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Author Topic: Bob Berman's strange universe: Hall of mirrors  (Read 882 times)

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Offline The OverlordTopic starter

Bob Berman's strange universe: Hall of mirrors
« on: February 15, 2009, 06:14:57 PM »


Not entirely sure this is a political/religious article, but being as the whole thing is open to cultural, theological and whatnot perspective, here I shall post it.

Hall of Mirrors appeared in my November 2007 issue of Astronomy magazine; a subsequent search online found it on the site. I liked it and found it so compelling that I copied and saved it. It's still archived there, but you must be a subscriber to view it in its entirety.


http://www.astronomy.com/asy/default.aspx?c=a&id=6049



November 2007: Astronomy leads us to deep issues, some so profound we can't handle them.
Bob Berman






Astronomy leads us to deep issues. Many are so profound, we can't even handle them.

Take the question of intelligence lurking throughout the cosmos. This topic arises when we look for life beneath the Martian surface or perform SETI searches. We assume life is out there, but we don't know its limits. Some think Earth's biosphere is a single interconnected organism named Gaia. Might that be true elsewhere? Could Jupiter be an unrecognized life-form?


Or consider nature itself, which most of us feel is smart. Yet, it supposedly arose randomly from inert matter. So we have this universe, which is basically as dumb as gravel. A few billion years ago, some witless bits of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen slammed together for awhile until out popped Kobayashi the Japanese competitive eater who devours hot dogs. How carbon and oxygen atoms should have ever developed a taste for frankfurters is mysterious. But there you have it, and it probably happened on other worlds, too. We're left with a combo plate: Some of the universe is smart, some of it is dumb. We're never quite sure where to draw the line.

Equally weird are space and time. Space is a strange and unique item you can't take it to a lab and analyze it like beef jerky. It's like a container without walls. Space seethes with an enormous enigmatic energy, and, each second, trillions of cubic light-years more of it materializes from nothingness. Nobody knows why or how it does that.

Time is just as odd. We've talked in the past about its iffy nature, and whether it actually exists outside of the human mind. Theorists say there was no time before the Big Bang, which is why we're not supposed to ask what things were like the Saturday night before the non-cosmos went kaplooie.

Then you've got the biggest troublemaker: consciousness. Former Encyclopaedia Britannica publisher Paul Hoffman considers it science's deepest unsolved issue. We observe objects and think about them, but such processes occur strictly in our consciousness, which introduces biases of all sorts. How does it influence what we see and believe? We are unaware because no one knows what consciousness is or how it could have arisen. We're forced to ignore it, even if we're likely overlooking a key component that would help clarify the universe.


We're left with a combo plate: Some of the universe is smart, some of it is dumb.


Quantum theory shows that consciousness influences the outcome of experiments. The behavior of small objects depends on whether anyone's watching. This is fact, but how far does it go? All the way to the edges of space-time? Experiments are now underway to determine how deep into the macroscopic realm these observer-determined effects reach. One possible consequence is that the universe may exist only because we do. This sort of thing was first argued by George Berkeley, for whom the town and campus were named. He eloquently demonstrated what we perceive are our perceptions and only assumed the cause of those perceptions to be an independent, external world. The universe may indeed be correlative with us.

We can't even take the Moon for granted. Earth's satellite looks the way it does because sunlight bounces off of it. But these photons are just bits of magnetism and electricity. They have no visual properties, no appearance or form, until they interact with a complex retina-brain system after transferring their energy. What could the Moon possibly look like if our minds didn't process photons in unique ways? When nobody's watching, the Moon certainly doesn't remotely resemble the thing we remember. It's even possible the Moon isn't there at all when everyone's asleep. Its component energy-particle waves exist as quantum probabilities that apparently take form only when their wave functions collapse, which happens whenever it's observed.

If all this sounds far-out, well, you bet it is although no more so than the standard model where the universe popped out of nothingness like a jack-in-the-box. Any way you slice it, the biggest aspects of the cosmos are strange and mysterious.

Religions push back these mysteries by one step, and science, understandably, finds this unhelpful, even if it cannot come to the rescue itself. We're left with the stuff no one talks about, the uncle with the facial tic that everyone tries to ignore.

I think mysteries are among the best parts of astronomy, the perfect accompaniments to a starry night. Scientists love 'em too, as they brilliantly chip away. It would be nice, however, if cosmologists would put a lid on their arrogant ghetto-talk about their latest theory of everything and admit just once in a while that their knowledge is a single snowflake in the blizzard of the unknown.

Me, I'm gonna observe the Moon. Want a hot dog?









Offline MHaji

Re: Bob Berman's strange universe: Hall of mirrors
« Reply #1 on: February 28, 2009, 04:09:03 PM »
Quote
Quantum theory shows that consciousness influences the outcome of experiments. The behavior of small objects depends on whether anyone's watching. This is fact, but how far does it go? All the way to the edges of space-time? Experiments are now underway to determine how deep into the macroscopic realm these observer-determined effects reach. One possible consequence is that the universe may exist only because we do. This sort of thing was first argued by George Berkeley, for whom the town and campus were named. He eloquently demonstrated what we perceive are our perceptions and only assumed the cause of those perceptions to be an independent, external world. The universe may indeed be correlative with us.

We can't even take the Moon for granted. Earth's satellite looks the way it does because sunlight bounces off of it. But these photons are just bits of magnetism and electricity. They have no visual properties, no appearance or form, until they interact with a complex retina-brain system after transferring their energy. What could the Moon possibly look like if our minds didn't process photons in unique ways? When nobody's watching, the Moon certainly doesn't remotely resemble the thing we remember. It's even possible the Moon isn't there at all when everyone's asleep. Its component energy-particle waves exist as quantum probabilities that apparently take form only when their wave functions collapse, which happens whenever it's observed.

Don't believe everything you read about quantum mechanics. Berman may be a very competent astronomer, but if he's a physicist, he's one prone to oversimplification, repeating dubious pop science as fact, and shoehorning vastly different concepts together.

The interpretation of quantum mechanics that depends on a conscious observer is not widely accepted among physicists, even if it's beloved of science fiction authors, pop science writers, and people who've never actually worked with the equations. It's an inelegant explanation in many ways: it suggests that we're somehow privileged and special and can make the entire universe collapse from fuzziness to certainty, whereas a computer or a nematode couldn't. Could a chimpanzee cause quantum collapse? I suppose that depends on whether it's a smart enough chimp, in this view.

The two more plausible views, to my mind, are:

* An "observation" is simply anything that allows the system to verifiably interact with the outside world, whatever that may be. In other words, it doesn't matter if you look at the moon, as long as theoretically somebody or something could. If we all didn't look at the moon, it would still be hit by light, and light would still reflect off it, and the waveform would collapse perfectly normally.

Defining "the outside world" is trickier, of course; at what level of interaction do we have collapse? How is it that a moon made out of things that don't have definite positions and velocities be so well-behaved? It's a major puzzle, but I don't think consciousness is the answer.

* There are multiple universes, all individually well-defined. This one's a bit more unnerving, and seems to imply that there are universes where the moon does fly apart into its component particles when we're not looking. Thankfully, they don't appear to be ours... yet.

In the other direction, could consciousness have a quantum underpinning? Yes, in that individual neurotransmitter vesicles have some amount of quantum randomness in their filling. But this argument tends to end up in fuzzier territory. "Consciousness is mysterious! Quantum mechanics is mysterious! Wouldn't it be awesome if they were the same thing?"

Offline The OverlordTopic starter

Re: Bob Berman's strange universe: Hall of mirrors
« Reply #2 on: March 02, 2009, 06:44:10 PM »
Don't believe everything you read about quantum mechanics. Berman may be a very competent astronomer, but if he's a physicist, he's one prone to oversimplification, repeating dubious pop science as fact, and shoehorning vastly different concepts together.



The interpretation of quantum mechanics that depends on a conscious observer is not widely accepted among physicists, even if it's beloved of science fiction authors, pop science writers, and people who've never actually worked with the equations.

Berman's details can be gotten here-

http://www.skymanbob.com/


Quote
Bob Berman is one of the best-known and most widely-read astronomers in the world. He is perhaps uniquely able to translate complex scientific concepts into language that is understandable to the casual observer yet meaningful to the most advanced. His dry, edgy wit engages readers of such diverse publications as Discover Magazine, Astronomy Magazine, and The Old Farmers Almanac.


I do believe Berman gets colorful with this article, which seems to be one part postulation and one part fact. However...while such notions may not be widely popular in physics, this does not mean they don't have heavyweight support.

Perhaps the biggest heavyweight was none other than John Wheeler. Where it gets interesting is with Wheeler's classic delayed choice experiment. I first became aware of this several years ago after reading an article Wheeler published in a magazine; IIRC was Scientific American.

http://www.bottomlayer.com/bottom/basic_delayed_choice.htm


Do note that at the time, the things Wheeler was describing he admited was not even a full-fledged theory, but rather after a half century or so in the realm of professional physics, it was his intuition on how the universe might work at the quantum level.


Along these lines, one could shake a closed box with a coin or die in it, and of course until you open the box you will not know what side it landed on. The concept here is that the contents of the box are in a state of quantum flux until someone interacts with the box and its content, and then the flux resolves itself into one of several possible outcomes.

Wheeler went on to describe the possibility that vast areas of the universe may exist as clouds of quantum uncertainty, at least until some outside force decisively sets them into a real outcome.

It might all be just a wild notion, it might even all prove to eventually be complete bullshit, but the delayed-choice experiment showed actual tested results, and there's no way to deny the outcome is spooky.

Quote
Does our choice "change the past"?

    How long can we delay the choice? In Wheeler's original thought experiment, he imagined the phenomenon on a cosmic scale, as follows:

1. A distant star emits a photon many billions of years ago.

2. The photon must pass a dense galaxy (or black hole) directly in its path toward earth.

"Gravitational lensing" predicted by general relativity (and well verified) will make the light bend around the galaxy or black hole. The same photon can, therefore, take either of two paths around the galaxy and still reach earth it can take the left path and bend back toward earth; or it can take the right path and bend back toward earth. Bending around the left side is the experimental equivalent of going through the left slit of a barrier; bending around the right side is the equivalent of going through the right slit.

3. The photon continues for a very long time (perhaps a few more billion years) on its way toward earth.
4. On earth (many billions of years later), an astronomer chooses to use a screen type of light projector, encompassing both sides of the intervening and the surrounding space without focusing or distinguishing among regions. The photon will land somewhere along the field of focus without our astronomer being able to tell which side of the galaxy/black hole the photon passed, left or right. So the distribution pattern of the photon (even of a single photon, but easily recognizable after a lot of photons are collected) will be an interference pattern.

5.  Alternatively, based on what she had for breakfast, our astronomer might choose to use a binocular apparatus, with one side of the binoculars (one telescope) focused exclusively on the left side of the intervening galaxy, and the other side focussed exclusively on the right side of the intervening galaxy. In that case the "pattern" will be a clump of photons at one side, and a clump of photons at the other side.

Now, for many billions of years the photon is in transit in region 3. Yet we can choose (many billions of years later) which experimental set up to employ the single wide-focus, or the two narrowly focused instruments.

We have chosen whether to know which side of the galaxy the photon passed by (by choosing whether to use the two-telescope set up or not, which are the instruments that would give us the information about which side of the galaxy the photon passed). We have delayed this choice until a time long after the particles "have passed by one side of the galaxy, or the other side of the galaxy, or both sides of the galaxy," so to speak. Yet, it seems paradoxically that our later choice of whether to obtain this information determines which side of the galaxy the light passed, so to speak, billions of years ago.

    So it seems that time has nothing to do with effects of quantum mechanics. And, indeed, the original thought experiment was not based on any analysis of how particles evolve and behave over time it was based on the mathematics. This is what the mathematics predicted for a result, and this is exactly the result obtained in the laboratory.


Offline MHaji

Re: Bob Berman's strange universe: Hall of mirrors
« Reply #3 on: March 03, 2009, 05:29:18 AM »
Except I'm not saying that the delayed-choice idea is nonsense; it isn't, strictly speaking, what the article's claiming. The delayed-choice idea is that if you have some particles that could have taken multiple paths, but have not interacted with the outside world/an observation device, it isn't even meaningful to say that they "may have taken one path or the other." Their "undefinedness" is part of what they are.

The statement here is: "It's even possible the Moon isn't there at all when everyone's asleep. Its component energy-particle waves exist as quantum probabilities that apparently take form only when their wave functions collapse, which happens whenever it's observed."

It's nice that the first sentence is given as a possibility, but the second is given as a fact, which plays on the audience's likely ignorance of what quantum physicists really mean by "observed." Would the photons from the moon striking the earth count as observation, or does it have to be conscious people? The whole business about the moon not existing when we're asleep suggests the second, which lacks factual support.

Wheeler was no lightweight, but presenting an extreme hypothesis as the most likely one, when most physicists would be more conservative and defer judgment, is misleading. In any case, any hypothesis that allows us to create a simple test for consciousness practically reduces itself to absurdity. "Let's find out if Bob's conscious; does his observation of our experiment induce waveform collapse? Okay, what if we shut off 5% of his brain neurons? 10%? 15%?"

Given that we'll probably be able to do the neuron shut-down thing within 20 years, assuming fiber-optic leads into a human brain genetically engineered to express a channelrhodopsin (and particularly lax ethical standards), the consciousness-centric view leads us into some paradox-heavy territory.

Offline The OverlordTopic starter

Re: Bob Berman's strange universe: Hall of mirrors
« Reply #4 on: March 03, 2009, 05:49:19 PM »

I posted the article because I felt it was entertaining and compelling, which I suspect was at least part of the intent of the author, given the manner in which he wrote it. I tend to feel you're splitting hairs over something which is completely hypothetical for the present; a fruitless endeavor at best.

I'm really not obligated to defend Berman's work, nor do I feel particularly compelled to. However I noticed he has a Ask Skyman Bob page on the site, perhaps you should tell him what you told us.

Offline MHaji

Re: Bob Berman's strange universe: Hall of mirrors
« Reply #5 on: March 04, 2009, 03:54:12 AM »
Nothing wrong with posting an interesting article; it was accurate up until that point, anyway. But this is far from hairsplitting. "The moon really exists" is not, I hope, a trivial fact.

It would be pointless hairsplitting if this were an isolated instance. In fact, just about every popular account of quantum mechanics does this. The most titillating hypothesis is made out to be the mainstream view, and people come away with the idea, to quote Futurama, that "as Deepak Chopra taught us, quantum mechanics means that anything can happen at any time for no reason!"

I could certainly write to him. And I could write to every single author who does this. It would take many years, though.

Offline The OverlordTopic starter

Re: Bob Berman's strange universe: Hall of mirrors
« Reply #6 on: March 04, 2009, 06:48:33 AM »

Well I'll admit that statement about the moon is rather far-fetched, to put it lightly.

Depending on which theories you subscribe to, we need the moon to have a sustainable biosphere here on Earth. Based on solar system data, the moon is kept tidally locked by the Earth's gravity; conversely the moon keeps the Earth from rolling too far in its cycle of precession. Mars for example has two moons but Phobos and Deimos are glorified asteroids at best under 50k in size- Mars is believed to have pitched on its axis as far as 40, which of course would screw things up here mightily.


So then we need the moon, apparently, to maintain life on Earth. But...lack of life on Earth, and consequently consciousness and awareness of the moon, would make our satellite hypothetically vanish into quantum flux.


Sounds a little chicken and egg, if you ask me. Hmmm.  :-\

Offline MHaji

Re: Bob Berman's strange universe: Hall of mirrors
« Reply #7 on: March 04, 2009, 12:28:01 PM »
Yes! And if you take that pop-science interpretation, it gets even worse: what about the state of the ENTIRE UNIVERSE before conscious life existed? I think that even people who think consciousness causes collapse are willing to admit that there's more to it than just that.

That isn't to say it's completely insane. It's strange that "whether or not it's possible to know about their behavior" seems to tell us so much about how electrons behave. The general interpretation is that events that give us information also cause collapse, because that requires nudging the system a little. But, as Wheeler saw, it's very strange that "what we can know" factors in at all. What does the universe care about information, a human invention? So it's unsurprising that at least some physicists do stick consciousness in the equation.