I’m no scientist, and as fascinated by cosmology as I am I would normally be the last to wade in on a matter of quantum mechanics. But a story from the London Telegraph sounds like scientific speculation run amok to me:

Forget about the threat that mankind poses to the Earth: our activities may be shortening the life of the universe too.

The startling claim is made by a pair of American cosmologists investigating the consequences for the cosmos of quantum theory, the most successful theory we have. Over the past few years, cosmologists have taken this powerful theory of what happens at the level of subatomic particles and tried to extend it to understand the universe, since it began in the subatomic realm during the Big Bang.

Right off there’s a problem, which is that the cosmos doesn’t care about quantum theory. The latter is a human attempt to explain observable and mathematical phenomena,and doesn’t exist anywhere exist inside human skulls. It can be modified, confirmed, or thrown out (much as the “steady state” theory of the universe was forty years ago), and the cosmos isn’t effected one bit. So to speak in terms of the “consequences” of quantum theory for the universe is to get things exactly backward, in my humble opinion.

But there is an odd feature of the theory that philosophers and scientists still argue about. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that we change things simply by looking at them and theorists have puzzled over the implications for years.

The reference to philosophers is probably a dead giveaway that something is wrong here.

They often illustrate their concerns about what the theory means with boggling mind experiments, notably Schrodinger’s cat in which, thanks to a fancy experimental set up, the moggy is both alive and dead until someone decides to look, when it either carries on living, or dies. That is, by one interpretation (by another, the universe splits into two, one with a live cat and one with a dead one.)

I’ve tried for years to wrap my mind around the Schrodinger’s cat idea, and it still bothers me. As well it should–the thought experiment was apparently designed to show the flaws in one particular interpretation of quantum mechanics, not to support it. But anyway…

New Scientist reports a worrying new variant as the cosmologists claim that astronomers may have accidentally nudged the universe closer to its death by observing dark energy, a mysterious anti gravity force which is thought to be speeding up the expansion of the cosmos.

The damaging allegations are made by Profs Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and James Dent of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, who suggest that by making this observation in 1998 we may have caused the cosmos to revert to an earlier state when it was more likely to end. “Incredible as it seems, our detection of the dark energy may have reduced the life-expectancy of the universe,” Prof Krauss tells New Scientist.

And this is where things get really weird. What these guys seem to be telling us is that dark energy–a theoretical, unobserved form of energy left over from the Big Bang that is said to account for 74% of the “critical density” of the universe–is somehow changed simply by virtue of the fact that sentient beings have conceived of it. Dark energy has not been “detected,” mind you–it’s existence is an extrapolation from observable effects of stars that go supernova. It’s existence is thought necessary in order to explain other, more concrete aspects of cosmology. And yet, by the fact that people have done the theorizing necessary to explain these phenomena, we have tripped some kind of cosmic reset button and will cause the universe to end sooner than previously expected (with any luck at all, it will be before Britney Spears can get another DUI, because I just don’t want to go through the media coverage of that cosmic event).

I’m sorry. I can’t even conceive of how that could possibly make sense in the real world, the world outside of Krauss and Dent’s brains. The act of observation has to have its limits in the effects it can have on the real world. I can’t make the Washington Monument taller or shorter by looking at it. To think human beings can have a material effect on the universe simply by observing and theorizing about it strikes me as the height of anthropocentric solipsism.

And then there’s the theological implication–what if there really is Someone who is observing all things at once? Wouldn’t that put a kink in their colon!

About these ads