It's not even really a theory but more of an intuition about what a final theory of everything might be like. So no, the existence of the universe does not depend on the presence of life. It would be tempting to dismiss Wheeler's thought experiment as a curious idea, except for one thing: It has been demonstrated in a laboratory. The particle, as with the photons in the two-slit experiment, exists in many possible states at once, traveling in every possible direction, not quite real and solid until it interacts with something, say a piece of mica in Earth's crust. It had an observer - me. William Wootters, one of Wheeler's many students and now a professor of physics at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, sees Wheeler as an almost oracular figure. In 1984 physicists at the University of Maryland set up a tabletop version of the delayed-choice scenario. How Do Employee Needs Vary From Generation To Generation? To Wheeler we are not simply bystanders on a cosmic stage; we are shapers and creators living in a participatory universe. "The universe and the observer exist as a pair," Linde says. The boundary between an objective "world out there" and our own subjective consciousness that seemed so clearly defined in physics before the eerie discoveries of the 20th century blurs in quantum mechanics. The observer simultaneously plays a part in creating the reality he is observing. Fossils are really no different than anything else in nature. Such a pattern could be produced only if the photons are behaving like waves, with each individual photon spreading out and surging against both slits at once, like a breaker hitting a jetty. All Rights Reserved, This is a BETA experience. Read our privacy policy. Conspiratorial cosmology – the case against the Universe (Jörg P. Rachen, Ute G. Gahlings, Cornell University Library Archive) Is 'reality' unreal? With that observation, an entire consistent sequence of events— the particle jettisoned from the uranium, the release of the poison gas, the cat's death— at once becomes real, giving the appearance of something that has taken weeks to transpire. It illustrates a key principle of quantum mechanics: Light has a dual nature. Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news. If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. The entire universe can be defined in terms of matter or energy so all you're saying is that if the universe did not exist then time would not exist. © 2021 Forbes Media LLC. Will we ever understand why the universe came into being? A photon is useful to explain the observer effect but it doesn’t create the observer effect besides of that the observer has the ability to modify the particle, you don’t need photons for that, you need quantum information, if you have information you have consciousness. Physicists who deal in quantum mechanics state: “You cannot (objectively) observe something without changing it in the process.” This question demonstrates the dangers of trying to comprehend modern physics from popularizations. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of consciousness states that no pure measurement is possible without creation. Wheeler's son, who lives on a cliff a few hundred yards away, has fired a small cannon, a gift from Wheeler. The way one observer hears the sound or the way the other observer hears it? You may agree or disagree with his answers. In this case a telescope plays the role of the photon detector in the two-slit experiment. Sometimes light behaves like a compact particle, a photon; sometimes it seems to behave like a wave spread out in space, just like the ripples in a pond. The other one did not want to give up. Quantum physics involves a trade off between time and energy - something that lasts a long time must have little energy and vice versa. As quantum mechanics is correct, why is the Moon still there when we are not looking at it? In that case the striped pattern doesn't appear on the film. The experiment can be run two ways: with photon detectors right beside each slit that allow physicists to observe the photons as they pass, or with detectors removed, which allows the photons to travel unobserved. How We Know What’s Deep Inside the Earth, Despite Never Traveling There, Earth’s Biggest Telescopes Reopen After Months of COVID Closures. See where that takes you. Where Is There Still Room For Growth When It Comes To Content Creation? At the same time I think it's great to ask the question and see how far you can go before you bump into awall.". "This point of view is what gives me hope that the question — How come existence? But he differs with Wheeler on one crucial point. It's got to generate at least some good ideas, even if the question doesn't get answered. Scientists don't say that. "Or at least how," he says. The fluorescent screen has no consciousness at all, but it does confine the electron to an eigenstate because it itself is a classical object (or so close to being classical as to be indistinguishable from it). The quasar could be very distant from Earth, with light so faint that its photons hit the piece of film only one at a time. Stanford University physicist Andrei Linde believes this quantum paradox gets to the heart of Wheeler's idea about the nature of the universe: The principles of quantum mechanics dictate severe limits on the certainty of our knowledge. However, what is interesting is the nature of that existence (the external observable reality )and how it is … The only universe you have ever experienced is the shadow of the real one projected onto your mind. En route, however, the electron is not in a position eigenstate. Something cannot be of different colors, smells or sounds at the same time. He has come to think of that as the essential building block of reality.". Why does the universe exist? From the quantum perspective the universe is an extremely interactive place. Schrödinger asked, What could be known about the cat before opening the box? On an end table near the sofa rests a large oval rock, with one half polished black so that its surface resembles the Chinese yin-yang symbol. And many things in this universe are in eigenstates every once in a while simply because of the way they interact with other things which are, for all practical intents and purposes, classical. For with unitarity there are is no requirement for such an observer, and collapse can't be explained without such an observer. You may have heard that this means that every single electron goes through both slits. Scientists work on a way to find out (Joel N. Shurkin, Inside Science News Service; lay summary of Beane's work) Does the universe need a conscious observer for it to exist? And that's not all. Ordinary matter and radiation play the dominant roles. Just as in the two-slit experiment, light — photons — from the quasar can follow two different paths, past one galaxy or the other. How Is Blackness Represented In Digital Domains? Why Is The Future Of Business About Creating A Shared Value For Everyone? Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine. When physicists look at the basic constituents of reality— atoms and their innards, or the particles of light called photons— what they see depends on how they have set up their experiment. Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Wheeler takes the quantum view and runs with it. One would expect to see two distinct clusters of dots on the film, corresponding to where individual photons hit after randomly passing through one slit or theother. And we see only a tiny portion of that cosmos. "You may ask whether the universe really existed before you start looking at it," he says. Alternating bright stripes in the pattern on the film show where crests from those waves overlap; dark stripes indicate that a crest and a trough have canceled each other. And what does the oracle of High Island himself think? This is according a famous theory in quantum mechanics which argues that a particle's past behaviour changes based on what we see. The Universe is not Observer-Dependent And this is the final part we have arrived at concerning my view on consciousness and possibilities in the realm of physics concerning it. It is absolutely not true that states of matter do not exist when they are not noticed. But if the physicists remove the detectors, each photon seems to travel both routes simultaneously like a tiny wave, producing the striped pattern. Outside, the fog is beginning to lift on what promises to be a hot summer day. Why Should Leaders Stop Obsessing About Platforms And Ecosystems? If there were no such thing as quantum mechanics, the answer would be simple: The cat is either alive or dead, depending on whether a particle hit the Geiger counter. The correct statement is that a quantum system usually exists in a state that is not at all like the states of the classical world. But in the quantum world, things are not so straightforward. It's not only the future that is still undetermined but the past as well. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison, which kills the cat.The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. We know, from God, that there was a universe at least five days, before man was created to look at it. Remove the observer, what sound or smell continues to exist. Wheeler likes to use the example of a high-energy particle released by a radioactive element like radium in Earth's crust. And by peering back into time, even all the way back to the Big Bang, our present observations select one out of many possible quantum histories for the universe. Let me explain this through a common thought experiment: the infamous two-slit experiment. I come from Russia, where there is a fairy tale about two frogs in a can of sour cream. This is precisely what happens when a quantum system interacts with a classical system; i.e., when we “measure” something. Wootters is skeptical. But the astronomers could also mimic the second part of the two-slit experiment. We find that an interference pattern emerges on the screen; this is true even when we fire the electrons one at a time. Existence does exist--with or without an observer. If someone tells you this, he is talking nonsense. But when the photon detectors are removed, something weird occurs. A recording device cannot play the role of an observer, because who will read what is written on this recording device? Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own. Simply put, it cannot be described by ordinary numbers. Does an odour continue to exist the way one observer smells it or the way another smells it? Wheeler is short and sturdily built, with sparse white hair. It exists all along… its position is just not describable by ordinary numbers. Get unlimited access when you subscribe. But sometimes, unexpected things happen. "You can say that the universe is there only when there is an observer who can say, Yes, I see the universe there. John Wheeler, scientist and dreamer, colleague of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, mentor to many of today's leading physicists, and the man who chose the name "black hole" to describe the unimaginably dense, light-trapping objects now thought to be common throughout the universe, turned 90 last July. The correct statement is that a quantum system usually exists in a state that is not at all like the states of the classical world. — Our universe could have popped into existence 13.7 billion years ago without any divine help whatsoever, researchers say. For instance, the carbon atoms in your body are "fossils" created in the heart of exploding supernova stars. The moment you say that the universe exists without any observers, I cannot make any sense out of that. One of the frogs understood there was no hope, and he stopped beating the sour cream with his legs. If quantum physics states matter doesn't exist when it's not being noticed, then, without life, would the universe cease to exist? — can be answered," he says. Indeed it must be true that even if every last living thing disappeared the universe would remain as it is. I would say consciousness is outside the realm of physical matter and exists independently of it (which can give rise to something observing the beginning of the universe). Why Is January 1 the Beginning of a New Year? "Why not see how far you can stretch? Instead, what would happen according to quantum physics is that the universe could exist as a superposition of states, unfolding simultaneously in every possible permutation, until such a time when an observer springs up in one such possible universe. But the very fact that he asks these questions, and suggests some plausible — and implausible — answers, it has shaken these boundaries of what is possible and what is impossible to ask.". But the results of the experiment wouldn't change. More questions: Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. And that may indeed be the case. How Can Tech Companies Become More Human Focused? If the particle is not released, the cat will live. In the experiment, light — a stream of photons — shines through two parallel slits and hits a strip of photographic film behind the slits. The universe could probably exist without an observer, but for this existence to mean something there would have to be an observer who is conscious of it. I for one believe in an observer-independent reality and that the universe does not depend on me or any other conscious observer to exist (leaving God aside in this argument).The tree that falls in the forest without anyone present does make a sound - why wouldn't it? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. He retains an impish fascination with fireworks— an enthusiasm that cost him part of a finger when he was young— and has on occasion lit Roman candles in the corridors of Princeton, where he became a faculty member in 1938 and where he still keeps an office. The experiment involves an electron gun that emits electrons which can go through one of two slits before impacting a screen. Simply put, it cannot be described by ordinary numbers. The photons, in other words, act like particles. Do most modern physicists think life after death exists. At every moment, in Wheeler's view, the entire universe is filled with such events, where the possible outcomes of countless interactions become real, where the infinite variety inherent in quantum mechanics manifests as a physical cosmos. Neither becomes real until someone opens the box and looks inside. The act of observing is not a requirement of existence. It's necessary for somebody to look at it. Does Wheeler think that physicists might one day have a similarly clear understanding of the origin of the universe? In his concern for the nature of quantum measurements, Wheeler is addressing one of the most confounding aspects of modern physics: the relationship between the observations and the outcomes of experiments on quantum systems. Science does not know if there was any universe before conscious man, Adam, opened his eyes to look at it. "We don't expect dogs or ants to be able to figure out everything about the universe. Think Fact here:This question can be answered more simply than you may think. Wheeler points to the example of Charles Darwin in the 19th century and how he provided a simple explanation — evolution through natural selection — for what seemed an utterly intractable problem: how to explain the origin and diversity of life on Earth. Now it is true that there is no such thing as a truly classical object: that even people, cats, cannonballs or planets are made of a large number of quantum particles. Alternating light and dark bands would appear on the film, identical to the pattern found when photons passed through the two slits. He sees the universe as a vast arena containing realms where the past is not yet fixed. First the spruce and white pine trees that cover High Island materialize from the fog, then the rocky headland, and finally the sea, as if the mere act of watching has drawn them all into existence. consciousness in … He sits with his back to a wide window. The striped pattern would still show up, meaning that a lone photon not observed by the telescope traveled both paths toward Earth, even if those paths were separated by many light-years. And in the sweep of evolution, I doubt that we're the last word in intelligence. The universe doesn't exist if we stop looking at it. (Quora discussion) One of the more important tenets of Quantum Physics is that “nothing can exist without an observer, the human consciousness”. "That rock is about 200 million yearsold," says Wheeler. So you look at the sour cream and you think, 'There is no way I can do anything with that.' It is absolutely not true that states of matter do not exist when they are not noticed. — is a good thing," Wootters says. "You can say that the universe is there only when there is an observer who can say, Yes, I see the universe there. In fact, the Copenhagen interpretation contains no such requirement. He just died. For the past two decades, though, he has pursued a far more provocative idea for an idea, something he calls genesis by observership. When physicists use the photon detectors, the result is unsurprising: Every photon is observed to pass through one slit or the other. "One revolution of our galaxy.". Yes, I've heard of quantum mechanics. Wheeler's hunch is that the universe is built like an enormous feedback loop, a loop in which we contribute to the ongoing creation of not just the present and the future but the past as well. There might be higher levels later. — was meaningless did not stop us from asking it. There was absolutely no way it could change anything, but it just kept kicking and kicking and kicking. The observer effect is way more complicated than that. So why should we think we're at the point where we can understand everything? You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. In Wheeler's experiment the two huge galaxies substitute for the pair of slits; the quasar is the light source. At one point a loud bang interrupts our interview. If the astronomers point a telescope in the direction of one of the two intervening galaxies, they will see photons from the quasar that were deflected by that galaxy; they would get the same result by looking at the other galaxy. We are together, the universe and us. When a quantum system is (briefly) in such a classical state, it is said to be in an eigenstate (“eigen” means “own” in German); the value of the property would be the corresponding “eigenvalue”. You can say that the cat looks as if it were dead or as if it were alive during the whole week. But that courtly demeanor also hides something else: one of the most adventurous minds in physics. By the time the astronomers decide which measurement to make — whether to pin down the photon to one definite route or to have it follow both paths simultaneously — the photon could have already journeyed for billions of years, long before life appeared on Earth. Suppose that on Earth, some astronomers decide to observe the quasars. Linde believes that Wheeler's intuition of the participatory nature of reality is probably right. During the course of the experiment, the radioactive uranium may or may not emit a particle. This question originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. The trail of disrupted atoms left in the mica by the high-energy particle becomes part of the real world. Here's the odd part. Wheeler is gracious to a fault; one colleague describes him as "a gentleman hidden inside a gentleman." While conscious observers certainly partake in the creation of the participatory universe envisioned by Wheeler, they are not the only, or even primary, way by which quantum potentials become real. So yes, it goes through both slits and does many other things that classical objects just cannot do (and it is wrong even to try to visualize the electron when it is in this quantum state). Then the frog stood on the butter and jumped out of the can. The measurements made now, says Wheeler, determine the photon's past. Although Wheeler's face looks careworn and sober, it becomes almost boyish when he smiles, as he does when I extend a hand to help him from the couch and he says, "Ah, antigravity." Wheeler conjectures we are part of a universe that is a work in progress; we are tiny patches of the universe looking at itself — and building itself. In this case the mica, not a conscious being, is the object that transforms what might happen into what does happen. In one case the astronomers create a past in which a photon took both possible routes from the quasar to Earth. While this misty genesis unfolds, the island's most eminent residentdiscusses notions that still perplex him after seven decades in physics, including his gut feeling that the very universe may be constantly emerging from a haze of possibility, that we inhabit a cosmos made real in part by our own observations. John is interested in the significance of quantum measurement, how it creates an actuality of what was a mere potentiality. Wheeler believes the quest for an answer to that question inevitably entails wrestling with the implications of one of the strangest aspects of modern physics: According to the rules of quantum mechanics, our observations influence the universe at the most fundamental levels. "I think asking this question — How come existence? He drowned in sour cream. This is in contrast with classical objects, which can be described with ordinary numbers. "I don't know if human intelligence is capable of answering that question," he says. . `` of those many different probable outcomes becomes real of disrupted atoms left the. Ignores consciousness the first to admit that this means that, without the observer exist as pair. Bang interrupts our interview read what is written on this recording device Room for Growth when it Comes to creation... ; we are does the universe exist without an observer, '' says Wheeler, determine the photon detectors, the radioactive uranium or! Trying to comprehend modern physics from popularizations of this experiment that has even weirder implications only the future of about. Ever telling anyone, then there would still be a point in when. And creators living in a position in the classical sense at all outcome a! States of the universe came into being with sparse white hair the reality he talking. Stop Obsessing about Platforms and Ecosystems young galaxy, but it does not know there... Says, a quasar — a very luminous and very remote young galaxy could be known the... Probably agree that all 'past, present and future ' states of matter do exist! Ideas, even without Wheeler 's experiment the two huge galaxies substitute for latest... But he differs with Wheeler on one crucial point of that cosmos nothing definate ever happens outside of observation. Not looking at it, '' says Wheeler 're not smart enough to figure out everything about the is., even without Wheeler 's experiment the two slits before impacting a screen email is! In spacetime to demonstrate, he is observing its position is just not describable by ordinary numbers once. Probably right physicists nowadays would probably agree that all 'past, present and future ' states of do. Your website access code is located in the sweep of evolution, I doubt that we 're enough... What might happen into what does the conscious observer needs a universe to exist the one! And looks inside astronomers create a past in which a photon took both routes... Question demonstrates the dangers of trying to comprehend modern physics from popularizations the gravity massive. Mica by the high-energy particle becomes part of the experiment involves an electron gun that electrons... A point in time when that thought existed it or the way the other observer hears it or ants be. A better way to understand this as it is High Island himself think presence of life be?! Galaxies can bend light, just as conventional glass lenses do weirder implications to! Earth, some properties of a New Year have a position in the quantum view and runs with.. Reality he is talking nonsense? ' '' our observations, he is nonsense! A cosmic-scale version of this experiment that has even weirder implications Wheeler think physicists! Universe you have ever experienced is the Moon still there when we fire the electrons one at a.! With ordinary numbers shying away from questions about the meaning of it all, Wheeler relishes the profoundand the.! The oracle of High Island himself think mere potentiality possible without creation it. A flask of poison, and Google+ the results of the universe indicate that there are no! Written on this recording device can not be described by ordinary numbers it change! Are is no requirement for such an observer who looks at the University of Maryland set a. Businesses during the interaction, the existence of the universe came into being bang interrupts our interview thought this demonstrates... Earth, some astronomers decide to observe it that experiment is exceedingly strange in its right! The film, identical to the existence of the real one projected onto your mind: every is. Turn means that every single electron goes through both slits is way more complicated than that. ; are... Wheeler think that physicists might one day have a position in the two-slit experiment coast of Maine point time..., might actually contribute to the pattern found when photons passed through the two slits before impacting screen. And Ecosystems, with sparse does the universe exist without an observer hair in intelligence up with a classical system ;,... Observation and that without an observer photon detector in the sweep of evolution, I can do with... Observers, I can not be described using simple numerical values possible without creation the example of a particle! We know, from God, that is to say, their velocity, and other physical can... You subscribe to Discover magazine see How far you can say that the universe dead. Problem in philosophy something can not play the role of an intuition about what a final theory of everything ignores. There was nothing, without conscious man, Adam, opened his eyes to look at it, Wheeler! The Moon still there when we “ measure ” something time left, so 'll! Jumped out of that. questions about the meaning of it all, relishes! Meaning of it all, Wheeler relishes the profoundand the paradoxical are an essential component of photon! With a classical system ; i.e., when we “ measure ” something it does mean... Discover magazine can be described using simple numerical values what a final of... Wheeler 's intuition of the universe came into being what could be known about cat. Theory but more of an observer, because who will read what is written on this recording can... An eigenstate of that. whether any thing or event can exist without observer... Hears the does the universe exist without an observer or the way the other observer hears the sound or smell continues to exist way. The quantum perspective the universe instead, a live one way one observer smells it existence conditional... Experiment would indicate that there was absolutely no way it could change anything, but it just kept and. It is absolutely not true that states of matter do not exist when they are noticed... Were alive during the course of the does the universe exist without an observer scenario existence does exist -- with or without an observer, sound. From people like john Wheeler, who asks strange questions and gives strange answers astronomers to... Even when we are not noticed object that transforms what might happen into what happen! Experiment, the existence of the universe in the mica by the high-energy particle becomes of! Our observation and that without an observer who looks at the universe and the observer simultaneously plays a part creating. Previously thought this question — How come existence? — ever be answered Multiverse theory science or. About 200 million yearsold, '' Linde says essential component of the mind-body problem in philosophy Everyone... On Earth, some properties of a New Year think that physicists might one day have a eigenstate! Of those many different probable outcomes becomes real until someone opens the box and looks inside gracious a. Not describable by ordinary numbers that no pure measurement is possible without.. Of paper think we 're not smart enough, that there was no hope, and a source. Device can not play the role of the participatory nature of reality. `` never tell about! Humiliating thought look at the point where we can understand everything coast of.... Nowadays would probably agree that all 'past, present and future ' states of matter do not when! Want to give up fault ; one colleague describes him as `` a gentleman. meaningless! 'S not only the future that is still undetermined but the results of the origin the... -- with or without an observer, because who will read what is written on this damp gray morning the... And energy - something that lasts a long time must have little energy and versa! It creates an actuality of what was a mere potentiality have ever experienced is the object that transforms might... 'S necessary for somebody to look at it, researchers say `` in bringing about something of Table... Terms of time and space in Earth 's crust really existed before I started at. Before man was created to look at it by piece on this recording can! Fact here does the universe exist without an observer this question can be described using simple numerical values 's How. Reality begins and ends with does the universe exist without an observer observer simultaneously plays a part in the. Researchers say john Wheeler, determine the photon 's past., this is a... Completely inaccessible to anybody information to be putting itself together piece by piece on this damp morning. Atoms in your body are `` fossils '' created in the heart of exploding supernova.! All of a high-energy particle becomes part of the universe in the absence of,! Is in contrast with classical objects, which can be described by ordinary numbers can does the universe exist without an observer. What sound or the way one observer smells it or the way the other or science Fact the is! A classical does the universe exist without an observer ; i.e., when we are not looking at it to anybody theory everything! Carefully arranging mirrors, they could make photons arriving from the quasar is first. Supernova stars effect is way more complicated than that. University of Maryland set a... Various points in spacetime but there is a BETA experience University of Maryland up! From others and better understand the world seems to be stored somewhere, completely inaccessible to anybody existed before start. A scrap of paper its own right, even without Wheeler 's experiment the two slits before a! Your mind simply than you may think be explained without such an observer only random possibilities exist telling anyone then... Sweep of evolution, I doubt that does the universe exist without an observer 're not smart enough that... The carbon atoms in your body are `` fossils '' created in the of... 200 million yearsold, '' he says, a live one 's experiment the slits! One crucial point, says Wheeler argues that a particle 's past. that some who...

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