My Comments on Carver Mead's Collective Electrodynamics
Wednesday March 24, 2010
Author: David Ashley

I've long been interested in this fellow Carver Mead. Some years ago he was predicting his approach to digital photography would replace the typical image sensors used in retail digital cameras very shortly. I recall his assertion was that his own device captured color intensity for every pixel, and the standard approach was to subsample color intensity and interpolate between pixels. So (he claimed) a camera that boasts 1.4M pixels does not have 1.4M pixels where the red, green and blue amount is precisely known, rather there are 1.4M pixel sensors that are divided up among the red, green and blue sensors.

He argued (as I recall) that the resultant images were not as accurate as they could be, and the computation required to do the interpolation was wasteful of electrical power. I dismissed the assertion that wasting power was a factor, after all interpolation is a trivial task. I liked his argument about how the typical digital camera is sort of a fraud, because you don't get all the pixels you're led to believe you're getting. So I hoped his approach would take off.

As far as I know it didn't. As usual the consumer opts for if I can pay a little less and get a little less quality, great!. Why do so many business plans depend on the expectation that people will pay a little more for a little more quality? Just because it appears to work with Apple Computers do they think it always will?

Recently I came across this interview with Carver Mead where he discusses his theories about the subatomic realm. Evidently this interview appeared in American Spectator September / October 2001, volume 34, Issue 7, page 68. Here is an excerpt:

Q:So how big is an electron?
A:It expands to fit the container it's in. That may be a positive charge that's attracting it--a hydrogen atom--or the walls of a conductor. A piece of wire is a container for electrons. They simply fill out the piece of wire. That's what all waves do. If you try to gather them into a smaller space, the energy level goes up. That's what these Copenhagen guys call the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. But there's nothing uncertain about it. It's just a property of waves. Confine them, and you have more wavelengths in a given space, and that means a higher frequency and higher energy. But a quantum wave also tends to go to the state of lowest energy, so it will expand as long as you let it. You can make an electron that's ten feet across, there's no problem with that. It's its own medium, right? And it gets to be less and less dense as you let it expand. People regularly do experiments with neutrons that are a foot across.
Q:A ten-foot electron! Amazing
A:It could be a mile. The electrons in my superconducting magnet are that long.

Well this certainly caught my attention. I think our accepted model of the subatomic realm is hopelessly incorrect, so I'm always interested in alternative, non-mainstream explanations. Carver Mead certainly has the advantage of credibility, compared to a lot of nutcases out there who also have theories...

So looking around, I didn't find much more detail on Carver Mead's theories, but I did find he'd written a book in 2000 called Collective Electrodynamic which is about the same time as the interview, so perhaps it would offer more detail. I ordered a used copy on Amazon and when it arrived, I read the book cover to cover. A number of objections came to my mind, plus some ideas that would be natural outcomes of Carver Mead's approach to the nature of the electron, and I sent off a few emails to his office at Cal Tech, and (predictably) received no response or indication that they had even arrived. Oh well, these ivory tower guys are pretty inaccessable as a rule, we common scum must be content with the crumbs they let fall from their lofty heights.

As near as I can tell Carver Mead's approach cannot be entirely accurate, as it has within it fundamental flaws. It might derive a lot of equations that apply to electrical fields, magnetism, signal transmission and other aspects of electronics, but when it comes right down to it, Carver Mead's preferred theory as to what's going on down there cannot, in my opinion, possibly be true.

I want to discuss one specific aspect of Carver Mead's view of reality down at the smallest level of detail. A great many other concepts were presented in the book, and the book is worth owning and reading because I expect it is at least closer to the mark than the prevailing approaches, but I want to attack a basic assumption Carver Mead happily makes because I just can't get past it myself. One of my emails directed at him asked for him to help me overcome the objections I have. No response.

Let's get into it. The prevailing theory of light is that it is an electromagnetic wave. An electron in some atom somewhere jumps from a higher energy level to a lower one, and in the process emits a wave of light energy. Einstein calls it a photon, and supposedly it has quantized energy levels. Meaning the energy it carries is an integer multiple of some fixed energy unit. Maybe it's H bar or something like that. I forget. Anyway that thing that is emitted by the electron propagates in some direction in space as a wave within the medium of the electromagnetic field. A solution to Maxwell's Equations allows for waves to move along in the EM field, where energy pings back and forth between the E field and the M field in a sine-wave as the wave moves along in space at the speed of light.

Now, this wave happily moves along until it interacts with another atom somewhere, and this interaction causes an electron in that atom to jump to a higher energy state. Or maybe a chemical bond is broken, or maybe an electrical current is enabled. But suffice it to say the energy of the wave goes away and now we have some higher powered electron somewhere else.

It is important to note that our science actually has no concrete proof that there even are EM waves traversing the medium between interacting atoms. We can only detect the theoretical EM wave by having it interact with some form of matter. Until it interacts with the matter, we don't even know it's there, or that it has ever been there. All we know about is matter itself, we can pretty much accept it as being real since we perceive it all the time with our own senses.

EM waves, on the other hand, are entirely theoretical. When you look up at the sun and you feel heat on your face and you see the light, something is interacting between the atoms that make up your body and retina and the sun. It has just been convention to call it the EM wave that traverses the intervening space. But the reality is we are not sure what transpires between the atoms in the sun and the atoms in our body, because all we can really affect and experiment on are the atoms at each end of the interaction.

We can put things in the path between the two interacting atoms, like a diffraction slit (or two), or a polarizing filter, or a lens, and their effect on the interacting atoms seems to very well be consistent with something traversing the intervening space between the two atoms. But even so, how sure can we be? Applying Maxwell's Equations seems to give good results as regards what the outcome of experiments would be. Perhaps that's all that matters. But recent experiments (which Carver Mead introduces) seem to fall outside the realm of Maxwell's Equations. Newton's equations for gravity worked pretty well for a great many situations, as experimental accuracy improved there came to light evidence that they were not perfectly accurate all the time, and so Einstein came along with a (supposedly) improved model. Similiarly Maxwell's Equations seem to be incomplete at explaining new experimental evidence. Carver Mead hopes to rebuild theory to explain all the new discrepancies. He hopes to simplify the theory and so eliminate a huge amount of ad-hoc tweaks to the typical model. It's a huge undertaking, as the accepted theories have had many decades of work going in to tweaking them to explain all sorts of situations. But one has to start somewhere in reinventing the wheel.

Carver Mead claims that there is no electrical field, there is no magnetic field, and the electromagnetic wave does not exist at all, and nothing whatsoever traverses the space between two interacting electrons. He claims the electrons are real, carry charge, and are their own medium. The transmission of energy from one electron to another is an interaction between the two that goes on in space-time, regardless of how far the electrons are apart from each other (in space or time).

According to his view, each electron is always oscillating at some inherent frequency. The transmission of energy from one electron to another can be explained mathematically as two coupled oscillators. One oscillator loses energy and oscillates more slowly, the other gains energy and oscillates more quickly. The transmission of energy from one electron to another is very, very fast, but not instantaneous. Existing theories assume it is intantaneous. They also assume an electron in one place passes energy to an EM wave (instantly) which moves through space until it hits another electron somewhere else and conveys its energy (instantly) to that electron.

Now as I recall Carver Mead cites two experiments that back up his approach. Note that he does provide math to back up his explanation of what's going on. He works through equations of how energy is passed from one electron to another. These equations allow for experimental verification -- one could measure the time it takes for one electron to pass energy to another, to see if it is instantanous or not, for example (I suppose). Anyway the two experiments Carver Mead cites are these:

The first involves a case where experimenters were able to hold a sample of material in a heightened energy state for an unlimited amount of time. I pictured a dark, very cold box with a sample of material in the center. Somehow some of the sample's electrons are induced into a higher energy level. Then a long time passes, and a detector brought in, and when the detector enters the picture it immediately receives energy from the sample -- this energy that the sample held is now passed on to the detector. More on this in a bit.

The second experiment involves the paradox of coupled particles or waves. It might be related to Bell's Inequality. The basic premise is that you have some event occur in the atomic realm that generates two particles or waves that are ejected in opposite directions. Due to the nature of the event that generated the emitted entities, the entities are coupled in a very well known way. For example if one is polarized vertically, the other must be polarized horizontally. Or if one has a certain spin, the other must have the opposite spin. Now according to the uncertainty principle, it is impossible to know too much information about the state of both entities. Suppose there is some aspect X and aspect Y for the entities. The theory states you can know X but not Y, or Y but not X. Now since you have these two coupled entities, if you know X for one particle, you know X for the other as well. The paradox comes in because you would think that since you have the two entities, you can have different experimental apparatus such that you can determine X for one entity (and thus know X for the other) and you can determine Y for the other entity (and thus know Y for the other as well).

Aha! people exclaim. We can get around the uncertainty principle this way, we can know more than we're allowed to. But experimental evidence suggests that it doesn't work. The act of measuring X for one entity screws up the measurement of Y for the other. And this poses a dilemma. Because if the original event that created the two entities occurs at some time ago, and the entities have passed through space some distance, and if you measure X for one of the entities, it would seem impossible that instantaneously the measurement for Y could be messed up for the other entity. Einstein's whole premise is that information cannot travel faster than the speed of light, yet here is some evidence that information must be going faster than light.

Carver Mead uses the second experiment as support for his explanation. He says the equations for energy transmission are not dependent on the sign of the 't' (time) variable. Meaning they work equally well if time is reversed. So he has no problem with things being able to go backwards in time, in the atomic realm. So he explains the experiment by claiming these supposed separate events that occur at different points in space and time are in reality aspects of the same single event that spans space and time. So to his mind there is no paradox at all. Forgive me if I'm getting the details wrong, I'm just trying to convey the gist of my understanding of his qualitative argument. Carver Mead did not present any math to back up this assertion of his. He just related the story of the experiment and offered his qualitative explanation as to how to explain it.

Carver Mead uses the first experiment as evidence that the prevailing theory that an electron in a higher energy state spontaneously, on its own, opts to emit an EM wave is incorrect. His assertion is that since the sample can be maintained forever in a heightened energy state it cannot be "deciding" to emit energy spontaneously at all. Rather, once the detector is brought in, its presence creates the conduit for the energy from the sample to pass to the detector. As such the two ends of the event are coupled, one cannot exist without the other. The energized electron could not release its extra energy until something became available to receive it. So therefore the exchange of energy could not have been the passage of an EM wave between the two interacting atoms, because the emission of that EM wave did not occur spontaneously. Rather, it required the presence of the receiving atom to trigger the emitting atom in the first place.

Now it occured to me that the first experiment can be interpreted in other ways. Carver Mead doesn't go into any details about the apparatus or procedure. I'm sure he cites the reference, but I didn't follow up. The assumption is that in this ivory tower world where technical papers funded by Our Tax Dollars are only made available after you pay a hefty $30 fee to be able to download them I won't be able to get hold of the referenced information anyway without considerable effort (or expense). I think Mead cites hundreds of other documents. I have to pay $30 each? We're talking thousands of dollars. Fuggedaboutit. Rather I don't invest a dime ($.10) and take the approach of guessing as to their contents and I write up an essay based on my assumptions.

Suppose in the first experiment what actually happens is the sample is induced to a higher energy state, and then almost immediately the sample releases its energy in the form of an EM wave. This EM wave then proceeds to bounce around the interior of the box. Due to the frequency of the EM wave and the nature of the box, it would seem the material cannot be such that it would be able to absorb the EM wave of this particular frequency. Because if it could absorb it, it would defeat the purpose of the experiment. Only the detector can be capable of absorbing the expected EM wave. Or the sample itself.

So the sample is induced to a higher energy state, and it then quickly emits the EM wave, which bounces around the box. Perhaps it hits the sample again and it re-enters the higher energy state for a while. Then it re-emits the EM wave again, which bounces around some more. The EM wave cannot release its energy to the walls of the box because they've been very carefully designed so as to not allow for this. The only other option is that they're completely reflective to EM waves of this frequency. So that EM wave is just bouncing around in there, forever, sometimes hitting the sample and vanishing for a while, sometimes bouncing around, endlessly pinging back and forth...

Then the experimentor slides a panel in the side of the box, and introduces the detector. Suddenly it detects the EM wave! The EM wave that was introduced hours, days, weeks (whatever) ago when the original sample was induced to a higher energy state. The EM wave that couldn't possibly have existed until the detector was brought in to perceive it.

I assert that the experiment can be interpreted in multiple ways. Carver Mead interprets it as de-facto evidence that his theory of instantaneous interaction between the emitter and receiver of the energy must be correct. I offer another explanation, that the EM wave is spontaneously emitted by the sample and does exist and does bounce around inside the chamber, but the EM wave is only able to convey energy to the detector once the detector is introduced. It's the same old question: We don't know for sure what happens, all we know is that two atoms interacted in some way, but we're not sure of the nature of the conveyence. I believe Carver Mead is guilty of confirmation bias in this instance.

Now as regards the second experiment, personally I don't believe in the coupled particles (or waves, or whatever) in the first place. I believe there is some fundamental flaw or misinterpretation of the experimental apparatus itself. I believe there are assumptions built into the situation that are themselves flawed, and the assumptions give rise to the paradox, and the seemingly inescapable concusion that information must be travelling faster than the speed of light. This is what I believe, but I admit I have not dug into the details enough to even attempt to acquire evidence for my belief. Carver Mead accepts the experimental evidence at face value, and offers his theory as an explanation as to what's going on. I reject the experiment and the evidence itself, and so there is no need for Carver Mead's theory to explain it. And I apologise for offering no better argument than, "My instincts tell me something is wrong."

Let's pretend Carver Mead is right. That there is no "light" as we think of it. That nothing is travelling through the intervening space between the emitterr and receiver, no EM wave, nothing at all. What would this imply?

If Carver Mead's theory is right, then when I look up at the sky and see with my naked eye the light from a star a million light years away, what is occuring is an interaction between some of the atoms of that star a million years ago and some of the atoms of my retina right now. When those atoms so long ago did their thing to release their energy, I did not even exist! Somehow they knew I'd be born and grow up and I'd be just exactly in the right place to pick up this energy. It boggles the mind to imagine it. Did some signal from my eye pass back a million years in time in order to notify that atom that it was OK to interact with it? It seems to me the complexity of all this, of events spanning a million years or more in time and a million light years or more in distance that have to be precisely arranged so as to not violate any of the physical laws... of all the possible ways the future could play out, it seems almost impossible to imagine this universe we live in could Sort It All Out. I'm not sure if getting all the accounts to balance is even computable, and I'm not sure if something isn't computable whether it can even exist. BTW that is another interesting question I've wanted to explore lately.

Carver Mead seems to have no problem accepting this outcome however. OK, so suppose there is some instantanous interaction between my eye and the atom a million years ago. What would that allow? Carver Mead describes the transmission of energy between the two electron oscillators in definite mathematical terms. As I recall the energy transfer is not instantaneous, rather it takes some finite amount of time. And the time it takes is dependent on the energy difference between the two oscillators. If there is a big difference, the energy is conveyed faster. This results in an exponential decay of energy flowing from one oscillator to the other. It occurs very quickly, but it does take some finite amount of time.

Suppose this time is measurable? Well, you could have an emitter of known properties. It conveys energy to a receiver of known properties. If you can measure the time it takes for the energy to be conveyed, perhaps if either the emitter or receiver material is changed, there is a measurable difference in how long the energy transference takes place. Aha! A means of communication!

Suppose I'm the emitter here on earth. I can beam energy to another galaxy. A receiver on a planet circling any of the stars in the other galaxy can pick up my signal. By measuring how the energy is taken away from my emitter, I can learn something about the receiver's material. Perhaps I can know how the receiver is constructed, what substance it consists of. Now, I know that for the receiver, regardless of how far into the future the receiver exists. It doesn't matter where in space or time the receiver is, because by looking at my emitter and how it behaves, I can learn something about the material of the receiver wherever and whenever it is.

So if the guy on the receiving end is clever, and he changes the material of the receiver, I can perceive that change on my end. As long as I'm sending, he can pass information back to me, across time and space, and the communication is instantaneous. Real time. A conversation could take place. On my end I can send information by turning on and off my transmitter. On his end he picks that up by detecting the on/off transitions, nothing special at all. But for him to send me information, I leave my transmitter on and he switches between multiple receivers. So if he has two receiver materials and can switch between them, he can convey on/off information back to me.

I picture on my end a very powerful laser beaming a signal to an entire galaxy in some frequency that passes easily great distances and which the stars don't produce themselves (if such a frequency exists). And on the receiving end I picture some intelligent beings on some planet with a very powerful telescope that focuses light onto a little device that can be switched to one of two modes very quickly. Either mode will detect the presence of the frequency, but their materials are different so the sender can know what material is being used.

So if there is any life at all on any of the planets in some distant galaxy, and if it happens to be looking my way, we can hold a real time conversation. If Carver Mead's theory is correct. Nevermind lightspeed delay, it becomes irrelevant. I can talk to anyone anywhere in the universe in real time, provided they're also prepared to have the conversation.

I don't believe it. A big question is what is the significance of now. In Carver Mead's reality the universe must exist all as one single structure spanning space time. The events that span distance and time have to have all been worked out in intricate detail. The changing, ever evolving concept of now must be replaced by a static, non-changing structure that spans the entire history of the universe. For every instant of time in this structure, the position of every object (particle) in it is known exactly. Energy is passed from particle to particle across distance and time, and this is reflected in the movement from instant to instant of the particles. A change in momentum of one particle is balanced by an equal and opposite change in momentum by another, somewhere else in space and time. Yet the particles need not actually be moving at all, their history is known for all time. It could all be perfectly in balance and consistent.

Yet we constantly perceive an evolving now with our senses every day. The progression of change is undeniable. In Carver Mead's scenario there is a requirement for some magical mechanism to ensure everything evens out over time. Yet with our senses we perceive the universe is moving along, existing only in a constantly evolving now.

I just don't buy Carver Mead's premise. It's too pat. Too glib. It demands too much from the universe. Somehow past and future must magically be reconciled in such a way that past affects future, and future affects past, yet there are no paradoxes or conflicts. I shoot a bullet out today, knowing that in a million years from now a bulls-eye target will come into existence and the bullet will strike it exactly in the center, every time, no matter what else occurs anywhere else. It's like the butterfly effect, yet guaranteeing that all butterflies everywhere in the universe exactly contribute just the right amount for order to appear. For me, it's impossible.

Meanwhile Carver Mead does not even address the matter of all the supporting evidence for something to be traversing the intervening space between two interacting entities. How does a lens work to bend light? What about polarizing filters, how do they fit into the picture? What about diffraction gratings? It would seem even though two atoms are interacting with each other, that interaction is somehow dependent on what is occupying the intervening space. Carver Mead seems to completely avoid the question itself. For him his electrons exist in a vaccuum and nothing at all is in between them.

OK, I can accept the math he builds up, using his approach he can derive, simply, a lot of electronic theory. A lot of familiar equations come out. It's a simpler approach than solving Maxwell's equations. But is it what is really going on down there? I can't buy it.

Personally I favor an approach where there is a medium, or field, that extends forever. I don't believe in a closed universe, I think it is infinite in all directions. The characteristics of the medium are what define the physics of our universe. I favor the concept that this medium allows for entities to exist within it that can persist and can interact. The entities themselves are more akin to processes than discrete, static particles. These processes can interact with each other and cause each other to experience forces. For example an electron could be some standing wave phenomenon that exists within the medium of the universe, the aether. If the electron is moving, the waves must compensate to spend some of their time in the movement itself, and some in the continuation of the electron, as such the electron's "time" would slow down to suit. Thus Special Relativity would fall out for free. And the speed of light limit would fall out because that is how fast effects propagate in the medium itself.

The above description is of course hopelessly vague. But I like that approach, because it seems to me to be perfectly computable. You could model a portion of the universe simply by knowing what is occuring within it. To know how each tiny bit of the universe evolves over time you need only concern yourself with the bits immediately near it. You don't need to know what is going on everywhere else in the universe to know what will happen at every point.

Carver Mead's theory demands that every point know precisely what every other point of the universe is doing. An impossible, infinite amount of information must be brought to bear on every single point of space. Yet in my approach, a universe that consists of just a very fascinating medium that extends forever in all directions can function where any point in the medium need only depend on neighboring points.

I still like Carver Mead, but after reading his book and seeing what he's able to swallow, to my mind he's no longer anything special. He's merely just another guy, after all. As of yet none of us has all the answers.

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