We live in the Information Age. For most of us, our lives have been transformed by digital technology at least to some extent over the past generation, or we've grown up with it.
The way we work, the way we learn, the way we shop, the way we play, and the way we communicate involve computerized devices big and small, from smartphones to desktop and larger computers.
So much does information influence society that it can be difficult to exaggerate its importance. Used intelligently, information leads to knowledge and knowledge to wisdom.
But one development in a field you might not immediately connect to digital technology in your own life takes the concept of information to a whole new level.
Cosmology is the study of the origin, fate, and nature of the universe, which can be mind-bending in itself. The scope of distance and time with large structures such as galaxies and small structures such as atoms is simply outside of our everyday experience.
Beyond looking into telescopes and microscopes and pondering what you see is the notion that what's at the core of the universe, the very nature of reality, is...you might have guessed it...information.
The concept that information underlies reality and that the universe is one gigantic computer is sometimes called "digital physics" or "digital philosophy." Another term bandied about is "It From Bit."
I came across all this lately in an interesting place, two recent novels by Mark Alpert titled Final Theory and The Omega Theory. These science-based thrillers, heavy on suspense and drama and light on character development and literary technique, posit that an unpublished theory of Albert Einstein can do even more than his famous E = mc(2).
This equation, which means that a very small amount of mass can be converted into a very large amount of energy, led to among other things atomic weapons, which can potentially destroy modern civilization. In Alpert's books, Einstein's fictional "unified field theory," or Theory of Everything, leads to the potential of destroying the entire universe.
This ultimate power is seized by bad guys who want to rid the world of evil by overloading the universe's "memory cache" and causing the ultimate computer crash.
It's all intriguing, if you have an interest in either computer science or cosmology, and it's just plausible enough to buy into it--as fiction. As fact, it's another story, though some well-regarded scientists are behind the field of digital physics.
One of them was the late American physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who coined the phrase "It From Bit"--as well as the terms "black hole," "quantum foam," and "wormhole."
"It" in "It From Bit" stands for everything, the universe, reality. A bit, or binary digit, is the smallest quantity of information, typically represented as either 1 or 0. The computers and computerized devices you use at home and work are all based on such a binary number system.
"It From Bit" then means that everything in the universe is ultimately made up not of atoms or subatomic particles or strings but of tiny pieces of information. The laws of physics determine how the bits of information come together as matter and energy, space and time, planets and people.
As Wheeler wrote in his 1998 autobiography Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics, "Now I am in the grip of a new vision, that Everything is Information. The more I have pondered the mystery of the quantum and our strange ability to comprehend this world in which we live, the more I see possible fundamental roles for logic and information as the bedrock of physical theory."
The hypothesis that the universe is a giant computer that uses the laws of physics to process all these bits of information was proposed by the German computer pioneer Konrad Zuse in his 1969 book Rechnender Raum (Calculating Space). Other theorists have also taken up this thinking.
It's all heady stuff. But as with much else regarding cosmology, astrophysics, and subatomic physics, it's still only hypothesis, and it strikes some people as science fiction as much as science. On the other hand, though there's no conclusive physical evidence in support of digital physics, there's no conclusive physical evidence against it either.
At the very least, what digital physics does is reinforce the importance of information in our world today. We may, or may not, be ultimately made of information, but we use it more than we ever have in human history.