Is the physical universe independent from us, or is it created by our minds, as suggested by scientist Robert Lanza?
- A new study claims networks of observers are responsible for determining physical reality.
- The scientists propose that observers generate the structures of time and space.
- The paper could help yield insights into the God Equation, which attempts to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity.
Is there physical reality that is independent of us? Does objective reality exist at all? Or is the structure of everything, including time and space, created by the perceptions of those observing it? Such is the groundbreaking assertion of a new paper published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics.
The paper's authors include Robert Lanza, a stem cell and regenerative medicine expert, famous for the theory of biocentrism, which argues that consciousness is the driving force for the existence of the universe. He believes that the physical world that we perceive is not something that's separate from us but rather created by our minds as we observe it. According to his biocentric view, space and time are a byproduct of the "whirl of information" in our head that is weaved together by our mind into a coherent experience.
His new paper, co-authored by Dmitriy Podolskiy and Andrei Barvinsky, theorists in quantum gravity and quantum cosmology, shows how observers influence the structure of our reality.
According to Lanza and his colleagues, observers can dramatically affect "the behavior of observable quantities" both at microscopic and massive spatiotemporal scales. In fact, a "profound shift in our ordinary everyday worldview" is necessary, wrote Lanza in an interview with Big Think. The world is not something that is formed outside of us, simply existing on its own. "Observers ultimately define the structure of physical reality itself," he stated.
How can observers create reality?
How does this work? Lanza contends that a network of observers is necessary and is "inherent to the structure of reality." As he explains, observers — you, me, and anyone else — live in a quantum gravitational universe and come up with "a globally agreed-upon cognitive model" of reality by exchanging information about the properties of spacetime. "For, once you measure something," Lanza writes, "the wave of probability to measure the same value of the already probed physical quantity becomes 'localized' or simply 'collapses.'" That's how reality comes to be consistently real to us all. Once you keep measuring a quantity over and over, knowing the result of the first measurement, you will see the outcome to be the same.
"Similarly, if you learn from somebody about the outcomes of their measurements of a physical quantity, your measurements and those of other observers influence each other ‒ freezing the reality according to that consensus," added Lanza, explaining further that "a consensus of different opinions regarding the structure of reality defines its very form, shaping the underlying quantum foam," explained Lanza.
In quantum terms, an observer influences reality through decoherence, which provides the framework for collapsing waves of probability, "largely localized in the vicinity of the cognitive model which the observer builds in their mind throughout their lifespan," he added.
Lanza says, "The observer is the first cause, the vital force that collapses not only the present, but the cascade of spatiotemporal events we call the past. Stephen Hawking was right when he said: 'The past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.'"
Could the universe be a simulation?
Could an artificially intelligent entity without consciousness be dreaming up our world? Lanza believes biology plays an important role, as he explains in his book The Grand Biocentric Design: How Life Creates Reality, which he co-authored with the physicist Matej Pavsic.
While a bot could conceivably be an observer, Lanza thinks a conscious living entity with the capacity for memory is necessary to establish the arrow of time. "'A brainless' observer does not experience time and/or decoherence with any degree of freedom," writes Lanza. This leads to the cause and effect relationships we can notice around us. Lanza thinks that "we can only say for sure that a conscious observer does indeed collapse a quantum wave function."
The God Equation
As Robert Lanza also wrote to Big Think, another key aspect of their work is that it resolves "the exasperating incompatibility between quantum mechanics and general relativity," which was a sticking point even for Albert Einstein. (See the video below of Michio Kaku explaining the incompatibility and his proposal, string theory, to unite the two theories.)
Physics' greatest mystery: Michio Kaku explains the God Equation | Big Think www.youtube.com
The seeming incongruity of these two explanations of our physical world — with quantum mechanics looking at the molecular and subatomic levels and general relativity at the interactions between massive cosmic structures like galaxies and black holes — disappears once the properties of observers are taken into account.
While this all may sound speculative, Lanza says their ideas are being tested using Monte Carlo simulations on powerful MIT computer clusters and will soon be tested experimentally.
No. But Buddhism and quantum mechanics have much to teach each other.
- Quantum mechanics is so weird that it has challenged scientists and philosophers to divine some greater insights about the nature of reality.
- One attempt is known as the Copenhagen interpretation, and some believe that this interpretation lends itself to a Buddhist worldview.
- Even though I'm a Buddhist, I reject the notion that physics proves my worldview.
The first book I read about quantum mechanics was not a textbook. Instead, it was The Tao of Physics by Frijof Capra, a 1975 bestseller claiming that discoveries in quantum mechanics supported the ancient worldview of Buddhism. I read The Tao of Physics in my freshman year, and in it, Capra, a physicist, offered beautiful descriptions of both quantum science and Buddhist philosophy.
I bought in to each… separately.
Forty years later I am both a Buddhist practioner (Zen in particular) and physicist with a keen interest in quantum foundations. But I never bought into the claim that one supported the other, and today I want to reflect on that mistaken link and, perhaps, a better way to think about Buddhism and physics.
Does Buddhism follow naturally from quantum mechanics?
Capra's book was part of a wave of interest in so-called "Eastern philosophies" and quantum physics. There was also The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukov. Soon it became a staple of New Age mumbo-jumbo to stick "quantum" in front of whatever was being sold: quantum healing, quantum spirituality, quantum colon cleansing. While the first impulse of Capra and Zukov represented a genuine interest in how the well-known weirdnesses of quantum mechanics overlapped with the new (for these western students, anyway) territory of Buddhist philosophies, things got out of controls quickly. The most egregious example of the downward spiral was a 2004 documentary What the Bleep Do We Know!? which was so full of nonsense that I literally threw my box of popcorn at the screen during my viewing.
So, what is the problem with what we might call "quantum Buddhism"?
Let's start with the physics side of things. Quantum physics is theory dealing with the very small, things like atoms, protons, and quarks. Physics at this minuscule scale are really weird compared to the physics we've learned on more human scales. The most important weirdness for the relationship to Buddhism is what's called the "Measurement Problem." Like classical mechanics that is governed by Newton's equations, quantum mechanics has Schrodinger's equations that describe how quantum systems evolve. But here's the weird part: Once the system is observed, Schrodinger's equations no longer apply. The measurement takes precedent over the equation. Why should a physical system care that it's been observed? No one knows, and folks have been arguing over the Measurement Problem since quantum mechanics was first formulated.
Those arguments got crystalized into what are called quantum interpretations. While physicists know exactly how to apply the rules of quantum mechanics to build things like lasers and computers, they don't agree on what the equations mean in a philosophical sense. They don't know how to interpret them.
This is where Buddhism comes in. There is one interpretation of quantum mechanics that seems to mesh well with the philosophical perspectives of Buddhism. Capra and others noted that the so-called Copenhagen interpretation, developed by many of the founders of atomic science, saw quantum mechanics as giving us something different than an objective picture of atoms as little balls existing in-and-of-themselves. Instead, quantum mechanics demonstrates a kind of entangling of the observer and the observed. For Copenhagenists, quantum mechanics is epistemic rather than ontological. It's about uncovering knowledge of how the world works rather than attempting to determine a "correct" perspective. In other words, the Copenhagen interpretation posits that there is no perfectly objective God's Eye view of the universe.
Buddhism, or at least the version of it known well in the West, also has an epistemic focus and eschews the idea of a completely objective perspective on experience. For many Buddhist philosophers, the world and our experience of it are inseparable (at least as far as descriptions and explanations go). There are no essential, timeless properties, and everything arises interdependently.
Why Quantum Buddhism doesn't work
What then is the problem with linking quantum mechanics and this Buddhist view? The trouble is not the with Buddhist side of things. Buddhism has existed for a few millennia and has done just fine on its own. You can choose to engage with it as a philosophy or as a practice if it suits you. If not, that's fine too. But it certainly doesn't need physics for support.
Buddhist monk Barry Kerzin participating in meditation research. Credit: Antoine Lutz - Barry Kerzin via Wikipedia / Public Domain
Instead, the problem is with singling out the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and claiming, "That's what physics says." There's a long menu of possible interpretations of quantum mechanics: the many worlds interpretation, the pilot wave theory, objective-collapse theory, relational quantum mechanics, and (my current favorite) quantum Bayesianism. Some of these would not find any commonality with Buddhist philosophy. In fact, proponents of some of these other interpretations would be justifiably hostile to Buddhist claims about the relationship between knowledge and the world. Most importantly, until there's an experimental means to distinguish between the interpretations, no one really knows which is correct.
So, the fundamental mistake of Quantum Buddhism is bias. Its advocates privileged one interpretation of quantum mechanics over all the others because they liked. And they liked it because they liked Buddhism. I like Buddhism too (I've been staring at a damn wall for 30 years), but that doesn't mean I think quantum mechanics "shows" it to be true.
A dialogue between Buddhism and physics
Can there be a relationship, a dialogue, between Buddhism and physics? Absolutely, and this is where I think there are new roads opening up. Physics, whether we're aware of it or not, is saturated with ideas, concepts, and attitudes inherited from the philosophical traditions that began with the Greeks. These were then mixed with the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and then were shaped by the Renaissance. This long philosophical tradition in physics constitutes an ongoing dialogue about the nature of cause and effect, identity and change, and time and space. When physicists working at the foundations of their fields try to imagine new paths, they naturally draw from this tradition be it consciously or unconsciously.
What the classical philosophies of India and Asia (a much better term than "Eastern Philosophy") offer is a new partnership in discussion. The millennia of philosophical discussions occurring in the Buddhist milieu asked questions similar to those occurring in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Europe. But the Buddhist conversation had a very different set of concerns and foci. In this way, an engagement between physics and Buddhist perspectives can, perhaps, offer a larger set of ideas and perspectives to consider when thinking about foundational issues in physics.
This kind of dialogue is something I get really excited about because it's not a matter of bringing the two together to "prove one is true," but instead, it's about enlarging the sandbox of possibilities in thinking about the world and our place in it. Next spring I'll be participating in a conference in Berkeley called Buddhism, Physics, and Philosophy Redux on exactly this kind of overlap. Hosted by the wonderful scholar of Buddhism Robert Scharf, it promises to be Big Fun!
New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.
- New experiments with vibrating drums push the boundaries of quantum mechanics.
- Two teams of physicists create quantum entanglement in larger systems.
- Critics question whether the study gets around the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
Recently published research pushes the boundaries of key concepts in quantum mechanics. Studies from two different teams used tiny drums to show that quantum entanglement, an effect generally linked to subatomic particles, can also be applied to much larger macroscopic systems. One of the teams also claims to have found a way to evade the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
One question that the scientists were hoping to answer pertained to whether larger systems can exhibit quantum entanglement in the same way as microscopic ones. Quantum mechanics proposes that two objects can become "entangled," whereby the properties of one object, such as position or velocity, can become connected to those of the other.
An experiment performed at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, led by physicist Shlomi Kotler and his colleagues, showed that a pair of vibrating aluminum membranes, each about 10 micrometers long, can be made to vibrate in sync, in such a way that they can be described to be quantum entangled. Kotler's team amplified the signal from their devices to "see" the entanglement much more clearly. Measuring their position and velocities returned the same numbers, indicating that they were indeed entangled.
Tiny aluminium membranes used by Kotler's team.Credit: Florent Lecoq and Shlomi Kotler/NIST
Evading the Heisenberg uncertainty principle?
Another experiment with quantum drums — each one-fifth the width of a human hair — by a team led by Prof. Mika Sillanpää at Aalto University in Finland, attempted to find what happens in the area between quantum and non-quantum behavior. Like the other researchers, they also achieved quantum entanglement for larger objects, but they also made a fascinating inquiry into getting around the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
The team's theoretical model was developed by Dr. Matt Woolley of the University of New South Wales. Photons in the microwave frequency were employed to create a synchronized vibrating pattern as well as to gauge the positions of the drums. The scientists managed to make the drums vibrate in opposite phases to each other, achieving "collective quantum motion."
The study's lead author, Dr. Laure Mercier de Lepinay, said: "In this situation, the quantum uncertainty of the drums' motion is canceled if the two drums are treated as one quantum-mechanical entity."
This effect allowed the team to measure both the positions and the momentum of the virtual drumheads at the same time. "One of the drums responds to all the forces of the other drum in the opposing way, kind of with a negative mass," Sillanpää explained.
Theoretically, this should not be possible under the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, one of the most well-known tenets of quantum mechanics. Proposed in the 1920s by Werner Heisenberg, the principle generally says that when dealing with the quantum world, where particles also act like waves, there's an inherent uncertainty in measuring both the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time. The more precisely you measure one variable, the more uncertainty in the measurement of the other. In other words, it is not possible to simultaneously pinpoint the exact values of the particle's position and momentum.
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle Explained. Credit: Veritasium / Youtube.com
Big Think contributor astrophysicist Adam Frank, known for the 13.8 podcast, called this "a really fascinating paper as it shows that it's possible to make larger entangled systems which behave like a single quantum object. But because we're looking at a single quantum object, the measurement doesn't really seem to me to be 'getting around' the uncertainty principle, as we know that in entangled systems an observation of one part constrains the behavior of other parts."
Ethan Siegel, also an astrophysicist, commented, "The main achievement of this latest work is that they have created a macroscopic system where two components are successfully quantum mechanically entangled across large length scales and with large masses. But there is no fundamental evasion of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle here; each individual component is exactly as uncertain as the rules of quantum physics predicts. While it's important to explore the relationship between quantum entanglement and the different components of the systems, including what happens when you treat both components together as a single system, nothing that's been demonstrated in this research negates Heisenberg's most important contribution to physics."The papers, published in the journal Science, could help create new generations of ultra-sensitive measuring devices and quantum computers.
How close are we to human teleportation? Successes in quantum teleportation experiments abound.
- Teleporting humans presents technical and philosophical challenges.
- A recent experiment achieved tremendous accuracy in quantum teleportation over 27 miles.
- Human teleportation may be possible with advances in technology to process huge amounts of data.
How close are we to teleporting humans over distances? This staple of science fiction assumes the eventual existence of technical wizardry, whereby humans are scanned, disassembled, and then immediately reassembled particle by particle in a completely different location. An easy, hassle-free way to travel, assuming some crucial parts of you are not lost in the process.
Researchers have been making headway on making this happen, but on a very small scale, achieving successes in teleporting photons (particles of light) as well as atoms like cesium and rubidium. But how ready are we to get humans beamed up?
First of all, let's get one big philosophical issue with teleportation out of the way. What does it really mean to teleport someone? Let's say you're successful at building a device that can achieve sending a person from one location to another. But when that human being arrives at the second location, is that actually the same person? Wouldn't the person being teleported first have to be destroyed, atom by atom, and then a copy of him or her would re-created at the destination? As such, does teleportation necessitate what is essentially a murder on one end and rebirth of sorts on the other?
And that second person, even if they have all the exact same atoms and thoughts as the person they were before teleportation, are they really exactly the same or maybe more accurately – a clone of their former self? And if teleportation forces us to make clones of ourselves (potentially countless), then what does that really mean for the original human? They would essentially not exist after starting to use this technology. As theoretical physicist Michio Kaku said on this topic, if "you just saw the original die and if you believe in a soul that soul went to heaven or maybe the other place, but that person is dead, so who is this imposter over there?"
Michio Kaku: The Metaphysics of Teleportation
Of course, this conundrum describes one way of teleporting. While raising such great objections, Kaku actually thinks we will be able to overcome them within the next 100 years and potentially make human teleportation possible. So far, scientists have been able to mainly achieve quantum teleportation. This kind of teleportation concerns the very small and is about transferring informational properties between particles rather than actual matter. This technology can lead to uses like creation of the quantum internet — a next-generation internet with blazing speeds and tremendous accuracy and security.
In a late 2020 development, scientists were able to, for the first time, teleport quantum information over a fiber optic network of 27 miles at the accuracy of 90 percent. The information shared was in the form of photon qubits – two-state systems that are basic units of quantum information. They are shared across long distances via quantum entanglement, which links two or more particles to each other. Even if they are far apart, the encoded information in a pair of entangled particles gets teleported.
The research was carried out by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory affiliated with the University of Chicago, as well as AT&T, Caltech, Harvard University, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and University of Calgary.
One of the paper's co-authors, Fermilab scientist Panagiotis Spentzouris, who heads the Fermilab quantum science program, explained the significance of the accomplishment.
"We're thrilled by these results," said Spentzouris. "This is a key achievement on the way to building a technology that will redefine how we conduct global communication."
High-fidelity quantum teleportation at the Fermilab Quantum Network was achieved by connecting fiber-optic cables to off-the-shelf devices (displayed above), as well as state-of-the-art R&D devices.
Photo credit: Fermilab.
If successful, quantum internet could lead to a communications revolution, transforming computing, data storage, and precision sensors.
Prior to this achievement, successful teleportation experiments included the 2019 attempt by Japanese researchers to send information within the lattices of a diamond. They managed to use a nitrogen nano magnet to transfer the polarization state of a photon to a carbon atom, essentially teleporting it.
In another long-distance feat, in 2017 Chinese scientists were able to teleport photons to a satellite over 500km above. For this experiment, they created an entangled pair of photons on the ground, then beamed one of paired photons up to the satellite while the other one stayed on the ground. To make sure they were still entangled, the researchers measured both photons. While millions of photons were sent that way, positive results were achieved in 911 cases, underscoring the fact that we'd certainly want a better success ratio when it comes to teleporting humans.
In fact, a fun 2013 study by physics students at the University of Leicester came up with useful numbers to show how complex it would be to teleport a person, even if we approached it as sending information that is used to re-create the person elsewhere. They reasoned that the transferable data for a human would consist of the DNA pairs that make up genomes in each cell. As such, the total data for each human cell would be approximately 1010 bits (b), while the data for a full human would come in at about 2.6 x 1042 b. Sending this gigantic amount of data would need the kind of computing technology we didn't invent yet. By 2013 tech standards the students used, transferring data for just one human (at the bandwidth of 29.5 to 30 GHz) would take up to 4.85x1015years, much longer than the age of the universe.
Certainly, better technology and new approaches are necessary for human teleportation to ever become a reality. If you're hopeful it may one day happen, you're not alone. Professor Ronald Hanson from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands said this in an interview, upon completing a successful quantum teleportation experiment in 2014:
"If you believe we are nothing more than a collection of atoms strung together in a particular way, then in principle it should be possible to teleport ourselves from one place to another," shared Hanson. "In practice it's extremely unlikely, but to say it can never work is very dangerous. I would not rule it out because there's no fundamental law of physics preventing it. If it ever does happen it will be far in the future."
How far that feature will be is up for debate. For reference, "Star Trek," the show that made teleportation famous, was set between the 22nd and 24th centuries. Let's see if our imagination can catch up to reality.
The Trouble with Transporters
Researchers from MIT invent a highly accurate clock using quantum entanglement that can lead to new physics.
- Scientists from MIT create a new, extremely precise atomic clock that uses quantum entanglement.
- The researchers employed ytterbium atoms and lasers for their technique.
- The wide-ranging applications of the accuracy of these clocks can aid in the search for dark matter and new physics.
MIT scientists designed a new kind of atomic clock that is not only more precise, but can help detect dark matter and gravitational waves. The researchers hope that the clock, which uses atoms in a state of quantum entanglement, can lead to the discovery of new physics.
Atomic clocks are known as the most accurate in existence. They utilize lasers to keep tabs on the vibrations of oscillating atoms, which move with regular frequency like tiny synchronized pendulums swinging back and forth. Cesium atoms, most often used in atomic clocks, have come to define what we consider a second, which is the time it takes for 9,192, 631,770 cycles of the standard Cesium-133 transition.
Atomic clocks are so good that if they were running from the first moments of our universe, they'd only be off by around half a second today, as the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) press release explains. While such precision is already quite remarkable, scientists are making efforts to make these clocks even more accurate, banking that an improvement in sensitivity could lead to the detection of new particles and better understanding of the nature and effects of time.
To accomplish this feat, the new clock uses atoms in a state of quantum entanglement rather than ones that randomly oscillate. A somewhat counterintuitive concept, quantum entanglement describes the effect whereby entangled particles are connected in such a way that affecting one impacts the other, even if they are at great distances. In other words, measuring the properties of one particle influences the properties of the other particle.
This concept, breaking away from the laws of classical physics, helped the researchers measure atomic vibrations with much more exactitude. In fact, their new clock can get to the same level of precision four times faster than un-entangled clocks.
How Do Atomic Clocks Work?
The study's lead author Edwin Pedrozo-Peñafiel, an MIT postdoc, thinks their approach is very promising.
"Entanglement-enhanced optical atomic clocks will have the potential to reach a better precision in one second than current state-of-the-art optical clocks," said Pedrozo-Peñafiel.
To create the new atomic clock, the scientists entangled about 350 atoms of ytterbium. It has the same oscillation frequency as visible light and vibrates 100,000 times more frequently in a second than cesium. Tracking these oscillations with more accuracy allowed the scientists to pinpoint ever-smaller periods of time, making the clock more precise.
Making the clock work required cooling a gas made of the atoms and capturing them in an optical cavity between two mirrors. A laser beam shot at the mirrors produced a ping-pong effect while hitting the atoms thousands of times. This, in turn, created quantum entanglement between the atoms, giving them similar properties.
The study's co-author Chi Shu explained how this worked: "It's like the light serves as a communication link between atoms," Shu elaborated. "The first atom that sees this light will modify the light slightly, and that light also modifies the second atom, and the third atom, and through many cycles, the atoms collectively know each other and start behaving similarly."
Once the entanglement was established, another laser was employed to measure the average frequency.
The researchers write that their work will result in many applications across science and technology, with greater advances in the accuracy of timekeeping and precision tests of the fundamental laws of physics, geodesy, and gravitational-wave detection.
Vladan Vuletic, the study's other co-author, is bullish on the implications of their finding:
"As the universe ages, does the speed of light change? Does the charge of the electron change?" Vuletic asked. "That's what you can probe with more precise atomic clocks."
Check out the new study published in the journal Nature.