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Theoretical physicist Chiara Marletto: ‘The universal constructor could revolutionise civilisation’ | Physics

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Chiara Marletto is a research fellow at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Her research is in theoretical physics – especially quantum computation, thermodynamics and information theory. Her broader interests include theoretical biology, epistemology and Italian literature. The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals attempts to forward a new foundational basis for physics. It is her first non-academic book.

You argue for a radically different approach to physics, which you call the science of can and can’t. What does that mean?
It’s a new mode of explanation. Since Newton, traditional physics has been using laws of motion, describing how objects move in space and time – what happens to an apple if you set it in motion in this or that way. With one exception: thermodynamics. The laws of thermodynamics prescribe the impossibility of perpetual motion; by doing so, they put powerful constraints on all laws of motion – those known and those yet to be known. Constructor theory follows the same logic, but it extends to a much broader context. We express all fundamental laws as constraints about what transformations are possible and impossible. This apparently simple switch is very powerful. For example, it can capture entities that traditional laws of motion cannot handle exactly: information, the physics of life, and even the mind.

For much of the past century a debate has raged in physics about how to reconcile quantum theory and general relativity. Is your book a step towards an answer to that question?
The science of can and can’t is at a deeper level than general relativity and quantum theory. It was proposed by quantum computing pioneer David Deutsch to expand on the quantum theory of computation. Like the latter, it consists of deeper physical principles – guidelines for consistently putting together different laws of motion, such as quantum theory and general relativity, while still preserving their respective core features. So it provides key new tools to help with that question. And that’s good. It’s like with Covid: you want to try all possible ways to solve the problem.

Many scientists have explored complex theories, like string theory, as a means of bridging these two apparently irreconcilable worlds. Why don’t you mention that kind of theoretical physics?
My research isn’t into finding a candidate to merge general relativity and quantum theory, so those proposals didn’t fit the focus of the book. I think one difficulty with them is that they find it hard to provide testable predictions. The science of can and can’t is helpful here, because it provides new paths to testable predictions, even in domains relevant to quantum gravity.

You talk about the “counterfactual” in the book. What do you mean by that term?
The way I think about counterfactuals is specific to physics. Counterfactual statements refer to what is possible or what is impossible, as opposed to what happens. Take Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: it’s impossible to build a perfect measurer of both position and velocity for an electron. It’s not about the fact that a perfect measurer will not happen given a particular initial condition; Heisenberg says that it can’t happen at all, no matter what the initial condition. That’s a much stronger requirement.

Would you say your book was as much about the philosophy of science as it is an argument for a particular kind of physics?
It has lots of philosophy in it. I would say the best physics arguments are very philosophical. But the book is primarily about physics.

You argue against reductionism, the idea that everything in the universe can be reduced to the dynamics of elementary particles. Is there any danger of the supernatural creeping into an anti-reductionist conception of things?
I think there’s this misconception that the only way to remove the supernatural from our explanations is to reduce everything to microscopic dynamical laws and initial conditions. That is simply one possible level of explanation. But there are other things that are also explainable in scientific terms, without appealing to the supernatural, but they can’t be reduced to that level of explanation. An example is the laws of computation: they aren’t microscopic laws of motion, but they are compatible with them. They’re not saying that computers are magic: they are physical laws that capture some phenomena in nature, at a different explanatory level. If you stick solely to microscopic laws, you will miss those regularities in nature that allow for classical and quantum computers.

What is the relationship between quantum computing and quantum theory? Which is leading the other?
Quantum theory came first, historically. But in the 80s, some scientists realised that the perplexing aspects of quantum theory actually made a lot more sense in relation to computation theory. It turned out that by studying the properties of the universal quantum computer – a theoretical development of the Turing machine – we could actually understand quantum theory much better. So I regard the theory of quantum computation as more fundamental because it captures the (counterfactual) foundations of quantum theory.

Chiara Marletto at Oxford science dept
Marletto outside the University of Oxford physics department. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

What do you imagine might be the practical applications of the science of can and can’t?
The most spectacular application is the universal constructor, a machine that can be programmed to perform not just all possible computations, but all physical transformations that are allowed by the laws of physics. It’s an all-powerful 3D printer. There could be an era, far in the future, where the universal constructor is part of our lives as computers are now; this could revolutionise our civilisation.

You’re talking about extraordinary computational power. Are you anxious about where such power might lead as we enter the age of artificial intelligence?
Yes, I think as a scientist you do have these worries. But I place great value in the knowledge that humanity can create, and what I’m hoping is that as we make progress in science, our society can also make progress to look out for potential problems that might come out of new science applications, and solve them.

How far away are we from quantum computers becoming reliable working computers?
Closer than ever, but we don’t know how far. The initial goal of building the universal quantum Turing machine has been subdivided into smaller goals of building special purpose quantum computers that can address specific tasks, one at a time – cryptography is an example. These quantum technologies are already here and can be used in all sorts of fields, from engineering to biology and medicine.

Physics is traditionally a very male-dominated field. Was that a discouraging image when you were deciding to enter the field?
When choosing physics I didn’t feel that there was a problem, because my parents empowered me. They always treated me as an individual, so the way I interact with the world is not primarily through the fact that I happen to be a woman. I’m a scientist and I’m interested in physics, that’s all. Sometimes I’ve encountered residual incredulity about the fact that there are women in physics. But if we persist at it, a culture shift will occur. Girls will then realise they can do anything they want (provided it’s allowed by the laws of physics).

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Pushing Buttons: Happy 50th birthday to Atari, whose simple games gave us so much | Games

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Welcome to Pushing Buttons, the Guardian’s gaming newsletter. If you’d like to receive it in your inbox every week, just pop your email in below – and check your inbox (and spam) for the confirmation email.

Sign up for Pushing Buttons, our weekly guide to what’s going on in video games.

This week marks a truly important video game anniversary: it is 50 years since Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney incorporated Atari Inc, the company that laid the foundations for the video games industry. There have been many appraisals of the company and its landmark achievements in the games press over the past few days – from the arrival of a Pong machine in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, in 1972, through classic titles such as Breakout, Asteroids and Missile Commands, to the iconic home consoles. So many moments of creative genius, so many genres, concepts and conventions bursting into existence at the hands of scruffy engineers and designers such as Ed Logg, Larry Kaplan and Dona Bailey.

But one element that often gets overlooked in these nostalgic reveries is the way in which Atari taught the first generation of electronic gamers how to think symbolically. With two rectangles and a square, Pong invited us to visualise tennis, while Night Driver’s series of moving rectangles convinced us we were driving a car. Some will point to the 1972 console the Magnavox Odyssey as the originator of these concepts, but it was Atari putting them in arcade machines – and later consoles –all over the world.

It was also Atari that generated a whole universe around its simple games. Through beautiful cabinet designs, expert use of iconography and graphic design, and the gorgeous illustrations on its Atari VCS cartridges, the company sought to simulate the imagination of players before they even held the controller. The boxes for titles such as Berzerk and Defender, all highly abstract and visually simple games, were alive with drama; they showed human characters, explosions and colours that were impossible to achieve on screen at the time, quietly providing players with the imaginative tools they needed to become immersed. Would we have cared so much about the fate of the lifeless rock at the base of the screen in Missile Command if it hadn’t been for George Opperman’s package art? The tense commander at his desk, the explosions, the missiles seemingly scorching out of the box itself …

It was George Opperman who also designed Atari’s now legendary logo, consisting of three simple lines, the two exterior shafts curving inwards toward the peak. Over the years Opperman claimed many influences for his design – Mount Fuji, Japanese alphabet symbols, Pong itself – personally, I’ve always viewed it as a spaceship. But it’s how the image seems to sum up the excitement and futuristic promise of the company that really matters. When we see the logo flash briefly on the screen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, it’s a quick visual signifier that this is a highly technological landscape. It fits in perfectly with a world of androids and flying cars.

Nolan Bushnell saw how video games could naturally bleed from the screen into real space, meat space. During the 1970s, the industry started in pubs and taverns, then moved into arcades and eventually the home, and they had effects on all of them: they changed behaviours and got written into our lives in subtle ways. His introduction of the Chuck E Cheese pizza restaurant chain, which combined family eating with a video game arcade, brilliantly monetised the ways that games, although graphically simple, had worked their way from the TV screen to dinner table conversation. We laugh about how the original VCS console had wood panelling, but this was a deliberate attempt to ape the aesthetics of the 1970s living room, with its wooden furniture, TV and stereo cabinets. Atari understood that assimilation would be a vital element of success.

Even now, in this age of near photorealism, video games rely on the kind of abstractions that Atari perfected. The heart symbols to denote the number of lives we have left; the heavy use of icons and exterior narratives; the endless references to familiar cinema tropes. We saw Atari being played on TV shows and films, we saw Atari in comics. While its games were still being drawn with two sprites each a single byte in size, the iconography of Atari was out there in the world. It’s something Nintendo would learn from, and later Sony, with its cultural melting pot of a console: the PlayStation. Atari was a myth maker too: from the Easter egg hidden in Adventure to the buried copies of E.T. in the California desert, the company itself became a source of digital folklore that took on meanings beyond anything portrayed on your TV.

50 years ago, Atari began to show us that games exist in a strange liminal space between the screen and the brain, and they are constantly able to escape. The dots on the screen are only ever part of the picture, and the picture never stops moving.

What to play

This week we recommend the knockout Capcom Fighting Collection.
This week we recommend the knockout Capcom Fighting Collection. Photograph: Capcom

While we’re in a nostalgic mood, I’m really enjoying Capcom Fighting Collection. You’d probably expect a dozen famous titles from the Street Fighter series, but that’s already been covered by Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection. Instead, we get five games from the spooky, goth-infused Darkstalkers series, the mid-1990s fantasy-themed Red Earth and a bunch of offbeat Street Fighter dalliances including the ridiculously compelling Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, which brilliantly combined fighting game dynamics with … Tetris. The games are filled with blistering attacks and truly imaginative character designs, all lovingly updated for the modern era.

Available on: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Approximate playtime: As long as you want

What to read

  • Eurogamer is running a whole series of features for Pride, including this piece talking to Captain Fluke about being the first openly trans esports commentator and this one on the joy of gay fan faction and mods. Elsewhere, IGN has listed its favourite ever LGBT+ characters in video games.

  • Verge has a really interesting piece on a group of creatives making branded worlds for big companies in Fortnite. Everyone talks about Facebook when referencing the coming era of the metaverse, but I’m pretty sure Fortnite is going to be just as important as an explorable shared space for interconnected worlds – and the advertising potential therein.

  • We also found out this week that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creative genius behind Dark Souls and Elden Ring, is almost finished on his next project. This is good news for me as, after 225 hours, I’m nearing the end of Elden Ring and would be very happy to slide straight into his next game if possible.

  • If I’ve got you interested in Atari’s design and illustration philosophy, The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino is a gorgeous book. For a more technical analysis of the company, try Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost.

What to click

‘A little bit addictive and the right amount hard’: new video game is based on poems of Emily Dickinson

Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest review – lovable gamers on mission to break record

Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes review – wild battles liven up a familiar anime franchise

Melbourne startup raises $9m for mental wellness game based on tending houseplants

Question block

This week’s question comes from Tim and his daughter Caitlin, and is answered by Keza:

“We got really into Hades over lockdown, loving the ‘it’s the same each time but really different too’ concept as well as the lore and the artwork. Can you recommend a similar game that we could play together?”

Hades is what’s known as a roguelike – one of those games where you have to start again from the beginning each time, but each playthrough throws different challenges at you – and, happily for you both, this genre has been having a moment over the past few years. Hades is a contender for the very best game in this genre, so it’s hard to rival, but here are some others to try.

Dead Cells is a kind of cyberpunk-fantasy action game where you gradually explore a shapeshifting castle; Spelunky 2 has you delving down below the Earth through caves full of amusing hazards, and has a great sense of humour (you can also play co-op); Into the Breach is something a little different, a strategy game where you have to defend the world from hostile invaders, travelling back in time after each failed attempt. And for a story and art style as good as that of Hades with a different gameplay feel, try developer Supergiant’s previous games Pyre, Transistor and Bastion, if you haven’t already.

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China says it has photographed all of Mars from orbit • The Register

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China is claiming that as of Wednesday, its Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter has officially photographed the entire Red Planet. And it’s shown off new photos of the southern polar cap and a volcano to prove it.

“It has acquired the medium-resolution image data covering the whole globe of Mars, with all of its scientific payloads realizing a global survey,” state-sponsored media quoted the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announcing.

Among the images are one of Mount Askra with its crater, shots of the South Pole whose ice sheet is believed to consist of solid carbon dioxide and ice, the seven-kilometer deep Valles Marineris canyon, and the geomorphological characteristics of the rim of the Mund crater.

Mount Askela

Mount Askela. Click to enlarge

Mars South Pole

Mars South Pole. Click to enlarge

Valles Marineris

Valles Marineris. Click to enlarge

Geomorphology of the rim of the Mund Crater

Mund crater. Click to enlarge

Tianwen-1 had been in orbit around Mars for 706 days. The orbiter circled Mars 1,344 times, as of an announcement from CNSA. The space org said Tianwen-1 has completed its scheduled missions.

In conjunction with its rover Zhurong, Tianwen-1 amassed 1,040 gigabytes of raw scientific data through 13 onboard scientific payloads.

The mission has allowed CNSA to observe solar occultation and solar wind together with international observatories – including those in Russia, Germany, Italy, Australia and South Africa – to improve the accuracy of space weather forecasts. Good news for Matt Damon.

CNSA said it will share more scientific data with the international community in due course.

In December, Zhurong and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft performed an in-orbit relay communication test to demonstrate it was possible to relay data from Zhurong back to Earth via Mars Express. The demonstration was successful, if a bit complicated – Mars Express had to “listen” for Zhurong since the rover was unable to communicate directly because the frequencies used don’t match.

Even though the mission is officially over, the orbiter and rover are still in working order. The orbiter will stay in orbit and continue its remote sensing and data relay activities while Zhurong will hibernate until weather conditions improve – likely in December. ®

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Collisons join A-list backers of Entrepreneur First’s $158m Series C

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Founded in 2011, Entrepreneur First’s portfolio has grown to more than 500 companies, which together are worth more than $10bn.

London-based scale-up investor Entrepreneur First has raised $158m in a Series C funding round, with backing from some of the world’s biggest tech founders.

The funding round included participation from Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison. They were joined by Wise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus (who also launched a new VC fund this week), LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield, Nested co-founder and CEO Matt Robinson, and many others.

There was also investment from longstanding institutional backers such as Transpose Platform, Vitruvian Partners, Encore Capital and Isomer Capital.

“It feels right that this round of funding comes from the most successful technology founders of today,” Entrepreneur First CEO Matt Clifford said. “Their support will build their counterparts of tomorrow.”

Founded in 2011, Entrepreneur First describes itself as “the best place in the world to meet your co-founder”. It says the best companies come from co-founding partnerships, but that finding the right person can be hugely challenging.

Entrepreneur First invests in early-stage founder talent. It works to bring people together from all walks of life to help meet potential co-founders, while giving them access to advisers in a three-month programme.

The company currently has 120 employees with offices in London, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Bangalore and Singapore.

Its portfolio now includes more than 500 companies, which together exceed $10bn in value. These companies include computer vision unicorn Tractable, employment platform Omnipresent and advertising infrastructure platform Permutive.

“We built a way for the world’s most talented people, from all walks of life, to come together to find co-founders and build from scratch,” Clifford said. “Now, that fix has introduced co-founders who wouldn’t have otherwise met, to build companies that wouldn’t have been built.”

Entrepreneur First aims to see the value of companies built from its platform cross $100bn and beyond in the years to come.

“What we do may no longer seem crazy, as it did 10 years ago,” Clifford added. “But we’re just as committed to keep innovating to serve entrepreneurs better – and be the best place in the world to find a co-founder.”

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