Information out of noise

Seek information out of noise and order out of chaos

(excerpted from an address by defence scientist Dr Raja Ramanna on March 22, 1981 at Symposium on Enlightened Citizenship  conducted by the Ramakrishna Mission, New Delhi)

We will examine our own system. We do know that we are essentially made up of molecules. But what is very complicated and difficult to understand is that some molecules form themselves into groups and remain inanimate and are essentially dead for all purposes. A stone is a very good example. The chair on which you are sitting is made up of many such groups of molecules. I emphasize the word ‘groups’, because, as you will see later, the group makes all the difference between the living and the non-living….

One Universal Principle

…The whole universe runs around four laws of physics which can be reduced to three and from three perhaps we can reduce it to one and come back to the Vedic ideal that it is the one thing that runs the whole universe. There are two sets of molecules – one is inanimate, the dead type – and another set which is in various degrees of evolution, intelligence – the living molecule, the bio-molecule…..

Take a living molecule. The first thing about it is that it replicates itself. It produces identical system by itself, taking the energy from the sun or moon or from wherever it can. That is the first difference between a living thing and a non-living system. A non-living system does not reproduce itself, it just stays and perhaps get into smaller and smaller pieces and decays into a more chaotic condition. This is very interesting development, that a set of molecules shows an intelligent peculiar phenomenon of replicating itself and reproducing itself.

A little higher in the regime, it does something else. It tries to protect itself. It says, “Either due to the effect of light or due to other effects, I must not get this way, I must avaoid this thing if I want to survive and replicate.” Now this is the first law of nature,  the law of combination of molecules. The single molecule replicates and becomes two and if they continue to reproduce they become many. So you have a population and population means that either they can destroy one another or can protect one another. And it seems to be the law of the molecular nature. …

So we have replication, we have survival characteristics and then as you go into bigger and bigger systems, what it is that we do not know, if you ask a spiritual explanation. But I would offer and explanation from Rg Veda which I quote: “Existence was not then, nor non-existence. The world was not, the sky beyond was neither.” (Nasadivasukta x.129). I think Rg Veda is a great book and every word, every phrase of this book is completely consistent with modern science. …

The third characteristic which makes a set of molecules into a unique system is the evolutionary characteristic.

According to physics of earlier period, duplication is a possible molecular phenomenon. This kind of self-survival is possible. When light comes, certain molecular reaction takes place and as a consequence, a kind of instinctive reaction, to see that it does not get destroyed, takes place. It clings to something due to molecular forces. It is present in bio-molecular forces. Some changes are evolved – you can get a species, which is better; better in the sense that it has a better sensory system and with the information it gets back, it corrects itself and improves its quality. Thus all the time it is a fantastic situation, which is also very materialistic phenomenon. It multiplies as a molecule. How does it happen? In the literature of 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, these kinds of evolutionary forces are mentioned. It must be something outside the realm of physics. Everything happens due to bricks, but that does not mean that bricks are the only thing that matters. This is the basic thing we ask. Then there is a subject within physics,…, called thermo-dynamics. To explain its historic development, it started with the heat we get from the steam engine, that means dynamic power, and hence the name thermo-dynamics. It has more physics content. The philosophical content is that it comes under the more all-pervading cover of what is now known as the information theory. What is information? How do you pass information from one person to the other and when obviously it looks there is no information, where is the information hidden in a given amount of material? This is the information theory and it comes under the cover of thermo-dynamics. To avoid using very technical phraseology of thermo-dynamics, I shall keep on using the words ‘information theory’ in the spirit that if the object is sensing something from some signals, are they random or meaningless signals or do they come under signals with a set pattern that helps the philosopher? That is the concern of science or philosophy, science being a part of philosophy.

Thermodynamics and Information Theory

Now in the information theory you come across interesting things. That is, when you collect information, when that information is very organized, it comes out clearly. And when it is super-imposed with noise, or unorganized with chaotic conditions, with some method, electronic or mathematical, you can get information out of the signals amidst noise and understandable material. This information may be due to periodicity of signals. Supposing you get a streak of information in the noise and some regularity is hidden which produces a particular kind of shriek. … I will mention a very typical example, that of a submarine under water. How can it be detected whether a submarine under water is Russian, British or any other, from the noise that comes out of it? If you get the noise and analyze it, it produces special types of replicas. This analysis is done by computer method or mathematical transformation or information theory. Information theory contains two things which are very interesting – one is that you can never create material without energy somewhere, which, of course, is a fundamental aspect both for physics and spiritual philosophy and that those of us who believe in physics and those who believe in spiritual philosophy cannot believe in miracles where people produce something just out of nothing. That is just not possible because the first law of information theory is broken. So it is very essential that if you want to benefit from science or the progress of science, you will have to believe in the first law of thermo-dynamics; otherwise everything goes to pieces.

Progress as Human Body Evolves

The second law of thermodynamics is more important and more exciting. It says you take an object, living or dead. Left to itself, it must go to the lowest level of order that can exist. That means if it had any regular ordering, as time goes on, it must go to the lower and lower order or become chaotic so that you cannot get any information out of it. You can prove it in many ways in the laboratory. If you do not do any work or do not put in any special effort, a thing left to itself, goes to a total state of disorder. This happens, as you know, if you do not look after buildings, they too become lumps of sand and material; a time goes on, they become worse. This happens with regard to citizenship also. If you do not look after and do not make any effort to improve the quality of your life, then the civilizations disappear and go to disaster. As you know, in physics, work has to be done, effort has to be put in; only through work, order can be obtained. In the same way, you can talk of very generalized things. According to the second law of thermo-dynamics, these things continue to decay. It is all right in animate systems as mentioned – an old building or in regard to inanimate things, or a dead body, left to itself, they decay.   It goes to pieces in no time. But anything which is living which can absorb energy for its survival and substain its order seems to contradict seems to contradict the second law of thermodynamics.

Left to itself, it goes to a degenerating order. A man lives upto 70 years or 100 years. You can do all sorts of tricks to your molecular rejuvenation, all sorts of things for modern good. You take the most advanced countries. By the time they come to 70 or 100, death rate goes up to infinity and survival rate comes down. It seems that there are certain animals which cannot live more than seventy years whatever you do to them. Elephant is an example. Molecular structure within you defines the periods of time. There is a biological clock. You have done your time; you can take any amount of vitamin injections. As a species you are doomed. However, in that period you seem to have a process built into you which seems to rejuvenate. You do not start decaying. But the moment you die, decaying starts. I was wondering, why is it that, the body breaks the second law of thermodynamics. Is it that spiritual involvement is there and the people have not understood it? However, again in recent times in the last ten years, the person who pointed this out got a Nobel Prize. He is Mt Prigogne, a Russian refugee who moved out of Russia. He pointed out that the second law of thermodynamics has not been properly applied since progress evolves in the same way as human body evolves. It is part of of the evolution of brain. You are searching; you are questioning. Mr Prignogne pointed out that things left to themselves do not necessarily decay all the time but go on improving in quality provided it is in a state on non-equilibrium. If there is a sort of constant upheaval in the system, then it is possible that some improvement will come. And the whole of human evolution has been in a purely biochemical operation that you can get out of disorder in these animate conditions. We have seen that in our history also, from our conditions of early periods of history which have been so terrible, so disastrous but we have survived. I do not know why. What is the overall scientific explanation?

Order out of disorder

Now we come to a situation when there is animation. While these produce all disturbances, the disturbances will lead you to something of a high order, because within the noise, there must be signal. How to identify that signal? In the case of physics, it is simple. But in the case of human beings where we are dealing not with one molecule but millions of molecules and each set of molecules can produce human beings and besides one human being is a unit which is interacting with others. This kind of interaction which is taking place between you and me does not follow scientific law. They are community laws. But there must be some order. There must be some information and there must be a process by which there is animation which does not lead to disorder. It is a philosophical approach which I would like you to think about. Do we generate a higher order from the existing disorder? I am not going to quantify and say that the present generation is more destructive, disastrous, cynical or more dishonest. True, there is one difference. Where one existed, may be hundred exist now. Actually contact animation between the teacher and student is reduced. If that reduction is there, it is quite obvious that the transformation of information is weakened and consequently coherence certainly comes down. So the younger people will have to put in more effort, to get coherence out of the information that is put in front of them.

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