Objective reality may not exist, European researchers say
A new experiment shows that two observers can experience divergent realities (if they go subatomic).
- In 1961, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner proposed a thought experiment by which the reality of two observers can diverge by measuring a single photon.
- Researchers recently tested Wigner's thought experiment and concluded that realities can be made irreconcilable.
- Do these results put the entire scientific method at risk? Let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Objective reality cannot be known. It's the kind of statement you expect to hear from a sophomore postmodernist or nihilists after they've torched your car. Not a group of scientists.
Yet that is the result of a recent study published in the preprint journal arXiv. Basing their investigation on a famous thought experiment developed by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner in 1961, the study's researchers devised a way for observers to measure a photon's state differently, despite each measurement being equally valid.
A more human Schrodinger's cat
Wigner's friend experiment re-imagines the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment in a more humane, and ultimately testable, way. Image source: Jie Qi / Flickr
Most thought experiments read like they were devised by the Joker during an extra sadistic brainstorm — it takes either a supervillain or an ethical philosopher to rig a trolley like that! While Wigner's friend experiment is certainly a more humane Schrodinger's cat, it is no less mind-bending. Here's the simple version:
Wigner's friend, a physicist, is alone inside her laboratory measuring whether a photon sports a horizontal or vertical polarization. Before she measures it, the photon exists in a state of "superposition" — that is, its polarization is both horizontal and vertical at once. After she measures it, she receives an answer. The photon's polarization is either horizontal or vertical, not both. The superposition collapses.
As far as quantum mechanics go, that's simple. But Wigner is standing outside the laboratory at the moment. He doesn't know if his friend measured a photon or what that result would be. From his outside perspective, the photon and the record remain in a state of superposition.
For Wigner, the superposition stands; for Wigner's friend, it has collapsed to a definite state. Their realities have diverged, yet both realities remain equally valid. This led Eugene Wigner to argue that a quantum measurement could not exist without a conscious observer.
"[I]t was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness," he wrote in Symmetries and Reflections. "[I]t will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of the consciousness is an ultimate reality."
Breaking down objective reality
No, Donny, these men are quantum physicists, there's nothing to be afraid of. Photo credit: Working Title Films
Most thought experiments remain puzzles we can only untangle with our minds. No ethics board would ever allow a team to test Schrodinger's cat. But advances in physics and technology have granted researchers the ability to test Winger's Friend. They did exactly that while doubling down.
The researchers created two laboratories that were introduced to entangled photons so that an affect on one photon must have an affect on the other. Inside each laboratory was a friend and outside were two observers named Alice and Bob (not actual people but apparatuses in the experimental setup).
The friends measured a photon in the entangled pair to determine the photon's polarized state. As with Wigner's friend, this collapsed the superposition. Then the researchers had Alice and Bob perform a nonclassical interference experiment. If the photon had chosen a state, the interference experiment would give Alice and Bob one pattern. If they hadn't, Alice and Bob would receive another pattern.
The results showed that Alice and Bob could arrive at conclusions different than their friends, while still being correct and verifiable.
"It seems that, in contrast to classical physics, measurement results cannot be considered absolute truth but must be understood relative to the observer who performed the measurement," Martin Ringbauer, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Innsbruck, and one of the study's co-authors, told Live Science.
As the researchers point out, their experiment raises interesting questions for science, particularly in physics but also for the scientific method in general. Science relies on facts that can be established through observation and measurement, and these should not be beholden to the observer. Another observer should be able to verify them independently. But if such measurements are observer-dependent, then the scientific enterprise may have some soul searching in its future.
The researchers conclude, "This choice, however, requires us to embrace the possibility that different observers irreconcilably disagree about what happened in an experiment."
It's objectively subjective
To assuage any existential crises, it's worth noting that arXiv is a preprint journal. That means this study has not, to this writer's knowledge, been peer-reviewed as of publication. It's possible that upon review, others in the field may see omissions or derive other conclusions from the data. Debate is a part of the scientific method, too.
This can be especially true in quantum mechanics. Polls have shown that opinions vary widely among physicists on what quantum mechanics tell us about reality and what its foundational issues are. In fact, the idea of measuring superpositions and measurements proved so controversial that Albert Einstein refused to accept it — apparently, he was disturbed by the implications.
And, of course, the reality of a subatomic particle is weird and doesn't necessarily tell us how reality will work in the macro. Journalists must still adhere to facts. Scientists will still need to seek out ground truth to support their conclusions. And philosophers will still argue whether it even makes sense to talk of objective reality, whether one or many. If social media ever goes subatomic, then we should worry.
- Ancient Atomic Logic Shows Reality Is Relational, Not Objective. ›
- Neuroscience Confirms Your Subconscious Shapes Your Reality ... ›
Famous physicists like Richard Feynman think 137 holds the answers to the Universe.
- The fine structure constant has mystified scientists since the 1800s.
- The number 1/137 might hold the clues to the Grand Unified Theory.
- Relativity, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics are unified by the number.
Younger Americans support expanding the Supreme Court and serious political reforms, says new poll.
- Americans under 40 largely favor major political reforms, finds a new survey.
- The poll revealed that most would want to expand the Supreme Court, impose terms limits, and make it easier to vote.
- Millennials are more liberal and reform-centered than Generation Z.
A 2020 study published in the journal of Psychological Science explores the idea that fake news can actually help you remember real facts better.
- In 2019, researchers at Stanford Engineering analyzed the spread of fake news as if it were a strain of Ebola. They adapted a model for understanding diseases that can infect a person more than once to better understand how fake news spreads and gains traction.
- A new study published in 2020 explores the idea that fake news can actually help you remember real facts better.
- "These findings demonstrate one situation in which misinformation reminders can diminish the negative effects of fake-news exposure in the short term," researchers on the project explained.
Previous studies on misinformation have already paved the way to a better understanding<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1NzQ4NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNjE2Mjg1Nn0.hs_xHktN1KXUDVoWpHIVBI2sMJy6aRK6tvBVFkqmYjk/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C800%2C0%2C823&height=700" id="fc135" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="246bb1920c0f40ccb15e123914de1ab1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="fake news concept of misinformation and fake news in the media" />
How does misinformation spread?
Credit: Visual Generation on Shutterstock<p><strong>What is the "continued-influence" effect?</strong></p><p>A challenge in using corrections effectively is that repeating the misinformation can have negative consequences. Research on this effect (referred to as "continued-influence") has shown that information presented as factual that is later deemed false can still contaminate memory and reasoning. The persistence of the continued-influence effect has led researchers to generally recommend avoiding repeating misinformation. </p><p>"Repetition increases familiarity and believability of misinformation," <a href="https://engineering.stanford.edu/magazine/article/how-fake-news-spreads-real-virus" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the study explains</a>.</p><p><strong>What is the "familiarity-backfire" effect?</strong></p><p>Studies of this effect have shown that increasing misinformation familiarity through extra exposure to it leads to misattributions of fluency when the context of said information cannot be recalled. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620952797#" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A 2017 study</a> examined this effect in myth correction. Subjects rated beliefs in facts and myths of unclear veracity. Then, the facts were affirmed and myths corrected and subjects again made belief ratings. The results suggested a role for familiarity but the myth beliefs remained below pre-manipulation levels. </p>