“Information,” wrote Arizona State University astrophysicist Paul Davies in an email to The Daily Galaxy, “is a concept that is both abstract and mathematical. It lies at the foundation of both biology and physics. ”
Viewing information at the cosmic level, physicist Melvin Vopson at the University of Portsmouth in the UK has estimated in a paper how much information a single elementary particle, like an electron, stores about itself. He then used this calculation to estimate the staggering amount of information contained in the entire observable Universe. Practical experiments can now be used, he suggested, to test and refine these predictions, including research to prove or disprove the hypothesis that information is the fifth state of matter in the universe beyond solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.
Researchers have long suspected a connection between information and the physical universe, with various paradoxes and thought experiments used to explore how or why information could be encoded in physical matter. The digital age propelled this field of study, suggesting that solving these research questions could have tangible applications across multiple branches of physics and computing.
Information Content of the Universe
In his AIP Advances paper Vopson attempts to shed light on exactly how much of this information is out there and presents a numerical estimate for the amount of encoded information in all the visible matter in the universe — approximately 6 times 10 to the power of 80 bits of information. While not the first estimate of its kind, this study’s approach relies on information theory.
“The information capacity of the universe has been a topic of debate for over half a century,” said author Vopson. “There have been various attempts to estimate the information content of the universe, but in this paper, I describe a unique approach that additionally postulates how much information could be compressed into a single elementary particle.”
To produce the estimate, the author used Shannon’s information theory to quantify the amount of information encoded in each elementary particle in the observable universe as 1.509 bits of information. Mathematician Claude Shannon, called the “Father of the Digital Age” because of his work in information theory, defined this method for quantifying information in 1948.
“It is the first time this approach has been taken in measuring the information content of the universe, and it provides a clear numerical prediction,” said Vopson. “Even if not entirely accurate, the numerical prediction offers a potential avenue toward experimental testing.”
Recent research sheds light on the ways information and physics interact, such as how information exits a black hole. However, the precise physical significance of information remains elusive, but multiple radical theories contend information is physical and can be measured.
In previous studies, Vopson postulated information is a fifth state of matter alongside solid, liquid, gas, and plasma, and that elusive dark matter could be information. Vopson’s study also included derivation of a formula that reproduces accurately the well-known Eddington number, the total number of protons in the observable universe.
While the approach in this study ignored antiparticles and neutrinos and made certain assumptions about information transfer and storage, it offers a unique tool for estimating the information content per elementary particle. Practical experiments can now be used to test and refine these predictions, including research to prove or disprove the hypothesis that information is the fifth state of matter in the universe.
“Vopson’s Calculation is Meaningless and Flawed”
“What Vopson calculates in his article has nothing to do with information,” writes Chris Adami, professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, as well as professor of Physics and Astronomy, at Michigan State University in an email to The Daily Galaxy. “What he calculates,” explains Adami, “is how surprising this particular universe would be if we assumed that all we know is that there are protons and neutrons and electrons, and nothing else. But even that calculation is wrong because he simply sums up the surprise of every single particle, when in fact those particles are correlated to an extraordinary degree (in clumps of matter). Surprise is a function of what is already known (a prior). Vopson chooses a very particular one, namely that protons, electrons and neutrons are equally likely. There is no good reason for this prior. We could also choose the laws of physics as prior, in which case this universe is not surprising at all, depending on the level of coarse-graining. In summary, the entire calculation is both meaningless and technically flawed (due to the assumption of independence).
Asked by The Daily Galaxy how Vopson’s cosmic thesis compares to Columbia University astrophysicist Caleb Scharf’s observation that the origin of information –“On a geological timescale the emergence of the human ‘Dataome”’–a world of bits built of and for information is like a sudden invasion by extraterrestrials, or an asteroid impact that precipitates a mass extinction,” Adami replied: “The advent of maintainable information in a world in which information was doomed to decay is indeed a dramatic event. I’m not sure I would characterize it as Scharf does, but it certainly changed everything. Nothing will be as it was, and evolution ensures that it constantly changes.”
Source: “Estimation of the information contained in the visible matter of the universe” by Melvin M. Vopson.