Since the beginning of the Digital Age (ca. the 1970s), theoretical physicists have speculated about the possible connection between information and the physical Universe. Considering that all matter is made up of information that describes the state of a quantum system (aka. quantum information), and genetic information is coded in our DNA, it’s not farfetched at all to think that physical reality can be expressed in terms of data.
This has led to many thought experiments and paradoxes, where researchers have attempted to estimate the information capacity of the cosmos. In a recent study, Dr. Melvin M. Vopson – a Mathematician and Senior Lecturer at Portsmouth University – offered new estimates of how much information is encoded in all the baryonic matter (aka. ordinary or “luminous” matter) in the Universe.
The study that describes his research findings recently appeared in the scientific journal AIP Advances, a publication maintained by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). While previous estimates have been made about the quantity of encoded information in the Universe, Vopson’s is the first to rely on Information Theory (IT) – a field of study that deals with the transmission, processing, extraction, and utilization of information.
Illustration of data emanating from the central region of the Milky Way. Credit: UCLA SETI Group/Yuri Beletsky, Carnegie Las Campanas Observatory
This novel approach allowed him to address the questions arising from IT, namely: “Why is there information stored in the universe and where is it?” and “How much information is stored in the universe?” As Vopson explained in a recent AIP press release:
“The information capacity of the universe has been a topic of debate for over half a century. There have been various attempts to estimate the information content of the universe, but in this paper, I describe a unique approach that additionally postulates how much information could be compressed into a single elementary particle.”
While similar research has investigated the possibility that information is physical and can be measured, the precise physical significance of this relationship has remained elusive. Hoping to resolve this question, Vopson relied on the work of famed mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer Claude Shannon – called the “Father of the Digital Age” because of his pioneering work in Information Theory.
Shannon defined his method for quantifying information in a 1948 paper titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which resulted in the adoption of the “bit” (a term Shannon introduced) as a unit of measurement. This was not the first time that Vopson has delved into IT and physically encoded data. Previously, he addressed how the physical nature of information can be extrapolated to produce estimates on the mass of data itself.
This was described in his 2019 paper, “The mass-energy-information equivalence principle,” which extends Einstein’s theories about the interrelationship of matter and energy to data itself. Consistent with IT, Vopson’s study was based on the principle that information is physical and that all physical systems can register information. He concluded that the mass of an individual bit of information at room temperature (-300K) is 3.19 × 10-38 kg (8.598 x 10-38 lbs).
Quantum information is one of the ways that the physical Universe can be expressed in dataCredit: University of Nottingham
Taking Shannon’s method further, Vopson determined that every elementary particle in the observable Universe has the equivalent of 1.509 bits of encoded information. “It is the first time this approach has been taken in measuring the