Differences, Contraptions, and a Ripple Universe

About this essay. This is the first essay I ever published on Plankton Valhalla. If this site was an orchestra performance, this piece would amount to the installation of the piano on the stage. Most of the rest of the site is based on the foundations laid out here and on a few other introductory essays.

Back in university I studied physics and astronomy. Whenever someone asked me why I’d chosen that as my major, I mentioned that scene at the end of The Matrix where Neo “awakens” and sees the world around him for what it really is: a bunch of (mysteriously) green code, ready to be read like an open book and hacked like an 85-years-old’s social media account. After that scene, everything becomes kind of easy for Neo. Someone shoots at you? Just stop the bullets. Running late to work? Just fly there.

That’s what learning about fields and fundamental forces was like for me, at first. If everything that happens in the universe follows the laws of physics, then why study anything else? I had nothing against all those respectable fields like biology, engineering, and literature, but aren’t they all “applied physics” after all? Physics mastery felt like an unfair advantage over the non-physicists around me, like stumbling on a huge buy-one-get-all-the-rest-free offer that most others somehow missed.

Then, some time in my fourth or fifth year of study, while I spent my days in lectures titled “Extragalactic Astrophysics” and “Condensed Matter Physics”, it dawned on me that this stuff didn’t really work for everything. The gates to the Source Code of Reality had been opened for me, yet there were still huge chunks of trickling green squiggles that I couldn’t read.

Why exactly do countries end up in wars? Why are seashells so pretty? When you look into the eyes of that person—that one in particular—why does it feel the way it feels? The science I was being taught steered clear of that kind rabbit holes, and I had no idea how to venture in them on my own.

It seems like the standard didactical physics is not equipped to even talk about those questions. Its foundations are deterministic laws, with concepts like masses, forces, energy and particles, but many things, like evolution, societies, intelligence, purpose, can’t be predicted just by knowing those physical laws. Equations for energy conservation or quantum states alone don’t help much in making sense of a seashell’s elegant patterns.

That’s not to say that fields like Condensed Matter Physics or Quantum Mechanics (or any non-physics science either) aren’t wonderful fields to dedicate one’s life to. They are deep and mysterious and humanity needs to understand them better than we do today. I just really wanted that get-it-all bargain I thought I’d paid for! I couldn’t yet soar in the sky like Neo did.

I concluded that the next best thing I could do was to use physics as my home base and try figuring out the rest of existence from first principles as I went along. (Yes, I am ambitious.)

That was almost two decades ago, and it turned out to be a very, very deep rabbit hole. This site is a log of that ongoing exploration, and this post about rippling differences is meant as the crude foundation of an answer, to be expanded upon in other essays.

1: Hero Was Onto Something, but What Was He Onto?

What was I missing from the common explanations of science? It’s probably not a “missing particle” yet to be discovered, or anything physical at all, because those are exactly the things modern physics is best at, the more-or-less-known unknowns. We’re dealing with a more abstract puzzle here. Maybe something like “Love transcending the dimensions of time and space,” as a character in Interstellar claims. Hopefully something a tad more practical than that, though.

It turns out that other, seemingly unrelated fields like computer science and some branches of math, had in store some key insights into this question for me: maybe the “missing piece of the puzzle” isn’t a piece at all. It’s a different way of cutting the puzzle, i.e. a different “framing” of reality. This could be some mind-boggling stuff. I like where it’s going.

So the physics that students learn is all about concepts like fields, forces, energy, matter. In other words, it’s about objects and the things objects do. A particle decays and spits out other particles. A heavy object creates a gravity field. A pump compresses a gas, raising its temperature. And so on. Even for non-scientists, this “things doing things to other things” framing is so ingrained in our way of thinking that we take it for granted. But there are other ways we can talk about the world.

Take, for example, a simple contraption. A contraption—a mechanism, gadget, or toy—usually does one interesting or useful thing only. It follows the laws of physics, sure, but how does it come about? There isn’t a neat mathematical formula that you can solve to obtain the contraption.

Back in the 1st century A.D., there was this heroic guy from Alexandria called Hero of Alexandria who was like the Roman Egyptian version of Thomas Edison. He came up with all kinds of cool inventions like wind-powered machines, vending machines, gravity-powered fountains, and of course the “self-filling wine bowl”—which I bet is what he got his name for, and his tenure as a scholar at the prestigious Musaeum of Alexandria.

Hero also invented (or popularized) a contraption called the aeolipile. It was the first-ever-recorded steam engine, a full nineteen centuries before the Industrial Revolution. The aeolipile was made of a spinning metal sphere full of water with two little L-shaped nozzles on its sides. You light a fire below the ball, the water inside it boils, and the steam blows out of the valves making the ball spin. There you have your engine, as simple as it gets.

The Aeolipile. It's up to you to figure out what to do with it.

Now, the physics of the aeolipile is 100% understood. We have known for a long time how and why hot water boils into vapor, how exactly a force at a given angle makes a solid object rotate, and how Newton’s “action equals reaction” law means that spitting gas from a nozzle makes stuff move in the opposite direction. A high-school student (or YouTuber) can replicate one as a fun project, and a programmer can simulate one accurately on a computer.

But all these physical laws can do is describe how the machine’s design works, not tell you how to design it in the first place! Not to mention that Hero didn’t know half as much as a modern high-school student about those fundamental laws.

2: Seeing the Differences

There is this unspoken ingredient that comes in and that classical physics just takes for granted: you have to put the parts in the right places, with the right shapes and at the right angles for the thing to work. If you orient both nozzles in the same direction, the ball may not spin up. It’s up to Hero, the engineer, to somehow know the difference between possible configurations, and to pick the one that exploits the laws of physics the way he wants it to. How he did it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Hero, with his brain and limbs, was necessary to give birth to the machine: it wouldn’t build itself without him. This, of course, is true not only for Hero’s engine but for any other product of engineering, from a steam locomotive to a modern microprocessor.

Differences, then, are the secret ingredient. Differences as in “here, not there”, “this much, not that much”, “machine that does what I want, not inert piece of metal”. Whenever you can talk about something or some amount as unlike others, there you have a difference. Everything—including every contraption—is made of lots and lots of differences, and it will do different things, be different things based on what those differences are.

The word “difference” as I use it here covers pretty much everything you can think of. In Hero’s engine, the size of the ball is a difference, because the ball could be bigger or smaller. Its color is a difference because it could be a different color. The presence of oil in the ball’s hinges is a difference because the hinges could be left unoiled. Heck, the position and orientation of every single molecule in the aeolipile is a difference, because they could all be arranged in many different ways! The contraption is brimming with differences, and so is everything else too, from planets to mosquitoes to football teams to videogame characters. If you can talk about it, you’re talking about its differences. (Talk about sweeping statements!)

3: Making a Difference

If that sounds overwhelming, it’s because it is.

Luckily, not all differences are created equal, though, and some differences seem to be more “special” than others. The color of the aeolipile’s ball doesn’t matter very much in its functioning, but the presence of oil in its hinges does. The angle of the 219,321,894,308,940th copper atom counting from the tip of the nozzle doesn’t matter, but the nozzle’s curvature does. In this distinction between more or less interesting differences lies a key to understanding the universe.

Mainstream physics doesn’t study differences themselves, but only what happens when certain differences are in place. Thinking in terms of differences is a different way to cut the puzzle, because it forces you to think less in terms of things and more in terms of patterns.

This way of framing things through differences comes from the great anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson. He began his career in the 1930s studying indigenous cultures in New Guinea, where he met and eventually—through an infamous tropical love triangle—formed a long-lasting relationship with Margaret Mead, another giant of anthropology. (Both of them went on to contribute well beyond their home discipline, including to the then-newborn field of cybernetics.)

Bateson studied a particular definition of “Mind”, one where the thing doing the thinking is not limited to a brain’s neurons, but to all the physical objects that the brain interacts with to make sense of the world: nerves, muscles, tools, other people, and any other objects involved. This “Mind”, he claimed, is not explained only with forces and energy transfers, but with differences. Talking to a live audience about the adage “a map is not the territory”, he wrote:

“What is it in the territory that gets onto the map?” We know the territory does not get onto the map. […] Now, if the territory were uniform, nothing would get onto the map except its boundaries, which are the points at which it ceases to be uniform against some large matrix. What gets onto the map, in fact, is difference, be it a difference in altitude, a difference in vegetation, a difference in population structure, difference in surface, or whatever. Differences are the things that get onto a map."

The world is made of differences, and and it’s these differences—not the objects themselves—that travel around, for example from a territory to a map. But not all all them.

Lewis Carrol wrote in The Hunting of the Snark, a poem about sailors:

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
   Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
   A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
   Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
   "They are merely conventional signs!

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
   But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
   A perfect and absolute blank!”

Ocean Chart (Bellman’s Map) from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1874)

The sea, in truth, is full of differences. There are underwater valleys and hills deep down. There are infinitely detailed and varied waveforms all over its surface. There are jetsam and flotsam and twigs and algae and foam and live fish and dead fish and plenty of trash. Yet a mapmaker wouldn’t draw any of them on her map (even if she could). They aren’t what sailors are looking for when they look at the map. People—except, apparently, the crew of the Snark—are looking only for the “special” differences, those that mean something to them, like shallows and islands and coasts.

These “special” differences are what Bateson calls the differences which make a difference. (The popular name for them today is information, but I love the clarity of Bateson’s term much more.)

Our brains are excellent at scouring the swirling deluge of differences that pour in through our senses—not just sight but all of our senses—and unearthing just those differences which make a difference, the information. Or, to put it another way, our brains are excellent at ignoring tons of differences that are useless to our goals.

There is a lot more to be said about information, and people already do talk about it all the time nowadays. A big chunk of computer science and other fields like semiotics and linguistics study information from different angles.

But I think that most of us are missing out on the broader concept of differences, those which don’t seem to make a difference for anyone. The ephemeral wrinkles on an ocean wave or the angle between two random hairs on a dog’s forehead may not be information in the sense of something that humans might want to know or use, but they exist in the world nonetheless. They interact with the other differences in all sorts of ways. These differences are all first-class citizens in the description of the universe. In a sense, they matter as much as any other difference even if there is no intelligent mind to observe them directly.

4: A Universe of Ripples

If you try, you can use “differences” to describe not only things, but also events.

When two differences meet, new differences can be born from their summation, like ripples on the surface of a pond overlapping into ever more complicated shapes. For example, when an electron and a positron—differences in the form of specific masses, charges, etc—meet, they “overlap”, leading to new specific differences that we call photons. Or when some of the differences in a pair of scissors—blade sharpness, distance, shape, etc—encounter the differences in a sheet of paper in a given way, a new “cut” difference is born. And so on for everything that happens.

I like to call this way of looking at the world “Ripple Universe”: we live on a very big pond making some very interesting ripples.

This may seem like a pointless exercise. We could already describe all those things in simpler terms, like “two particles collide and decay into other particles”, and “the scissors cut the paper.” Why make things so convoluted by reframing them in terms of differences? Two reasons, I think.

First, you don’t always have to, but it’s good that you can reframe them. Like a second language, the Ripple Universe framing lets you translate familiar things into a different shape when needed. And sometimes you travel to places where you really need it! The questions I posed at the beginning about seashells and wars and feelings only begin to make sense if you shift the focus from the physical (and the biochemical, sociological and so on) to the informational.

To analyze a rainforest’s ecological collapse you need concepts like habitat fragmentation, food webs, and keystone species. Even though all parts of a rainforest faithfully obey the laws of physics, these concepts don’t arise from a consideration of matter and force fields. They’re about how certain events emerge when differences propagate and combine through networks and loops of interactions.

Once you switch from thinking about the things objects do to thinking about differences making new patterns by overlapping with other differences, sometimes—only sometimes—brand-new answers come up that you couldn’t even imagine before.

The second reason why I want us all to look through the Ripple Universe lens is that doing so can uncover a new kind of beauty, an almost mystical, mathematical grace. I can no longer look at a bud of Romanesco broccoli without being shaken, all over again, by the self-referential marvel of architecture that the blind spreading of universal ripples has brought from the Big Bang to the plate in front of me.

At the beginning I asked:

What was I missing from the common explanations of science?

Mainstream, graduate-level physics failed to give me some of the answers I wanted, because it eschews discussions of differences and physical information. At the time, I thought that perhaps no answers existed at all. It took me a while to realize that there are communities of physicists, mathematicians, and experts from all sorts of fields that do study reality from the point of view of “rippling differences” (although they don’t usually call them that). These people are managing to explain so much more, and to uncover so much beauty, that it always leaves me in awe. To me, they are some of the coolest people on Earth, the real Neos among us. But these communities are often fragmented, even unaware of each other. On this site, I’m trying to talk about all of them, taken as a single discipline: the study of all the cool ripples that the universe makes. Then maybe we’ll all be able to whiz through the sky. ■

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Further Reading

  • Top image: a watercolor painting of the Ripple Universe by Midjourney.
  • The position that things aren’t straightforwardly explained by the fundamental laws they obey is broadly called “antireductionism”. I love how this classic essay titled More Is Different by theoretical physicist P.W. Anderson put it.
  • For more about Gregory Bateson’s thinking, I highly recommend his collection of essays titled Steps to an Ecology of Mind—if you can digest philosophical writing. He talks about Mind and differences in the essay titled “Form, Substance and Difference”.
  • If you’re curious about the “infamous love triangle” between Bateson and Mead, it’s not hard to learn more about it by Googling it. E.g. this story.