The Sum of Forking Paths

Posted in Borges, Perception, Quantum by Mike Stay on 2010 September 7

Paracelsus threw the rose into the fire; it bent on impact, recoiled, and fell deeper among the logs. In the gold-orange light, the stem was already black. The husk began to shrivel and split as the sap boiled away on its surface. The petals blistered and blackened and fell. The five-fingered star beneath them danced subtly, swaying in the brittle heat. For nearly an hour it lay visibly unchanged save for a gradual loss of hue and a universal greyness, then fell into three large pieces as the log crumbled around it. The ashes glowed orange, then gradually dimmed; the last visible flash of light burst outward from the remains of the stem. Like all light, it carried within it a timepiece.

Once, when the clock read noon, it traveled without hesitation in a straight path to my retina. Once it took another course, only to bend around a molecule of nitrogen and reach the same destination.

Once it traced the signature of a man no one remembers.

Once, at half past three, it decayed into a tiny spark and its abominable opposite image; their mutual horrified fascination drew them together, each a moth in the other’s flame. The last visible flash of light from their fiery consummation was indistinguishable from the one that spawned them.

Once, when the clock ticked in the silence just before dawn, the light decayed into two mirrored worlds, somewhat better than ours due to the fact that I was never born there. Both worlds were consumed by mirrored dragons before collapsing back into the chaos from which they arose; all that remained was an orange flash of light.

Once it traveled to a far distant galaxy, reflected off the waters of a billion worlds and witnessed the death of a thousand stars before returning to the small room in which we sat.

Once it transcribed a short story of Borges in his own cramped scrawl, the six versions he discarded, the corrupt Russian translation by Nabokov, and a version in which the second-to-last word was illegible.

Once it traveled every path, each in its time; once it became and destroyed every possible world. All these summed to form what was: I saw an orange flash, and in that moment, I was enlightened.


Posted in Borges, Fun links, General physics, Perception, Quantum by Mike Stay on 2010 April 27

Lazulinos are quasiparticles in a naturally occurring Bose-Einstein condensate first described in 1977 by the Scottish physicist Alexander Craigie while at the University of Lahore [3]. The quasiparticles are weakly bound by an interaction for which neither the position nor number operator commutes with the Hamiltonian. A measurement of a lazulino’s position will cause the condensate to go into a superposition of number states, and a subsequent measurement of the population will return a random number; also, counting the lazulinos at two different times will likely give different results.

Their name derives from the stone lapis lazuli and means, roughly, “little blue stone”. Lazulinos are so named because even though the crystals in which they arise absorb visible light, and would otherwise be jet black, they lose energy through surface plasmons in the form of near-ultraviolet photons, with visible peaks at 380, 402, and 417nm. Optical interference imparts a “laser speckle” quality to the emitted light; Craigie described the effect in a famously poetic way: “Their colour is the blue that we are permitted to see only in our dreams”. What makes lazulinos particularly interesting is that they are massive and macroscopic. Since the number operator does not commute with the Hamiltonian, lazulinos themselves do not have a well-defined mass; if the population is N, then the mass of any particular lazulino is m/N, where m is the total mass of the condensate.

In a recent follow-up to the “quantum mirage” experiment [2], Don Eigler’s group at IBM used a scanning tunneling microscope to implement “quantum mancala”—picking up the lazulino ‘stones’ in a particular location usually changes the number of stones, so the strategy for winning becomes much more complicated. In order to pick up a fixed number of stones, you must choose a superposition of locations [1].

  1. C.P. Lutz and D.M. Eigler, “Quantum Mancala: Manipulating Lazulino Condensates,” Nature 465, 132 (2010).
  2. H.C. Manoharan, C.P. Lutz and D.M. Eigler, “Quantum Mirages: The Coherent Projection of Electronic Structure,” Nature 403, 512 (2000). Images available at
  3. A. Craigie, “Surface plasmons in cobalt-doped Y3Al5O12,” Phys. Rev. D 15 (1977). Also available at

Signatures of consciousness

Posted in Perception by Mike Stay on 2010 January 26

Things that happen in the brain that correlate well with being conscious of something.

Aleph and Omega

Posted in Borges, Math, Perception, Theocosmology, Time by Mike Stay on 2010 January 14

I shut my eyes — I opened them. Then I saw the Aleph.

I arrive now at the ineffable core of my story. And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass? Mystics, faced with the same problem, fall back on symbols: to signify the godhead, one Persian speaks of a bird that somehow is all birds; Alanus de Insulis, of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere; Ezekiel, of a four-faced angel who at one and the same time moves east and west, north and south. (Not in vain do I recall these inconceivable analogies; they bear some relation to the Aleph.) Perhaps the gods might grant me a similar metaphor, but then this account would become contaminated by literature, by fiction. Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal. In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive. Nonetheless, I’ll try to recollect what I can.

On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realised that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree; I saw a summer house in Adrogué and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny — Philemon Holland’s — and all at the same time saw each letter on each page (as a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight); I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal; I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe.

I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity…

(Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph)

A finitely-refutable question is one of the form, “Does property X holds for all natural numbers?” Any mathematical question admitting a proof or disproof is in this category. If you believe the ideas of digital physics, then any question about the behavior of some portion of the universe is in this category. We can encode any finitely refutable question as a program that iterates through the natural numbers and checks to see if it’s a counterexample. If so, it halts; if not, it goes to the next number.

The halting probability of a universal Turing machine is a number between zero and one. Given the first n bits of this number, there is a program that will compute which n-bit programs halt and which don’t. Assuming digital physics, all those things Borges wrote about in the Aleph are in the Omega. There’s a trivial way–the Omega is a normal number, so every sequence of digits appears infinitely often–but there’s a more refined way: ask any finitely-refutable question using an n-bit program and the first n bits of Omega contain the proper information to compute the answer.

The bits of Omega are pure information; they can’t be computed from a fixed-size program, like the bits of \pi can.

Colorblindness cured

Posted in Evolution, Perception by Mike Stay on 2009 September 18

Following up on my previous comments here, scientists have cured color blindness in monkeys:

Neitz’s team injected their monkeys’ eyes with viruses carrying a gene that makes L-opsin, one of three proteins released when color-detecting cone cells are hit by different wavelengths of light. Male squirrel monkeys naturally lack the L-opsin gene; like people who share their condition, they’re unable to distinguish between red and green.

At first, the two monkeys behaved no differently than before. Though quick to earn a grape juice reward by picking out blue and yellow dots from a background of gray dots on a computer screen, they banged the screen randomly when presented with green or red dots.

But after five months, something clicked. The monkeys picked out red and green, again and again. At the biological level, Neitz can’t say precisely what happened — the monkeys, named Sam and Dalton, are alive and healthy, their brains unscanned and undissected — but their actions left no doubt.

They think it will work identically in humans. If so, this means that we could do the same thing for the mutant version of L-opsin that tetrachromat women have, and make anyone (even a man) into a tetrachromat. Or, even more excitingly, a gene for infrared or ultraviolet light.

Great synesthesia FAQ

Posted in Perception by Mike Stay on 2008 April 3

Try to see things my way…

Posted in Fun links, Perception by Mike Stay on 2007 April 19

Mice adapt to becoming trichromats pretty easily.

Turning photo albums into 3d-walk-throughs

Posted in Fun links, Perception by Mike Stay on 2007 March 3

Faces of War

Posted in Perception by Mike Stay on 2007 February 15

The WWI mask shops took over where the rudimentary plastic surgery left off:
“Thanks to you, I will have a home,” one soldier had written her. “…The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do.”

Potion +5 against Sandman

Posted in Fun links, Perception, Time by Mike Stay on 2006 December 4