation hypothesis. I do not like this idea, but unfortunately, some of my recent research supports this, or points to this outcome in the future,” he added.

In order to accommodate more bits than there are atoms on Earth, the way humans generate and store information has to change fundamentally. How exactly that might happen is impossible to tell at this point — that’s a problem that scientists alive 100 to 200 years from now will have to figure out. Some ideas may include using non-tangible storage media such as photons, vacuum, and holograms.

“Everyone should find this interesting because the projections show that we are going to produce so much digital content in the near future that the number of bits produced would equal all the atoms on Earth. So the question is: Where do we store this information? How do we power this? It is a wake-up call for the big data industries, internet giants, high tech companies, energy research, and environmental research. I call this the invisible crisis, as today it is truly an invisible problem, but the projections show a different story,” Vopsan concluded.  

trapping light

How to slow down light until it stops

In vacuum, light always travels at a constant speed of 299,792,458 metres per second. Nothing can travel faster than this constant c,  as denoted by physicists. These two postulates are basic building blocks of modern physics and were first announced more than a hundred years ago by Albert Einstein. 

Yes, yes nothing can travel faster than light, but…

When light travels through a medium other than vacuum, it will be slowed down. For instance, when light propagates through water or air, it will do so at a slower speed. That’s due to the fact that light scatters off the molecules that make-up different materials.  The photons themselves do not slow down. But their passage through a medium involves absorption by electrons and re-emission. For some materials such as water, light will slow down more than electrons will. Thus, an electron in water can travel faster than light in water. But nothing ever travels faster than c.

trapping light

Image: Flickr

In some instances, sluggish light can produce some very interesting physical phenomena. You probably heard about the sonic boom. A ‘normal’ subsonic aircraft will deflect air smoothly around its wings. A supersonic aircraft — the kind that travels faster than sound (more than 340 m/s) — will actually move way faster than the air it dislocates. The result is a sudden pressure change or shock wave which propagates away from the aircraft in a cone at the speed of sound.

Dr. Manhattan

Dr. Manhattan

Dr. Manhattan. Image: Comic Vine

The phase velocity of light in a medium with refractive index n is vlight = c/n. Water has a refractive index of about 1.3, so the speed of light in water is considerably less than the speed of light in vacuum. Not only an electron can move faster than light through a different medium — other particles as well. If a charged particle travels faster than light in a medium, than a faint radiation is produced. In water, for example, the charged particle excites the water molecules, which then return to their normal state by emitting photons of blue light. The light propagates in a cone forward of the region where the interaction took place, analogous to the sonic boom.

This effect, known as Cherenkov radiation, was observed as a faint blue glow by Pavel Cherenkov in 1934 when he was asked to look at the effects of radioactivity in liquids. People working with nuclear reactors often get to see this telltale blue glow. In popular culture, the powerful Doctor Manhattan from lan Moore’s classic “Watchmen” graphic novel is always surrounded by a blue glow.

This discussion begs the question: how much can we slow light?

Dead stop

trapped light pooh

GIF: giphy.com

While we can never actually speed up or reduce the speed of light, which is always a constant, scientists have been successful in manipulating the time it takes for light to travel through various mediums. At room temperature, atoms are incredibly fast and behave akin to billiard balls, bouncing off each other when they interact. As you lower the temperature (remember temperature reflects atomic agitation), atoms and molecules move slower. Eventually, once you get to about 0.000001 degrees above absolute zero, atoms become so densely packed they behave like one super atom, acting in unison. This is the domain of quantum mechanics so prepared for a lot of weirdness.

This is actually a distinct state of matter known as the Bose-Einstein condensate, which doesn’t resemble everyday observable states like liquid, gas, solid or plasma. BEC, for short, was first predicted in the 1920s by Albert Einstein and the Indian physicist Satyendra Bose and it wasn’t until very late in 1995 that scientists were able to produce the necessary conditions for this extreme state of matter to occur.

In 1999,  Lene Vestergaard Hau, a professor at Harvard University, aimed a laser beam through such a cloud of nearly motionless sodium atoms only 1/125 inch long. First, an initial beam known as the coupling beam is shone on the cloud rendering it transparent. It does with an extremely fast rate of the change of the refractive index.

Refraction is the bending of a wave when it enters a medium where its speed is different. The refraction of light when it passes from a fast medium to a slow medium bends the light ray toward the normal to the boundary between the two media. The amount of bending depends on the indices of refraction of the two media and is described quantitatively by Snell’s Law,” source: Hyperphysics.

A second laser beam, the probe pulse, fires through this now-transparent cloud of gas which has a refraction index a hundred trillion times higher than that of glass in optical fiber. It was under these conditions that light crawled at a staggering 38 miles per hour. Horses are faster.

Floating light

Not resting on her laurels, Professor Hau pushed the envelope to the ultimate point: stopping light in its tracks. To stop light altogether, the scientists utilized a similar but far more powerful effect. The researchers cooled a gas of magnetically trapped sodium atoms to within a few millionths of a degree of absolute zero (-273 deg C).  The experimental setup looked very similar to the first attempt, only this time if the team turned off the coupling laser while the probe laser was still shining on the cloud, then the probe pulse would stop dead. If the coupling beam is then turned back on, the probe pulse emerges intact, just as if it had been waiting to resume its journey. Astonishing! These findings were replicated in the same year (2001) by Dr Ronald Walsworth, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge.

“The researchers built what they called a racetrack—setting up a dual course for firing photons and detecting when they struck a detector a meter away. The photons from both groups were launched at the same time but the unshaped photons beat the shape-altered photons to the finish line by approximately 0.001 percent,” phys.org.

Since then, various milestones were set. In 2013, a team from Germany’s University of Darmstadt put light to a full stop inside a crystalline structure and kept it so for a full minute. They also used the trap to store and then retrieve an image consisting of three stripes. “We showed you can imprint complex information on your light beam,” said lead researcher  George Heinze. In 2015, researchers at University of Glasgow found a way to slow the speed of light that does not involve running it through a medium. They essentially altered its speed indirectly by running the light through a special mask —  a filter that shaped the beam into either a Gaussian or Bessel beam.

After it passes through a medium, say glass, water or any kind of material that you can make a filter out of, light is supposed to speed back up to its normal constant. The experiment showed that light can be caused to travel slower than c, by changing its shape. This was  0.001 percent slower than it should have. Not as impressive as putting the brakes on light, but still fascinating. Maybe light is more malleable than physicists previously thought.

There are, of course, practical applications to these ‘gimmicks’. These include quantum computing and quantum communication applications. Still, doing this sort of groundbreaking science just for the sake of it sounds just as awesome to me.

Glasses form when their molecules get jammed into fractal "wells," as shown on the right, rather than smooth or slightly rough wells (left). Photo credit: Patrick Charbonneau:

Glass molecules jam to form fractal wells

Water is liquid, air is gaseous, but glass? For years at end, glass has perplexed scholars intending on fixing it under a state of matter. Neither liquid, nor solid, explaining glass is a lot harder than some might think. Researchers at Duke University have contributed to solving the puzzle after they performed numerical solutions and found the energy landscapes of glasses are far rougher than previously believed, as their constituting molecules jam to form wells.

Glass: forever in between


On the left, quartz a solid which display an orderly, period arrangement of its molecules. On the right, glass with molecules aligned in a disorderly fashion. Photo: cmog.org

In glass, molecules still flow, but their rate flow is so low that it’s barely perceptible. As such, it’s not enough to class glasses as liquid, but neither as solids. Chemists seem to be contend on calling them  amorphous solids— a state somewhere between those two states of matter.

Solids are highly organized structures. They include crystals, like sugar and salt, with their millions of atoms lined up in a row, explains Mark Ediger, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Liquids and glasses don’t have that order,” he notes. Glasses, though more organized than liquids, do not attain the rigid order of crystals. “Amorphous means it doesn’t have that long-range order,” Ediger says. With a “solid—if you grab it, it holds its shape,” he adds.

Previously, researchers used mathematical models to describe how the energy landscapes of glasses look like. As stated earlier, glasses distinguish themselves from other matter due to their constituting molecules lack of order. These molecules steadily and sluggishly cool until molecules are trapped by their neighbors, but in an unpredictable fashion. This is why the older the glass, the more it looks like a solid. One way for researchers to visualize this is with an energy landscape, a map of all the possible configurations of the molecules in a system.

“There have been beautiful mathematical models, but with sometimes tenuous connection to real, structural glasses. Now we have a model that’s much closer to real glasses,” said Patrick Charbonneau, one of the co-authors and assistant professor of chemistry and physics at Duke University.

The wells of glass

Glasses form when their molecules get jammed into fractal "wells," as shown on the right, rather than smooth or slightly rough wells (left). Photo credit: Patrick Charbonneau:

Glasses form when their molecules get jammed into fractal “wells,” as shown on the right, rather than smooth or slightly rough wells (left). Photo credit: Patrick Charbonneau:

Charbonneau and colleagues performed  numerical simulations, combined with what they know from the theory of glasses, to render energy landscapes . Their analysis suggests molecules in glassy materials settle into a fractal hierarchy of states, which can be imagined as a series of ponds or wells.

When the water is high (the temperature is warmer), the particles within float around as they please, crossing from pond to pond without problem. But as you begin to lower the water level (by lowering the temperature or increasing the density), the particles become trapped in one of the small ponds. Eventually, as the pond empties, the molecules become jammed into disordered and rigid configurations.

“Jamming is what happens when you take sand and squeeze it,” Charbonneau said. “First it’s easy to squeeze, and then after a while it gets very hard, and eventually it becomes impossible.”

“At the bottom of these lakes or wells, what you find is variation in which particles have a force contact or bond,” Charbonneau said. “So even though you start from a single configuration, as you go to the bottom or compress them, you get different realizations of which pairs of particles are actually in contact.”

These findings make sense of empirical observations, which were difficult to explain previously, like  the property known as avalanching, which describes a random rearrangement of molecules that leads to crystallization.

“There are a lot of properties of glasses that are not understood, and this finding has the potential to bring together a wide range of those problems into one coherent picture,” said Charbonneau.

Findings were reported in the journal Nature Communications.

This diagram depicts the spatial distribution of the five types of light-sensitive cells known as cones in the chicken retina. (c) Washington University in St. Louis

Weird state of matter found in chicken’s eye

You may not find many interesting things to see when glaring into a chicken’s eye, but after closely studying its retina researchers at Washington University have come across a most fascinating discovery. It seems chicken eyes bear a never before seen state of matter in biology, an arrangement of particles that is both ordered and disordered – neither crystal, nor liquid. This state is called “disordered hyperuniformity”  and could only previously be found in non-biological systems , like liquid helium or simple plasmas.

Typically, the retina is comprised of several layers, but only the cones and rods are photosensitive allowing us to see and visually sense our surroundings. In the eye of a chicken, like many other bird species, the retina is comprised of five different types of cones – violet, blue, green and red, while the fifth is responsible for sensing light level variance. Most importantly, however, each type of cone is of a different size.

This diagram depicts the spatial distribution of the five types of light-sensitive cells known as cones in the chicken retina. (c) Washington University in St. Louis

This diagram depicts the spatial distribution of the five types of light-sensitive cells known as cones in the chicken retina. (c) Washington University in St. Louis

Most animal species have their cones arranged around an orderly pattern. Insects for instance have their cones arranged in a hexagon pattern. Those of a chicken, however, seem to be in complete disarray. At first, if one didn’t know better, you might think that they shouldn’t be able to see anything. Upon closer inspection, the shroud was lifted and most peculiar discovery was made.

After making a computer model, the scientists found that the arrangement of chicken cones is particularly tidy. Each cone has a so-called exclusion area that blocks other cones of the same type from straying too close, but this means each individual cone has its own uniform arrangement. At the same time, the five different patterns of the five different cone types are layered on top of each other in a disorderly way as opposed to the orderly structure found in other species’ eyes.

“Because the cones are of different sizes it’s not easy for the system to go into a crystal or ordered state,” study researcher Salvatore Torquato, a professor of chemistry at Princeton University, explained in a statement. “The system is frustrated from finding what might be the optimal solution, which would be the typical ordered arrangement. While the pattern must be disordered, it must also be as uniform as possible. Thus, disordered hyperuniformity is an excellent solution.”

Simply put, systems like the arrangement of chicken cones or liquid helium act both at the same time like crystals, keeping the density of particles consistent across large volumes, and liquids, having the same physical properties in all directions. This is the first time, however, that disordered hyperuniformity  has been observed in a biological system.

Their findings were detailed on Feb. 24 in the journal Physical Review E.