It is hard to ignore a headline that reads, "Mankind 'shortening the universe's life'". But this story at the Telegraph got me thinking:
Forget about the threat that mankind poses to the Earth: our activities may be shortening the life of the universe too.
The startling claim is made by a pair of American cosmologists investigating the consequences for the cosmos of quantum theory...
But there is an odd feature of the theory that philosophers and scientists still argue about. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that we change things simply by looking at them and theorists have puzzled over the implications for years.
They often illustrate their concerns about what the theory means with mind-boggling experiments, notably Schrodinger's cat in which, thanks to a fancy experimental set up, the moggy is both alive and dead until someone decides to look, when it either carries on living, or dies. That is, by one interpretation (by another, the universe splits into two, one with a live cat and one with a dead one.)
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.
In summary, merely by observing what is happening in the universe, we affect it's outcome, regardless of whether we can truly perform any actions to change what is a natural phenomena.
The problem with this theory is obvious. If you see a mile-wide asteroid moving at an incredible rate of speed when it is exactly twenty feet above your head, will your perception of it have any impact on what happens? Of course not.
On the other hand, if you see a mile-wide asteroid moving towards the Earth at a speed which will cause it to hit the Earth in approximately two months, will your perception of it have any impact on what happens? Possibly, but only if action is taken.
The flaw in Krauss and Dent's theory is that our perception of dark energy has somehow effected it. Perhaps in the future we MAY affect it, but our perception of it does NOT affect what dark energy does in the universe UNTIL we can somehow take an action which will change it. Most of the universe is unobserved by mankind. Does that mean our lack of perception somehow protects us from it? That it isn't doing anything UNTIL we perceive it?
This theory reminds me of the old philosophical question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" It would seem ironic that the first modern appearance of this question was in a 1910 physics book. But based on how science today seems to be overly concerned with how man affects the universe, we have to wonder whether science and philosophy are really as separated as they should be, although I personally believe there will come a time when science and philosophy will overlap. But it is too soon now.
Science needs to remain as objective as possible, and above questions of philosophy, which are inevitably tethered to human politics.
To return to Krauss and Dent's theory, they assume there were two possible outcomes to the universe prior to our observation of dark energy: the universe was eternal or the universe had a set lifespan. This is comparable to saying that because someone heard a sound, the tree fell, and if no one had heard it, then it wouldn't have fallen. Just like the tree would have fallen regardless of whether anyone heard a sound, the universe would have ended eventually regardless of whether human perception discovered dark energy.
But Krauss and Dent, by blaming the end of the universe on mankind, are a reminder of a current belief that mankind has greater impact on his environment than it actually does.
One only has to look at Global Warming to see that mankind has an overinflated opinion of itself. We hear all these things that we produce are causing Global Warming, in spite of the important fact that nature produces greater quantities than mankind, even while the single greatest cause of Global Warming, the sun, is ignored.
If you look back on mankind's history, whenever something bad happened, such as famine or disease, mankind's natural reaction was that the gods were causing it to happen because they were displeased with humans. In essence, mankind was responsible for the famines or diseases they experienced.
To this day, we assume nothing happens in the universe unless mankind causes it.
Five hundred years ago, Copernicus moved the Earth from the center of the universe. In 1918, Harlow Shapley determined that our sun was not at the center of our galaxy. Yet, we are STILL determined to be the center of the universe. We ignore basic facts in favor of wildly speculative theories, because these theories support the misguided belief that we are the center of the universe.
There is a good reason why pride is considered one of the "seven deadly sins". While mankind has much to be proud of, we cannot place our value above the universe. When we value theories over facts because the theories appeal to our pride, that is not only a sin, but stupidity at it's worst. To claim we can cause the universe to end, or the Earth to warm, is arrogance worthy of a god. We are no gods.