The title is a summary of how a New Scientist article seems to interpret the fate of the universe. Basically, the article states that because we view the universe, we may be causing the collapse of wave functions that would otherwise be happily balanced between not alive and not dead (the Schrondinger’s litter of supernovae, dark energy, and many other phenomenas). Think of it this way, has a supernovae really gone off if no one was there to observe it, or alternatively if no one observed its light echo, the planets formed out of its waste products, or the nebula created when its shock wave interacts with the interstellar media. If no one ever observed any of these things, would the supernova exist?
Thought questions like this have pretty much always been around, and trace back at a certain level to the old standby, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound? If it weren’t for some annoying observables in quantum mechanics, these questions could be ignored by observational astronomers like myself, and pushed over to the philosophers and theologians that occupy other buildings on my campus.
Unfortunately, in quantum mechanics it has been observed that observing a metastable system can reset the clock that probabilistically determines when a decay may happen. Think of it this way, if something is hanging out in a given state (someone sitting upright and awake in an office chair in the a cube in the Dilbert universe), there is a certain expected time period that they can be in that state before something happens (like that person falling asleep). Now, if the something in the given state is observed (for instance if the boss sticks his head in our person’s cube and says something), the time that will likely pass before a state change occurs will get reset (if the person typically nods off after reading brainless reports for 2 hours, and the boss comes in 1.5 hours into report reading, the person will read for another 2 hours – a total of 3.5 hours – before they nod off).
With our universe, it is believed that everything started out at one high energy, back during the big bang, and during the epoch of inflation the universe decayed to a lower energy state. It is possible, according to some theories, that the universe is still decaying, and the overall energy of the universe will change over time, possibly destroying everything we know in the process as it jumps between discrete states. This potential decay is a quantum mechanical process, and how it does or doesn’t occur might be effected by us, or aliens, or dogs, or some interstellar gaseous intelligence observing dark energy. It’s possible. But it’s also possible nothing will happen, and the current energy state is stable, and we will just, as a universe, expand forever.
The fate of the universe is an unobservable thing. We can’t see into the future to get data. There are a lot of “what if”s hidden in the mathematics of cosmology. There are a lot of “just maybe”s coming out of quantum mechanics. A scientist would be remiss not to address all possibilities – it’s our job to doubt and question and explore the improbable. But, sometimes our gedanken wanderings end up chasing white bronco not driven by OJ Simpson, but rather by some genetic doppleganger that was the 1 in a trillion impossible second match the bloody glove. I don’t think that doppleganger exists, and I don’t think that studying the heavens will change their future.
After all, Schrodinger’s cat was a perfectly good witness to its own death.
The hype of the New Scientist story was reckless reporting designed to excite and tantalize. Remarkable, it may have lead the authors of the paper this was all based on to re-write their paper.
In the first version of their paper, they write (hat tip to Galactic Interactions):
If observations of quantum mechanical systems reset their clocks, which has been observed for laboratory systems, then by measuring the existence dark energy in our own universe have we reset the quantum mechanical configuration of our own universe so that late time will never be relevant? Put another way, can internal observations of the state of a metastable universe affect its longevity?
In a later version the instead say:
Â¬â€ Have we ensured, by measuring the existence of dark energy in our own universe, that th quantum mechanical configuration of our own universe is such that late time decay is not relevant? Put another way, what can internal observations of the state of a metastable universe say about its longevity?
Yes, our observations could be changing things, but we can’t say for certain, and we can’t say how they are effecting things. And this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be observing. This isn’t some cosmic game of “I Spy, the Universe dies.” And even if our observation does something to the universe, that doesn’t mean we should stop observing. Even though I believe life is rare, the universe is a big enough place that I feel confident saying we aren’t the only ones observing dark matter (we just may be the only ones in our galaxy doing it), and our observations are just a small drop in the cosmic observational bucket.
So, go out and observe. Increase knowledge and crush the ability of over hyped reporting to get attention.