This quirky and disturbing preprint (by a couple of astrophysicists with impeccable credentials) has been doing the rounds over the past week or so, and if I’m reading the commentaries right it’s taking the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics to its logical conclusion — specifically, that whole Schrodinger’s Cat thing that says nothing actually exists until an act of observation collapses the probability wave and forces the universe to make up your fucking mind already. If you buy this interpretation, then a bunch of astronomers who looked at a supernova back in 1998 may have — by that very act of observation — shortened the lifespan of the whole universe. (The obvious question about whether the universe-altering observations have to be made by human astronomers — or even humans for that matter, given that at least a few photons from that supernova must have fallen onto the retinas of everything from cats to Cardassians long before now — was never addressed.)
I read this paper. More precisely, I ran my glazing eyes over each line and each equation in turn, while moving my lips. And even though I kinda recognised some of the Fourier transform stuff, it was pretty much all over my head.So I showed it to a biochemist I occasionally hang with; she got all squee-y because she kinda recognized the imaginary-numbers stuff, but she wasn’t much help beyond that. Fortunately we happened to be in a bar with a couple of astrophysicists, who had been roped into this community outreach program where experts on various subjects fend off questions hurled at them by drunken patrons. One of these experts actually specialized in the whole dark-energy thing; the other was a former student of his. So I hurled this weird Krauss-and-Dent paper at them, and this is what what they said:
The Master said that the paper took quantum theory to its “logical extreme”, and then kind of shrugged and said “But what are you going to do? It’s not like we’re going to stop looking.” He also allowed that the whole thing sounded kind of like worrying that the elephant that supported the world was going to fall off the back of the turtle that supported the elephant.
His apprentice said “If in fact the astrophysics community has shortened the lifespan of the universe, I’d like to take this opportunity on behalf of Canadian astrophysicists to be the first to apologize.” I liked that.
But neither of them said the paper was wrong. Neither pointed out any sort of fundamental error in the math or the conclusions. In fact Carlberg, for all his grousing about giant turtles, did grudgingly concede that the conclusions followed as a “logical extreme” of the theory. I find this disturbing.
Of course, the Copenhagen Interpretation does have competition. There’s also the Many-Worlds Model, which in contrast to the nothing-is-real view, claims that everything is — that there is no probability wave, only an endlessly-proliferating infinity of parallel universes that spawn wholesale every time an electron has a choice between flipping this way or that. This theory also carries some profoundly ugly implications (it confers credibility onto Sliders, for one thing; also, nobody has explained to me where the extra mass for all these universes is supposed to come from), but it seems to be gaining ground amongst the theorists.
Still. Just to be on the safe side, it couldn’t hurt if we all agreed to walk around for a while with our eyes closed. It might buy us some time.
Update 1715: OK, looks like a false alarm. Initial popsci reports were all causal-this and shortening-the-lifespan-of-the-universe that, but as AR has been kind enough to point out, Krauss is actually quoted in the article I linked to as saying he didn’t mean to imply causality. Move along. Nothing to see in the comments. (Unless you want to see AR pointing out how credulous I can be…)