I see you, now you must die

Posted By Pamela on Nov 26, 2007 | 22 comments

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:

 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.


  1. “I Spy, the Universe dies.”

    That’s a great title for a short story based on the above.

  2. I expect the wave form collapse only applies to an EXTERNAL observer. Since we are internal, our observation of the metastable system we call the universe would have no more effect upon that system than that of Schrodingers cat upon itself.

    Gary 7

  3. I think Gary 7 wins.

  4. I think Gary 7 hits it on the head, only I would say “no more OR LESS effect”. What constitutes an observation? How macro-scale can we get things and still have them exhibiting the effects of superposition of states? Sure, a bunch of atoms in a bose-einstein condensate, maybe … but a cat? I think even if we don’t open the box, the geiger counter either clicked or it didn’t. Similarly I think the dark energy has been “observed” even if we didn’t look — I don’t buy into the mystical effects of consciousness. I think any interaction that’s irreversible (in the entropic sense) ought to be an observation — but then, of course, no interaction is REALLY irreversible, it’s just that the probability is really low, so my naive philosophy here is not quite good enough.

  5. I’m really confused here.

  6. Thank you for blogging this.
    I saw the Telegraph article last night and figured you could do a much better job at explaining it than he did. The point at which this “Science Editor” calls the paper’s conclusions “damaging allegations” was where he lost his credibility with me. Like this was a galactic political scandal or something, pshaw.

  7. And that right there, Freiddie, is the essence of quantum mechanics.

  8. What if a hypothetical alien has already observed it? Has the fate of the universe already been altered?

  9. (Cross-posted at Phil Plait’s place.)

    I’ve heard more complaints about New Scientist than about any other science magazine, and from a wider variety of fields, too: astronomy, computer science, linguistics, medicine, physics. For my writeup of one such incident, with lots of sources cited, see here, and for an editor of New Scientist not caring, see here. (In the latter case, said editor dared me to write 2400 words of pop science that he could critique. I picked a topic and wrote about 1800 of those words before John Baez and Chris Hillman convinced me that it’d be a waste of my time: “No Man but a blockhead ever did anything involving being peppered with buckshot, except for money.” I’ll probably finish up that piece soon anyway; it’s on Jack Cowan’s theoretical neuroscience. I have written material aimed for high-school students, who might be a more sophisticated audience than the editorial teams of glossy magazines.)

  10. Oh, and my understanding of quantum decoherence is that the dark-energy wavefunction could be collapsed by interactions with any kind of matter, living or not, conscious or not. Quantum weirdness is delicate and does not stay pristine, instead “leaking out” into the environment like the kinetic energy of a rolling ball dissipating into heat.

  11. Nr 327: How about Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God”?

    The only question now is, which will come first, the end of the Universe, or the end of the world by global warming? I’m certain we can do something about the end of the Universe, if only we spend a lot of money working on it.

  12. Karl sayeth:

    “What if a hypothetical alien has already observed it? Has the fate of the universe already been altered?”

    Well, first of all, if we haven’t seen the alien, does he/she/it really exist and can he/she/it really affect the Universe we observe? 😉

  13. “I Spy, the Universe dies.”

    That’s a great title for a short story based on the above.

    Actually, Greg Egan has already written it as a novel: “Quarantine“. One of the subplots is that aliens have built a sphere around the solar system to prevent humans from observing the rest of the universe and collapsing the wave functions on which the aliens’ biology depends. Or something like that. It’s been a while.

  14. I smell phlogiston.

  15. I’ve noticed that everytime I go see the Chicago Cubs in person they lose, but when I watch on TV they usually lose. I guess they shouldn’t blame the Billy Goat Tavern curse. I should get the blame!

    Are the Cubbies metastable?

    If a fielder misses a fly ball and there aren’t any fans in the stadium does the ball make a noise when it hits the ivy?

    Could it be just as likely that observations could extend the life of the universe such that the Cubbies may eventually win the World Series???

  16. What if the big bang had a pre destined program which provided for the evolution of a sentient being? Let’s say that the time limit for the universe runs at one pace for “no observations made” state, and a different pace for the “being observed” state. The provision of the “being observed” state allows for the random manner in which life/sentient beings progresses, and ensures that whenever sentient beings come into existence they will have enough time to do whatever it is they would do.

    Knowlege of events prior to the big bang is unattainable at present.
    The miracle is: An event is precipitated, and at that moment it contains the infinite potential of all existence, creation, action, and thought that will ever occur.
    Think about it every thought you have ever had multiplied by every brain thats ever existed.
    The program is so good it needs no maintenance.
    That is perfection.
    That is the miracle.
    That is.

  17. i like the “if the tree falll int he forest, di it make a sound”? question. ok. so if one day while hiking you go past a particular tree. the next day you go on the hike again to find the tree had fallen. so you werent around to here it death fall, but what about the squirels and tree frogs, there everywhere in a forest right? and they hav ears. they may not be “observing” events and sounds but it still made a boom

    now ask, what does it change if some person wasnt around to hear the tree fall, IT STILL HAPPENED, common sence dictates that just becuase we didnt “see” it,,, doesnt mean it didnt happen or that iw would happen any other way. and same if an astronomer would come acros a supernove remenant, hey we didnt see the star explode but theres this big odd explandin cloud out in the middle of no where

    BUT!!! if the universe where anything like people, and the “observers” where TV cameras then ohh ya things change. but thankfully the universe is rationally explainable whereas people – arent

  18. If I didn’t observe it, it didn’t happen? Reminds me of “The earth is the center of the universe”. Which in turn reminds me of the doctrines Galileo had to suffer through. No matter where we go, there we are. Cliche I know, but if the old ways of thinking don’t work to improve or enlighten us, we should get new ones.
    that hurt.

  19. I may be painting this with far too broad a brush, but I’ve never been all that impressed with “New Scientist.”

  20. what is a metastable system?

  21. Isn’t an “observer” in QM pretty much anything? If a photon collides with a paint particle on my wall, hasn’t that photon been observed at the point of interaction? The whole point of Schrondinger’s Cat was to illustrate the absurdity of QM requiring conscious observers. If observing the universe is causing its death, I’m pretty sure it’s been observing itself for roughly 13.5 billion years.


    As I understand it you can argue that any (and every) point actually is the center of the universe, so the Earth really is the center of the universe, as am I, and you, and the sun, and… Isn’t physics fun?

  22. Pamela,

    I really enjoyed this blog post!

    As an editor for The Issue, a recently launched Blog Newspaper, I’ve decided to feature it in todays’ publication. You can find a link back in the Science and Health Section at http://www.TheIssue.com

    Thanks for sharing your insight- and I’ll keep close tabs on your blog. Feel free to send me an e-mail, I would like to stay in touch.

    JB Cossart

    Science&Health | The Issue


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