Posted on Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Professor of Physics Donald Spector has been awarded a grant by the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) in its competition for grants on the physics of information. Deemed "one of the most original" proposals received by FQXi, Spector plans to combine ideas from set theory with ideas from physics to address longstanding limitations in the mathematical theory of information.
Founded in 2005, FQXi supports "research on questions at the foundations of physics ... particularly new frontiers and innovative ideas integral to a deep understanding of reality." Towards this end, Spector will use notions from set theory, an area of mathematics without previous significant applications to physics, to develop a way to characterize information valid even in those situations in which conventional methods fail. The current grant competition was the fourth in FQXi's history.
"There is a point of view in physics that has gained currency in recent years that the information characterizing the universe is what is truly fundamental, not its material substance," Spector says.
Yet when doing something as simple as specifying the location of an object, standard approaches to information are inadequate. "I aim to overcome this problem by using a technique from set theory known as forcing, which was originally introduced to get a handle on the different sizes of infinities that are possible mathematically," Spector explains.
FQXi reviewers termed this a "fascinating idea that cuts across a number of disciplines with potentially high impact." Spector's longstanding interest in information led to his course Physics 352 "Classical and Quantum Information and Computing," which brings an important area of current research to HWS undergraduates in physics, mathematics, and computer science, covering material rarely available to students outside a research university.
Spector joined the Physics Department in 1989. He earned his bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees from Harvard University. The recipient of multiple National Science Foundation grants, with the majority from the Theoretical Physics division, Spector serves on the boards of the Anacapa Society and the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies.