What happens behind my back?

Firstly a bit of blog news; on Wednesday Rationalising the Universe celebrated its first birthday – we have come far further in one year than I ever anticipated when I registered the site last year, in a Starbucks on Baker Street studying differential equations at 7:30pm. Over 2,500 follows, 20,000 hits and a feature on WordPress Discover, along with the addition of a new and highly talented author. Thank you to all who have interacted and contributed to the blog in the last year – with a particular mention to Jiisand and Kersten who keep me endlessly entertained with their comments, Richard Barker for the surprising mutual ground we share despite different lenses on the universe, Pearl for consistent and insightful comments from the start and Maths by a Girl for keeping my math game sharp several times a week.

I was encouraged to see the discussion on Mekhi’s post;  it is comforting to know that there are many people out there who want to grapple with the things that matter, in a world where the trivial sometimes seems to dominate. The idea of reality only existing when observed was discussed heavily – should the reality humans know be dependent on us logging it? On the macroscopic scale the resounding answer is no – the tree does make noise in the forest regardless, but this reminded me of the problems with observer dependence in quantum physics. The tree falling in the forest, when discussed among physicists does not take much extension to transform into an elegant metaphor. Instead of developing these thoughts through comments I thought I would add an additional post, which blends with Mekhi’s work and with my analysis of Schrodinger’s cat. I will start where I finish; reality must not be observer dependent.

Aside from the fact a sandwich costs around £25, Copenhagen has another big problem; that is the Copenhagen Interpretation (or the Copenhagen work-around if you are feeling particularly cynical). Today, sitting in 2016 it is acceptable; the quantum realm exists in a foamy reality unless we look at it, collapse the wave function and fix reality. However there is the word we which implies a duty upon us to collapse the wave function or leave the quantum realm in its wavelike reality. When we go back to the very inception of the universe in which we reside, the hot big bang model gives a high energy dense soup of particles obeying, we presume, the quantum laws (albeit with some differences for the unification of the fundamental interactions depending on how far back you go). If we are to accept a reality in which particles only occupy their fixed point in space when an observer collapses the wave function – the more interesting point emerges, how do we have observers at all? For these primordial particles to collapse into single points in space and begin to clump into larger bodies, eventually making the stars which cooked us up; what initiated the collapse in an observer-less universe? (For a less rushed history of the universe see my Brief History of the Universe).

Despite the above; let us not forget that the wave function, along with quantum mechanics in general is arguably one of the most successful blends of theory and experimental progress ever known. The theory is less than 100 years old, and gives us a framework which agrees almost entirely to every experiment performed. So how can something both agree entirely to experiment, whilst at the same time not be quite right? It was Aristotle who lead us down the wrong path when he favored the use of logic alone declaring if you threw a stone upwards on a moving chariot it would land behind the chariot. This way of thinking, somewhat embarrassingly took until the days of Galileo to dispel – and since then the modern scientific method requires theories to be experimentally verified. So if the wave function is experimentally verified, it must be right? Well no – it can’t be right but that’s not necessarily doom and gloom; after all Newton was both wrong and experimental correct. Salvation for us lies, we hope, in a similar place that young Siddhartha Gautama found it – a middle way.

If you consider the vast number of quantum mechanical interpretations, objective collapse theories are closest (by a long way) to the Copenhagen Interpretation – this is a middle way that does not entirely depart from the central ideas but removes the observer problem. Collapse theories allow for the wave function and wave function collapse, however they allow the two to be objective (i.e. not dependent on the observer). The central pillar of any collapse theory is to allow wave function collapse to occur with a particle taking a fixed position without any observer present. How that collapse is actually initiated depends on your view point; Rodger Penrose for example believes the process is spurred on by quantum gravity and that there is an energy threshold beyond which the collapse will occur. Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber take a spontaneous collapse approach, introducing new terms to the wave function to allow for the objective collapse. If this is the case, then we imagine the probability would be very low; which need not be an issue in the very early universe where we have billions (and billions and billions and billions etc.) of particles to play with.

I don’t want to get too deep into the mechanisms by which a collapse could occur which an observer has not initiated; partly because they are heavily complex and require the full mathematics of the wave function (which I would not do justice) but also because there is much uncertainty. A much more fruitful discussion can be had around the benefits posed to quantum mechanics (and people worried about falling trees) if we can arrive at a position where we don’t just redefine what an observer is – we scrub them out entirely. The cat posed the interesting paradox where quantum mechanical processes were tied to macroscopic bodies to give a view of reality we are fairly sure does not exist. As exciting as it would be to think my entire body zooms into a wonderful state of superposition in an observer-less reality it seems unlikely. Under this new collapse approach, when we have large bodies we have so many particles interacting that their wave functions collapse like it’s going out of fashion; this does not require me to be looking at something to make it so. This is because the collapse of the wave function of one particle can set off the rest, so whilst the collapse of any one particle might take billions of years, the collapse of the wave function of a particle within my billion billion billion particles wouldn’t require such a wait. In fact, the wave functions could in theory not even form in my large conglomerate of matter giving a fixed view that my friends are used to observing.

There is a more mysterious application too – you may well have heard about the information paradox within a black hole. Particle goes into a black hole where (we assume) there are no observers. We accept that information is lost within a black hole. So if the particles information is the wave function,  with the wave function collapsing on observation either the information is retained or there is an observer sitting in the black hole collapsing my wave function. Neither of these appeal; but if you start to allow for objective collapse then your paradox is resolved. There has been a flurry of research and calculations in this area; and it would seem possible that you can indeed modify the current Copenhagen Interpretation whilst preserving the experimental success of the theory to account for the rate of information loss within a black hole. This must be a holy grail for quantum mechanics – the removal of observer dependence, the solving of many paradoxes retaining the experimental success. The theories even give a nudge in the right direction for the mystery of dark energy.

So what does happen behind my back? Logically – nothing. The conclusions reached in Seeing is Believing are correct; order is preserved in the macroscopic world, do not be arrogant enough to think you can break nature with your little human body. The interesting metaphor of the quantum world throws up our faithful paradoxes of dead and alive cats and brings us the observer problem – the Copenhagen Interpretation it would seem is incomplete, currently accepted as the best we have. It does after all agree in the laboratory; and that is modern science. My view is that we place our faith in tweaking the model as described above; eliminating the problem of how anything exists in the first place and tackling some big issues in quantum physics. If this is to be propelled into the mainstream, the next steps must be to experimentally verify objective collapse. It is of course difficult to prove something does actually happen when you are not interacting with it, but the most hopeful candidate is to recreate the double slit experiment with more massive objects, in an attempt to eventually yield a result objective collapse comes into play. With experiments looking possible within the next decade and academic progress increasing at a tantalizing rate now is a good time to be entering the arena of quantum physics.



31 responses to “What happens behind my back?

  1. Very interesting post. I share your opinion about the physical reality of the world in the absence of observers, and I mean conscious observers. It is said that Einstein once said, “I would like to think that the moon is there when I am no looking at it.” The concept of the wave function in my humble opinion
    In any case what are observers? Are they not part of a system of observation and as such, they are also observed by what they are observing? An act of observation is mutual between all components of a system. Everything physical has a wave or rather Waves-function that collapse, because it is composed of numerous physical entities and each such an entity has its own wave-function. To this end, the collapse of a wave(s)-function is essentially the collapse of numerous wave-functions simultaneously.
    I strongly believe that the concept of a wave-function is grossly misunderstood by physicists and mathematicians alike. A wave-function evolves continuously in space-time independent of any observer. It reflects the stat of an the object it represents in space-time, away from the object itself. In other words, it evolves regardless of the existence or otherwise of any observers. A wave-function is essentially the electromagnetic waves emitted by a physical systems and propagate indefinitely in space-time, regardless of the existence of an observer or otherwise. If those wave-functions happen to collapse on an observer by virtue of the observer crossing their path in space-time, that does not mean that the emitting object was in a state of quantum superposition. Thus, the wave-function of the moon propagates in space-time throughout the universe indefinitely, and if an individual or an entire planet happens to be in view of the moon, they will cause part of that wave-function to collapse on their physical structure, e.g., the eyes of an observer, by virtue of obstructing its propagation in space-time. This type of collapse does not in anyway affect the actual object, hence the gross misunderstanding I referred to above.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for a very interesting response! There are a lot of people actually who do believe the wave function is misunderstood; in some schools of thought they think that it describes the extent of human knowledge rather than a totally accurate picture of what actually is. I believe in the wave function and I believe in wave function collapse – but you are quite right there simply must be a mechanism whereby the wave function collapses without an observer. I do think that an observer can collapse the wave function I just don’t think it is the only way. It is just an interesting question on if the collapse is a feature of the natural evolution or if there is a process (gravity or otherwise) that triggers it. I wish I had the answer; but simply I do not. I am however determined to find it – which I am sure in time I will be able to. I find you point of view very interesting indeed!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Congratulations on the one year anniversary 🙂
    And I had to brush up on my basics in physics to understand this post (I couldn’t remember what the wave function was!). Interesting observations, Joseph!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Something that has bugged me for quite a while with the wave collapse business in quantum theory is a neglect about Schrödinger’s cat. It is the standard human hubris about our fellow creatures. I have been owned by many cats in my short life and, as anyone associated with many cats knows well that any cat capable of capturing a human to feed it and stroke it and empty out the cat box is no damned fool. A cat closely associated with Schrödinger may well have guided him in his thoughts about the mysteries of the universe and even suggested the mythical cat in the box. And that cat is indubitably an observer. It is a very likely some cat in a parallel universe may have glanced over to initiate ours. The ancient Egyptians seem to have had that event down cold.

    Liked by 3 people

    • No cats have been harmed in the production of this website, I promise! There are many interesting theories (including collapse) that either allow for the cat to be its own observer, or they remove the need for an observer and therefore it does not matter at all. I think I favor the latter as it resolves the issues of black holes along with the early formation of the universe – it is one of the most interesting areas in Physics (in my opinion)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wave collapse. Yep, there’s one of those things that I enthusiastically wave ‘bye-bye!’ to as it zooms swiftly over my head, disappearing into some great, honking, black hole “out there”. It’s also another of those things that I almost grasp as I read the comments posted by you and your brilliant followers.

    Q: Does Pearl still crash and burn if there’s no one there to observe her? 😝

    Thanks for the mention, Joe!!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I am sure you understand it more than you think; or perhaps you overestimate how much anyone really understand it! It is, indeed highly mysterious and therein lies the appeal. Not a problem, thank you for your consistent and interesting comments over the last year. In answer to your question, I am afraid in a world with no observer reliance you crash and burn regardless – so the best strategy is probably to avoid it all together!

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Congratulations on your first anniversary! Your blog has been a great discovery for me over the past week, something I look forward to reading.

    And speaking of things trivial, I started my blog in the hope of escaping the everyday conversations I was used to and finding a few souls to connect with over this kind of subject matter. That hasn’t happened to any degree on my blog yet, so I’m truly thankful you’re here!

    Regarding your post, as you know, I’m very interested in the direction of your thoughts on wavefunction collapse and what exactly it means means in terms of the fundamental nature of the universe.

    Looking forward to continued discussions!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you very much! I am very glad to have you as a follower. Both me and Mekhi are incredibly grateful when people show an interest in what we have to say! Whilst the benefits of my studies are internal, it makes them far more exciting to be able to share them with others. I have subscribed to your blog by email, because sometimes I miss updates from blogs I am following so I look forward to hearing more.

      I too am looking forward to continued discussions, in the quantum realm and beyond!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. “Reality must not be observer dependent.” From a scientific perspective this is obvious but only because science explicitly makes ‘objectivity’ (that is, an unconditioned perspective on the world) the gold standard. This philosophical question, taken from a scientific viewpoint, therefore includes a hidden premise, “Is ‘objective’ reality observer dependent?” where ‘objective’ in fact means ‘observer-dependent’.

    The problem is any ‘reality’ worth the name can only exist at the point where subject and object meet. Science dreams of an observer-independent perspective on the universe, imagining that this would somehow yield reality as it ‘really’ is, but it’s worth wondering what such a reality might look like. Would we see pristine electromagnetic waves propagating in a mathematically precise manifold, interacting with perfect geometric figures? No. The raw, unconditioned, unobserved universe contains none of these things because they are the filtered product of a viewing consciousness which imposes order and coherence on it.

    To say the tree makes a sound “on the macroscopic scale” clearly presupposes a macroscopic subjective perspective (although, I think, in the non-trivial sense I have argued for here), but once you secure this, it seems you then want to turn around and deny it.

    I know I’ve pushed this in a slightly different direction from your post (hence nothing I’ve said invalidates your conclusions) but as I see it, you’ve asked a philosophical question and given a scientific answer. I just want to highlight this.


    • I don’t think it is at all obvious from a scientific perspective – the post is about how one of the leading theories of quantum mechanics, accepted by most theoretical physicists IS observer dependant. Its actually quite a subtle scientific point.

      I think the questions is a scientific question – the evolution of the wave function and the trigger of the collapse, whilst philosophy may help requires rigorous science and mathematics. I am not sure I can accept you point of view that when we don’t observe the universe it is somehow unconditioned and electromagnetic waves are not “pristine” (which they are not when observed). The cosmic microwave background provides strong evidence against this. I suppose it all comes down to a proof – if we can prove with some logical coherence that the universe is dependant on us viewing it this is most interesting. But if it is just a hunch, which isn’t backed up by evidence it feels a little like blind faith, something I have tried to avoid my whole life.


  7. Being a rough and ready type this is all a bit deep for me I’ve always taken seeking is believing as obvious but if Einstein questioned it then so be it. I’m sure we all believe the world rolls on when we have shuffled off this mortal coil but it comes to an end for us. Blind faith in somethings does not upset me but I know you scientific types find it pretty distasteful. It does make me smile to think that science born of systematic observation and careful consideration should now be questioning its strongest allies, let’s hope it proves itself to be on a strong foundation.
    Even if it turns out to be just like Godel incompletable I will stick with it as the best bet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We do indeed struggle desperately with blind faith! Even for example Fermat’s theorem, which we sort of knew was true because it always works but were not satisfied with it being so until we had hammered out a solid (very solid!) proof. I think what has happened is there is an upper bound on how far observation alone, in the traditional sense can take you. As the world started to get more complex, with disciplines like quantum mechanics blossoming the old scientific method needed some consideration – both from a scientific and philosophical standpoint

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I would propose a simple solution – at least, simple to say. What happens when there are no observers to collapse the waveform? Everything. Realities branch off into infinite varieties, some with observers and some without. The ones with observers merely increase the likelihood of a particular collapse, perhaps even making the possibilities finite (while still very numerous), possibly trending towards one.

    Just a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is roughly speaking many worlds theorem, which is the idea that all possible realities do happen simultaneously, and it is when we look at a particular reality that we fix that reality in the present. To me it still creates an observer problem. If you were to allow natural collapse within the wave function and the also weave this into many realities it is plausible – but a very big headache!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Once you’re dealing with the infinite, you must suppose that universes exist with no observers, yet events happen and time passes. You must also suppose there are universes with no observers and no passage of time, but those would be short-lived, I think.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I also write articles on Science especially on Astronomy, Cosmology and Astronomy. But I strive to make it comprehensible even to a layman. My aim is to popularise science so that more and more people may join this field and be not scared of it.
    But I find your writing completely a research work. I am also highly impressed by your innovative look at Quantum Physics, new ideas and interpretation.
    I don’t have the calibre or ability to find infirmities in this article. I will also read articles particularly of my choice written by you.
    I do not have any other option but to like this article. Well done!
    I am also delighted , you a person of such high calibre liked my article on Nuclear Fusion.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Narinder! I try to make them accessible to the layman, but at times a topic grabs my attention that is a little more complex – that said, feel free to ask any questions you have; you may be overestimating my level. I have done a first undergraduate in Mathematics and Economics, and am now mid way through my second undergraduate in Mathematics and Physics – along with one huge amount of science reading! I am glad you found interest in the article, and the very best of luck in your blogging activities. I salute your mission to make more people interested in science.

      Liked by 3 people

      • It would be better if you pursue study in Physics also. This is my suggestion. You happen to belong to the subject mathematics and applied mathematics is Physics only, therefore without much efforts, you will be outstanding.
        I am graduate in Electronics and Electrical Communication Engineering and Mathematics especially, power series, summation and expansion of series, solution of differential equations, integration by series method are one of my favourites.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Yes my degree is applied mathematics and physics – with theoretical physics as one of my interests so the mathematics and the physics become virtually synonymous!

        Liked by 2 people

  10. Congratulations on your blog’s 1st birthday and very well done. Your and Mekhi’s infectious enthusiasm makes it easy for non-scientists like me to appreciate and understand your interests – so much better than the deadly dry science books of my school-days.

    Also, thank you for the kind words and link but rather than mine being a ‘different lens’ it’s really an additional ‘lens’ – ie. stereo-vision of our natural and supra-natural existence, or Hebraic added to Greek mindset. Or as an ‘over the-pond’ contributor says, “This may be a stretch, but maybe the Greek is an intellectual language and the Hebrew is a spiritual language” (https://richards-watch.org/2016/10/28/a-deep-insight-from-hebrew-gods-signature/#comment-3298 refers)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you very much for the kind words Richard! I am glad you find interest in the blog – it’s why I set it up in the first place; and the whole things really took off with Mekhi’s talented addition. Ah the idea of spirituality – one which evades me I am afraid. As a Physicist, I often tend to view spirituality as a name for things we can’t yet explain rather than a property of the universe…I am sure you will disagree with me!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Am absolutely sure from personal experience that you’d find that extra dimension would give a deeper grasp of science. The issue is probably over differences between the objective, and thus testable and reproducible, world and our personal subjective experiences being hard to test and verify.
        However, when we plug into our own spirit (not same as soul) and connect directly into our Maker’s spirit then things really begin to open up – like going through a door (hence being ‘born-again’).

        Liked by 2 people

  11. Very well written. It made me laugh and almost gave me a nose bleed from the rare occurrence of reading something intelligent with a lot of thought behind it on the internet. I would be dishonest if I said I grasped all of it but I got bits and pieces of new ideas which further proved how little I actually know. I appreciate your perspective and am grateful to have crossed paths. Love and light

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Ross, thank you very much! I am glad you enjoyed the article, it is always encouraging to know there are people out there getting some value out of the things I write! I think we all are constantly reminded oh how little we know; which is all the fun of the learning process. Thanks again for reading!

      Liked by 3 people

  12. Pingback: It’s a coincidence, right? – IDEADECO·

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