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.
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).
More recently, Cotter placed third in this year’s Ideate Ireland business competition, which rewards entrepreneurial skills and new ideas from undergraduate and postgraduate students. He shared his third-place prize of €5,000 with Dr Fiona McGillicuddy and Dr Rachel Byrne of MetHealth.
Earlier in the year, Cotter Agritech participated in the inaugural AgTechUCD Agccelerator Programme, which was dedicated to early-stage agritech and food-tech start-ups. At the end of the 12-week programme, Cotter Agritech was named the winner of the AIB and Yield Lab AgTech Start-up 2022 Award, winning €10,000.
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The EU has moved to rein in the “wild west” of crypto assets by agreeing a groundbreaking set of rules for the sector, adding to pressure on the UK and US to introduce their own curbs.
Representatives from the European parliament and EU states inked an agreement late on Thursday that contains measures to guard against market abuse and manipulation, as well as requiring that crypto firms provide details of the environmental impact of their assets.
“Today, we put order in the wild west of crypto assets and set clear rules for a harmonised market,” said Stefan Berger, the German MEP who led negotiations on behalf of the parliament.
Referring to the recent slump in cryptocurrency prices – the total value of the market has fallen from $3tn (£2.5tn) last year to less than $900bn – Berger added: “The recent fall in the value of digital currencies shows us how highly risky and speculative they are and that it is fundamental to act.”
The markets in crypto assets (MiCA) law is expected to come into force at about the end of 2023. Globally, crypto assets are largely unregulated, with national operators in the EU required only to show controls for combating money laundering.
Cryptocurrency is the term for a group of digital assets that share the same underlying structure as bitcoin: a publicly available “blockchain” that records ownership without having any central authority in control.
The sector’s supporters have said it represents a good investment because, for instance, it carries low fees and, unlike conventional currencies, is not tied to governments. Nevertheless, its detractors say a lack of regulatory oversight or implicit government support, because of crypto and bitcoin’s independent origins, make it susceptible to scams and wild fluctuations in price.
MiCA will be the first comprehensive regime for crypto assets in the world and will contain strong measures to guard against market abuse and manipulation, Ernest Urtasun, a Green party MEP, said.
The new law gives issuers of crypto assets and providers of related services a “passport” to serve clients across the EU from a single base, while meeting capital and consumer protection rules. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a $40bn market last year, are not covered by MiCA.
The EU negotiations on Thursday also focused on issues such as supervision and energy consumption of crypto assets. “We have agreed that crypto asset providers should in future disclose the energy consumption and environmental impact of assets,” Berger said.
The UK and US, two significant crypto centres, have yet to approve similar rules, although regulators in both countries have warned of the need for stronger safeguards in the sector.
The MiCA law is expected to set a benchmark for other regulatory regimes for crypto globally, although one expert said the all-encompassing nature of the EU regime might not be replicated.
Harry Eddis, the global co-head of fintech at Linklaters, a London-based law firm, said the EU had “nailed its crypto colours to the mast” with the law.
“Other jurisdictions have shown little appetite to date in following their lead in implementing such an all-encompassing regulation, although we can surely expect to see other financial services centres upping their game in regulating the crypto community, albeit in a more piecemeal fashion.”
In May, the Treasury declared it wants a regime in place for dealing the collapse of a stablecoin, a cryptocurrency that is backed by traditional assets such as short-term debt and therefore could pose a risk to the wider financial system.
Crypto assets came under pressure after the collapse of the TerraUSD stablecoin project in May, with the major US cryptocurrency lending company Celsius Network freezing withdrawals and transfers. However, the sector has also proven susceptible to wider economic factors.
These include stock market declines linked to rising inflation and ensuing increases in interest by central banks. Raising rates – a path taken by the US, UK and Swiss central banks last month – can make risky assets less attractive.
For instance, certain tech stocks, whose price can be based on expectations of strong future earnings over many decades, can be less appealing than the fixed returns on offer immediately from investments such as bonds, which become more attractive in a higher lending rate environment.
The regulatory breakthrough came as India’s central bank said cryptocurrencies were based on “make believe”. The bank’s latest financial stability report said cryptocurrencies were no more than “sophisticated speculation”.
The bank’s governor, Shaktikanta Das, wrote: “Cryptocurrencies are a clear danger. Anything that derives value based on make believe, without any underlying [value], is just speculation under a sophisticated name.”
Dundee Satellite Station’s home turf at Scotland’s Errol Aerodrome is to host an Optical Ground Station to test and demonstrate satellite quantum secure communications.
The name may sound familiar. Dundee Satellite Station Ltd. is a phoenix rising from the ashes of the University of Dundee Satellite Receiving Station (DSRS), which was axed in 2019 after more than 40 years of operations.
The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) cut funding for the facility in 2019 and, despite protestations from the likes of NASA, the lights went out when Dundee University refused to underwrite the annual costs of £338,000. As a reminder, the Principal of the University (paid nearly £300,000 including pension contributions) departed later that year under somewhat of a cloud.
The services provided by DSRS have proven invaluable over the years, with a vast archive of data collected from satellites by its receivers available to the public and industry alike. However, and despite repeated claims from politicians of the importance of space technology to the country’s economy, it appeared to be all over.
Or not. In 2020 former staffer Neil Lonie told The Register that plans were afoot to rescue the tracking antennas and reconstruct the facility at the RAF Errol airfied. The Register took a trip to the site this year, and we were impressed by the achievement of the small team in bringing the service back online.
Station operations director Neil Lonie and technical director Paul Crawford
The story of how Dundee Satellite Station Ltd. rose from the ashes of the Dundee Satellite Receiving Station is one of ingenuity and tenacity, particularly considering the pandemic. Having made the decision to proceed, the team were able to commence commercial operations in the opening months of 2021 (the first imagery was received by the 3.7m antenna in September 2020). Fiber has since been laid to keep the satellite data flowing.
The decision to host the quantum Optical Ground Station (OGS) at Errol is further testament to the effort that has gone into the resurrection of the facility.
The system will consist of a quantum signal transmitter payload on a satellite and a quantum signal receiver attached to the OGS on the ground. A reflective 70cm telescope will be used to track the Low Earth Orbit satellite with high precision. Quantum secure communications (another weapon in the armory against cyber attacks) usually run along terrestrial fiber links, but are limited by distance. The hope is that the use of satellites will allow quantum communications to be sent securely all over the world.
The project is a joint venture between Dundee Satellite Station Ltd. and researchers at Heriot-Watt University. The Errol site, located on the bank of the River Tay, benefited from excellent sight lines and low light pollution. Having visited, we’ll have to take the researchers word for cloud cover.
There are four antennas erected so far; 3.7-meter and 2.4-meter tracking antennas and a further two 2.8-meter antennas. Upgrades, the refurbishment of a another 2.8m antenna and a pair of geostationary antenna are in the pipeline, and now the OGS telescope. Reception and transmission in VHF, UHF, L-band, S-band, X-band, Ku-band, and the ground station support options are also on tap, and also handy for Scotland’s burgeoning vertical launch industry as well as satellite tracking.
Going forwards, there are plans afoot for an additional site and power backups beyond UPS units. While the site can be mostly remotely managed, the size of the team means round-the-clock coverage is tricky and depends on the needs of customers. “The goal is to have enough staff that we can actually do 24-hour support,” technical director Paul Crawford told us.
All of which require commercial contracts and revenues. The Dundee Satellite Station has been quietly notching up customers during its first year and a half of operations, and the OGS project is a further demonstration of the determination of a team unwilling to be parted from their antennas.