- Information could become the fifth state of matter alongside gas, plasma, liquid, and solid states.
- A scientist has proposed an experiment involving particle annihilation that could establish that information truly has mass.
- If successful, the experiment could shed light on the mysterious dark matter in our universe—and help us manage the future of data storage.
Trying to make sense of information is a universal daily experience. For physicist Melvin Vopson, this pursuit goes well beyond the mundane—he’s trying to prove that information has a physical presence. It’s a weighty task that could lead to new insights about how we can manage the future of information storage. It could also lead to a fundamental shift in how we think about the universe.
Vopson, who studies information theory at University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, wants to use an experiment to confirm that elementary particles have measurable mass. It would involve a matter-antimatter annihilation process that would shoot a beam of positrons at electrons in a piece of metal. Positrons and electrons are both subatomic particles, with the same mass and magnitude of charge. However, positrons are positively charged, and electrons are negatively charged. A sheet of metal has many free electrons, increasing the probability of collision with the incoming positrons.
Vopson proposes that a positron-electron annihilation should produce energy equivalent to the masses of the two particles. It should also produce an extra dash of energy: two infrared, low-energy photons of a specific wavelength (predicted to be about 50 microns), as a direct result of erasing the information content of the particles. Photons are particles of electromagnetic radiation.
No large-scale particle accelerator or particle collider is needed, Vopson says. “In fact, we need rather slow positrons, so the main challenge is to slow them down at thermal velocities. The experiment is challenging, but not unachievable.” The infrared photons have very specific markers, so they should be easy to distinguish from any other energy the particles emit.
Vopson hopes to collaborate with other scientists to conduct this experiment. If successful, it would confirm hypothetical ideas about the energy and mass of information and how it relates to the physical universe.
A New Concept of Matter
The mass-energy-information equivalence principle Vopson proposed in his 2019 AIP Advances paper assumes that a digital information bit—used for digital data storage today—is not just physical, but has a “finite and quantifiable mass while it stores information.” This very small mass is 3.19 × 10-38 kilograms at room temperature.
Vopson hypothesizes that if you erase that bit of information, you would lose a tiny amount of mass, and therefore an equivalent amount of energy. For example, if you erase one terabyte of data from a storage device, it would decrease in mass by 2.5 × 10-25 kilograms, a mass so small that it can only be compared to the mass of a proton, which is about 1.67 × 10-27 kilograms.
These ideas of mass-energy equivalence are not new. In 1961, Rolf Landauer first proposed the idea that a bit is physical and has a well-defined energy. When one bit of information is erased, the bit dissipates a measurable amount of energy. Years before this concept of information entered the picture, Albert Einstein established that mass equals energy.
Scientists believe that the observable matter in the universe has a specific information content. For example, typical atoms—containing protons, electrons, and neutrons—hold not only the combined masses of these subatomic particles, but also the minuscule masses of the information they require to interact with each other and the rest of the universe. This type of information could be considered the “DNA” of the particles, according to Vopson’s paper.
When combined, the two “information conjectures” make specific predictions about the mass of information in the universe. For example, scientists have estimated that a single particle contains 1.509 bits of information, representing characteristics like the mass, charge, and spin of the particle. When they multiplied this single particle’s information by approximately all of the particles in the universe (known as the Eddington Number), they ended up with an estimate of 6.036 x 1080 bits of information in the universe. (This is just one calculated estimate.)
If Vopson’s proposed experiment turns out the way he expects, it would prove the existence of information as the fifth state of matter in the universe, along with gas, plasma, liquid, and solid states.
“More profoundly, it will show that our universe is mathematical and it would bridge a link between mathematics, computing, and the material [or] physical world,” Vopson tells Popular Mechanics in an email. “This can radically transform the way we look at everything in physics and other sciences. This new component of matter in the universe could be the missing link in explaining so many unexplained phenomena including dark matter and dark energy.”
“The Information Catastrophe”
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There’s a practical side to thinking about information this way, too; it could help us design better digital information storage technologies, Vopson says. The first digital storage device was the magnetic hard disk drive, invented in 1956. It encodes information as binary data in ones and zeroes, or bits (eight bits form a byte). The width of digital bits today is between ten and 30 nanometers, and we can assume that the smaller a physical bit is, the more bits a storage device will hold.
The amount of information we have today is staggering. “Each day on Earth, we generate 500 million tweets, 294 billion emails, 4 million gigabytes of Facebook data, 65 billion WhatsApp messages, and 720,000 hours of new content added daily on YouTube,” according to an article Vopson wrote for the World Economic Forum.
The total amount of data “created, captured, copied, and consumed in the world” was 59 zettabytes in 2020, Vopson writes in the article. One zettabyte is 8,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bits. The International Data Corporation, a global provider of market intelligence for information technology and communications, predicts that this amount will grow to 175 zettabytes by 2025. In other words, we are creating new information at such a staggering rate that 350 years from now, we will create more digital bits than all atoms on Earth, a theory researchers like Vopson call “the information catastrophe.” In about 110 years, “the power required to sustain this digital production will exceed the total planetary power consumption today.”
The question is, what would ultimately restrict the material form of data storage? The reasoning in Vopson’s area of study is that “the smallest theoretical size of digital bits would have to be the elementary particles, as they are the smallest known building blocks of matter in the universe,” according to his February 2022 paper published in AIP Advances. These are the tiniest bits of matter that are stable and exist on their own.
Proving that information has mass through physical experiments is the first step toward finding a possible solution to the problem of explosive information growth.
Beyond Our Earthly Problems
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Proving that information has mass can explain mysteries like dark matter. That’s because the physical properties of the bits of information mimic what dark matter appears to be—small bits of mass particles without charge or spin, Vopson says.
“We definitely need to look at cosmological models and try to plug in this new component to explain the dynamics of the galaxies and the accelerated expansion of the universe,” he says. Perhaps the extra mass of the information contained in the most basic particles can account for the mass of dark matter.
His initial, rough calculations indicate that 10 to the power of 93 bits of information would explain all of the “missing” dark matter.
And confirming that information is the fifth state of matter touches on a weird idea: that the universe is actually a computer simulation. As an academic exercise, scientists have suggested this idea before. If information is indeed a key component of everything in the universe, then perhaps a computer somewhere is running our whole world as a simulation.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misidentified the masses of a digital information bit, a terabyte of data, and a proton, due to a missing negative sign. These figures have been corrected.
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