Oops, our bad: by observing the universe, we may have doomed it

Edward Willett @ 22-11-2007

DarkMatterPie-590 One of the weirdest aspects of quantum theory is the role of the observer: particles exist only as probabilities until they are observed, at which point they become definite. (Schrödinger’s neither-alive-nor-dead cat is the most famous thought experiment along these lines.) (Via EurekAlert!)

Now New Scientist is reporting that a pair of physicists at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, suggest that when, in 1998, astronomers observed the light from supernovae and from that deduced the existence of dark energy, we may have reset the clock of the university universe to the state it was in early in its history, when it was more likely to just as suddenly cease to exist as it suddenly sprang into existence in the first place. (Image: NASA via Wikimedia Commons.)

We’re still here, so the universe hasn’t winked out of existence just yet. But any second now…

[tags]cosmology, astronomy, physics, quantum theory[/tags]

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10 Responses to “Oops, our bad: by observing the universe, we may have doomed it”

  1. SMD says:

    I’m trying to grasp that concept right now but my brain is just baffled. That’s either incredibly deep, so deep that I can’t understand it fully, or so ridiculous that it defies reason…*shakes head in confusion*

  2. hank says:

    bring it on… I’m ready.

  3. alex says:

    “we may have reset the clock of the university to the state it was in early in its history”

    seriously even more confused

  4. Ian Sales says:

    university or universe? If it’s the university’s clock, I can’t say I’m all that worried 🙂

  5. Edward Willett says:

    Oops. I’ll just fix that, shall I?

  6. Andres Hax says:

    Please fix your links so they go to the specific news items and not the home pages of New Scientist and Case Western.

    Many thanks. Fantastic site.

  7. GLP says:

    What kind of badly designed universe breaks when you look at it?

  8. SMD says:

    That’s what confuses me GLP…that’s just completely insane :S.

    (thankfully I knew you guys meant “universe” and not “university”, otherwise I would have been even more confused than I am now…)

  9. Robert Koslover says:

    Speaking as a physicist, it appears to me that this story is an oversimplification of quantum mechanics to such a ridiculous extent that it results in a complete (and quite sensationalist) misunderstanding being conveyed to the public. Making measurements in quantum mechanics can indeed cause “collapse” of the experimental wavefunction involved, but no measurement ever made by a person (who is quite insignificant on the scale of the universe itself) could ever so result in determining or limiting the entire “state” of the universe overall (countless particles and states) such that all of space-time became constrained to conform to a dramatic and macroscopically-different future! My best guess is simply that the scientists who are being cited here are being wildly misquoted and misunderstood by the media. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened. Scientists should be far more careful talking to the press. We (i.e., humans) live in the universe and we can make observations that affect the local quantum states in our lab experiments. But that hardly makes us into all-powerful gods, altering the cosmos itself. After all, nearly all of the universe (which is roughly 13 billion light-years across) goes along just fine without us, and (for now) remains utterly beyond our reach and our control, regardless of whatever measly quantum mechanical experiments we may or may not perform at a university, regardless of what we observe (or do not observe) with our telescopes, and regardless of how excitedly the media may report/misreport our work! Perhaps someday in the future we will learn how to manipulate the entire universe itself. But for now, simply launching a few probes around in our (utterly puny) solar system takes the best technology we have. Does anyone seriously think the universe itself is quaking in its boots just because we are staring at some tiny piece of it through our telescopes and arguing about what we have (or have not) measured and what it means (or doesn’t mean)? Get a grip, folks!

  10. Cat-kha says:

    ookay. I think I get that. Kind of makes sense actually. Thanks for the info.

    Dr. Koslover – my muse says get a grip. While I do not condone her saying rather rude stuff to random randoms I do sort of agree. It was a good post. For those of us without degrees in physics (…yet) it cleared up some stuff, and for those of us who write sci-fi it gave our muses some ideases. Don’t diss what gives us ideases. There aren’t enough to start with!