Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Move over AlGore...

Ceeohtoo, schmeeohtoo

Talk about mankind having a negative effect on the environment! Here's a recent story from Britain's online daily newspaper, the Telegraph, which makes the case that mankind may be "shortening the universe's life" because... (get this)... we are studying the universe too closely!

It all goes back to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which says (in a very abbreviated layman's version), that you cannot measure something precisely - such as the exact location of an electron in an atom at any specific moment in time - without affecting what you are measuring. In this example, when you try to accurately locate that electron, you actually affect where it is at that particular moment. As Firesign Theater so aptly put it, way back when: "How can you be in two places at once when you're not anywhere at all?"

I've always been intrigued by this theory, and I've often tried to apply it to some of the random thoughts passing through my head. I even used it once here (a sure stretch, but I doubt Heisenberg would complain) trying to explain why I wasn't able to measure my progress in learning the cello.

Heisenberg's theory applies to quantum mechanics, which originated as a way to understand the smallest of systems - on the scale of subatomic particles. A fundamental concept of quantum mechanics is that these subatomic particles can exist in a multitude of quantum states (i.e. dimensions, or realities) at the same time. Now, according to Heisenberg, one of the quirks [forgive me, I couldn't resist] of quantum theory is that when we measure a quantum system we essentially force it into a single quantum state. In other words, we take away the overall uncertainty (or possibility) of all those other potential states by the very act of measuring it.

This can be illustrated by the story of Schrodinger's cat: "His cat is in a box, and the question is asked - is it dead or alive?" According to Heisenberg's theory, there are at least two possible realities - one where the cat is alive and another where it is dead. In quantum theory, both these realities exist at the same time... that is, until you look inside the box. Once you've discovered it was indeed alive (as hoped), you've established its precise state of being, but in doing so, you've now canceled the other possible reality - that whole possible universe where the cat was dead and all the ramifications that would have resulted no longer have any chance of existing.

In recent years, cosmologists have started to try to apply this quantum theory to the universe as a whole... So now along comes a pair of American scientists who have extrapolated Heisenberg's principle to this new concept. What's different from the old quantum mechanics is that we are inside the system we are studying (whereas, in particle physics, while we might all contain the same gluons, and muons, and so forth, these particles mostly exist outside of our selves). These guys have hypothesized that because we're inside the system we're measuring, according to Heisenberg, our study of our system doesn't so much change the system, instead we are defining which of all possible states it (we) can exist in and by elimination, which systems we can no longer exist in.

By devising and studying a quantum theory of the universe, we have now begun to affect the system we are studying. In other words, now that we're studying the universe using quantum theory, we are taking away certain uncertainties and forcing it into a quantum state that fits our studies of it. This is wild!

Cosmologists believe they've discovered and observed "dark energy", an anti-gravity force which is contributing to the expansion of the universe, which will ultimately cause its end. According to these guys, the very fact that we have now observed dark energy has "defined a universe" that is more likely to end. It gets worse... as our cosmologists continue to theorize and measure the universe, they are systematically removing all the other possibilities that always existed before now.

So in their opinion, if we had not used quantum theory to study the universe, the possible quantum states that the universe could exist in would still be limitless, and "life, the universe and everything" would have turned out differently. Too late now. Who knew?

I have to go play my cello....

I just realized that by writing this blog entry, I've deleted all possible universes that existed where I didn't write this entry.

Oh no...
Great post! It took me roughly two years (two vacations to HI) to get through Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” – one of the best written books I have ever read. Talk about rich content – I could only read an hour or so at a time and then would have to take a break for a few days. I would like to get a copy of “A Briefer History of Time”. Hawking has also made reference to Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment – but in what context I do not know. Sounds like a lunch break activity…
You both have waaaaaay too much time on your hands.
My father used to talk about stuff like this (infinity, alternate universes, and the limits to the life and universe) when I was very little. I used to get a stomachache.

Curiously, I just came across a reference to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in a very light novel I am reading by Claire Cook (Multiple Choice, in which a 40-ish woman goes back to college and takes "Quantum Physics and You.") I am not sure it has any bearing on the outcome of the novel.

(I am reading this book because I wrote my nanowrimo novel in a style similar to Claire Cook's, and I am trying to decide whether there is hope for it. I would have preferred an Isabel Allende or Barbara Kingsolver style, but this is what happens when you try to write a novel in a month.)

Anyway, I enjoyed your post!
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