Information Intelligent Design

Is information really the fifth state of matter? Rob Sheldon responds

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According to the latest buzz, information should join solid, liquid, gas, and plasma as matter:

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, [Melvin] 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 Landauer’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.

Tibi Puiu, “Physicists claim information is the fifth state of matter. By 2245, half of Earth’s mass could be converted to digital bits” at ZME Science (August 11, 2020)

Naturally, we asked Rob Sheldon, our physics color commentator to offer some thoughts:


This article captures both the best and worst of physicist’s training. Let’s follow St Paul’s example and start with the good.

Physicists, unlike Mathematicians, do not wait for the late-arriving incontrovertible proof, but often take hints and glimmers of the truth, generalize them to a law, and ask whether it explains some universal aspect of reality. The apocryphal story of Newton having an apple land on his head, and then generalizing that gravitational force to the moon, is an example of this process. Many hagiographies of Einstein point out that he did not invent Special Relativity, for Henri Poincare and Hendrik Lorentz had already shown the math and transformations, all Einstein did was believe it to be true. In a like manner in this article, Melvin Vopson has simply asked what would happen if we generalized Landauer’s idea that a bit actually weighed something.

Okay, now I’m going to point out the worst aspect of physics (and every mathematician will be nodding vigorously); physicists all too readily jump to unwarranted conclusions. Granville Sewell has pointed out that many physicists equate all types of entropy as the same even though they do not know how to measure it. That’s like a non-fisherman saying all fish are the same, or a non-Asian saying all Asians look the same. When a physicist generalizes a particular that is important, he never gets a universal law, he gets a mess.

The Long Ascent: Genesis 1–11 in Science & Myth, Volume 1 by [Robert Sheldon, David Mackie]

A second major transgression is called extrapolation. This is very common, and always wrong. This paper first extrapolates to 2160 AD, and then to 2245 AD. Without knowing anything else, this is a forest of red flags that should prevent us from taking anything in this post seriously. I could make analogies to global warming extrapolations, but instead let me give you the inimitable Mark Twain:

In the space of one hundred and seventy six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over a mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oölitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-pole. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo [Illinois] and New Orleans will have joined their streets together and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

Throughout history we have examples of these bad physics generalizations. For example, heat was once considered a fluid embedded in the oak log, absorbed from the sun, called phlogiston. As it turned out, heat is not a material substance. The Earth is not getting heavier as it absorbs sunlight. Instead, heat was found to be the internal motion of atoms vibrating randomly. Well, if we plot all these vibrations as the number of atoms versus their speed, we get a thermodynamic quantity called a Maxwell distribution. If phlogiston is the area under the curve, then “thermodynamic” information is the width of the curve, or more precisely, the deviation from the “Maxwellian” or “Gaussian” shape of a heat curve.

Just as it was wrong to think of phlogiston as a material quantity, it is equally wrong to think of phlogiston’s appearance as a material quantity. How physicists were talked into reviving phlogiston theory is a story in its own right, right up there with how Darwin revived spontaneous generation theory, now renamed “origin-of-life”.

The Long Ascent, Volume 2

Very briefly, Rolf Landauer argued that a “bit” had to represent a permanent state of matter, and therefore setting or erasing a bit had to employ a minimal amount of energy, call it a “quantum unit”. As people messed about with memory chips, it did appear that the smaller the chip, the closer they got to Landauer’s limit. This led to claims that Landauer had been vindicated as recently as 2018.

But let me emphasize, Landauer talked about the energy to erase a bit, not about the mass of a bit itself. Information is not material, but writing/erasing it takes energy. Your consciousness is not material, but it takes energy to wake up in the morning. So you can see the silliness of stating “By 2145 AD, the energy to wake up will be half the mass of the earth.”

Even though experiments appear to be vindicating Landauer, why should writing and reading memory chips be the epitome, the acme of information? First of all, QM says everything is a wave, and waves are not localized but spread over large regions of space (which memory chips by definition, do not.) How then are we supposed to know the energy of the wave, or the effort to move a wave to a different location? Landauer’s argument may apply to the memory chips in your computer, but it doesn’t generalize, as Granville would say, to all the other kinds of information in the universe. Nor does the “proof” hold up to mathematical scrutiny. John Norton,
argues that the proof fails because it doesn’t recognize different types of entropy—which was Granville’s point earlier. Accordingly, most physicists view this as “Landauer’s Conjecture”.

Finally, after starting with bad assumptions, generalizing over important particulars, extrapolating wildly into the far future, there’s one more sin that the physicist is making. To be fair, all scientists do this, not just physicists. When they are out of their field of expertise, their understanding shrinks to what they read on the internet, and their gullibility knows no limits. For biologists, it is the well-known phenomena that they find evolution doesn’t work in their sub-field, but they think it does work in other sub-fields. For Vopson, he assumes that dark matter exists as some sort of exotic substance exerting gravitational force, and he immediately thinks “information”. At this point, his opinion is no longer informed by his research, and might as well be writing as the science journo at the “Sun”. (Dark matter is simply normal matter that doesn’t emit light that can be observed by astronomers, like black comets.)

So why is Landauer’s conjecture being treated as a proof and extrapolated out 225 years into the future?

Because it isn’t science any more, it’s a religion. Here’s Melvin’s actual quote:

“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 [sic] said.”

Like Granville’s critique of Victor Stenger, the mathematical mistakes serve a metaphysical purpose. Or, as someone has said, “Religion drives science, and it matters.”


Rob Sheldon is also the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent and The Long Ascent, Volume II .

5 Replies to “Is information really the fifth state of matter? Rob Sheldon responds

  1. 1
    Latemarch says:

    I’m not a physicist nor do I play one on TV.
    Information has to be immaterial. (This has been argued here at UD and I believe is logically proved.)
    Information only comes from mind.
    Could it not be that information is encoded in the energy (wave) that at the quantum level says, I’m an up quark or I’m a charm quark? Information is not matter but is that which gives form to matter?
    If true I’m not sure how that would relate to the observations surrounding Landauer’s Conjecture.

    But is does fit well within this:

    Genesis 1:1-4In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
    Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    Grantors pay for nonsense, so nonsense increases. If BIGGER grants went to rational thought, rational thought would increase.

    The only information that matters in science is the number on the bottom line of a RFP.

  3. 3
    daveS says:

    The author actually does propose that the mass of a storage device “full” of information is different from one that is erased. From a previous paper:

    To test the hypothesis we propose here an experiment, predicting that the mass of a data storage device would increase by a small amount when is full of digital information relative to its mass in erased state. For 1Tb device the estimated mass change is 2.5 × 10^−25 Kg.

    That’s kind of strange? I wonder if this effect would be measurable using current technology.
    If true, it would have all sorts of crazy implications.

  4. 4
    awstar says:

    If a binary digit (bit) was assigned to each hole in a Chinese checkerboard, and the each hole either contains a marble or no marble, then Shannon information exists when a random distribution of marbles exists. And zero Shannon information exists when either all holes contain a marble, or all holes contain no marble.

    The mass of this data storage device would definitely have changed between states of storing information and storing no information. But the mass might be higher or it might be lower, depending on the chosen convention of what constitutes a 0 and a 1.

    The old punched cards or punched tape would definitely have different mass if no information or some information is stored. A magnetic storage device might also have a different mass if magnetic fields are created by organizing the aether differently as some speculate what magnetism really is.

    Maybe the author is saying we are finding more and more information being stored in things we never considered to be information storage objects before. Maybe we’ll eventually discover it’s all information, and nothing but information.

  5. 5
    Querius says:

    But even what we consider “material” is actually immaterial. Although I’ve posted these quotes before, I think they are very appropriate.

    Nobel Prize winner, Werner Heisenberg, wrote the following in his 1958 book, Physics and Philosophy:

    In the experiments about atomic events, we have to do with things and facts, the phenomena that are just as real as in daily life. But the atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real. They form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things and facts.

    Vlatko Vedralis is a professor of Physics at the University of Oxford who specializes in quantum theory and his research papers are widely cited. He expresses the concept this way:

    The most fundamental definition of reality is not matter or energy, but information–and it is the processing of information that lies at the root of all physical, biological, economic, and social phenomena.

    Let’s compare Dr. Vedral’s description to the beginning of the Gospel of John in the New Testament:

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being . . . –John 1:1 (NASB)

    “Word” here is translated from the Greek word logos, which encompasses meanings in English that include a word, a thought, a concept, a plan, reasoning, and logic—all of which represents information.

    -Q

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