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Can numbers tell the future?

Summit Entertainment
Click for video: In this scene from the movie
"Knowing," Nicolas Cage explains how a list of
numbers predicts future disasters.

"Knowing," the Nicolas Cage movie opening Friday, is the latest Hollywood tale to play off the idea that our future is already determined by the numbers, if only we knew how to interpret them. Does the universe really work that way? The answer is no ... yes ... maybe.

If you think you can predict the dates of future disasters by checking numbers on a piece of paper, as Cage's character does in the movie, you might want to consider seeing a therapist. But if you think you're seeing the same plot twist happening over and over again, it's not all in your head.

Numbers with cosmic significance have played a big role in movies such as "Pi" (which is a take-off on the Bible Code fad) and "The Number 23" (actually, my personal favorite is the number 42). Numerological voodoo is a theme in the "Lost" TV show (see? 42!). And sometimes that voodoo translates into real-life worries: For example, the bogus doomsday claims about 2012 stem from the numbers behind the ancient Maya calendar.

There's some powerful psychology behind numerology, in fiction as well as real life. And when it comes to physics, numbers are real life.

With the right theory, knowing one set of numbers can tell you what a future set of numbers could be, MIT theoretical physicist Edward Farhi says. "Physics is really the business of taking numbers, the values and attributes of things, turning a crank, which is our theory, and arriving at new numbers which predict what will happen in the future," Farhi told me this week.

Cranking out the numbers
For example, engineers can crank out numbers to predict where NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will be in 2015 (somewhere around Pluto, we hope) or where the Cassini orbiter will be in 2017 (still checking out Saturn's moons, if scientists have their way). Closer to home, if you saw two trains barreling toward each other, at a certain point you can say there'll be a collision with as much confidence as Cage could in "Knowing."

"It gets much more complicated when we try to predict complicated things," Farhi said. "Really, what we're talking about is where you draw the line."

That's where the "maybe" part comes in: A century ago, predicting the weather a week or more in advance might have seemed like than voodoo - but with better monitoring systems and sophisticated computer modeling, we take that kind of weather forecast totally for granted. Farhi predicted that future technological advances will lead to better predictions as well.

"There are two avenues to prediction: One is to have a really good idea that helps you, and the other is just to increase computer power," he said. A truer-to-life model for a particular phenomenon, backed up by higher-powered modeling software, will lead to more accurate predictions.

Predictions in the office pool
That applies to weather forecasting, but it can also apply to economic and social forecasting as well. You don't have to look any further than this month's "March Madness" college basketball tournament, which began today, to see how improved computer modeling can contribute to the prediction game.

Farhi is working on the computer-power side of the prediction equation, by working out the theoretical underpinnings for quantum computing. In 20 years or so, when quantum computers are finally ready for prime time, that could bring a ... well, you know what kind of leap in computing that could bring.

The first applications for quantum data processing would include decrypting secret codes and encrypting communications and designing more efficient networks. But some researchers say quantum computers also could be used to solve puzzles ranging from Sudoku games to molecular-scale construction, and bring computer modeling to a higher level.

Quantum computers could outdo traditional computers when it comes to simulating chemical reactions on the molecular level, but Farhi is reluctant to push his prophetic powers any farther than that. "I'd love to be able to predict what we're going to be able to predict in 200 years," he said.

Cheating on the causality exam
One thing seems to be certain: You couldn't time-travel into the future and then come back with an ironclad prediction, even though that's another common theme in science-fiction movies.

In a sense, we're all traveling into the future - and according to the theory of relativity, you could even control the pace of your "travel" into the future by accelerating to near the speed of light. "What doesn't seem to be OK is to go back in time," Farhi said.

All sorts of potential paradoxes could arise, such as the famous "killing your grandfather" paradox. "The laws of physics seem to avoid that," Farhi said. "They don't want that to happen. So traveling backward in time does not seem to be OK. ... If the knowledge in the movie about things that happen comes from a trip to the future, followed by a return trip, I would say that goes beyond conventional science."

Phew! Glad we got that settled. Feel free to chime in below with your own thoughts about numerology and science, the "Knowing" movie, the buzz over 2012 or your "March Madness" predictions.

For more from Farhi and Hollywood physics, check out this item about quantum teleportation and the movie "Jumper." And for an in-depth discussion of how real life differs from the movies, consult "Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics."