Stuff happens: The physics of events

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Stuff happens: as we personally experience every day of our lives. Our desire to understand why events happen drove the development of early science.

Today most of physics, and almost all of science, is the study of events — things that happen in the world around us. But what exactly are events? It might seem like a silly question, but modern physics casts doubt on many of the concepts we commonly use to define events: the concept of time in which events play out, the idea of cause and effect that links them together, and the idea that people observing events should more or less agree on what they have seen.

In this project, brought to you in collaboration with FQXi, we'll explore the weird and wonderful world of modern physics and what it has to say about the physics of events. With the help of leading experts, we will ponder questions philosophers, physicists and mathematicians are currently thinking about, and explore what they mean for our endeavour to understand the eventful world we live in. Enjoy!

Laws versus outcomes — The events that happen in our Universe are governed by a few basic laws of nature. But how can the wonderfully complex world around us be determined by a few simple rules? This collection of articles and videos explores this question. We'll see what differentiates laws of nature from their outcomes, how the complexity of the world conceals elegant mathematical symmetries, and how chaos can arise from order.

From finance to fundamental physics — But what are those elegant symmetries that lie behind the complex world of appearances we encounter every day? These so-called gauge symmetries can be quite hard to explain, but the renowned physicist Juan Maldacena illuminates their meaning using an economic analogy. There's also a video of Maldacena explaining his analogy for you to watch.

Time in a block universe — When Einstein developed his general theory of relativity he removed the special status of time – it became just one of the dimensions of spacetime. As a consequence, physics tells us that we live in a block universe, containing all of the past and all of the future. What does this block time perspective mean for our understanding of time, events, and free will? We explore these questions and the arguments for and against the concept of block time in this package of articles and videos, produced in collaboration with cosmologist Marina Cortês.

What's happening? — We all know what we mean when we say that something has happened — well, all except for theoretical physicists. That's because the notion of a "happening" becomes very fuzzy when you go right down to the foundations of the science, where not even time and space are clearly defined. From Newton's classical physics to Einstein's general relativity and the weird theory of quantum mechanics, these articles and videos explore the notion of events in physics — or lack of it.

Ordering history in computer science — Our digital lives rely on distributed computer systems, such as the internet, but understanding the order of events in such systems is not always straightforward. Leslie Lamport explains how special relativity helped him order events in computer science, enabling the development of distributed computing.

Listening to the Universe — Gravitational waves are the echoes of the most calamitous events in the Universe, the collision of black holes. Find out exactly what they are, how they were discovered, and what they promise to reveal.

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This project is a collaboration between Plus and FQXi, an organisation that supports and disseminates research on questions at the foundations of physics and cosmology. The FQXi community website does for physics and cosmology what Plus does for maths: provide the public with a deeper understanding of known and future discoveries in these areas, and their potential implications for our worldview.