false vacuum collapse

blogger’s note: I wrote this two weeks ago, late at night, and thought I’d come back to it in the morning, and then the protests in Minneapolis boiled over into the rest of the country, and now we’re talking seriously about police abolition. Never thought I’d see it. To be clear, it’s a wonderful first step, and something I didn’t probably make clear below is that these kind of moments aren’t always bad as in buried at the bottom of a hole in the ground; but unpredictable, for sure.

Dan Hon, over on twitter, keeps saying “Slowly, then all at once.” Everything seems to be humming along, approaching a new normal, and then a bunch of stuff happens and the bottom falls out of the world. So: There’s this idea out of Quantum Mechanics that says that the ground state of the universe, the quantum vacuum between particles, is not a true ground, that it isn’t really the ‘bottom’. The properties of that vacuum determine a lot of things about our world, like the fact that particles stick together to form atoms, atoms make bonds, etc etc. Real literal fabric of the universe, here.

And, well, it’s possible that fabric is not stable, that we’re in what’s called a local minima. Imagine a waterfall. Now, imagine, some way down, there is a ledge, and on that ledge, over eons, there forms a pool. Water can hang out in the pool, and be pretty stable seeming. If someone jumps into it though, a lot of water will splash over, and continue hurtling towards the ground.

Or, better yet, think of a big hole in the ground, maybe 10 feet deep and wide. It’s freshly dug, and the walls seem solid. Anyone who’s ever worked down in such a hole will tell you it isn’t. It seems OK because it’s in a little ledge of stability. When a car drives by or someone steps on the edge, adding energy to the system, it can kick the it out of the region of stability, racing down to a new ground state; in this case, you better hope nobody was in the hole (on a real construction site, they use trench plates braced against the sides to prevent such accidents).

And so other systems can exhibit the same behavior. The quantum vacuum may or may not be at a true ground state, and even if it isn’t, it might take more energy than the whole universe will ever have to kick it over. It’s something that keeps a very specific brand of nerd up at night (never me; I lack the maths skill to really be frightened).

Normal society is a sort of ground state, too. All the different systems that surround us and do stuff like cut down trees to produce toilet paper, deliver our mail, stock the shelves at the grocery store, those are all sort of the result of the system working (there are negative effects of the system ‘working’ too, which we call structural violence, but that’s another essay).

So COVID-19 is a shock to that system. The first round of quarantine, the first 6 weeks or so, were the first new local minima. People baked bread and sewed masks and put up with the difficulties of isolation and waited. Many world governments used this time to get a handle on testing and tracing and are doing OK. America didn’t. We have an idiot in charge. So we’re right now kicking off a cascade into a new, lower state that may or may not be a real ground state. Anti-police protests in Minneapolis. Anti-mask protests by people that want to start a second civil war (look for the dudes in the hawaiian shirts and don’t trust them).

update, two weeks after the first draft: Turns out the free fall isn’t out of our hands. The de-funding of the Minneapolis force is just a beginning. Shit, I’m hopeful. How long can we maintain this? How far can we go? Prison abolition? Reparations? Open borders? I haven’t been able to go out to the protests for medical reasons (I have a couple COVID-19 risk factors) but I’ve been donating and doing what I can from home.

update, three weeks later: I went to a protest! it was great! I decided that I cared more about showing up than my personal safety, and did as much as I could to mitigate the danger. photos are unrelated San Pablo and my hood.

Posted by Matt on 2020-06-27 10:52:20Z GMT