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Trouble in the Multiverse

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 02/21/2018 - 12:00am

The boundary between science and mere scientific speculation can be elusive. Albert Einstein famously performed only thought experiments, but those mere ideas yielded counterintuitive predictions leading to experiments conclusively confirming his revolutionary theory. Other thought experiments imagined by Einstein and his colleagues meant to demonstrate the impossibility of quantum theory actually turned out to be conductible. When performed, those experiments refuted Einstein’s arguments and help confirm the quantum.

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. —Richard Feynman

Recently, however, some much more troublesome (and troubling) ideas have been advanced by some astrophysicists and cosmologists: string theory and the multiverse. The motivation and justification of string theory is to bring order to the menagerie of subatomic particles. String theory posits that we live not in a four-dimensional universe of space-time (once a highly counterintuitive notion, but now firmly established) but in a universe of many more dimensions (10 or 11, at last count), most of which we ordinary humans fail to notice simply because we’re unable to move in or through them (and because they’re very, very small relative to the more familiar ones). The usual analogy is that of two-dimensional creatures living in a flatland—on a surface (either a plane extending infinitely in two dimensions or a bounded one such as the surface of a sphere)—who would be unable to perceive a third dimension (and perhaps even to conceive of it). With 10 or more spatial dimensions, we’re told, we can conceive of subatomic particles not as point-like entities but as string-like ones vibrating in modes that can account for the variety of particles actually observed. However, no testable predictions have yet been advanced to confirm or disprove the idea.

At several stages in the history of science, some theories and entities were posited only because they were useful, although many scientists working at the time doubted their physical reality. The heliocentric model of the solar system, for example, was initially accepted not as physically true but simply because its mathematics made it simpler to account for the apparent motion of the planets. Similarly, the atomic nucleus, the electron, and the photon were all at first considered useful concepts having no physical reality. It was sometimes not even clear that the theories could ever lead to experimentally testable predictions.

Of course, not all theories are successful, and not all hypothesized entities (for example, phlogiston and the élan vital) prove themselves to be real. As experiments (and, eventually, practical applications) proved the usefulness of some ideas, the concepts they embodied became accepted as part of physical reality. Right now, we’re at the familiar stage in which we can’t even conceive of a way to experimentally test the theory of hypermultidimensionality. However, if the history of science is any guide, scientists will eventually think of some observable implications and will perform the appropriate experiments. If the experiments succeed, the theory will become part of our scientific reality, and the previously paradoxical concepts will somehow become familiar and workable, even if not understandable; if those predictions fail, the theory will be rejected. However, if no one ever devises experimentally testable hypotheses, the theory will simply fade away as scientifically unproductive. (Or a competing theory without the extra dimensions will be devised that gives a better account of reality.)

The theory—or theories—of the multiverse, however, seems even more problematic than hypermultidimensionality. String theory hasn’t led to any testable predictions yet, but such predictions don’t seem to be intrinsically impossible. The notion of the multiverse, on the other hand, appears to be untestable in principle.

The notion of the multiverse, masquerading as scientific speculation, is equally entertaining and equally fictitious.

The notion that there can be more than one universe at first seems oxymoronic—after all, the word universe, with its prefix uni-, mean the whole of reality, all that exists. However, there is at least one striking parallel to this evolution of meaning: the word atom means, essentially, indivisible. Although we now know that what we still refer to as atoms are indeed further divisible and contain smaller entities, we now use the word to refer to the smallest unit of an element. Similarly, the word universe may be retained to point to its more-or-less original referent but with different implications: an entity that consists of everything that exists, of which there may be several.

Not all multiverses are created equal. One brand of multiverse, even if it may be untestable is, at least, scientifically unobjectionable. Our universe is currently understood to have originated in a Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago. Given the limits of the speed of light, if some of the universe is already further away than 13.8 billion light-years (due to a period of hyperinflation), it is forever isolated from us. There may, then, be any number of island universes—initially parts of the same universe originating in a single Big Bang—each forever isolated from one another. Although this notion is in principle untestable, it appears at least consistent with our current understanding of reality.

The much more problematic notion of a multiverse arises from a highly speculative interpretation of quantum mechanics. At that level, we’re told, the universe is in principle indeterminate. Certain properties of a subatomic particle (for example, whether the spin of a particle is up or down) have no reality—only relative probabilities—until a measurement is taken. One interpretation of quantum theory is that, at the moment of measurement the indeterminacy collapses and the spin is determined one way or the other.

However, another interpretation is not that a quantum collapse simply takes the one path or the other, but that the universe actually bifurcates at that moment, taking both paths at once, each in a separate universe cleaved from the original one, and henceforth and forever isolated from all others.

Not being able to understand one aspect of reality however is no justification for an entertaining but equally incomprehensible one.

It is awe-inspiring to imagine that a simple experiment in subatomic physics performed in our little corner of the universe could have such a powerful effect as to cleave it into two separate realities. Has the universe been innocently going along all this time without bifurcating until quantum physics was discovered and these experiments were performed? (This is not entirely without precedent: after all, no nuclear explosion ever occurred on Earth until scientists discovered how to set one off.) Does it all depend on a physicist daring to disturb the universe? Or is it that quantum collapse intrinsically causes universe bifurcation? Since there are an awful lot of particles in the universe (and, under some interpretations, all particles are quantum particles), they’re presumably collapsing all the time, leading to an awful lot of universes.

In some interpretations, quantum collapse eventually leads to all possible universes. We’re invited to imagine universes in which the asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and so led to the evolution of Homo sapiens never hits Earth; in which Abraham Lincoln recovers from John Wilkes Booth’s bullet; in which Adolf Hitler was a successful painter and never becomes Führer; and of course a great many universes—in fact, almost all of them—in which nothing of interest to us happens at all. It’s like Borges’ near-infinite library of all possible books, The Library of Babel. Borges’ story, of course, is a thought experiment not meant to be taken literally. The notion of the multiverse, masquerading as scientific speculation, is equally entertaining and equally fictitious.

In its recent usage, the notion of the multiverse was motivated not by any compelling and inescapable implication of quantum mechanics itself but only by our difficulty making sense of it. This concept of the multiverse is entirely unlike, for example, the fact that light behaves sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle. We have been compelled to accept that duality as a demonstrated reality, even though it makes no intuitive sense. We don’t understand duality because we can think only in humanlevel terms: light isn’t really much like an ocean wave or a BB pellet—these are just the best we can do.

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.1 (2017).
Buy this issue

The multiverse, on the other hand, is an idea some people apparently believe makes intuitive sense—perhaps because it’s such a familiar and appealing staple of science fiction—but we’re not being forced to accept it by experimental results. We may be permanently at the stage in which we accept the mathematical accuracy and usefulness of the theory of quantum mechanics without ever being able to digest and accept its physical reality—all interpretations may forever seem counterintuitive and paradoxical. Not being able to understand one aspect of reality however is no justification for an entertaining but equally incomprehensible one. The wonder of the human mind is not that we can’t understand all of reality—it’s that we can understand any of it.

This limitless proliferation of universes seems to violate the laws of the conservation of matter and energy. Worse, it violates William of Ockham’s Razor: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitate—that is, Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. Nor should universes be.

About the Author

Peter Kassan, over the course of his long career in software, was a programer, a software technical writer, a manager of technical writers and programmers, and an executive at a software products company. He’s the author or co-author of several software patents. He’s been a skeptical observer of the pursuit of artificial intelligence for some time. His last piece for Skeptic was “I Am Not Living in a Computer Simulation, and Neither Are You,” in issue 21.4.

About the image at the top

Universum by Heikenwaelder Hugo, Austria [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons is a colorized version of The Flammarion (by Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) — a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky (as if it were a solid hemisphere) to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…”

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for February 21, 2018

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 02/21/2018 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

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SCIENCE SALON # 18 Michael Shermer in conversation with Bart Ehrman: How a Forbidden Religion (Christianity) Swept the World

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In this remote Science Salon (recorded on February 19, 2018), Dr. Shermer converses with the great bible scholar and historian Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, the Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Ehrman is a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity and the author of 8 Teaching Company courses and a number of New York Times bestselling books, including Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God. In his new book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, Dr. Ehrman explores how a tiny sect of just 20 people at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion in 30 CE became 25 to 35 million Christians by 400 CE. Imagine if the couple of dozen Branch Davidians living near Waco, Texas in early 1990s, instead of being incinerated by Federal agents in a botched stand-off, went on to convert two billion people around the world to their religion. That is what early Christians did. How did they do that?

Shermer and Ehrman also discuss the modern atheism movement, how Jesus became a Republican in the second half of the 20th century, the intractable (for Christians) problem of evil, the problem of identity for Jesus (how could he be both man and God?), what pre-Christian pagans believed about the gods, what early Christians had to offer pagans that other religions didn’t, how religions invented the afterlife and what people believed before the rise of Christianity about what happens after you die, and other fascinating topics.

This interview was recorded on February 18, 2018 as part of the Science Salon series of dialogues hosted by Michael Shermer and presented by The Skeptics Society, in California. Support our work on Patreon, or by making a donation directly.

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ABOVE: Universum by Heikenwaelder Hugo, Austria [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons is a colorized version of The Flammarion (by Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) — a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky (as if it were a solid hemisphere) to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…”

The notion that there can be more than one universe at first seems oxymoronic. In this week’s eSkeptic, Peter Kassan discusses the problematic notion of a multiverse arising from a highly speculative interpretation of quantum mechanics. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.1 (2017). Buy this issue.

Trouble in the Multiverse

The boundary between science and mere scientific speculation can be elusive. Albert Einstein famously performed only thought experiments, but those mere ideas yielded counterintuitive predictions leading to experiments conclusively confirming his revolutionary theory. Other thought experiments imagined by Einstein and his colleagues meant to demonstrate the impossibility of quantum theory actually turned out to be conductible. When performed, those experiments refuted Einstein’s arguments and help confirm the quantum.

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. —Richard Feynman

Recently, however, some much more troublesome (and troubling) ideas have been advanced by some astrophysicists and cosmologists: string theory and the multiverse. The motivation and justification of string theory is to bring order to the menagerie of subatomic particles. String theory posits that we live not in a four-dimensional universe of space-time (once a highly counterintuitive notion, but now firmly established) but in a universe of many more dimensions (10 or 11, at last count), most of which we ordinary humans fail to notice simply because we’re unable to move in or through them (and because they’re very, very small relative to the more familiar ones). The usual analogy is that of two-dimensional creatures living in a flatland—on a surface (either a plane extending infinitely in two dimensions or a bounded one such as the surface of a sphere)—who would be unable to perceive a third dimension (and perhaps even to conceive of it). With 10 or more spatial dimensions, we’re told, we can conceive of subatomic particles not as point-like entities but as string-like ones vibrating in modes that can account for the variety of particles actually observed. However, no testable predictions have yet been advanced to confirm or disprove the idea.

At several stages in the history of science, some theories and entities were posited only because they were useful, although many scientists working at the time doubted their physical reality. The heliocentric model of the solar system, for example, was initially accepted not as physically true but simply because its mathematics made it simpler to account for the apparent motion of the planets. Similarly, the atomic nucleus, the electron, and the photon were all at first considered useful concepts having no physical reality. It was sometimes not even clear that the theories could ever lead to experimentally testable predictions. […]

Read the full article

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Russia and China Are Working on Space and Counterspace Weapons

Universe Today Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 3:24pm

Every year, the Department of National Intelligence (DNI) releases its Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. This annual report contains the intelligence community’s assessment of potential threats to US national security and makes recommendations accordingly. In recent years, these threats have included the development and proliferation of weapons, regional wars, economic trends, terrorism, cyberterrorism, etc.

This year’s assessment, which was released on February 8th, 2018, was certainly a mixed bag of warnings. Among the many potential threats to national security, the authors emphasized the many recent developments taking place in space. According to their assessment, the expansion of the global space industry, growing cooperation between the private and public sector, and the growth of various states in space, could constitute a threat to US national security.

Naturally, the two chief actors that are singled out were China and Russia. As they indicate, these countries will be leading the pack in the coming years when it comes to expanding space-based reconnaissance, communications and navigation systems. This will not only enable their abilities (and those of their allies) when it comes to space-based research, but will have military applications as well.

The second flight of the Long March 5 lifting off from Wenchang on July 2nd, 2017. Credit: CNS

As they state in the section of the report titled “Space and Counhttps://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/2018-ATA—Unclassified-SSCI.pdfterspace“:

“Continued global space industry expansion will further extend space-enabled capabilities and space situational awareness to nation-state, nonstate, and commercial space actors in the coming years, enabled by the increased availability of technology, private-sector investment, and growing international partnerships for shared production and operation… All actors will increasingly have access to space-derived information services, such as imagery, weather, communications, and positioning, navigation, and timing for intelligence, military, scientific, or business purposes.”

A key aspect of this development is outlined in the section titled “Emerging and Disruptive Technology,” which addresses everything from the development of AI and internet technologies to additive manufacturing and advanced materials. In short, it not just the development of new rockets and spacecraft that are at issue here, but the benefits brought about by cheaper and lighter materials, more rapid information sharing and production.

“Emerging technology and new applications of existing technology will also allow our adversaries to more readily develop weapon systems that can strike farther, faster, and harder and challenge the United States in all warfare domains, including space,” they write.

Artist’s illustration of China’s 8-ton Tiangong-1 space station, which is expected to fall to Earth in late 2017. Credit: CMSE

Specifically, anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons are addressed as the major threat. Such technologies, according to the report, have the potential to reduce US and allied military effectiveness by disrupting global communications, navigation and coordination between nations and armies. These technologies could be destructive, in the form of anti-satellite missiles, but also nondestructive – i.e. electromagnetic pulse (EMP) devices. As they indicate:

“We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against US and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived US military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems. Military reforms in both countries in the past few years indicate an increased focus on establishing operational forces designed to integrate attacks against space systems and services with military operations in other domains.”

The authors further anticipate that Russian and Chinese destructive ASAT technology could reach operational capacity within a few years time. To this end, they cite recent changes in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which include the formation of military units that have training in counter-space operations and the development of ground-launched ASAT missiles.

While they are not certain about Russia’s capability to wage ASAT warfare, they venture that similar developments are taking place. Another area of focus is the development of directed-energy weapons for the purpose of blinding or damaging space-based optical sensors. This technology is similar to what the US investigated decades ago for the sake of strategic missile defense – aka. the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

An artist’s concept of a Space Laser Satellite Defense System. Credit: USAF

While these weapons would not be used to blow up satellites in the conventional sense, they would be capable of blinding or damaging sensitive space-based optical sensors. On top of that, the report cites how Russia and China continue to conduct on-orbit activities and launching satellites that are deemed “experimental”. A good example of this was a recent proposal made by researchers from the Information and Navigation College at China’s Air Force Engineering University.

The study which detailed their findings called for the deployment of a high-powered pulsed ablative laser that could be used to break up space junk. While the authors admit that such technology can have peaceful applications – ranging from satellite inspection, refueling and repair – they could also be used against other spacecraft. While the United States has been researching the technology for decades, China and Russia’s growing presence in space threatens to tilt this balance of power.

Moreover, there are the loopholes in the existing legal framework – as outlined in the Outer Space Treaty – which the authors believe China and Russia are intent on exploiting:

“Russia and China continue to publicly and diplomatically promote international agreements on the nonweaponization of space and “no first placement” of weapons in space. However, many classes of weapons would not be addressed by such proposals, allowing them to continue their pursuit of space warfare capabilities while publicly maintaining that space must be a peaceful domain.”

Artist’s impression of a laser removing orbital debris, based on NASA pictures. Credit: Fulvio314/NASA/Wikipedia Commons

For example, the Outer Space Treaty bars signatories from placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit of Earth, on the Moon, on any other celestial body, or in outer space in general. By definition, this referred to nuclear devices, but does not extend to conventional weapons in orbit. This leaves room for antisatellite platforms or other conventional space-based weapons that could constitute a major threat.

Beyond China and Russia, the report also indicates that Iran’s growing capabilities in rocketry and missile technology could pose a threat down the road. As with the American and Russian space programs, developments in space rocketry and ICBMs are seen as being complimentary to each other:

“Iran’s ballistic missile programs give it the potential to hold targets at risk across the region, and Tehran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. Tehran’s desire to deter the United States might drive it to field an ICBM. Progress on Iran’s space program, such as the launch of the Simorgh SLV in July 2017, could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles use similar technologies.”

All told, the report makes some rather predictable assessments. Given China and Russia’s growing power in space, it is only natural that the DNI would see this as a potential threat. However, that does not mean that one should assume an alarmist attitude. When it comes to assessing threats, points are awarded for considering every contingency. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that assessment and realization are two very different things.

Remember Sputnik? The lesson there was clear. Don’t panic!

Further Reading: DNI

The post Russia and China Are Working on Space and Counterspace Weapons appeared first on Universe Today.

Categories: Science

Where have all the thagomizers gone?

Pharyngula Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 2:35pm

I discuss this pressing concern in this video:

Categories: Science

A fake organ mimics what happens in the blink of an eye

Science News Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 2:15pm
A newly crafted artificial eye could help researchers study treatments for dry eye disease and other ailments.
Categories: Science

Computer models allow farmers to diversify pest management methods

Computers and Math from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 1:12pm
A technology developed by Brazilian researchers can help fighting highly resistant agricultural pests by analyzing the connections between the pests' patterns of dispersal in crops and different configurations in diversified intercropping systems.
Categories: Science

Reaching new heights in laser-accelerated ion energy

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 1:12pm
A laser-driven ion acceleration scheme could lead to compact ion sources for established and innovative applications in science, medicine and industry.
Categories: Science

MEMS chips get metalenses

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 1:12pm
Lens technologies have advanced across all scales, from digital cameras and high bandwidth in fiber optics to the LIGO instruments. Now, a new lens technology that could be produced using standard computer-chip technology is emerging and could replace the bulky layers and complex geometries of traditional curved lenses. Researchers have developed a device that integrates mid-infrared spectrum metalenses onto MEMS.
Categories: Science

Robo-picker grasps and packs

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 1:12pm
A new robotic system could lend a hand with warehouse sorting and other picking or clearing tasks.
Categories: Science

Robo-picker grasps and packs

Computers and Math from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 1:12pm
A new robotic system could lend a hand with warehouse sorting and other picking or clearing tasks.
Categories: Science

Daily chorus of farm cats

Why Evolution is True Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 12:30pm

Let’s end the day with some cat cacophony. You’re either going to like this video and its attendant cat chorus, or find it grating. So be it. Here’s the story from Paws Planet:

Farmer Corey Karmann has a pack of twelve kitties in his farm. The gang does a good job keeping the rats at bay. And there’s no abusing here, Corey takes excellent care of all of them and every evening when he returns from work the cats are on the porch waiting ‘patiently’ for their evening meal and that’s when the chorus starts!

Corey decided to film the hungry cats, and later the video captured a lot of attention from the Internet. People thought the kitties are absolutely adorable and would be pleased to feed them everyday.

“These are my farm cats, not stray in any way. They live a happy life outside keeping mice out of my house and barns. Yes, they were fed more than that, I just didn’t see any reason to tape their entire meal. I decided to record this because I thought this little ritual was funny and might bring a smile to a few people faces”, said Corey.

If this sends you to YouTube, go there by clicking on the video or this link:

 

Categories: Science

How to build a human brain

Science News Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 12:30pm
Organoids, made from human stem cells, are growing into brains and other miniorgans to help researchers study development
Categories: Science

A responsible gun owner

Pharyngula Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 11:49am

They do exist.

Categories: Science

Spare parts from small parts: Novel scaffolds to grow muscle

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 11:35am
Australian biomedical engineers have developed a 3-D material that successfully mimics nature to transform cells into muscle.
Categories: Science

Researchers achieve 'Olympic ring' molecule breakthrough just in time for Winter Games

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 11:35am
More than 7,000 miles away from the snowcapped peaks of PyeongChang, scientists in Florida have unlocked a novel strategy for synthesizing a highly versatile molecule called olympicene -- a compound of carbon and hydrogen atoms named for its familiar Olympic ring shape.
Categories: Science

Unprecedented single-digit-nanometer magnetic tunnel junction demonstrated

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 11:35am
Researchers have developed ultra-small magnetic tunnel junctions with high retention properties for use in semiconductor technologies.
Categories: Science

Reshaping drug tests

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 11:35am
Researchers have improved on the currently available methods for screening drugs for heart-related side effects. The method involves fabricating a tiny hole in a silicon chip over which lipid membranes, similar to those that surround cells, are encouraged to grow.
Categories: Science

Can you eat cells? Computer model predicts which organisms are capable of phagocytosis

Computers and Math from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 11:34am
Researchers have created a computational model capable of predicting whether or not organisms have the ability to 'eat' other cells through a process known as phagocytosis. The model may be a useful tool for large-scale microbe surveys and provides valuable insight into the evolution of complex life on Earth, challenging ideas put forward in recent studies.
Categories: Science

Using a laser to wirelessly charge a smartphone safely across a room

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 11:34am
Engineers have for the first time developed a method to safely charge a smartphone wirelessly using a laser.
Categories: Science

'Click chemistry' reactions may boost cancer-fighting drug potency

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 11:34am
Researchers have developed a quick and easy way to simultaneously modify dozens of drugs or molecules to improve their disease-fighting properties.
Categories: Science

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