November 26, 2007

No peaking


I couldn't help but think of Actaeon glimpsing Diana in her bath when I read this story in which some argue that astronomers glimpsing the secrets of the universe may very well have cursed, not just them, but all of us:

New Scientist reports a worrying new variant as the cosmologists claim that astronomers may have accidentally nudged the universe closer to its death by observing dark energy, a mysterious anti gravity force which is thought to be speeding up the expansion of the cosmos.

The damaging allegations are made by Profs Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and James Dent of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, who suggest that by making this observation in 1998 we may have caused the cosmos to revert to an earlier state when it was more likely to end. "Incredible as it seems, our detection of the dark energy may have reduced the life-expectancy of the universe," Prof Krauss tells New Scientist.

Which is why, as Woody Allen once wrote, "if the girl in the office down the hall has some good points but perhaps not all the qualities you desire it's best to compromise."

I've been reading about quantum mechanics recently, and must admit that just as I am a classical liberal who questions whether my prejudices make the most sense, I am also a classicist when it comes to physics (the difference being that classical liberalism can prevail through arms--whether at Thermopylae, Yorktown, Gettysburg, Omaha Beach or Kabul: subatomic particles are indifferent to the fortunes of war). The notion that a single particle can be in two different places at the same instant is unsettling, to say the least (I'm reminded of a scene in David Lynch's Lost Highway, in which a very creepy Robert Blake is both at a party speaking with a guest and in the guest's home at exactly the same moment). In any case, I've yet to encounter this bit of Heisenberg gone wild:

quantum theory says that whenever we observe or measure something, we could stop it decaying due what is what is called the "quantum Zeno effect," which suggests that if an "observer" makes repeated, quick observations of a microscopic object undergoing change, the object can stop changing - just as a watched kettle never boils.

In this case however, it turns out that quantum mechanics implies that if an unstable system has survived for far longer than the average such system should, then the probability that it will continue to survive decreases more slowly than it otherwise would. By resetting the clock, the survival probability would now once again fall exponentially.

"The intriguing question is this," Prof Krauss told the Telegraph. "If we attempt to apply quantum mechanics to the universe as a whole, and if our present state is unstable, then what sets the clock that governs decay? Once we determine our current state by observations, have we reset the clock? If so, as incredible as it may seem, our detection of dark energy may have reduced the life expectancy of our universe."

Worse still, astronomers with their universe-guzzling Hubble telescopes might have done more damage:

This is not the only damage to the heavens that astronomers may have caused. Our cosmos is now significantly lighter than scientists had thought after an analysis of the amount of light given out by galaxies concluded that some shone from lightweight electrons, not heavyweight atoms. In all, the new analysis suggests that the universe has lost about one fifth of its overall mass.

I suspect socks lost in the laundry account for most of that mass...

It's easy to make jokes (perhaps preferable), but I'm reminded of a line from Borges: We don't know what the universe is. Like a child playing with an adult machine, we might well push some button, or undo some safety catch, that leads to disaster. That said, I'm with the child -- let's keep on peaking...

Posted by Ideofact at November 26, 2007 01:06 AM

"peeking" ?

absolutely fascinating !

Posted by: Lynn B. at November 29, 2007 06:10 PM