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Math Science

A Mathematical Answer To the Parallel Universe Question 566

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the evil-twins-always-have-a-goatee dept.
diewlasing writes to mention that Oxford scientists have proffered a mathematical answer to the parallel universe question that is gaining some support in the scientific community. "According to quantum mechanics, unobserved particles are described by 'wave functions' representing a set of multiple 'probable' states. When an observer makes a measurement, the particle then settles down into one of these multiple options. The Oxford team, led by Dr. David Deutsch, showed mathematically that the bush-like branching structure created by the universe splitting into parallel versions of itself can explain the probabilistic nature of quantum outcomes."
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A Mathematical Answer To the Parallel Universe Question

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  • Why is this news? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Valdrax (32670) on Monday September 24, 2007 @02:36PM (#20732369)
    It's just the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and I don't see anything in the article that's a shocking new revelation about it. The article's just a rehash of an idea that's been around since the 50s.
  • Hey, if you don't believe in God because "you can't see him/her/it" then you can't believe in a parallel universe because, hey, you can't see it. Nor can you believe in dark matter/energy. /troll.
  • by EvilSpudBoy (1159091) on Monday September 24, 2007 @02:50PM (#20732651)

    If there are an infinite number of parallel universes for each possible quantum outcome, why do we only experience -this- one?

    Because you are in this one. If you were in a different one you would wonder the same thing.

    That's the anthropic principle.

  • Re:Ummm . . . (Score:5, Informative)

    by kebes (861706) on Monday September 24, 2007 @03:13PM (#20733021) Journal
    This is a fairly subtle point, so I'm not sure that I'm going to explain myself properly... but here's my best shot:

    The Many-Worlds [wikipedia.org] concept of quantum mechanics was originally presented as an interpretation of the theory. It was viewed by many as being ridiculous, or "non-economical with universes" as the joke goes. Work in fields like quantum decoherence [wikipedia.org] has, over the last few decades, helped to explain how "normal" (classical) states emerge from quantum superpositions. Decoherence, briefly, explains how a superposition of quantum states evolves deterministically (no randomness!) into a discrete set of pseudo-classical states (due to entanglement with the many degrees of freedom available in the "environment"--i.e. the universe at large). This extension to quantum mechanics has been tested experimentally and verified.

    The remaining issue in a theory of quantum + decoherence is that the classical states have the right probabilities, but there is still nothing to explain why we observe a particular classical state (photon measured spin-up instead of spin-down). However the (ad-hoc) postulate of wavefunction collapse, no longer being necessary to explain how the probabilities arise, can in fact be entirely removed if we allow that the global superposition never collapses.

    Thus, a local observer (e.g. an instrument or a human) perceives a single outcome only because they are a participant in this "global superposition" (the superposition of the entire universe). The wavefunction of the universe as a whole evolves deterministically.


    Okay, that was a long-winded preamble, and I still have not answered your question. The answer is that the existence of multiple universes cannot be falsified per se. But, then again, in this formalism Many-Worlds is not an axiom: it is a prediction. Given that it is a prediction of a thoroughly successful theory, we should be compelled to accept the prediction as correct even if we cannot directly test it. We can, at least, test other predictions of the theory. In principle, we can test for superpositions as big as we like (superpositions of entire galaxies, etc.), but we cannot ever test that final prediction: that the universe as a whole is also in a superposition. But, if we've tested the theory in every other way, can we really "throw away" the final prediction about the global superposition?

    Now, I know many of you will counter-argue that non-falsifiable predictions are not science, and should be ignored as metaphysics, or even "meaningless." Perhaps. But allow me to draw an analogy: One of the fundamental assumptions of science is that there is such a thing as "physical law." That is, we can extrapolate from one measurement to others. Put otherwise, we accept that the laws of physics are the same here as they are in a distant galaxy. Note that, because of the expansion of the universe and the speed-of-light-limit, there are some regions of the universe that we cannot ever explore (even in principle, assuming our current physics is correct). Thus, the prediction that "the laws of physics are invariant across the universe" is itself unfalsifiable, yet we generally accept it to be true.

    Similarly, we need but extend this logic into quantum mechanics, where if assume that the laws of physics are the same everywhere in the universe (and everywhere within the wavefunction of the universe), then we should accept that the global superposition is probably correct: i.e.: Many Worlds "exist" (but are inaccessible to us). I agree that this conclusion is uncomfortable, but it appears inescapable given our current understanding of physics. (Note: As a scientist I'm of course allowing for the possibility of future measurements disproving some part of this logic--this is entirely based on our current understanding.)

    As I said, the point I'm trying to make is not obvious. Hopefully I've not muddled it beyond understanding.
  • More links (Score:5, Informative)

    by SiliconEntity (448450) on Monday September 24, 2007 @03:26PM (#20733249)
    Here is the New Scientist article being cited:
    http://space.newscientist.com/article/mg19526223.700-parallel-universes-make-quantum-sense.html [newscientist.com]
    However it is behind a paywall. See Google Groups [google.com] for the whole thing.

    There is a great quote by physicist Max Tegmark: "The critique of many worlds is shifting from 'it makes no sense and I hate it' to simply 'I hate it'."

    As far as the meat of it, traditionally the Many-Worlds Interpretation has had two technical objections raised. The first is called the basis problem, and the second is deriving correct probabilities. The basis problem is that when the universe "splits" it's not clear how it should split. The math allows for infinite different ways to split, but we only see one way. This has been solved in recent years by the study of decoherence, which in MWI terms is like looking at the splitting process up close. Turns out it can only happen one way in practice. So that one's done.

    The article is more about the other one, deriving probabilities. Actually it's easy to derive probabilities in the MWI, but they're wrong. The right probabilities are what is called the Born rule, and it's been hard to get those. David Deutsch came up with a new idea in 1999 where he proposed tying it in to decision theory. He said that we really care about probabilities because they influence how we make decisions about what to do. If we can derive a reasonable decision theory within the MWI, then we've essentially explained probabilities. His work had some shortcomings but subsequent efforts have largely resolved those.

    So now for the first time, the two traditional technical problems with the MWI have reasonably good solutions. Hence we are back to, as Tegmark says, "I hate it" as the main objection to the theory. Since that's not really a good argument, it can be said that the MWI should be considered the most compelling candidate for an interpretation of QM.

    One final link, here is one of the papers that extends Deutsch's idea about decision theory and pretty much closes the holes: http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0312157 [arxiv.org]. It's pretty technical but still a lot more readable than most physics papers.
  • by kwikrick (755625) on Monday September 24, 2007 @04:11PM (#20733939) Homepage Journal
    or tried to, anyway. It seems to be related to the
    paper the article talks about.

    http://xxx.lanl.gov/abs/quant-ph/0104033 [lanl.gov]

    It's more of an information theory paper, it seems to me, and
    not so easy to relate to any verifable theory of the
    universe/multiverse.
  • by mlimber (1149251) on Monday September 24, 2007 @04:48PM (#20734471)
    I haven't found the "New Scientist" reference this article cites, but I did find another, better article on the subject: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2007/09/21/sciuni121.xml [telegraph.co.uk]
  • Re:Why is this news? (Score:4, Informative)

    by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Monday September 24, 2007 @05:27PM (#20734985) Homepage
    Always hesitate to take people's word for the significance of a piece of work. This is especially true of their own work, naturally, but even friends and colleagues often mis-judge or lack perspective on the importance of a discovery. Furthermore, reporters often misquote or pull quotes from context to the point where they'd be considered falsification if this were a scientific paper. I've even been quoted by a reporter who made the entire quote up from whole cloth. (Seriously, I'd never said anything remotely like what was quoted. Fortunately, it wasn't really a bad quote and I wasn't too bothered, except by the principle.) Thus, when someone says something as hyperbolic-sounding as the quote there, I immediately suspect it.

    I *am* a physicist, although I don't have Dr. Albrecht's credentials in this area, so he certainly has a more informed opinion than my own. However, based on my knowledge of the subject, the importance of this finding is in fact fairly over-rated. I don't think that it confirms anything unexpected *and* the theory is, as far as I know, not falsifiable. (I've never heard of a test which would differentiate between the Many Worlds view and the competing interpretations.) So you see, showing that you can't rule Many Worlds out is important, but it does strike me as really revolutionary.
  • Oh really? (Score:3, Informative)

    by mosel-saar-ruwer (732341) on Monday September 24, 2007 @06:02PM (#20735493)

    Math can prove that a mathematical system is consistent, and within that system can prove properties that result in that system.

    Oh [wikipedia.org] really [wikipedia.org] ? [wikipedia.org]

  • by Agenor (1136719) on Monday September 24, 2007 @06:28PM (#20735819)
    There is a subtile difference between the perturbations in Uranus' orbit and current dark matter. With Uranus, we had very fine measurements - thousand's of arcseconds precision. They actually were able to say 'there must be a planet about there' -- and it was. With dark matter the data is much sloppier. Part of this is no fault of the astronomer: dust clouds and individual variation in stars make it hard to get good data that is accurate to 10%. The other part is the astronomer's fault - their data analysis can be sloppy. As I saw in thesis class: published research on B-V vs stellar magnitude fits can be very poorly done, throwing out far too many outliers or using too many coefficients. This data then feeds distance measurements, which feed galactic rotation measurements, and so on. There is an unsound foundation for most work past a few thousand light years.

    The worst part is no one wants to correct this foundational work. There is not much glory in changing coefficients and contradicting published work only invites enemies.

    My main point is that a certain amount of non-luminous matter is to be expected. I would not be supprised though, when that unglamorous job of correcting all these fits is done, that the quantity and location of 'dark matter' is revised downwards. That, or we find something more fundamentally wrong (like with the precession of Mercury's orbit).

    Remember people used to believe in caloric.
  • by The One and Only (691315) * <[ten.hclewlihp] [ta] [lihp]> on Monday September 24, 2007 @06:33PM (#20735901) Homepage
    It also failed to work once before. Calculations of the orbit of the planet Mercury were noticeably inaccurate; the planet wasn't quite where it ought to have been. One explanation was that this was the result of the gravitational effect of the planet Vulcan, which orbited so close to the Sun that it was practically impossible to observe. Then relativity came out, and the new calculations were accurate.
  • Re:Why is this news? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 24, 2007 @06:52PM (#20736121)
    The Many Worlds Interpretation is not just an interpretation, it is a (slightly) different theory:

    In conventional interpretations, the wave function "collapses" upon observation, to a single eigenfunction.

    In the Many Worlds Theory, it NEVER collapses. The magnifying effect of an observation of microscopic fluctuations into macroscopic changes in the world (i.e., a geiger counter clicking or a track in a cloud-chamber) causes the universe to split into distinct branches corresponding to eigenfunctions. These distinct branches continue to interact with each other (although extremely weakly, because they are "far apart" in Hilbert space).

    This should be falsifiable, although the technology to do so might not exist now. One must repeatedly perform an extremely accurate measurement whose macroscopic effects are minimal (so the different branches do not drift too far apart). "Extremely accurate"=accurate enough to observe the interaction of the other branches of the universe. I believe Dr. Deutsch has proposed such an experiment that may be conducted within the next 50 years.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 24, 2007 @09:18PM (#20737305)
    The same way we can have sub-atomic particles. We fucked up and named something we didn't understand.
  • Re:Yes... (Score:3, Informative)

    by scribblej (195445) on Tuesday September 25, 2007 @01:42AM (#20739257)
    Ever check the HTTP headers on a request to the Slashdot webserver?

    There's always a different, random Futurama quote in an X-Fry: or X-Bender: header.

    Example:

    $ curl -I slashdot.org
    HTTP/1.1 200 OK
    Date: Tue, 25 Sep 2007 05:41:42 GMT
    Server: Apache/1.3.37 (Unix) mod_perl/1.29
    SLASH_LOG_DATA: shtml
    X-Powered-By: Slash 2.005000175
    X-Bender: They're tormenting me with uptempo singing and dancing!
    Cache-Control: private
    Pragma: private
    Vary: User-Agent,Accept-Encoding
    Connection: close
    Content-Type: text/html; charset=iso-8859-1
  • Re:Yes... (Score:3, Informative)

    by zobier (585066) <zobier@z[ ]er.net ['obi' in gap]> on Tuesday September 25, 2007 @03:06AM (#20739755)

    Ever check the HTTP headers on a request to the Slashdot webserver?

    There's always a different, random Futurama quote in an X-Fry: or X-Bender: header.
    (Bender|Fry|Leela) [sourceforge.net]

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