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My Failed Simulation

In my 2000 Mathematical Intelligencer article
I speculated on what would happen if we constructed a gigantic computer
model which starts with the initial conditions on Earth 4 billion years
ago and tries to simulate the effects that the four known forces of physics
(the gravitational and electromagnetic forces and the strong and weak
nuclear forces) would have on every atom and every subatomic particle on
our planet. If we ran such a simulation out to the present day, I asked,
would it predict that the basic forces of Nature would reorganize the basic
particles of Nature into libraries full of encyclopedias, science texts and
novels, nuclear power plants, aircraft carriers with supersonic jets parked
on deck, and computers connected to laser printers, CRTs and keyboards?

A friend read my article and said, computers have advanced a lot in the
last seven years, I think we could actually try such a simulation on my new
laptop now. So I wrote the program–in Fortran, naturally–and we tried it.
It took several minutes, and at the end of the simulation we dumped the
final coordinates of all the particles into a rather large data file, then
ran MATLAB to plot them. Some interesting things had happened, a few
mountains and valleys and volcanos had formed, but no computers, no
encyclopedias, and no cars or trucks. My friend said, let me see your
program. After examining it, he exclaimed, no wonder, you treated the
Earth as a closed system, order can’t increase in a closed system. The
Earth is an open system, you need to take into account the effect of the
sun’s energy. So I modified the boundary conditions to simulate the effect
of the entering solar radiation, and reran it. This time some more
interesting things happened, but still no libraries or computers…

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31 Responses to My Failed Simulation

  1. You better watch out or someone will take down your web page ;-)

  2. 2

    idnet:

    Actually, I’ve been putting stuff like this on my UTEP and Texas A&M web pages for years and no one has ever even said anything negative to me about it (and many are aware of it). Apparently state schools in Texas aren’t as paranoid about scientific dissent as Baylor.

  3. Granville

    The problem may be in the initial conditions. How about if you set the initial conditions to the position of all the particles today and then run the model backward in time. Ditch the random number generator altogether. Just think of all the history’s mysteries you could solve by stopping the model at various points in time. It’d be worth the trouble just to find out who really killed JFK. When you get backwards 4 billion years then you will have the right set of initial conditions. At that point you can start running the model forward and do some “what ifs” like testing the “butterfly effect”.

  4. I am having trouble taking this post seriously: a few minutes run on a program on a laptop is supposed to have accurately simulated the history of all particles from the beginning of the earth to now, yielding a few mountains but no libraries?

    Frankly, I can’t believe that Granville is serious about this.

  5. “Frankly, I can’t believe that Granville is serious about this.”

    Really??? He’s not serious??

  6. P.S.

    I took a Fortran course in college, naturally, having last been in college in the late 70′s. In a subsequent course on microprocessor architecture the final assignment was to take a uP specification the prof had created on the blackboard during the course and write a simulator for it in Fortran. The final exam was the prof running a program written in the hypothetical machine language through each pupil’s simulator. Out of 20 students only two of us had perfectly working simulators – mine was one of those two. I haven’t used Fortran again in the intervening 30 years but I’m sure I could pick it up again. Programming languages all start looking alike after a while with the possible exception of FIG Forth which is really weird to anyone who doesn’t carry an HP RPN calculator around in a hip holster. I wrote a much larger hardware simulator program in 1981 using Forth. The simulation was of a handheld “GameBoy” predecessor. My job was to produce a hardware simulator so that other programmers could start writing and testing games for the hardware before the hardware was actually available. The hardware, when it became available, had a FIG Forth kernal in it and the games were written in Forth.

    So what I’m getting at here is that if you need an extra hand with the solar system simulator don’t be afraid to ask. :)

  7. Jack

    I am having trouble taking this post seriously

    Surely not as much trouble as I have taking Avida seriously.

  8. I wonder if you simulated complex information being inserted into your from time to time if it would more realistically reflect what we find in the real world?

  9. The solution is obvious. You’re not taking the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics into account. The program needs to continually fork into separate simulations. Most will result in worthless worlds, but eventually one will yield everything we see around us.

  10. The program needs to continually fork into separate simulations. Most will result in worthless worlds, but eventually one will yield everything we see around us.

    Actually, it would be really interesting to distribute Granville’s simulation widely and have a large number of people run it simultaneously and see what kinds of interesting things result. Isn’t that what the SETI folks are doing with the program that runs on other people’s PCs?

    What say you, Granville?

  11. Granville Sewell’s Surprise Ending…

    Read the whole article, though, and you’ll find there’s a nice twist at the end. He knew exactly what he was doing……

  12. Let’s get that law of natural selection nicely quantified first…

  13. I was going to comment along the lines of Jack Kreb. Any simulation of this magnitude that took just a few minutes, on a laptop, is not doing anything of the sort of calculations that you claim it is. This is intellectual dishonesty and looks like something from the other side.

    A simulation of the kind you’re talking about , being run on a laptop, would take longer than the actual length of time the earth has existed, and then some. That, along with the reality of the butterfly affect would mean that one experiment of this kind would prove nothing anyway, you would need several hundred simultaneous simulations run or running to provide anything close to useable data.

    Sorry, but is it April 1st??

  14. Jack Krebs
    I am having trouble taking this post seriously.

    Granville is performing a tongue-in-cheek thought experiment, to demonstrate how absurd certain aspects of Darwinian speculation (oops, theory) are.

  15. Gil

    Spoilsport!

  16. Hmmm. How is one supposed to tell what posts to take seriously? Seriously.

  17. P.S. This time I even looked to see if the post was filed under Humor before I responded.

  18. rrf: “Actually, it would be really interesting…”

    Hopelessness springs eternal. It’s been done. Google “Darwinbots”.

    Jack Krebs: “Hmmm. How is one supposed to tell what posts to take seriously? Seriously.”
    Funny.

  19. How is one supposed to tell what posts to take seriously?

    Reading comprehension? :P Though I’ll admit it didn’t become obvious it was a joke until the second half.

  20. 20

    Sorry. It honestly didn’t even occur to me that anyone would think I was trying to pass this “thought-experiment” off as non-fiction, certainly not anyone who read the whole post. But I guess some people didn’t read past the fold. And I didn’t file under humor because I didn’t consider it to be humorous.

  21. Jack Krebs,

    On anotther thread yesterday there were some questions about what ID advocates did and did not do in formulating the 1999 Kansas science standards. Are you familiar with what happened then or do you know anyone who might be a source for what happened then?

    I am sorry for the off topic comment but if you want to respond you can on the tread which begins “Walt Ruloff-op ed” and is near the bottom of the home page of threads.

  22. I know a lot about this. I was quite involved at the time. I’ll take a look at the other thread.

  23. I know quite a bit about this – I’ve replied on the other thread, although my comment didn’t go through immediately.

  24. Great short story, thanks.
    I am puzzled how someone cannot have noticed the sarcasm in it and thought it was serious. And Granville even if you didn’t consider it humorous, I laughed through the story :).

  25. To Jerry and all – for some reason my posts are not going through. I posted some things about Kansas in the other thread.

  26. Jack, do you mean comment #73?

  27. Yes. I posted that yesterday afternoon, but it must have got hung up somewhere.

  28. That’s good. I thought you might be saying another comment somehow got deleted. There’s a lot of spam we have to manually scan so it’s possible to make mistakes.

  29. It honestly didn’t even occur to me that anyone would think I was trying to pass this “thought-experiment” off as non-fiction, certainly not anyone who read the whole post. But I guess some people didn’t read past the fold. And I didn’t file under humor because I didn’t consider it to be humorous.

    I thought it was humorous, in a sarcastic sort of way.

    My friend said, let me see your
    program. After examining it, he exclaimed, no wonder, you treated the
    Earth as a closed system, order can’t increase in a closed system. The
    Earth is an open system, you need to take into account the effect of the
    sun’s energy.

    This still isn’t open enough. There is no reason the earth must be considered a closed system Biologically either:
    Allow for bacteria and viruses to arrive from space, with preloaded (“frontloaded” if you will) DNA programs, and see what you get. Us, possibly.

    http://www.panspermia.org/index.htm
    ;-)

  30. Jack

    Granville is an expert at mathematics and simulation on computers. All of us reading it with any similar experience or expertise even much less than Granville’s knew it was tongue-in-cheek just from the second paragraph. His only mistake was overestimating the computer literacy of people who might chance to read it. It evidently didn’t occur to him anyone would fail to realize it was a work of fiction. I was a bit surprised myself.

  31. “But this so-called “supernatural” (quantum) effect is completely random”

    Actually, whatever is behind the non-deterministic nature of quantum uncertainty, it cannot be “completely random.” Yes, individual events, of course, are completely unpredictable, but these effects average out in very predictable ways. Why is “behind it all” imposing this averaging?

    Nobody knows.

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