We Destroy The World By Looking Up

“Honey, look at the stars…   Oh sh*t!”
This idea is put forward by Larry Krauss, a well-respected physicist (and author of The Physics of Star Trek) who doesn’t appear to be batshit crazy, yet has proposed that we may be dooming the universe by the mere act of being here to observe it.  I’m going to need more beer before I attempt explaining this idea in detail, but the gist is that he proposes that our observations of the universe could somehow shorten the lifetime of the universe, hastening the complete destruction of everything.  So whatever you do, DON’T LOOK UP AT NIGHT!

His idea centers on probably the single weirdest idea in mainstream physics, maybe even all of science — it’s controversial, by no means an established fact, but it’s discussed in standard peer-reviewed journals, which is good enough for me.  The idea is (as you might guess), the role of an *observer* in quantum mechanics — in quantum mech, the person observing a system actually seems to become part of the physical system, inescapably affecting the system being observed.  Rather than going on for hours about this (believe me, I can), see my discussion elsewhere on just how weird quantum mechanics is.

There’s no dispute among physicists today that the act of “observation” plays some role in quantum mechanics, but there is disagreement on how strongly to interpret the role of observer.  The pragmatic, down-to-earth folks would say that this “act of observation” business isn’t as mystical as it sounds, it’s just reflecting the fact that it’s hard to get information on an experiment without poking or prodding it somehow, particularly at the molecular level.  If you’re trying to watch an electron go about it’s business, what are you going to do, put it in a terrarium?  You’ve got to shine some light on it (which means bombarding it with photons), or throw something at it (like other particles), or put up a wall to catch it, or interact with it in some other way, otherwise it might as well be invisible (and unobservable).  If I want to monitor this damn electron, I have no choice but to interact with it in some way, and because this damn electron is so damn small, everything I do to it (no matter how delicate I try to be) will affect it significantly.  It’s like trying to pick up a speck of dust, where you might get the tweezers close enough only to have your own breath blow the dust speck off the table, where it is eaten by the dog.

This is way more noticeable at the molecular level, where stuff can be blown off course by a single photon.  The same thing happens at the macroscopic level too, but is much less noticeable because of the sheer size of the objects we’re observing.  You can turn your desklamp on without worrying about sending your homework flying across the room, since the photons from your lamp are way too weak to have any hope of moving your Organic Chemistry textbook.

The more mystical-minded physicists interpret the “observer” idea completely differently, however — these folks have taken the concept of “observation” to its logical extreme, and concluded that there’s some significant role of a conscious observer in physics.  We’re not talking about bead-wearing crystal-sniffing hippies here, either — this very question, about whether a conscious observer can physically affect the world, was argued by none other than Einstein and Bohr at the very beginning of the development of quantum mechanics.  (Einstein came down on the pragmatic side, not believing the observer had any signifcance.  What a jerk.)

But let’s get back to Larry Krauss.  He’s suggesting that the entire universe is in some sort of funky quantum state (I can’t even begin to explain), and by observing the universe we may have *changed* this quantum state.  For reasons I can’t fathom, this implies that we may have knocked the universe into a state that happens to have a shorter lifetime.  When the timer goes “ding”, the current quantum state will have reached the end of its life, and the universe will spontaneously switch to yet another quantum state, most likely wiping out all matter and energy in the process.  If we had left well enough alone, the universe would have remained in a state with a decently long lifetime.  But noooo, we had to look up through our telescopes, and now we’ve bumped the universe into a quantum state shorter than New York Jets coach Rex Ryan’s vegetarianism experiment.

If I couldn’t adequately explain the concept, you can bet your ass I won’t be able to explain what the critics say about it.  But it boils down to this:  the universe is macroscopic, not microscopic, so if puny little us do an observation, how could we possibly change anything?  We’re not talking about some puny electron, we’re talking about *everything in the universe*.  For a more reasoned opinion, see Matt Ford’s Article at Ars Technica.  But if you observe the article for too long, you might bring down their entire site.  And the world.

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