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Space Science

The Universe Damaged By Observation? 521

ScentCone writes "The Telegraph covers a New Scientist report about two US cosmologists who suggest that, a la Schrodinger's possibly unhappy cat, the act of observing certain facets of our universe may have shortened its life . From the article: 'Prof Krauss says that the measurement of the light from supernovae in 1998, which provided evidence of dark energy, may have reset the decay of the void to zero — back to a point when the likelihood of its surviving was falling rapidly.'"
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The Universe Damaged By Observation?

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  • by Finallyjoined!!! ( 1158431 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:27PM (#21457005)
    Will it revert?

    Or will it turn into a dead cat in a box :-)
    • Or perhaps a very unhappy cat, resistant to cyanide.
    • by flyingsquid ( 813711 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:35PM (#21457075)
      God damn scientists, always threatening our existence with their curiosity! First they had to be all clever and go and invent the atomic bomb, and now they're threatening the entire universe. There's only one way to save ourselves. Quick, everyone grab your torches and sharpen your pitch forks! Everyone will meet in the local town or city center at sunset to form a mob, and then proceed to the local observatory!
      • by Zeinfeld ( 263942 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @06:03PM (#21457331) Homepage
        Its utter bollocks.

        It isn't observation by a sentient being that causes the wave function to collapse, its interaction. The point being made by Schroedinger is that observation inescapably means interaction and thus affecting the quantity being measured.

        light from the supernova would be interacting with the earth regardless of whether scientists were there.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by saintsfan ( 1171797 )
          I agree. I'm no scientist, but it sounds like philosophy and science just had a nasty one night stand they will soon regret
        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 23, 2007 @07:23PM (#21458135)
          Is this a bit like how when more people are listening to the radio, they have to turn the transmitter power up to counteract all the extra people sucking the signal out of the air?
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            The observer effect works on us too, if aliens are observing us, they will be affecting our planet. Which leads to only one conclusion... global warming is caused by too many aliens looking at us!
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by gnuman99 ( 746007 )
              No no no. And the Spaghetti Monster people, while on the right track are not quite there yet. Global warming is caused by pirates! How? Have you ever seen Stargate? Then you know! The pirates of the yonder days have ascended and are looking down on us causing global warming. That with the high vibrational state of the dimensional alien pirate cyborgs are vibrating our poor Earth hotter!! How do I know this? From the secret mind control waves on the austral spectrum frequencies! You just have to tune them in
        • by AC-x ( 735297 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @10:53PM (#21459621)
          I think the following line from tfa sums it up nicely

          "just as a watched kettle never boils." i.e. doesn't change a thing
        • It is interaction with a sufficiently complex that cause the wave function to collapse. Otherwise, the other system just gets entangled.

          The question is how complex is complex enough? The only criteria we know is enough, is interaction with an intelligent observer, a.k.a. observation. Because observation is the only way we can determine the outcome.

          What happens to a system when it is not observed is anyway philosophy, not physics.
      • by mikkelm ( 1000451 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @08:04PM (#21458503)
        Sorry, my town center only holds 10 workers, and they're terrible archers.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        What I don't get is this: energy takes time to travel. If we're looking at it now, it was generated in the past. If we're observing it now, that means we're observing what happened in the past. Doesn't this mean that the universe would have ceased to exist prior to us observing it? ...

        Makes me lend some credence to the "infinite universes" theory. We actually destroyed some other universe, not our own.

        Of course, it's more likely I'm just being dense and not understanding the theory involved here, and th
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by nacturation ( 646836 )

        Everyone will meet in the local town or city center at sunset to form a mob, and then proceed to the local observatory!
        Please be considerate and shield your torches from excess light pollution by enclosing the flame in red-tinted glass. Thanks, and remember to stop by the lobby for refreshments and souvenirs.
  • by starglider29a ( 719559 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:27PM (#21457007)
    Do I also shorten the life of this post by reading it?
  • On first glance... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:31PM (#21457035)
    Upon the first reading of the summary, this sounds retarded.

    We don't send out EM to study the cosmos, we look at EM radiation that was already coming to us. What's the difference between harmlessly absorbing this radiation and measuring it with scientific instruments? The fact that we think about it?

    What am I missing here?
    • I rather think this is actually heavy theoretical physics type stuff. Not for the likes of us norms.

      Everything is changed by observing it, but only on the quantum level if I have this right, something to do with wave form collapsing or somesuch.

      Since everything is made out of quantum, nothing can escaped being changed.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ByOhTek ( 1181381 )
      You are missing absolutely nothing. Those that mystify the "observation changest things" are missing something.

      To observe something, it must be interacted with. The most common form of interaction involves a photon bouncing off of something, or being generated by something.

      This involves a small energy transfer and/or a series of reactions between the "thing" used for observation and the observee. This is why observation causes a solidification of state, and/or change.
      • by ETEQ ( 519425 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @06:20PM (#21457507)

        This may be physically true, but the theoretical framework of quantum mechanics does not require it. This is why this Dark Energy test is an interesting point to make. Most astrophysicists will probably agree that it sounds rather ridiculous, but the point is that the way Dark Energy is theoretically modeled by some people (e.g. a quantized scalar field, probably in a false vacuum), the result is as the article describes.

        That is to say, you need not postulate anything about how a photon interacts with a detector to still get the strange result in the double-slit experiment. Just say that the measurement collapses the wave function (e.g. fixes it to a definite eigenstate), and you get the results observed. So it isn't all in the details about the interaction - there's something going on that applies rather well in general to all quantum mechanical interactions.

        To sum up, "observation changest things" is not a "mystification," but rather a way to generalize what's going on and develop a theoretical framework (which, incidentally, is quantitatively by far the best verified theory science has ever created).

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by samkass ( 174571 )
          There's a pretty good summary of this in the December issue of Discover magazine (can't find it online; I have the paper copy.) Basically, the fact that the probabilities generated by the equations of quantum theory match the observations statistically is what is "the best verified theory". There is a huge debate about whether there's a wave state that needs to "collapse" into macroscopic "reality" or whether there's a "many worlds" condition in which no collapse is necessary-- we're all part of the equat
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Tablizer ( 95088 )
      We don't send out EM to study the cosmos, we look at EM radiation that was already coming to us. What's the difference between harmlessly absorbing this radiation and measuring it with scientific instruments?

      In short, quantum physics kicks common sense right smack in the nuts.
    • "What am I missing here?

      The fact that a shadow was cast where there ought not to be one. However tiny or difficult to measure, we have injected ourselves into the vast mix known as infinity.

      Now, there is an incomplete horizon - a break in an otherwise perfect line...a line that once broken, can never be drawn again. It is this most minor of flaws that we now now deal with. The universe is right to be concerned that we may not have the means to make things right once again, for we are no more of an inf
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ETEQ ( 519425 )

      When you think about it that way, it does seem ridiculous... some interpretations of quantum mechanics (for example, the "Many Worlds" model, explained below) may help understand how this could possibly be. Indeed, this is why some people dislike the typical view of quantum mechanics (the "Copenhagen Model"), as there are experiments that show that this does in fact change things.

      The most straight-forward example (that doesn't involve murdering cats) is the double-slit experiment. You send a coherent b

    • You're missing years of the Quantum Mechanics study, which seems to make people crazy. This is a pretty ridiculous claim. Perhaps it makes sense in some sort of theoretical way, but I seriously doubt that this is a reality.
  • That's stupid (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Cyberax ( 705495 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:32PM (#21457039)
    Universe doesn't care about conscious observers. For example, slight heating of the Earth atmosphere by the light from SN1988 _also_ counts as 'observation'.

    In fact, if an event changes macroscopic state of ANY physical object - it already counts as observation.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      No fair!! You changed the outcome by measuring it!!
    • Already Proposed (Score:3, Interesting)

      by TheMeuge ( 645043 )
      This has already been thoroughly investigated in: Greg Egan's "Quarantine" [wikipedia.org]

      n the novel a physical process in the human brain is responsible for all causality, by collapsing wavefunctions representing systems into particular eigenstates. Human observations of the universe were reducing its diversity and potentiality (for instance, by rendering it uninhabitable to beings that relied on stars being something other than the enormous nuclear fusion-powered furnaces human astronomers have observed them to be).

    • by Eudial ( 590661 )
      The irony is that, since Schroedinger's cat and wave superposition is an unfalsifiable statement (by it's very nature), it is both true and false at the same time.
    • Actually, you're wrong. The act of observing something, even AFTER the event, changes the whole chain of events.

      Look at the two-slit experiments. No observer after the photon passes through the slit - interference patterns, even when only one photon at a time is in the box. Observer - no interference patterns. In other words, the act of observing changes not just the outcome, but the causality.

      • by Cyberax ( 705495 )
        Nope. The act of observation does NOT 'change' the chain of events, because the word 'change' assumes that event has occurred with some outcome.

        Observation of an event 'creates' it (collapses wavefunction).
    • by nurb432 ( 527695 )

      Now if we went totally outside the boundaries of the earth, and added a *new* object ( say a deep space probe ) to intersect those photons then we might have something real to debate.
    • May be universe does not care about conscious observers, but cats sure do. Just try to observe any cat in your neighborhood and watch for its reaction.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by UbuntuDupe ( 970646 ) *
      Hey, this is slashdot, so that means I can use this pretense to ask the following question:

      If that's a consistent phenomenon in quantum physics, it supports the "simulated reality" hypothesis, i.e., that the universe is a simulation on someone's computer. Hear me out:

      If someone were to run a simulated reality, they would (as we observe in known simulated reality) take steps to minimize computational resources. Where possible, if a computation doesn't effect future states, and they can feasibly exclude it,
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Myopic ( 18616 )
      Well, the universe might care about conscious observers. Consider that we are little tuffs of universe, fluffed up into a conscious state. So what I mean is, we are the universe, the universe is us, in a literal sense. As conscious bits of universe, we're not really sure what that means exactly, but it's remarkable to ponder that we certainly live in a self-aware universe. With that in mind, there may be a physical distinction between the universe observing itself -- or not. We don't know nearly enough to p
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:33PM (#21457047)
    ...have a privileged place in the universe that would fundamentally change the universe.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      ...have a privileged place in the universe that would fundamentally change the universe.
      So you're saying that a tree that falls in a forest where no one is around to hear it DOES make a noise?
  • by jamstar7 ( 694492 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:33PM (#21457053)
    Who would have thought some primitive hominids could be so destructive? To shorten the life of the universe just by looking at it?

    This new theory suggests two things I see off the top of my head:

    1. There is no other intelligent life in the universe, otherwise they would have killed the universe by looking at it.

    2. The theory is flawed and the universe is doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing. We just don't understand all the process yet.

    Personally, my money's on #2.

    • Who would have thought some primitive hominids could be so destructive? To shorten the life of the universe just by looking at it?

      Hey - if we can destroy the Earth just by driving SUV's and using plastic shopping bags...

      Let's face it: we're just one bad-assed mofo of a species. I personally pity any aliens that try to screw with us. Oh, and forget the nuclear weapons and all that Area 51 shit... we'll just stare their scrawny grey big-headed asses into oblivion! Bring it on you saucer-jockeys! You may have mastered inter-galactic travel, but we got the Eyeballs of Death, foo...

      *(note to the Global-Warming folks, pro or con: it'

  • wah (Score:3, Funny)

    by thhamm ( 764787 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:34PM (#21457059)
    quick, lets draw up some pointless laws against this!
  • by pwnies ( 1034518 ) * <j@jjcm.org> on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:35PM (#21457077) Homepage Journal
    What we don't realize is all this study into quantum mechanics is falling right into Schrodinger's cat's hands. It wants us to make him an undead kitty so it can open a hole in the universe and let the infinite number of possibilities of it all flow into this one, and thus will take over the world. The only way we'll win this future battle is if we observe it enough that it goes away.
  • by JensenDied ( 1009293 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:36PM (#21457085)
    Track Announcer: And the winner is ... Number 3, in a quantum finish.
    Farnsworth: No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it!
  • On the reasonable assumption that we are not the only technologically advanced species in this universe, it would seem to me that we are not the only ones who might be trying to observe these phenomena. In that instance, given the scale of time and the potential numbers of potential observances of dark matter, it would probably have happened already.

    Or perhaps it did happen and no one noticed.

  • Of course! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Jethro ( 14165 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:44PM (#21457153) Homepage
    That explains a lot! Everytime I stare directly into a light source, the light goes away for a while! The stronger or more "pure" the light, the longer it is affected by me staring at it.

    Why, a few years ago I stared directly into a laser pointer, and to this day whenever I point it back into that eye, it generates NO LIGHT AT ALL.
  • Crap, crap, crap (Score:5, Informative)

    by SpectreBlofeld ( 886224 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:45PM (#21457161)
    I sincerely hope this is a case of a reporter misunderstanding a scientist's statement.

      Waveform collapse applies to quantum probabilities, not passive long-distance observations. They occur because an observer influences an observation; interfering with that which is observed is the only way one can observe it on the scales in which quantum phenomena occur. When observing the light of stars, no information is being sent back to the source; and the idea that consciousness somehow magically induces waveform collapse has all but died, favoring instead theories of quantum decoherence and the indroduction of new 'thermal' states during the observation process as the trigger for waveform collapse.

      My only hope is that they've cooked up this idea simply to show how silly the idea of consciousness-triggered waveform collapse is; much like Schrodinger created the cat thought experiment to demonstrate what he saw as a flaw of the Copenhagen interpretation of superposition.
  • I'm not opening my eyes again. First I have to worry about killing a cat now I've got to worry about the whole damn Universe!
  • by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:47PM (#21457175)
    You know, I recognize most of the words in the article as being from astrophysics and quantum mechanics, but when you put them all together, they don't make a lick of sense.
  • completely idiotic (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ILuvRamen ( 1026668 )
    Oh would they stop with the "if a tree falls in the forest, and nobody's around to hear it, is it in a state of quantum flux" crap. It's no more than a stupid scientific joke because there's absolutely no way to test it. I could say that until we observe certain things, they're tiny dancing banana creatures with sombraros and you couldn't prove me wrong either. If a quantum event happened and nothing "witnessed it" one of the two possibilities that could happen DID HAPPEN! There's no reason to think it
  • by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:49PM (#21457197) Homepage Journal

    Quarantine [wikipedia.org] by Greg Egan [wikipedia.org]...is a great book which explores the idea that the wave function collapse caused by observation is something specific to the human brain, and the rest of the universe is starting to get a bit upset about humans carving up the universe by observing it.

    Its a great read, and a good way to get a better understanding of (at least Egans' idea of) quantum mechanics.

  • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:51PM (#21457205)
    Finally! The proof I always knew existed!
    SETI@Home is an Al Quaeda plot dedicated to the destruction of the universe!
  • Probably one of the worst Star Trek The Next Generation episodes was the one where it turns out that warp drive was ruining the fabric of spacetime so everyone had to drive warp 5.5. Sadly I can't remember enough details to find the damn episode's name. They eventually ignored it the same way the ignored the first episode with the Klingons in the original Trek.

    Even if this idea is unsubstantiated I can imagine the anti-science crowd taking this and saying we shouldn't do any science at all.
  • Then we would have just as likely have increased its lifespan. :-p

    But obviously, it's more fun to focus on the more sensationalist, fearmongering, idea.
  • by digitalderbs ( 718388 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @05:53PM (#21457221)
    This idea is based on the assumption of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics -- the idea that wave-functions exist as superpositions of multiple states and that they're collapsed into discrete states upon observation. First, is an observer only a human being, an animate object or inanimate object? Seems to me that many inanimate systems self-propagate themselves through time, relying on the continuous collapse of wave functions -- without people looking at them. Second, in my mind the Copenhagen interpretation is impossible to prove because you can never really know what the wavefunction is doing before the observation, and this is why it's an interpretation. In this case, you couldn't know if the universe could actually be older than than it is, without our observation. At least this is my view as a statistical quantum mechanicist.
  • Since the rate of decay of the universe depends on the quantity of observation of the universe, we have a new way to prove the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence:
    1. Determine the current rate of decay of the universe.
    2. If it increases, then some extra-terrestrial intelligence has observed the universe.
    3. ???
    4. Profit
  • They are going to sue everyone in sight claiming their clients have been damaged because others looked at them in a funny way.
  • by Daath ( 225404 )
    The german police will be pleased!

    Oh, and obligatory Professor Farnsworth quote: "No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it!"

    And in seriousness, I am having a hard time wrapping my head around this. It's very abstract to me ;P To me it sounds like they inhaled too much of the grass they burned in the garden ;)
  • Observing only was a way to explain certain conditions in which changing a result happened when you tried to observe it.

    First it was just silly way to explain the randomness. Now its a fact that the scientific method of observation need not apply.

  • Let's throw a blond bikini virgin into a volcano to see if that fixes it. (She won't date any of us anyhow.)
  • by howdoesth ( 1132949 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @06:08PM (#21457383)
    There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
  • While observing attractive women I got too close and was maced. I'm sure I permanently altered her perceptions of men- and mace!! I might have even changed her schedule.
  • by Just Some Guy ( 3352 ) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Friday November 23, 2007 @06:30PM (#21457585) Homepage Journal

    The mice are gonna be pissed.

  • I don't get it. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by niktemadur ( 793971 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @06:41PM (#21457681)
    I mean, quantum physics states that to observe a particle's position or trajectory, you must first throw energy at it, thereby altering it. But in the case of the supernova stated in TFA's header, or any astronomical phenomena for that matter, all we are doing is passively gathering an infinitesimal amount of the radially emitted energy, which would have been absorbed by rocks in the ground if some high-tech gizmo wasn't there in an observatory instead.

    Do I alter the sun by squinting at it, and does it take eight minutes to upload my observation back into the sun's hard drive? It's the same thing, and it sounds rather silly.
  • unfounded (Score:4, Insightful)

    by m2943 ( 1140797 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @06:58PM (#21457843)
    There is not a shred of evidence that conscious observation has any effect on matter that differs from systems that evolve without being consciously evolved.
  • by Joebert ( 946227 ) on Friday November 23, 2007 @07:18PM (#21458069) Homepage
    On Haloween Chuck Norris tried to scare himself while looking in the mirror.
    However since the resulting implosion of the universe was not able to account for the presense of Chuck Norris, it simply reset.
  • by MLease ( 652529 ) on Saturday November 24, 2007 @06:01AM (#21461397)
    "I observe, therefore I destroy!"


If I had only known, I would have been a locksmith. -- Albert Einstein