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Are you a Boltzmann Brain? Why nothing in the Universe may be real

A mind-bending paradox questions the nature of reality.

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  • Boltzmann Brains are hypothetical disembodied entities with self-awareness.
  • It may be more likely for a Boltzmann Brain to come into existence than the whole Universe.
  • The idea highlights a paradox in thermodynamics.

The paradox of the Boltzmann Brain can really pull the rug from under you if you follow it to all of its logical and illogical extents. This mind-churning idea proposes that the world is quite possibly just an effect of your disembodied consciousness and doesn't really exist. And your sense of self is just a statistical fluctuation. It's something that is more likely to come into existence by chance than the Universe that would have had to produce it.

So are you really a Boltzmann Brain? Let's look at the underlying thinking.

Our Universe is extremely vast and complex, still filled with as much of the unimaginable as what we have already figured out. It has laws like an arrow of time that seems to be flowing only in one direction. It's got planetary bodies of various shapes and sizes. It also has us, humans, nature's supreme creations (at least according to us). But all this amazing amount of varied matter is also very hard to pull off, requiring a tremendous amount of energy. We know that generally things tend to fall apart and decay.

What the influential Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906), one of the founders of the field of thermodynamics, hypothesized is that while the entropy of a system (its measure of disorder) always increases (moving towards disorder), there is some tiny possibility that a fluctuation can bring a system from disorder to order. Thus it would decrease its entropy, moving it further away from equilibrium.


Ludwig Boltzmann. 1901

From the physicist's work it follows that it would be more likely for random quantum fluctuations in nature to create something simpler than our astounding Universe – for example, a self-aware entity that believes it is a person in a world full of people, history, and particular physics. But such a person - let's say you - is only full of all the knowledge and experiences because you are made that way by the fluctuation that created you. There is nothing really there but your self-awareness.

These types of entities have been dubbed "Boltzmann Brains" by modern physicists Andreas Albrecht and Lorenzo Sorbo. They did not claim to such brains really being in existence but rather used the idea to point out the absurdities and limitations of taking the idea of thermodynamic fluctuations to their extent.

Boltzmann Brains have also been criticized as philosophical paradoxes that are experientially unprovable. The Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Caroll called them "cognitively unstable: they cannot simultaneously be true and justifiably believed" in his 2017 paper "Why Boltzmann Brains Are Bad."

Debates of the idea persist, however, especially as it is hard to disprove. After all, if you were a Boltzmann Brain, everything that you could come up with to prove or disprove it would likely be because of the hallucinations your consciousness is having.

Other types of solipsistic thinking have also entered our culture. Case in point - the notion that we may be living in a simulated reality, propagated by luminaries like Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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CRISPR-edited babies born in China may have enhanced brain functions

The brains of two genetically edited babies born last year in China might have enhanced memory and cognition, but that doesn't mean the scientific community is pleased.

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Surprising Science
  • In November, Chinese scientist He Jiankui reported that he'd used the CRISPR tool to edit the embryos of two girls.
  • He deleted a gene called CCR5, which allows humans to contract HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.
  • In addition to blocking AIDS, deleting this gene might also have positive effects on memory and cognition. Still, virtually all scientists say we're not ready to use gene-editing technology on babies.
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Dinosaur bone? Meteorite? These men's wedding bands are a real break from boredom.

Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.

Sex & Relationships
  • Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
  • Unique materials include antler, dinosaur bones, meteorite, tungsten, and whiskey barrels.
  • The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Surprising Science

Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

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